In the absence of justice, a scent.

(for Robert Godwin, Sr.)

The scent of an old Black man is

aftershave
the dry flaking skin of an undergreased scalp
maybe, when the weather is warm,
the must of an armpit, slightly overripe
and sometimes liquor, hard candy, a poor
breath-mask of stale mints and sometimes
tobacco in the form of mentholated
cigarettes or flimsy cigars, those
slivers of soap left after the bar
is worn down and cracked, the thin crescents
of motor oil embedded in cuticles,
grim black grins under every nail

warm

so visceral it still wafts out to you
from the fond photographs his family
is forced to disseminate after
some younger man shoots him dead without
reason, remorse, or warning.

May that scent assail his assailant,
as he draws his last breath.
May he understand the breadth
of the life he’s stolen.
May an aged air swell in his nostrils
and rush through the walls of his mouth
so that he forgets the very taste
of his own tongue, forgets even
the odor guilt emits through the epithelia.
All that should be left is an aroma of absence.
Would that it would thicken till
it tends, at times, to block the throat.
Should he live to be an old man,
may it cling to him still, a inescapable cask
fermenting all the years between his last and yours.

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Elegy for the Larger-than-Life. 

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When you go, we are — often unexpectedly — gutted, having grossly underestimated how tightly the gold thread you spun was woven into the fabric of our own quotidian lives. We absorbed you, your work a pulsing undercurrent in so much we consume and enjoy. And we sensed you near, though for the vast majority of us, you were entirely unknowable. With stars, we expect to be kept locked outside. In fact, we prefer it, so pleased by the idea — and the perceived proof — that talent can change the density of lives; it can fill every day to bursting with elements so many of us rarely encounter: wealth, acclaim, a kind of fun and daring only wealth and acclaim would allow (or excuse), secrecy, a sort of omnipresence. You are never among us and yet, you are always among us.

So when you die — and so many of you are dying — there is always a disbelieving beat, a sharp breath of denial. It’s as though, quite without realizing it, we had assumed that you lived somewhere between mortality and eternity, never belonging entirely to neither plane.

This isn’t true of all stars. There are some we understand as fragile, teetering and barely hanging on to this world and wholly unprepared to face a next — the ones whose addictions are constantly threatening to wrest them away, the ones whose sadness is palpable, even when they’re pratfalling, their tongues lapping the pie from their beaming faces. Fans can be discerning. Though it saddens us, there are some we simply expect to mourn.

But you are the kind who fool us. You kick your coke habits. You stop just short of pickling yourself in booze. You fold into the love of a formidable partner. You disappear from public view so long we forget that you live in a body at all — until that body, with its fickle organs, its long memory of bygone abuse — betrays you.

Because you have survived what has destroyed others, we imagine you are hardier somehow than we who are certainly finite. Because we can hear you or watch you at whim — from any device, prompted by any of our tangential, deeply personal memories, because we danced to you at our weddings, or rang in holidays watching you viefor a good woman’s love, because you played in the background of other loved one’s repasts, we thought you’d outlast us all.

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For someone, you were always understood as mortal. Your skin slackened under their hand, their lips felt the slide of jowls over your angular cheekbones. They slowed the clip of their gait when it became hard for you to keep up. They lifted the ice chips to your tongue when food became too difficult to eat. The scent of your vomit lingers in their nostrils and on their hardest days without you, they will long to be able to wipe it from your chin, just once more. For them, your dying marks a permanent departure. It means accepting that millions of after-midnights, all the whispered laughter and all the hushed bickering they contained, will never be reenacted.

For us, you were never really here, not in the same way the rest of are: anchored to cubicles and school conferences and coffee shops, our footprints measurable in any loam we’ve tread. We cannot backtrack through our physical spaces and find you, cannot retrace our own steps for evidence that you existed. Where is our physical proof that you shimmied in glittered chinchilla across Madison Square Garden, that you grinned or winked at the few who made it backstage? The photos? Ephemera. The autograph? That could be anyone’s, couldn’t it? Our stories? We embellish them a bit more in every retelling. Before long, it is impossible to discern how much of what remains is true. It is impossible to know if it was you. And it wasn’t, was it? It was your avatar: persona, not person. As fans, if we encountered you at all, it was as icons, not intimates.

When you die we look for your footprints in the places we are sure we will find them, in the recollections that never fail us: the lyrics and lines that will not change, the melodies we know by rote, the very nanosecond you furrowed your brow in a film. We crank you up until you fill our cars or our living rooms. We sing and quote along, this time because we know you no longer can. Not here, anyway, in the realm where we still live, and where we still suspect you could always come and go as you pleased.

‘I, in my father, have been.’

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

My social media feeds have become a worldwide wake, elegy, and repast for poet-author-musician-activist Gil Scott-Heron. I didn’t know much about him. So it feels like I’m viewing the body of an elder lying in state. You go to pay your respects, to hear the twenty-one gun salute, to observe the significance of the loss–but it doesn’t touch you as deeply as it does many of those around you, who have where-were-you-when stories about the first time they listened to an album or read a page or prayed for his recovery.

So rather than making this something more intimate than I have any right to make it, I’ll leave you with the (edited and revised) comments I left on Twitter yesterday, after learning of his passing:

I’ve lost a lot of beloved black men in the past few years–great uncles, a grandfather…. Gil Scott-Heron could’ve been any one of them.

There’s a kind of universality to the perils that plague black men and the ills that hasten their mortality.

Jessie Fauset once wrote, “I am no better than you. You are no worse than I. Whatever I am, you in your children may be. Whatever you are, I in my father have been.”

And it speaks to the connectedness of us all, of how there is no real moral superiority. We are all susceptible to self-destructive behavior.

When someone dies as a result of said self-destruction, our response should be to turn inward, to remove the beam from our own eye, and then extend our hand to others.

… Or maybe I’m reachin’.

God rest Uncle Billy. God rest Uncle Warren. God rest Uncle Hosie. God rest Uncle George. God rest Grandpa Mitch.