From: / To:, The Previous Sea, Beauty’s Nest
FROM: / TO:
At last, a dark murderous lunatic
to whom they are allowed to respond.
Here, no one expects them to be strung
up by their necks—dangled—and then left
to be cut down from a tall tree—and not cry.
No law—here—will require them to watch
their families hurled on top the world's bright pyre
over generations, without complaint,
unattended by rage's holiness
or the clear mirror of grief. They find some
chalk to celebrate. While one loads, one lifts,
then checks. Just before they ignite the bomb,
they write on its shell: FROM HARLEM, TO HITLER,
then stand back for the camera, smiling.
THE PREVIOUS SEA
(for Henry Gabriel Lewis, 1923-2009)
All night, a light
in a place no light should be.
No wire, no electricity, no candle,
match, or flame. Nothing.
Breath and scurry.
Branch, mulch, leaf.
You walk over the Rhine each night,
whole boiled chickens
sealed inside aluminum cans from the Mess.
Because there are enough
and Friemersheim will survive
another winter. Your girlfriend,
Francis, is a vibrant German
teenager. You slip her mother:
beans and sausages, potatoes and corn,
rice, peas and hams—all in cans
stamped with the eagle of the United States Army.
They watch for a week. A camp across the river
once trained Nazi Youth. Now deserted sallow boys—
filthy and dazed—slink up the Army's back
door to peel potatoes they eat like apples.
Raw. You feed them. They teach you.
German. The rules. Nacht. Liebling. The light
is steady. They've seen it, too,
and do not care to know.
Whole new maps are created nightly
by the steady imprints made
with the boots worn by American soldiers
as they walk to convert the cold
narrow beds of their German girlfriends
into wide berths of puzzled glory.
Not knowing what they'll find,
two American soldiers leave
camp one night and hike
for an hour through the dark
until they are close and the light
is pulled. Silent. Put out.
You sleep with Francis on a small couch
her mother placed for the two of you
in the kitchen. Francis wants you
to marry her, but you don't
know how. She knows
the few states in your country
where it is legally reasonable
for a schwarz and a weisse to look
each other in the eye, walk down the street.
She cannot quite comprehend
differs from the law.
There is a letter in your wallet
from a soft girl you love.
She has just left you—via Air Mail—
in a curly adolescent script that says
she's sorry, another boy with a better job
has promised to send her to college.
The next night they begin. Two yanks,
three more hairs between them
than the Nazi Youth. Eyes like rabbits:
red—bright—unaware of destiny, or their use.
They walk again towards the light.
Wait knee-deep in blackberry they sense
but cannot see. As one begins to pull out
a Lucky Strike, the light returns again.
Of all things: an old man,
scraping at bugs and sardines from tins,
alone, inside a large cave. Hope hiding
in a hole—left behind—quiet. Awake.
One day, on a farm hanging over the Rhine,
a horse, lost and wandering, steps into a mine.
People ran toward it, you say, to salvage
the meat. My disgust is audible, teenage.
The look you give is so swift, I nearly miss it.
What? I ask, defended. And you spit:
You don't know what it is to be hungry.
If you were really hungry, you'd eat your hand.
Besides the food, a blanket and a cot,
the only other objects are glass and wooden
cases lined with enough jewelry to adorn
an entire village. Everything has a tag
and a name. The soldiers escort the man
to the bridge near the Youth, place a small
pistol to his head, then order him to Run!
They rush back to their bunks
for two Army-issued duffles, return
to the cave, and fill each one.
Unless you're playing with friends,
the deck must be fresh—and even then
you can't place bets on love when
you stay because of circumstance.
Cut the deck. Curve your hands
until their faces form a bridge.
Ease the palm up enough for the first
to drop. The others will follow suit.
Left then right. Practice. Deal
out five cards. More than their faces,
you have to watch their backs.
If there are lines, freckles or folds,
the deck is fixed. If their backs
are clean, watch the hands. Dealing
Seconds, Bottom Dealing, marked cards,
stacked decks, a diamond is really a spade,
spades: diamonds. With dice, pad rolling
decreases the odds. Then, it doesn't matter
how good you are, how honest or how clean.
What matters most is who owns the dice
factory. All the rolling in the world
won't land you on top a seven, if the
maker himself is crooked
and for hire.
He'd eaten them raw everyday
but had only touched a real oyster once.
Her name was Clotilde. He was sweet
on her—both seventeen—both attending
the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
School for Indians and Coloreds.
One day, hem up, elastic stretched,
his boyish hand rumbling through her
bloomers, the rough and soft of it, Cloë
and her oyster liqueur:
the wettest, strongest, alive, unreal heaven
yielding: soaked and throbbing on his finger tips.
What's novel north is past tense here.
Pleasure sits on a wrought iron chair
chuckling over the loss of her 17th century
virginity. Not from Spain, but claimed
in Spanish, heat and hate
from Sardinia to Senegambia.
Court was held in three languages
at the same time. All was lost—and found—
when Iberville ruptured sacred Choctaw
burial mounds with Louis' fleur de lis.
On the ferry home, he sniffs his hands. Gulps
down three plates of beans, doesn't bathe—sleeps
with the fragrant smell of oceans swirling
above his lips while he sucks his thumb, drooling
onto his potato-sack pillowcase.
In the morning, his mother hands him the envelope.
Greetings from Uncle Sam,
the letter begins, with a picture of a flag
and a white bearded man,
then a date and address
some place on Canal Street
where he is to report for duty.
The whores in Belgium sign contracts
with the Army. They agree only to service men
who can present American soldier I.D.
The lieutenants have chains welded
around all the girls' bird feet, then each one
is tested for communicable disease.
Each disease receives one charm
in the shape and width of a thin dime.
On the charm's face, they cut in
an acronym for each diagnosis.
Before you hire her, she must present
her leg. It might contain two or three charms.
Most soldiers do not care. Girls without any charm
can charge a whole twenty-five cents more,
or eleven francs or the same Reich pfennig.
During the day, if they find work elsewhere,
they pay a jeweler to cut it off,
then weld it back on before night begins.
One foot out of boot camp, AWOL-ed
because Cora, your grandmother dies
just five days before your ship leaves dock.
You take trains all night: New York—
New Orleans—New York. Eight to a cabin,
four to every bunk, you jumped
the Atlantic in seven days.
Does your footprint still linger
underwater in that rough sand
where you first stepped, chest-high,
into Scottish waters off the Queen
Mary's dingy—duffle and gun overhead—
too certain of a bullet to remember or care
you didn't know how to swim?
Instead of one pair of socks, you wear three.
Three pair of pants, three sweaters, three
shirts, one coat, hats balled up and tucked
into pockets, plus all the Lucky Strikes
you can steal from Canteen. Your Creole
is too country, his patois too old.
You stare long and silent at the stones
covering the Rue de Rivoli.
Peel off your coat, sweaters, socks and pants.
Tattered and thin, he dresses quickly into your clothes.
Besides soothing words like apple, sun, and day,
the three words your Frenches have most in common
are 'ti negre, monsieur
and s'il vous plait.
There are signs everywhere, signs
just for you, whenever you walk—look
up—leave. Reminders from your camp
written to your unfurling body.
WHITE YANKS AND NEGRO YANKS SHALL NOT
FRATERNIZE, BY COMMAND OF THE UNITED STATES ARMY
Even on that day generations still kneel and kiss,
a telegram was sent by General Eisenhower.
He felt it was important
to set aside some time
to jot a quick note
to all Negro servicemen
fighting throughout the world
on behalf of the United States Army.
He'd wanted to be sure
you were not allowed
to enter any church
or hall—or party—
if there were white yanks
The morgue is most quiet.
to look for him
here at the foundation of Charity
Hospital, where cypress beams meet
ancient oyster beds.
He lays down on top
the coroner's smooth granite
slab, and tries to remember
(When he was a boy, his grandfather Paul Felix
got paid to prepare bodies in the Vieux Carré.
Whenever he heard someone had died,
he'd run to catch the mortuary's backdoor
and stand beside his grandfather,
eye to elbow. Papaw,
who never drank, would drink
a fifth of gin in one drawn horse swig,
then cross himself before
he made that cut that let the body
He wakes, then climbs up the stairs
to the fifth floor, where all day long—
he's stationed to step,
bed to bed, and hold
an enamel pan beneath the rotting
carcass of a blue vet.
Between the people who pass
and the people who left, the Crescent feels
more lonely, more haunted than before.
The dead not only roam the streets, but the living
now have ghosts too. And all
their loss wanders around without them
looking for the life to whom it belongs.
His hands smell like shit.
He decides to take a trip for, two weeks,
just to see, if what he saw and dreamt—
if there's any place where he can be
the noun in the same line with possibility.
A 1949 Ford. Four-door. 1951:
Gators, swamps, rednecks,
hills, desert, ocean. In that order.
He thinks he smells smoke,
but whether the scent is from his car,
crotch, or war, he can't be sure.
Doucette, Aubrey, Aubrey's uncle, Pepper,
all sleep while he drives. A tin of sardines
on the dashboard, crumbs of Saltines over his shirt.
Toolbox in the trunk. They all brought their kits, just in case—
and for him, Just-in-Case will certainly arrive, smiling
slyly and carrying a small sign with his name
written carefully upon it. In addition to the thick roll
he banked in two years' time cleaning the mess
pans of dying vets in Charity Hospital,
he is also carrying a picture of his mother, Leontine,
and a rosary strung with octagonal garnet beads
so red they're violent.
All of these—the cash, the photo, his beads—
are in his back pocket. He has another rosary
in his front: his dog tag, a switchblade,
and a ring with two keys—
a spare for the Ford, and one
to his mother's house on North Miro Street,
State by state, they take it. Tex-Ass!
he says, and slaps the dashboard
when they hit their first border.
They stop that night in San Anton.
Dupree has an old cousin named Milton.
He has a big colored bowling alley
where they sleep their first night
on the gleaming
aisles, one man per lane.
He is driving into the horizon,
into the sunset, the widest expanse.
Just a few years before, barely eighteen,
he was thrusting his fist into the Rhine's black clay,
groping for frogs and snakes to feed
his starving company. Now he glides
across the floor of a previous sea.
Bodies—dead and living. Images of—
moments with—the smell of skin—
eyes blinking wildly—children's hands
reaching out for their train.
Maybe he'll find another girl, someone
else besides his mother
foolish enough to love him.
His tie has a pin with a small ruby at its center.
The stone came from the ring Cloë sent back
to him in Germany.
The door is opened, but he cannot feel
where he is. He is walking
through it, but he can't see his feet.
There is too much light.
The darkness is just as bright.
There are things like this locked inside
his mind: how the whole planet used to be covered
with an ocean; how the water
in our body twins that sea's exactly.
Or that exceptional quandary
he turns over and over again,
like the prized gold coin from Belgium—
a belga—he keeps hidden in his pocket:
a number that is also a letter: .
Jim Crow Welcomes You Home
To the Grand Canyon
Just After Midnight:
Renders the body
Mute. An elegance
It's violent. Extreme. It hurts
The heart to see
Something so vast and deep
Can also be made of dirt.
And if it can be
Of the earth, the body
Such a landscape
Exist also within me?
The four of you stand, silent
On its rim, the imagination
Trying to conceive
All the things it is
Still too dark to see.
You do not allow yourselves
To believe in sunlight.
You jump back
Into your wide Ford
And begin to drive
All the motels, and their signs,
Which, were it not just
After midnight, you know—
And could see—say