NARCISSUS

Styrofoam cups, a plastic 7-Up bottle, a beer can

And red and gold and orange autumn leaves

Roll along the highway’s shoulder

Gaily tossed by gusts of wind

 

What would fall be without Americans

Tossing their detritus out car windows

A child’s canvass shoe here

And there a crumpled slipper

 

Baby’s diaper bye-bye

Schnuck’s plastic be gone, Aldi’s “Shop different”

A highway is another word for landfill until

We run out of room and bomb the mountains

 

America, once beautiful, once verdant

Now a trash flash mob throwaway

Now McDonalds Burger King Taco Bell

Jingle all the way

 

Give me leaf trash, bits of broken bark

Stream-split granite shards and sandblown glass

Shriveled iris petals and worm casings

And shed blue racer snake skins

 

The sponges of Eden did not write

About the trees the seas the leaves the serene breeze

They lived and soaked up sun and water

And saltily brushed the first oral

 

And then Man came along a wrote and wrote

Epics word songs and poems jazz birds and bees

And then Narcissus saw himself in the water’s mirror

And threw the first Kleenex into the stream

 

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The Fifth Little Girl

They were in the downstairs church bathroom, the five girls, preparing to don their choir robes. They all had walked to the church that September 15 Sunday morning, and the weather was hot, so they “freshened up.” And you just know they gossiped. Denise, 11, and new teens Addie and her sister Sarah, Cynthia, and Carol.

Sarah was standing to the side of the sink as Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Sarah said recently, “When Addie reached out to tie it, that’s when I heard this sound, boom, the bomb went off.”

A dozen or more sticks of dynamite had been planted underneath the church outside stairs, the blast destroying the bathroom wall, killing four of the girls and leaving Sarah standing upright in the rubble, her right eye blasted from her head and glass shards in her left eye. Leaving Sarah, who had dreamed of being a nurse, alone and blinded, standing in the gore that was left of her sister and friends.

Somewhere that day, four white man, members of the Ku Klux Klan laughed and joshed one another and crowed that they had struck a blow for the white people of Birmingham, Alabama, for the cause of white supremacy across the land. The FBI quickly identified the suspects, but J. Edgar Hoover quashed the files. Hoover then, is the fifth murderer.

It was the George Wallace era in the South, Wallace vowing “segregation forever” and encouraging white people to be violent. He got his wish. Years later, Wallace, paralyzed from a would-be assassin’s bullet, was wheeled into Martin Luther King’s Montgomery church and asked the congregation for forgiveness.

One of the Klansmen was tried in the 70s and convicted. After Bill Clinton became president, the FBI files were reopened, and U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, now senator, successfully convicted two more of the men, the last survivor dying in jail at age 82.

Sarah’s lawyer has petitioned the State of Alabama to grant her reparations for her stolen life. Republican Governor Kay Ivey—after receiving a petition from Sarah’s lawyers, citing the fact that while the State of Alabama did not kill four girls and maim a fifth, its governor (Wallace) had played a role in the deaths—is considering whether or not to grant the request. Ivey is not known for racial sensitivity. She failed to attend the recent openings of the museums dedicated to the histories of lynching and slavery, saying she hadn’t been invited.

I visited those museums two years ago. Knowing about horror, about man’s inhumanity to man (and the planet), does not prepare one for the emotional experience of walking through acres of sculptures and photographs commemorating the lynched (46 from Illinois). Nor does it prepare one walking the downtown streets, with every block featuring a plaque telling visitors of slave auctions held in those places, for beating hearts and wobbly legs. And then there is the shocking statue at the top of the state capitol steps honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who did his research on slave women, operating without anesthesia. The Nazis were fixated with white supremacy. It is said that Dr. Mengele was influenced by Dr. Sims.

The photos. The two men who murdered Emmet Till, arms around each other, laughing, knowing they will never pay a price for their crime. Till’s mangled body in his casket. The “strange fruit” of thousands of lynching victims. The white women and girls spitting on little Ruby Bridges as she enters a desegregated school. Martin Luther King lying on the motel balcony. The charred cross on the Rock springs golf course, across the street from the Conley family’s house, Elijah Conley having had the temerity to file a lawsuit to get his kid into a desegregated Alton school. George Floyd in the last moment of his life.

It is all coming back around. I saw it—the future—a few years back. I had struck up a Facebook friendship with a columnist for a Northern California newspaper. We shared a love of the Southern Gothic novelist William Gay. The Californian pissed off a lot of people in his area, and I’d like to think I’ve stirred the Alton pot (I’m proud to say that a prominent local artist attacked me for commenting on racism in Alton). But then he fell in love with Trump. He suddenly looked at himself in the mirror and decided he was an endangered species. White men were going to be destroyed. I called him and gave him the courtesy of telling him why we were through. He hung up the phone.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, the fifth little girl of Birmingham, deserves all the bags of money in the Alabama coffers. It won’t bring Addie Mae back; it won’t replace Sarah’s eyes. It will, it will, it will be a step toward justice.

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QUIVER

I was walking in the woods on this gorgeous fall day and looking for a sign from the gods. “Inspiration,” I cried, ignoring the old saw that inspiration is perspiration, “come forth!” But then it arrived just before I emerged from the trees, and yes, I was perspiring.

A dog-eye sulfur butterfly, the color of butter, flitted by me. Dog-eye sulfurs are my favorites; they are the last to leave in autumn. They gather in flocks in mudpuddles and extract nutrients. They’ve got Bette Davis eyespots.

Then in a flash a streak went by me like a bullet, a diving tufted titmouse trying to catch the butterfly in flight. The titmouse missed and landed on a branch, and the butterfly dropped to the ground. Then a second titmouse came by, also missing. The first tufted titmouse then dove again, scooping up the hapless butterfly and swallowing it.

I might have written a poem about the butterfly. I have written poems about cute tufted titmice eating sunflower seeds at my feeder. Nature has but a single law, the cute being devoured by the cute, the fierce tearing the fierce limb from limb. It is about survival—period. Humans are “apes with angel glands” (sorry, Leonard Cohen, but apes are peaceful creatures; chimps are murderers), and so far, the animal gene has won out.

Do you get it? Tufted titmice are Republicans. Butterflies are Democrats. You can love both but one of them will gladly eat you.

Did you see those old people standing in Mitch McConnell’s yard with Ruth Bader Ginsburg signs in their hands? Did you see Kentucky bank robbers and con artists Mitch McConnell and his wife Sleazy Elaine Chou peeking out from the curtains and laughing until snot ran out of their noses? Hear them chortle as they discuss whether or not to go outside and urinate on the protestors.

Did you hear Nancy Pelosi (who probably saw Errol Flynn as Robin of Loxley in “Robin Hood” as a child) announcing that the House will use “every arrow in our quiver,” to fight the Supreme Court nominee? Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell and his band of merry gunsels are loading clips into their Glocks.
Democrats are shooting bows and arrows in a zombie gunfight.

We liberals and liberal Democrats deserve religionists burning us at the stake. We deserve every fucking nutjob with a Trump sign in their yard. We deserve back alley abortions. We deserve being spat upon at the grocery store by the rebels. We deserve racial inequality, and we shouldn’t be surprised if proslavery comes back as a topic of discussion or even as actuality. We deserve clods and sycophants forming education policy. We deserve fire and flood. We deserve sexual harassment. We deserve poisoned water and nuclear waste dumps and plastic.

We endorsed them all—we endorse them all. It started with Al Gore getting gang raped by that Rick Scott Florida cabal. Not only did we not fight, Al Gore didn’t fight. Chuck Schumer recently compromised with Republicans, greenlighting unfit conservative judges with pea brains and Clorox damage to their lungs.

What can we do? Mr. Aristotle tells us, in effect, sitting in easy chairs (inaction) and doing nothing is de facto action, an endorsement of every bad thing that happens.

Literally, all that stands between us and a Supreme Court filled with Crispy Cremes and rat-fucker zealots, is the hope that Collins and Murkowski and Corker and Romney will just say no to their own drug cartel. Are you kidding me? Those are the four musketeers? Chuck Grassley is backup? Pull down your pants, stick some Vaseline up your ass and wait for your super colossal Republican dick ass-fucking.

A dog-eye sulfur butterfly, the color of butter, flitted by me. I ate it.

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THE BODY OF CHRYSALIS

The pensive woman walks

With a butterfly on her palm,

She says the orange-spotted

Beauty is dead

But I see no torn wings,

The great spangled fritillary

Rests, waiting for the sun

To pump fluid into its wings,

And the smiling woman sets it

On the earth, and a wing stretches.

 

A yellow orb spider injects its

Poison, the speckled butterfly

Shocked, painted lady frozen

In death (its last frantic breath

Blaming me for not saving it),

Its dazzling beauty drained–

Body of Chrysalis, orb baby

Feast served with cricket parts–

Its afterlife skyward and in tales

Told by mourning painted lady cousins.

 

 

 

 

 

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We Appreciate You Being Here

The photo tells it all. A smiling mom posing with her teenager who is dressed in a police uniform like it was Halloween. And, for him, it may have felt like Halloween.  Next, he strutted through Kenosha streets with his long rifle at the ready, pretend, you know.

And heck, his friends the police say, we appreciate you being here, callow youth-baby-virgin, and oh, have some water.

And then the kid gets scared and, inured to real violence because he undoubtedly performs pretend violence and masturbates while playing some wet dream video game, he fires. And once he pulls the trigger, like the game, he loses all perspective and: “So people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business. And part of my job is to also help people. If there is somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way,” said the doughy, effeminate, no doubt bullied teenager from Antioch, Illinois. And then: “I just killed somebody.”

I have a friend who killed a man in the line of duty. He quit the police force and became an itinerant laborer, because he could not deal with the fact that he shot a man who first shot and hit him. His life is eating, sleeping, taking care of his kids…and nightly dreaming of killing one man.

So, as I am furious over this kid’s murder of innocents, I am not surprised. Look at his proud Trump-loving mom, who drove her teenager to Kenosha with an assault weapon at his side and let him out of the car to play Junior G-Man. Hell, she might be a featured speaker tonight at the Republican convention. She should be in jail for life without parole.

I haven’t yet mentioned the inciting incident, the shooting of an unarmed Black man seven times by feral police officers. No, George Floyd’s death did not set off the new age of reason and brotherhood. Yes, more Black people will be maimed or murdered, more-more-more. To satisfy white lust for racial hatred.

Tempting as it is, one cannot solely blame the dumbest president in the history of the world. He is feeding off the white tit of hatred, a political move. What do we expect? He is a mobster, a rapist, a racist, a serial liar, a misogynist, a man who wants to fuck his own daughter—Ivanka, not the ugly one, Tiffany with the deformed teeth, he has standards after all. And his evangelical pals, well, they like threesomes and closeted porn and unborn fetuses.

We have everything, yet we want more everything, more, and in the pursuit of everything (whites only, of course), we have bought our kids everything. Except love. Except decency. Except empathy.

If you haven’t heard or if you’re not a sports fan, take notice: The National Basketball Association, the National Soccer League, and even that old conservative, Major League Baseball have suspended their games, citing “Black Lives Matter.” Many millions of dollars were lost by advertisers yesterday, and millions of cooped-up white fans were furious. To top off the evening, former basketball great Kenny Smith, on live television and sitting between Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, took off his microphone and walked off the set, citing “Black Lives Matter.” This, friends, is power. Sheer economic power. The kind of power that ravenous billionaires wield against us and don’t give a shit. This is “Lysistrata” power. Black and yes, even white, athletes are making their stand. To Americans, real Americans, Sports is God.

Perhaps some white mothers will arm their kids and send them out to assassinate basketball players, like that lippy Lebron James. How dare he turn on us?

Defund the police is the wrong slogan. Disarm the police is the deal. Have weapons stored somewhere where they can be doled out for emergencies, a sniper, say. Otherwise, chase black men with your bare hands, and THEN you will be brave cops. Like every other civilized country in the world. And then Little Johnny Doughboy Police Auxiliary can be a wannabe cop because he cares about people. What a world that would be.

“The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms.’ However, the meaning of this clause cannot be understood apart from the purpose, the setting, and the objectives of the draftsmen.” Nixon appointee, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger

You who carry weapons into our streets, you, white people who carry guns: You fear Black people. A least come out and admit it.

Meantime enjoy the new sport, the NSA-BO, the National Slaughter Association (of Blacks Only).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MAGICIANS

The doe steps out of the woods

Sees me then stops

And watches

I stop and wave her forward

As if deer knew “go” signs

And I watch

 

The doe steps across the path

Stares me down

And waits

I think—You are safe

(As if deer can read minds)

And I wait

 

The doe’s white tail twitches

And out steps her fawn

And I watch the spotted child

Play-prance on the path

Nuzzle its tender mother

Their shuddery bodies wed

 

And they vanish

 

 

 

 

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AT THE LEAF DIVING COMPETITION

Entrant #1. Furled Yellow Leaf

launches,

four reverse

inward twists

in the river’s breeze,

a record for the ages

with a soft, balletic

landing:

9.5

 

Entrant #2. Wizened Orange Leaf

swan-dives—

but tangles in a

single strand

of spider web

stretched tree-to-

ground, waving

flag-style—

no landing:

3.3

 

Entrant #3: Unregistered,

cannonballs

like a falling

star,

bouncing

on the path with a

smack, revealing

its acorn identity:

Disqualified (pseudo leaf, faux leaf, leaf envy, nut—not a leaf).

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BIG SUR

My great-great grandfather’s

(of the Underground Railroad)

Grave is on fire

His bones feeding fire

Pinnacles

Where giant condors nest

And set sail for the Pacific

Are on fire

Their homes feeding fire

And the fire next time

The human fire of James

Baldwin hero of the awakening

His words feeding fire

The fire starters

Are us lighting and laughing

And dancing on graves

On slaves on birds

Our crimes feeding fires

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CRICKET SONGS

I tell my father, there is a cricket

In the basement

And he says it is cricket season, son

I descend the basement stairs

Stepping into chest-high water

The washer and dryer drowned

Electric humming

I slosh around the perimeter, listening.

And there one cricket is

Floating on the water

Its antennae dot-dot-dashing

As though it were a day at the beach

 

I wade to within reach

Grab it with my hand

Hold it underwater in my fist

And drown it

its life exiting fast

A gust a breeze dot-dot-dash

All the while I think of epic battles

Of the Great White Whale.

 

I wake up perpendicular to the bed

Feet pressed onto the wall

My father watching me

The beacon of his cigarette an ember

And then I wake up again

And then I wake up again

And one day I will not awaken

My boy’s bird voice whimpering

Drowned by sorrow

Helpless as a cricket and as soft

Antennae flailing in smoke-filled light

 

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Angel Flight

My friend Tom Ragin has died. I met him seven years ago, almost as soon as I moved back to Alton, at a YWCA Legacy celebration, at the Jacoby Arts Center. I was proud to have written parts of the program and direct it. I interviewed civil rights pioneer Josephine Beckwith for the event, which would lead to me writing a book, and also that night I met the affable Mr. Raglin, who was sitting in the front row.

Jim Killion, when I interviewed him for my book, told me there were “bricklayers and brick throwers” in the Alton civil rights days. His father, James Killion, and Mr. Raglin, among others, were definitely “brick layers,” calm forces for change in a time when most Alton stores and restaurants refused to serve Blacks, and the KKK (one of their first headquarters was the now Main Street Methodist Church) was active in anti-Black activities, including cross burnings.

Tom Raglin was born in Danville. He held a BA in Industrial Education and an MA in School Administration. He was obsessed with flight, and he became the first African American aircraft mechanic for the 126th Refueling group at Chicago’s O’Hare Field. In his own words: “The U. S. Army introduced me to Aircraft Mechanics through their Helicopter Maintenance Program… I became employed with McDonnell Aircraft Company in S. Louis… I helped build the following aircraft: F-N2, F-101A and B, F-4 Phantom II and the Gemini Space Capsule.” He also was director of maintenance for the Chicago Suburban Transit Authority.

In Alton, Tom worked in the school district as an instructor in vocational training—engine repair, aviation flying and sketch drafting among other subjects. In 1997, he brought the Air Force ROTC program to Alton High School.

Mr. Raglin’s flight obsession led him to become an adjunct member of the Illinois Dodo chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the very same chapter which dubbed me an ‘honorary Black man,’ for my decade of work. In Alton, Mr. Raglin heard about Jerseyville’s “Cisco Kids,” George and Arnold Cisco, brother pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, and he wrote an essay about them. He learned that I had been a researcher/interviewer for the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, and he read my pieces about the Cisco boys in The Telegraph, and a friendship was born.

It was Tom who came up with the idea of having a statue of the great Miles Davis placed in Alton, organizing a committee at the Museum of History & Art. A separate committee followed through on Tom’s idea, causing some bad feelings among African Americans which linger to this day. He became the first chairman of the Miles Davis Jazz Festival, an event at which I saw him for several years.

I have told you what the man did. I have not mentioned his character. Tom was loving, generous, respectful of his students, a Renaissance man and curious to a fault, a friend and, dare I say it, a father figure to me. Sadly, the past two years, Tom’s memory faded. It was hard to watch such a vibrant man in decline.

Tom, pardon my metaphor, you are flying free and you are with your Cisco kids in the Wild Blue Yonder, and I imagine all you guys are talking about plane engines, as my Tuskegee Airmen brothers would do when I attempted to mine the facts of their lives. And like those fierce men, you acted as an American and expected and received your rights, race be damned. (TA Colonel “Wild Bill” Thompson to me: “Do not talk about civil rights; we are officers and gentlemen.”) Alton is the better for your service, and I am so lucky and honored to have known you.

With love.

 

 

 

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