I’ve been thinking about my hometown, the self-proclaimed cradle of the confederacy, Montgomery Alabama.
For the last four years I’ve been producing a radio show for KTAL-LP called MONSOON DOWN THE RADIO. Here’s my most recent episode. I learned a tremendous amount about America’s Original Sin of racism and white privilege while researching and producing this radio program. During this program I will be reading passages from Jason Reynold’s & Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Anti-racism, and You. Also I will be sharing poetry from Jericho Brown and Allison Joseph.
turn left on Rosa Parks
right on MLK
Taco Bell’s on the left
All of my heroes are dying.
The birds are fighting crazy today.
The plaited woodpecker sprays bark
from his frenzied beak,
house finches squabble and flap
over seed, and the doves
joust the dog’s bowl for a drink.
There is a pound of volcanic rock
in my stomach.
For Vivian Malone Jones,
just to register for class,
It took National Guard bayonets
to prod Alabama’s governor aside
and now, she’s dead and
what business do I have missing her?
She never sat in Sports Illustrated
afloat a tide of white shoulders.
This week five churches in Alabama
were razed to the ground and
it was raining the day of the boycott
that voice is runoff,
somewhere in the darkness,
deep in the cording.
from Lost On My Own Street, Pski’s Porch, 2016
50 Miles Outside Montgomery
Bald eagles have “hands” as wingtips
and spread open their fingers
like a businessman in a black suit
with black gloves who is starving.
His call is weak, flat, stuttering,
like he’s being told to wait.
Don’t get mad at me
I’m just quoting the bird book.
I’m not anti-eagle exactly,
there was one on the moon after all
with magnets for claws.
Clouds undress the sun
so I look at the red dirt
beside this newly painted road.
What shade of red
is watered-down Confederate blood?
50 miles outside Montgomery
on these shores of Lake Martin
you’re either an organ pipe dirt dauber
who eats little spiders with triangles
on their backs, or you’re the little spider
with a triangle on his back.
Hank Williams Sr. fished these same
in a green aluminum boat.
Soon as stars spread
messy on the waves
he was crying for shore.
My dad says pine trees are grass
and I think he’s lying.
The radio says lichen is fungus
and algae combined like a mule
locked for life to rocks and trunks.
A black speck above the green crown
grows as it approaches our floats.
A bald eagle, white head, black breast,
white tail, huge black wings,
the sky cradled in his fingers.
He passes too quickly to capture.
from Lost On My Own Street, Pski’s Porch, 2016
At TJ Max, a black baby behind us
pulled impulse items from the rack,
and tossed them to the floor.
Before the cashier could notice
my mom alerted the mother
who became infuriated
anyone should dare mention
what their eyes had plainly seen.
This was Montgomery in the 1980’s.
A strange period of payback
played out whenever possible.
My mom wore her lips tight
as we hurried to our Oldsmobile.
(All our cars were white
as my father thought white kept us cool
and didn’t show dirt.)
Waiting to pull onto Vaughn Road
we felt a jolt, a colossal warship
rammed against our tail.
The woman smiled, mom perspired.
We lurched into traffic,
they whipped out with us,
my mom’s forearms trembled,
we sped, and they sped with us.
No car phones back then,
we were all alone. Her eyes
more on the rear view
than straight ahead; the exact act
that had gotten us into this mess.
From side streets they swarmed,
a mutinous armada of moving trucks
and curb feelers cackling wildly—
we ran a red light, they ran it too,
the baby, thousands of them,
in tow to our neighborhood.
But we can’t go home, I cried,
if they know where we live
they’ll ruin everything.
I was just a kid, but my mom,
she should have seen this coming.
from The Summer of Lukewarm Love, Grandma Moses Press, 2006 (out of print)
I was born privileged and white in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1975. I moved to Southern New Mexico in 2001 to become a poet. People would ask me what it was like growing up in Alabama. I would say, “well, I never saw Black folks ripped from their homes and lynched in their front yards. The racism I observed was polite, fit for the dinner table.” Now I understand the reason I never saw Black folks ripped from their homes and lynched in their front yards growing up was because I never went to the black part of town.
Las Cruces, NM
This isn’t a poem or a joke.
This is a confession.
Confession, honesty and repentance are my first steps forward.
From approximately 1985 to 2001
I participated in racist behaviors.
I called black people racist names.
I looked down on black people and laughed at racist jokes.
I was not an ally to the one black student in the graduating class of my high school.
I wish to repent these crimes
in earshot of America.
It took me 45 years to say these words.
It took me 45 seconds to say these words.
A wise poet once said you have to write about the one thing that scares you most.
Maybe this is the first poem I’ve ever written.
1. COVID VIRUS PLANK
Back in mid March, 2020, I was on fire with vigor and optimism. This shows the transition from the classroom to the backyard spitting of fire by MC FLASHCARD:
2. STALEY’s EASTER 2020
In early April there was lots of eating and drinking and being miserable, but no weeping. Here’s a trailer from our family Easter festivities:
3. The Covid-19 Compliment
There came a point in late April 2020 when everybody in my family thought they belonged to the suckiest family in the world. Like we could not even give an honest compliment to each other. See for yourself:
4. DEAR SENIORS
Then, in late May, my Seniors graduated and I wrote them this poem while suffering mid-grade cabin fever. The weeping had begun–slow at first, then steady:
5. MAD COWS – MYSTIC PICKLE
My first band was called the Mad Cows. When we started we were in the 10th grade, Montgomery, Alabama. We reunited in the pandemic, and after 9 weeks of work, all we came up with is this.
(WARNING: may contain artistic quality issues):
In Trinidad the budtender said
Snowcap makes you memoir.
In Pueblo the budtender said
Sneeze Flower starts in your toes,
goes up your legs, and then
makes you memoir.
So many memoirists now
in hightower apartments
all across Lower Colorado,
self publishing first drafts
on CreateSpace at a rate
nobody thought to calculate.
This summer I predict
a memoirist apocalypse!
They’ll cut down all the trees
of the world and we’ll suffocate!
Even academia will take note!
how will they roll their
precious flowers then–
the fools! the fools!
Word up, yo. I found these poems suffocating in a Google Doc from 2017. I’d sent them all out a million times to a million online journals with no takers (which makes sense).
It turns out I have a connection with the editors of this fine site; I traded 2 canisters of CBD-infused Flonase for them to post these 8 fairly-crappy poems today:
The Candle Throws Tantrums Against the Walls
On Christmas morning
I feel giddy with something simple
like a sunbeam flashing
off a metallic pinwheel.
We give Lois a sweater and help her
pass her arms through. The nurse
hands us a Sharpie to write
her name in the collar.
The bright rope that held her thoughts
is slack. I can’t tell if the punch
has grapefruit juice
or pomegranate sherbet.
There’s a man at the piano
with his back turned, turning
pages in a songbook, searching
for Silent Night.
Highs and Lows
The dementia ward plays Born to Run
from speakers embedded in the ceiling.
Lois is sad today. She can’t say why.
We walk outside to the reflecting pool.
There’s an airplane above us,
only a handful of people
even know where it’s going.
When the Party’s Over
I watched her walk
across the lawn
with the shower curtain
held high, fresh
from the washer,
headed for the line.
Without being asked,
like a giant pine tree,
I stood there,
Like a great darkness it moves
from one leaf to the next
through the thoroughly-washed
50/50 mix. 3 different strains
of lettuce and spinach
succumb to black slime
deep in the unpopular
corner of the crisper drawer.
Armies of manganese
and potassium suffocate
inside the quiet running
of the refrigerator.
Married To My Country
-after Wendell Berry
My country and I
trade fake smiles
There’s no use
to try and seduce
All my country complains
because the sun won’t walk
in the shoes of the moon.
The Cabin Wakes Up
The eyelids of two beagles
and a golden up first with the sun.
A forty-eight-nail tap dance
on the hardwood, their tags
tambourine the water bowl.
Loud cartoons and the empty bellies
of the five and six year old flip on. I rise
because the sun in my face
and a mildew scent on my pillow.
Grandpa starts the coffee quietly.
Grandma against the measuring glass
spazzes eggs with a fork
and the four teenagers begrudge every sound.
Their empty beer bottles, wine bottles
and bottle of rum
stuck to the table on the porch.
Their ping pong balls cornered
and they’re awake but not up
as the adults commit glass-on-glass
atrocities in the trash.
Their worried words
white-hot ping pong balls
from the paddles of their mouths,
and I’ve been that teenager
hearing just enough to know what’s coming
and knowing just enough to stay down.
The dogs–more afraid of stick than bristle–
run and hide as the 5 year old sweeps the walkway
to the cabin and sways to jazz on the radio.
I sweep out the studio that faces the lake
with giant bay windows. Several dead scorpions
cramp the threads of my broom, each in its own
sarcophagus of dog hair, dust and pencil shavings.
The prayer of their tiny claws open and unanswered.
A great drag out the window: wake boarders, skiers
and inner tubers. I wait to see someone swept
from their rope, their bodies skipped like stones
across the waves.
Urgent and Damned on the Rio Grande Under the I10 bridge
In a Bronco with tinted windows two teenagers
are locked in an awkward, equal-opportunity
sexual stickiness. There’s also 4 swastikas
spray-painted red on the turquoise supports.
One can smell a dead duck upwind in the reeds
and overhead one can hear the jagged ripping
of motorcycles, the steady forge of 18-wheelers
and the constant crackling of the desert sun.
The scent of fertilizer runoff from the fields
lifts off the river and one can feel the moment
urgent and damned, like a fly with amputated wings.