Mirages hovered above undulant highways
and summer stomped his dusty feet,
conjured up sunflowers
that ran wildly through fields of cornsilk.
Giant brown faces with yellow rays
stampeded to pavement edge
and stood cooling their feet in the clay.
Blue racers that slept between slats
of a swinging bridge became Python.
Roused by Amazon and Watusi
they slithered to a rocky cathedral
in the creek bed,
and choirs of cicada droned a fugue
of The Seven-Fold Amen.
When the moon like new silver
rolled on edge across black velvet,
Orion laid down his shield
to play hide-and-seek with lightning bugs.
Children caught his eyes in mason jars,
kept the stars to hold to
and went to seek their fortunes.
Cursive writing separated us
Then Norma's mother died:
We sensed it then. Like a teacher
Like a yellow flag, my mind plants
a singpost for itself, a re-vision
of something I've never seen, the re-seeing
of a scene I never wrote. Here it is again,
Soweto. Women walking on a road. Bodies
shaped in angles that hold a three-sided
fury with gnarled hair; slender shadows
whose reappearance could give me the chance
to rewrite my descriptive passages of the corpses
they bear, the blood they wring from their skirts.
As if clairvoyance were a gift, I've been given
the second sight of girls, boys, silhouetted
against a casaba moon, slipping past a gatekeeper
into cliché: thousands dead or missing.
And living is a sending out of moments. That
is the gift. Each must come back in deja vu
like a pod on a bough of the akee-fruit tree,
opening in its time, round with delight or venom.
COAL OIL AND SUGAR, 1954
When the nine o'clock whistle blows
our way, we can smell manure and bacon
from the packing house across the river.
The August night sky leans down for us
to touch. Mamma Hayes braids her hair
on her porch. Down the block somebody
yells, All hid? Next door Georgie, who's
too slow to read and cannot go to school, begs to stay
outside until ten when the street light goes out
and we go to bed thinking of school one sleep away.
Attucks, Wheatley, Douglass--mostly names
of schools we know, Dunbar Annex is ours,
a haven on the second floor of the Agency
where official workers must not be disturbed.
Hear our verses opening the day, reluctantly
at first, God is love. Make a joyful noise...
See us reciting in single file, eight rows
of faces, brown and artless as sunflowers:
.....Between the dark and the daylight,
.....When the night is beginning to lower,
our skinny stalks rooted to this soil
of English, arithmetic, geography.
We lift our voices and sing--not the dirges
yet, not the curses we will learn before
we sing love songs again. Black still verges
on the profane, the color of a bad word for female
dogs; for weapons, loaded snowballs in February,
on our sleds all day, a dose of coal oil and sugar
down our throats to ward off whooping cough. With
pudding and juniper tea our evenings boil over
like a pot on the back burner whose steam
rises and stains the wallpaper in shapes we dream
about. We cannot know that when we turn this page,
a schoolboy face with a bullet hole, the murdered
face of Emmet Till, will find those shapes.
The smooth, tied hands with mud from the bottom
of the river will worry our dreams like blood
on snow. We lift our voices and sing. Negro
History Week and we have forgotten the second
stanza but not our catechism. We know
the list: Ira Aldridge, Marian Anderson, Benjamin
Banneker, Ralph Bunche, George Washington Carver,
W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Marcus Garvey
and on. Twenty-five Negro Leaders. We cut their
mythical figures from the glossy pages of Ebony
where they tell us to learn all we can, be twice
as bright. We ignore this reading lesson.
Those Negroes are history. They can bring
nothing from yesterday. We are today. In the only
future we can see, we are sliding downhill into spring.
In the first place
don't mess with no Pharisee men.
They don't mind taking your time,
but they treat you back-street.
Before they picked up stones,
threatening my life trying to make
a paint, sleeping with another
woman's man wasn't really no thing,
more like a little story to spruce up
the big one, but never a real
climax, know what I mean?
I said vows.
They said vows, too. We never
hurt nobody so I was too through
when this gang of priests and elders
--Pharisees mind yuo--come hauling
me out early in the morning
just for sleeping with a woman's
husband while she was off
in the valley. They grabbed
me round my neck, threw me
out in the road, tore my new
wine-colored robe with teh silver
threads around the hem. I would
have fought them if it wasn't
for the Man they brought me to.
He was squatting in the dust
and they called out to Him. Sounds
to me like they trying to catch Him
in a lie about being a teacher
and all. By now they picking up
stones and asking Him what he knows
about Moses' law that says
I'm supposed to die.
Well now, this Teacher stands up
and the sun's bouncing off Him
like gold pieces and He looks at me.
Let me tell you, I know when a man
wants me and let me tell you
He didn't. And he didn't pity
me either. He wasn't even lording
it over me. He just looked.
And way back deep in His eyes,
see like I could see a kind
of thing that the love I been
having couldn't touch. Looking
at Him was like falling
in the sea and the longer I looked
I could see He don't speak nothing
but pure truth and it got me
thinking about vows and such.
Like: they different from words,
they real, alive. Must be living
truth. If that's so, when a man
and woman vow it, they can get the same
feeling between them as a mother and child,
and as two brothers all at the same time
'cause they choose it and if that's so,
when they say I do, they talking about
a whole life thing that don't
get broken just from sleeping
with someone else. But nobody in their
right mind would want to come
between that kind of feeling anyway.
It would be an empty thing,
like hollering in a cave with no
echo--nothing you send comes back,
you can't get no real connection.
I was looking in the eyes
of this Man and I was making
a whole lot of sense to myself.
Well the Teacher Man looks
at these Pharisees and asks if any
of them ever done anything wrong
like lie or steal or call somebody
out of their name or swear or cheat
or gossip. Of course nobody
can say nothing. Then said this
Teacher, Whoever is without
the tiniest bit of sin can throw
the first stone at this woman,
taking about me. By then I
wasn't even scared. They all
tucked tail andslinked off.
And then He says to me, Go
and I went.
Since then I ain't had nothing
to do with nothing that wasn't truth,
especially no Pharisees.
there were times she would play the piano
she would throw back her head and her wavy black hear would dangle
she would strike the chords and move on the piano stool and sing
Lord Jesus can I have a talk with you
Lord Jesus won't be long till I'll be through
and tears would be streaming down puffy rust cheeks
if there is no God there ought to be
the way she played and cried
Maxine Clair is the author of Coping With Gravity, a collection of poems. Rattlebone, a collection of short stories set in her native Kansas, won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for fiction and the American Library Association's Black Caucus Award. Her novel, October Suite, also set in the Midwest, was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Clair is Professor of English at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing.