a poem for the fifth of July

Lift every voice and sing was always a blues song –
Words of inclusion and uplift –  infused with a melody.
Never improvised, never syncopated, just overcoming,
adapting. Emerging rapidly from a downbeat,
a flat note at the beginning and the end of time.
We called it our Negro national anthem growing up.
Then in college it became our Black national anthem,
though the words and tune remained the same.
It was we who changed. Our outlook matured.
Nation time! The song was always just a poem
put to music. When it became our hymn, we ennobled
and universalized it – we had a song worth singing.
The ancestors are with us on this one. Believe me.
The eagle landed. Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

A response to The Pieces I Am – a sonnet

I don’t have a “great migration” story.
My folks stayed where they were, where they’d been born.
No one way train rides punctuated life
For us: my parents cast their buckets down
And made their peace, I guess, with all the lines
That circumscribed their lives. And their parents,
And their parents, and their parents, and on
And on. Oh yeah they ventured forth from time
To time, but always came back to the home
They knew and loved. We grew up with the ghosts
Of generations past. They spoke to us
And taught us things not learnable from books,
Like how to deal with loss, and love’s delay,
And death, the ever present end of all.

Not really poetry – well, kinda, sorta – you be the decider

Remembrances from a foreign service career

Prologue
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and preassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq

Eclipse/summer solstice/Juneteenth sonnet

(I lifted some phrases at the start and the finish from Cornell West. He won’t mind. “It’s not where you take it from – but where you take it to.”)

Some say we are in for grim times. They say
We should fortify our souls for the storms
Headed soon this way – put on the armor,
Set our sights on a distant unnamed star.

I am studying the constellations
Like our ancestors used to do. I stand
On their shoulders – holy ground. Through their eyes
I learn how they armed themselves and endured.

An annular eclipse coincided
With summer solstice this year. An omen
Of things to come, a lunar ring of fire
Not visible to seeking western eyes.

I saw it on YouTube. A ring of fire.
Let no man steal your joy, your sense of style.

From the archives: summer solstice/Juneteenth poems

Summer solstice II

Sun Ra told us years ago the planet
was doomed – yet we believed,
deep inside, that our exceptionalism
and our privilege would pull us through
in the end – except it didn’t.

The doom we thought we’d avert
eventually consumed us, along
with everybody/everything else.

I had a large garden plot when I lived
in the mountains. Grew a row of sunflowers
from seed on the eastern border.

When they grew so tall with flowers
like crowns, I named each and called
them my ladies. Then one evening
in the valley of the lilies, we were visited
by a microburst – strange weather
in those mountains – and every tall thing
was leveled.

Each poem I write is about these things:
love, family/race and poetry. There.
You have the key. No need to guess,
I’ll tell you what’s up. I can’t escape
this destiny, and I cannot hide my pen.

*************************

June 20, 2016

Summer solstice

A migration,
a journey by moonlight,
from one ​sacred state
to a​nother –

move fast though,
‘cause the night,
well​-​lit, is short,
which means no time
for reading signs
and prayers for good fortune
on the road.

The shortest​ ​distance
between two points
is a straight line –
or a tesseract ​​
for time travelers​ ​
among us.

Another year
won’t kill them,
and the cotton crop
demands their presence.

But this particular
convergence comes
once a generation,
so their next chance
will be less fortuitous –
as will ours.

A long day, a bright moon,
and a lost year.
And a journey
to bridge a gap in space.

**********************************

June 17, 2016

Here we are, the convergence of summer
solstice, “strawberry” full moon, Ramadan
midpoint, and Juneteenth, and I need to write
a poem about it, a sonnet, perhaps.
I’ve written summer solstice poems before,
the longest day, the shortest night, and what
that’s worth, but this conjunction is richer,
holier than the things I wrote before.

******************************

Morning Walk – Summer Solstice

I make my morning walk today,
it is the summer solstice, after all –
the first morning of summer,
the longest day, the shortest night –

But what good is that,
I say –
a short night is not worth
a plug nickel –

we love the night,
we make love at night,
sweet love we hope
will never end,
an endless night of love –
we dream pure dreams
at night, and pray
those dreams come true –
we plot and strategize
our plan of attack
in the wee hours,
at the midnight hour,
at night.

Of what value, then,
is a short night?

Crossing the bridge,
I shift my timepiece
from 88five to 103five,
“traffic and weather
together, on the eights,”
and the neurons start to fire
in rapid succession…

the tide is high –
portions of the shore
normally exposed
are submerged.
I pause and watch
as the crawling critters
flee the flood and seek
refuge on higher ground,
inching closer and closer
to the human walking trail –
I see tall stalks
of phytolacca americana
growing in groves
along the shore,
sprouting long green leaves,
greens my ancestors used to eat,
thrice-boiled,
as they headed north,
to escape an immoral
oppression. “It’s poison
if you don’t cook it right…”
I can hear them whisper
through the soft rush
of the running tide…

my baby sister is writing poetry
again, mostly in her letters.
I think about her as I turn the corner
onto Frances Scott Key Bridge.
She is the better poet,
she has the gift,
the power to apaziguar o dor –
that’s what friends are for.

I’m nearing home,
my walk almost complete.
The longest day of the year
opens its arms before me.
“From the Shenandoah
to the Chesapeake,”
WTOP says on the radio —
all day long.

Poems from the crucible, pt. 7

Let’s celebrate!

I’ve clearly been reading too much Walt Whitman! (“It’s not where you take it from. It’s where you take it to.”)

Let us celebrate every aspect of our being!
Celebrate our parents and our children, our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand and all the generations yet to come.
Celebrate our gender, whether male or female, whether binary on non-binary.
Celebrate our race, our blackness, our whiteness, our redness, our yellowness, our brownness and everything in betweenness. Celebrate our nationality, our place of origin. Celebrate our migration from there to here.
Celebrate our straightness and our queerness.
Celebrate where we went to school, whether elementary, middle school, high school, or college. Send them a check, big or small, whatever you can afford to let them know you care.
Celebrate the God/Goddess/Deity we serve if we are religious. Celebrate our unbelief if we are atheists or agnostics. Celebrate all our doubts about everything.
Celebrate our friends and our enemies.
Celebrate the “things” we own and our freedom over materialism.
Celebrate any knowledge we have. Celebrate the things we can never fully know.
Celebrate our hopes for the future. Celebrate our fears.
Celebrate being married. Celebrate being single and unencumbered.
Celebrate having children. Celebrate being childless.
Celebrate every aspect of our being.

Poems from the crucible, pt. 6

Did They Ever Find His Body? An Elegy for Christopher Dorner

I had forgotten about Chris Dorner
Until Dave Chappelle’s mention. I recall
secretly pulling for him, hoping he’d
escape being swiss-cheesed by 400
Of his fellow cops. Did they ever find
his body? I found his manifesto,
living and breathing on the internet.
He left behind a lot for us to read
and digest. Hyperlinks . . . all over the place.
Did they ever find his body? We’ve not
heard from him since. We must assume he died
in that shitstorm, transitioned this life.
Still, the mention of him makes me want to smoke.
The burned body they found was never identified.

Poems from the crucible, pt. 5

(Not really a poem. I guess I just think in stanzas these days!)

A not nearly modest enough proposal

Since the whole world is agitated,
What’s stopping a group
of non-partisan patriots
from putting together
a petition to the United Nations
to put the cabash on all these
extrajudicial killings
by renegade policemen
in the US? In the aggregate
it is a human rights violation
and as such, a violation
of international UN norms.

Or am I listening to too many
Malcolm X speeches, too tired
Of being tired of all the crap?
All the marching and rioting
And looting is not gonna stop it.
And we know BLM is only
an appendage of Democratic Party
fundraising and election year
vote generation. Let’s do something
Serious about stopping the madness.

Anybody up for an adult conversation?

Poems from the crucible, pt. 4

If #CHAZ were black protesters
and not white anarchists,
they might end up like MOVE,
hunted and penned and
bombed and blown to smithereens.
Nothing left but a clean-up job
for highly skilled city janitors.

But Seattle ain’t like Philadelphia.
Not a church in Revelations.
Not the City of Brotherly Love.
It was named for an Indian chief
who predicted, “The white man will
never be alone. Let him be just,
and deal kindly with my people.
For the dead are not powerless.”
An ominous warning, indeed.

And 2020 ain’t 1985. The internet
sends a picture around the world.
Instantaneously a meme is formed,
a virus for the fertile mind. It could be
a trap, this massive sit-in that displaces
others who used to hang out there,
an occupation by a next generation
of settlers, an expression of their
new found manifest destiny. Quicksand.
Chief Seattle still whispers to us.

Instagram photos

For M. Milonaki

I thumbed through your
Instagram photos today,
all the way to the bottom,
and reminded myself
how lucky I am to count
you among my circle of friends.

It almost sounds like stalking
but I assure you it is not.
More like a respectful appreciation,
a casual stroll thru a special gallery.

The poetry will end one day,
like everything else. Memento mori.
But true affection endures forever,
if only just a fading memory.

Poems from the crucible, pt. 3

What’s worse?
Kneeling to a false god?
Or wearing kente while kneeling?
Betcha it was fake, knockoff kente.
Betcha it came from China.

And yes, we all know what happens next.
Bad cop gets light or no sentence
(because with all the drugs
they couldn’t figure out conclusively
the actual cause of death).

This event, true to form,
sets off a second round
of riots and looting,
misnamed peaceful protests,
in cities and urban areas
where black folk live and shop,
lowering property values.

And then what?
We’ve seen this film before.
Gentrification when the ashes cool
while the
prices
are
cheap.

Poems from the crucible, pt.2

“black lives matter”
Is technically a tautology:
An assertion that is true
In any possible interpretation.

As such, it needn’t be spoken:
Everybody understands it to be.
But we hear it all over the place
And we see it on posters
& on walls & in windows – even
On a street (but that won’t last too long).

Growing up we used to say
“Black is beautiful” – more
An identity than a tautology,
At least mathematically speaking –
More to affirm than to assert –
More cultural than political –
More feel good than mindfuck.

“To be or not to be”
Is a line from Shakespeare,
and “To be rather than to seem”
Is a line from Cicero adopted
By North Carolina as a state motto.
But “I will fuck you up if you
Block my path,” is unambiguous
And requires no interpretation.

a facebook status I posted that i thought was pretty poetic

Slavery in the United States
is not mythological.
It is not the expropriation
of an ancient biblical bedtime story.
Slavery was brutal and inhumane
and it etched itself into the American psyche
in ways we have not even discovered,
much less acknowledged.
Yet, it is a unifying event as it weaves
together into perpetuity
the lives and fortunes of the descendants
of both the formerly enslaved
and the former slave holders.
Didn’t they know this would happen?

“We must all learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – MLK

Poems from the crucible*, pt. 1

I read an African proverb
that a child not embraced
by its village will burn that village down
to feel its warmth.

The mayor lifted the curfew
to appease the rioters – but God
in his wisdom sent a thunderstorm
that made them scurry like cockroaches
when the lights come on.

Another storm is brewing.

If a monument is a lightning rod
and a lightning bolt hits the tip top
does free electricity go into the ground?

Some say abolish the police –
But then who’s Karen gonna call?

Some of us are awake and
Some of us remember you.
So if you wanna tip-toe back here
Don’t come half-stepping – You’d
Better bring your best game.

* A crucible is a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures. While crucibles historically were usually made from clay, they can be made from any material that withstands temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents.

from the archives – letter to Walt Whitman

Dear Walt:

I seem to recall we met,​ ​in the future, in the past, or in a dream –
maybe in engine room lower level,
repairing a valve or calibrating a gauge
on an obscure hydraulic line;
or maybe on the bridge,
transiting the Strait of Gibraltar,
or the Strait of Bonifacio,
or the Strait of Messina;
or maybe having a smoke on the fantail
while the ship rounds the Cape of Good Hope,
or the Cape Horn, or Ras Kasar.

The physical place is less important
than the metaphysical space we share:
lonely, tired, perplexed, distressed,
missing loved ones –
lonely, tired, perplexed, distressed,
surrounded by loved ones –
seeking refuge from war’s alarm,
whether fighting on distant battlefields,
or negotiating in hostile boardrooms,
far or near, seeking refuge from war
and the rumors of war, seeking peace.

We share the womb of America –
twin biracial souls within the same mother,
bouncing around in an aqueous environment.
Scandalized, scapegoated and heart-broken,
we forge forward together on this mystic trek,
guided by an unseen star in the Northern sky,
inspired by love, and hope, and steadfast faith.

April 17, 2013

From the archives – in commemoration of today’s successful NASA SpaceX launch

Sonnet #16

Today I watched the shuttle launched towards space.
A tail of fire plowed the southern morning sky
Until it disappeared. I thought about
The people there, behind the scenes, who made,
It all occur. There’s someone there whose life
Is less than free from care, a lonely heart,
Dis-eased, distressed, beset by worries, woes,
Who, overcoming all, finds sweet the reaching
Of the goal. There’re happy ones who feel the tinge
Of sadness at the thought of those who’ve missed
By fate the thrill of launch complete, the charm,
The pure romance of making dreams come true.
The shuttle jets toward heaven, far away
From troubles, closer still to hopes ideal.

Mayport, FL April 1990

from the archives – Poems to Towanna

I heard from an old, dear friend some time ago who was waging a battle with cancer. She spoke to me about her children, all adults now, and the importance to her that they see her fight this battle with all her might. 30+ years ago I sent her these poems and would like to pull them up from the archives to share with you all as I wish her courage, faith and strength in her struggle.

To Towanna

A peculiar beauty,
A gentle glow,
A kindness
and a caring –

an attractiveness,
a radiance,
a heart that tends
toward sharing –

a pleasant smile,
a friendliness,
though hardships
You are bearing –

a tender kiss,
a warm caress,
Your love makes
life endearing.

Ballston Spa, NY July 1980

*******************

To Towanna – Sonnet #21

Remember years ago when we first met?
You selling books, me browsing, reading books
At Brandon’s store? We were so young, and life
So unrevealed, so full of promises
And boundless hopes and dreams, and guarantees
And opportunities. You went away.
I stayed and made mistakes. We met again,
You east, me west, you school, me ships and seas.
Confused, we erred and severed friendship’s bond,
And all seemed lost between us save a thread,
A laser beam of hope that, over time,
Compressed, distilled and purified, survived
Until today. We meet again. What fate
Awaits is ours to plan, to recommend.

Jacksonville, FL July 1990

Poems from the crucible, pt. nought – 14 lines for a rainy Thursday morning

“I once studied viruses like this one. They are immensely complex and
according to some, not even living.”
My friend Myra, a poet

I woke up to rioting and looting
in Minneapolis, faux apologies
in New York, unsolved, unanswered
questions in Brunswick, GA,
and dementia in Dover, Delaware.

What the actual fuck? Pardon my French.

This virus might not be a living thing
But it is wrecking havoc in all our lives.
Then there are rumors about a veto
And an executive order that’s gonna stir
Some feathers in the head of the beast.

And somebody wrote on Twitter,
“Ain’t no shame in their game.”
I see shame all over the place.

From the archives – Remembering Bob Kaufman

This memorial to Bob Kaufman became one of my favorite poems of the pandemic period. Writing a memorial was one of the prompts from NaPoWriMo 2020. I never met Bob Kaufman. I only knew him through his poetry.

All the letters I never sent

All the letters I never sent,
poems I wrote but only shared
with special friends (those
who dug the cut of my jib).
I warehouse them (most but not all)
like museum extras, far from the eyes,
and outside the reach of saints.

All the morning walks I stopped
taking after my fall,
from fear, misplaced perhaps,
that I might fall again and get stuck
somewhere off a beaten path
where no one could hear
my pleas and groans.

All the lies I never told
because I never felt the need
to misrepresent, to be
anybody or anything other
than my own true self.

I still fall in love too easily,
so I’m told – but there’s always
a link, a connection
worth tracing, a node
in a complex network
where we can meet.

And yes, I still get seasick –
the surface is no place
for lovers to hang out.
Once we reach
the dive point and submerge
the ride gets smoother.

From the archives – poems from previous Memorial Days

From 2014

A friend from overseas asked me in a card:
“Ray, what’s it like to live in a country
constantly, always and forever at war?”
I didn’t have an answer so I rolled three dice.
Drama masks; a ladder; catching butterflies.
The masks are for deception when they speak,
all actors on a temporary stage.
The ladder: an escape; a rescue;
a fortuitous disassociation.
Catching butterflies: they will try to lure
you back. Stay on your track, ignore their call.
So what’s it like? Constant bombardment, spin,
propaganda, fake stories, subliminal appeals.
Don’t think about the guy behind the curtain.

*************************************

From 2016

I wandered through a shopping mall looking
for a telephone, a land phone with two lines:
dying technology, I would soon find out.
The mall, normally full of shoppers, was empty,
quiet, flat. Where were all the shoppers?
A few old men sat at tables in the food court,
rustling through papers with young couples,
and big, tatooed men passed through, I could tell
they were ex-soldiers by their swagger, by the glaze
of combat still in their eyes. Looking for jobs.
No jobs today, everywhere, stores are closing.
In Baghdad, the Marines used to say, “America
is not at war, the Marines are at war.
America is at the Mall.” Not no more.

************************************

From 2017

I’m selling my flat on Facebook Street.
Maybe I’ll rent it out – rents keep rising.
Too many bugs in the place, laying eggs
in every crack and crevice. I tried Raid
to smoke them out – they just laughed and scurried
about. Let’s not even discuss the rats
down in the basement, walking on tip-toes
at night, eating pages from my old books.

Yes, I’m selling – maybe the Orkin man
can clean it out, make it habitable.
Again. Maybe the next guy can rent it
out, clean the smell of smoke off the walls,
the stains of piss and ashes I found
under the carpet on the parquet floor.

**********************************

From 2018

The Deep State is dead. Long live
the Deep State. May she be forever — free.
A system of machines interlocked,
with pipes and valves and pumps
and technologists, watch-standers
who check and wipe the lubrication
when it leaks and monitor differential
flow across redundant components.

There are no kings or queens aboard
this ship of state. No pathetic henchmen
running errands for brighter tomorrows.
Meanwhile, in the home of the brave
the machinery runs without a hiccup,
though hiccups are sometimes made
to appear, an entertainment for casual
observers and pedestrian audiences.

All the vampires have been executed
by patriots exercising their 2nd amendment
rights. Vampire blood soaks the ground
on which we stand, serving as fertilizer
in place of the cow manure we once used.
Spirit cooking and trafficking of children
are outlawed in the new IGY, clowns
splintered and boogeymen deflated.

No memorial monuments will be added
on the mall, no new wars to remember
when the sons and daughters of patriots
finally say no to the world’s money lenders
who were so certain she would win –
because only the Deep State wins.
Life goes on in the villages and towns
while mirrors in the cities crack and fall.

Dear Mrs. Betty Davis

Dear Mrs. Betty Davis:
I watched the documentary film
“They Say I’m Different”
About your life on AmazonPrime
This holiday weekend afternoon.

You were a few years ahead of me
In your prime – I never saw you perform
On the stage – so I’m glad for the film.

But we have a geographical connection.
I bet our grandparents know each other.
Our paths may have crossed at your
Grandma’s farm in Reidsville, or across
The Dan River in Leaksville, or in Durham,
or in my hometown, Greensboro –

It sounds like you’ve found your peace.
That, above all, makes my soul sing.
I’m so proud you resisted the forces
And chose instead to only be yourself.

Your life, your choices are a model
For all of us coming along behind you.
What better, sweeter, purer legacy
Could there be?

from the archives – a note to the file and a Claude McKay poem at the end of Ramadan

October 1, 2007

All: it is Ramadhan, and here in Cairo, the spirit of the month is all-enveloping, omnipresent, and pervasive. Walking through Zamalek after sunset last night, I could see it, I could feel it, I could smell it, I could hear it, I could taste the fast, the month, and the palpable, purgative, restorative effect it has on the community and the society.

So, enough for the travelogue. But I do want to share a poem, written by one of the Harlem Renaissance greats, Claude McKay, about his reminiscences of Ramadhan in Morocco (he is clearly talking about somebody he was in love with, not just the place, but I’ll leave it to you, dear readers of My Wall, to interpret). Hope it all fits . . .

from the archives – poems for the family reunion

Granddaddy raised tobacco in red clay
his whole life long – row by row –
until he got too old to continue –

life must have been tough –
year end, year out, hoping
for good weather and fair prices.

Grandma cleaned the white folks house,
did their laundry, raised their children.
That couldn’t have been much fun either –
she had her own children at home

to care for. Pop had long red hair
as a child, he told me, and thought
it was a celebration when the house
burned down one cold winter morning.

From the archives: D1G

Thoughts about judgment day (D1G)

(This poem is from 1980. I was working at a nuclear power plant in New York state. I was not too happy with my professional life, and my love life was tottering. No place for a 24 year old to be, but that’s another story. I wrote the first draft on the back of one of those industrial strength brown paper towels, folded in half. I escaped from that place by the skin of my teeth, finding greener pastures in nearby Connecticut. My love life improved, but the poetry I wrote there by the sea was not half as good. DIG stood for D, destroyers (navy ships that would hold the reactor plant), 1, the first of its type (and hence the oldest and most contaminated), and G stood for General Electric, aka god and master.)

the hour actively approaches
while we, its victims, sit and wait,
with folded arms, trying to appear
comfortable and carefree,
and mutually exclusive.

days pass quickly, and nights,
like the blink of an eye . . .
nay, the pupil’s dilation . . .
time races to its destination
while we, in our lethargy,
approximate suspended animation.

there is no conclusion,
only the vain pleadings
for a fresh new start,
another sequel,
a couple more opportunities.

The rope by which we hang
is long, connecting us, tethering
us to our past and our future,
but its knot is sure.

June 1980

Audio from the archives

https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/still-under-construction-for-aretha/