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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NaPoWriMo: poems 4-6.

poem 4: missions

And then I took you to dinner
because I was used to paying,
every meal an apology for
the way you were raised:

I’m sorry your father left you.
I’m sorry that when he returned,
you were already Ellison’s
man underground, mind half-
Hoovered into oblivion.

Love can be retaught.
You can be deprogrammed.

Like all the other nights, you dined,
relishing saffron rice, ripping
naan into swaths, staining
your ample lips with curry: no
worries.

and later—
when we kissed, I took in
the garlicky grin behind that
mouth so used to secreting away
your truths and I thought:

I should’ve been a missionary,
the way I invade these ancestral villages
and offer the men my salvation.

 

poem 5: untitled

these are not the mud plains
where we met, two mongrels still black enough
to belong to the fields, where we were freer
to court and forge cabals in cottages of straw.

i am sure we are different, though
i cannot speak for you, whose voice is
little more than a wasp’s hum
every seventh summer now.

once, not long after you left, i was hitched
to a plow and made the Molly mule
Zora meant only as metaphor.

i knew then why we never married.

these are not the mines where they found you
and i asked for you, opened and autopsied.
i still dream of your lungs, so
marbled with soot that their blood
hardened sleek as obsidian.

that time, you vowed a return
as a soldier of fortune, as the driver of
a westward-facing wagon:
and you will have bonnets
and petticoats a-plenty;
you will know the shuddering
cool of a parasol’s shade.

belief was impossible to conjure;
reincarnation is not an erasure.

poem 6: morgue

i do not know why
i was called to identify your body
after your overdose in the alley
behind Yummy’s with that girl in the
yellowed gingham dress.

but when i got there, i was told
that i was your emergency
contact and i suppose it made sense
that i would be. we were
so close once that i held
your DNA, stroked the strands
as they gathered themselves
into a hardy little core that
siphoned life, long after you left mine.

i should’ve felt more distress
than i did, looking down at the
milky crust scaling your irises
like acid caking corroded batteries
but Lord, it would be years
before i could fathom
that death would be more permanent
than my belief in you.

And then I took you to dinner

because I was used to paying,

every meal an apology for

the way you were raised:

I’m sorry your father left you.

I’m sorry that when he returned,

you were already Ellison’s

man underground, mind half-

Hoovered into oblivion.

Love can be retaught.

You can be deprogrammed.

Like all the other nights, you dined,

relishing saffron rice, ripping

naan into swaths, staining

your ample lips with curry: no

worries.

and later—

when we kissed, I took in

the garlicky grin behind that

mouth so used to secreting away

your truths and I thought:

I should’ve been a missionary,

the way I invade these ancestral villages

and offer the men my salvation.