Reading: Frank X. Walker

41st Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art"
March 25, 2010

© 2010 Frank X. Walker and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Crystal Alberts: ... appreciated, and without further ado, Dr. Kim Donehower.

[Audience applause]

Kim Donehower: Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight. I want to welcome you all. I also want to encourage you, when tonight's reading is over, to pick up a copy of the North Dakota Humanities Council's magazine, On Second Thought. It's available right outside this exit on a table out there.

When America tells itself stories about its rural heritage, it tends to follow certain well-worn, stereotypical grooves. If the images aren't from Deliverance, they're from Davy Crockett, the intrepid, autonomous male pulling himself up by his own bootstraps and bending the landscape to his will. And the images are overwhelmingly white, particularly when it comes to Appalachia, which America has long wanted to see as the repository of its Anglo heritage.

How many of you have ever heard that Appalachian English is really Shakespearean English? Has anybody heard this? Yeah, that's not true. [Audience laughter] And those Scottish ballads that were allegedly the native songs of the region? It turns out that many of them were actually taught to Appalachian people by folklorists who were dismayed by the earthy nature of the actual local tunes and wanted to replace them with something more "appropriate."

Now, academics, such as myself, have been pointing out the holes in the American rural mythology for a while now. But our words aren't powerful enough to turn the tide. We need art, and that's where Frank X. Walker comes in. He provides counter-images and counter-narratives that take us back into what we think are familiar landscapes to show us what others have written over, have written past.

Frank X. Walker is the author of four poetry collections: When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, Black Box, and Affrilachia. In 2005, he was awarded the Lannan Literary Fellowship in poetry, and he now serves as Writer-in-Residence and Lecturer of English at Northern Kentucky University. He is also editor and publisher of PLUCK! the (new) Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture. Please help me welcome Frank X. Walker.

[Audience applause]

Frank X Walker: Wow. Thank you guys for coming. I'm not sure what you expect. This is just gonna be poetry. Okay? But...I've been trying to decide since I've been here, exactly what I wanted to read this evening and, after a visit to the Siouxland Buffalo Ranch this morning, and having a chance to be in the middle of the...of...I guess a room...potential — a room full of potential steaks [Audience laugher] and burgers and being moved in two directions. The first direction was by the power of the strength of the animals and then, second, maybe a half hour later, being in the processing area and seeing a half of a buffalo hanging from a hook next to a buffalo tongue and a heart and a liver. So, I left that space really feeling some empathy for buffalo in general, and I thank my friend Art for making that trip happen...So, if you enjoy buffalo burgers, don't let that ruin it for you. [Audience laughter] I'm just from Kentucky.

But, what I want to do is, I'm just gonna read some–some poems from the York series. First, from Buffalo Dance to introduce you to York, himself, at least, the York that I can hear in my head. And then an expanded set of poems that continue the story and tries to fill in some gaps that you alluded to earlier. And I'm gonna need your assistance to get it started.

The thing about persona poems is it's somebody else's voice and it really helps if, even for a second, that you could suspend what you believe to be true and buy into the other voice. I'm gonna ask you to close your eyes, and you can open them at your leisure but, in the very beginning, if you'll close your eyes with me — I'll have mine open 'cause I'm reading. [Audience laughter] It'll help you make it all the way back to 1803, which is where the story is gonna start...with York, if you can imagine, and a particular situation that challenges on many levels, as I imagine it.

You know, York is...they've been traveling for, you know, year and a half, and he's about 35 years old and has been a slave his entire life. But the last year and a half, he's experienced a level of, not just freedom, but respect from Native American tribes that he's met for the first time. So, it's all not just brand new, but he's started to come into his own sense of self and sense of maturity and manhood. And then, he has the additional challenge of seeing things for the very first time. Imagine seeing the ocean for the very first time. Imagine seeing a waterfall and not knowing what to expect, but you can hear it for miles and miles and you finally climb a hill, and there it is. Imagine if the biggest fish you've ever seen is a catfish, maybe two foot long, and you see a whale for the first time. Just imagine how that would have opened your imagination.

But also imagine the challenge of being in a group of people, all of whom — most of whom — can write and tell their own story and watching them night after night record details of what's happening and what they're seeing: the plants, the animals, drawing sketches of...and maps and...all kinds of things that document the experience. But you can't write. You're not literate. And the best you could do is stare at everything extra hard, hoping that you can remember this and lock it in your head.

So, this first book opens with York at the ocean thinking about the last year and a half and reflecting back on what he might tell his wife, who's waiting back home in Kentucky, about what he's seeing, and what he hopes to see, and how he feels about it all. At the same time, he misses her dearly and he's trying to make sense for...So, if you'll just begin by closing your eyes. Keep 'em as closed as long as you dare.

"Wind Talker"

If I could make my words
dress they naked selves in blackberry juice
lay down on a piece a bark, sheep
or onion skin, like Massa do.

If I could send a letter home to my wife
float it in the wind, on wings or water

I'd tell her 'bout Katonka
an all the wide an high places
this side a the big river.
How his family, numbering three
for every star in the sky
look like a forest when they graze together
turn into the muddy M'soura
when they thunder along, faster than any horse
making the grass lay down
long after the quiet has returned.
How they don't so much as raise a tail
when I come 'round with my wooly head
an tobacco skin, like I'm one of them
making the Arikara and Mandan think me
"Big Medicine"
Katonka, who walk like man.

Today, we stood on the edge a all this
looked out at so much water
the mountains we crossed to get here
seem a little smaller.

As I watch fish the size a cabins dance in the air
an splash back in the water like chil'ren playing
I think 'bout her an if we gone ever be free
then I close my eyes an pray
that I don't live long enough to see
Massa make this ugly too.

"God's House"

When we first left Kentucke
the trees had commenced to dressing up
the fall harvest an the garden
was already full a pumpkins an squash.

Massa Clark didn't ask me to go on no expedition.
He just say "pack" an pointed to the door.
So I gather up what little I got an more than I can carry a his
an head off to a sail-bearing keelboat
where his friend Massa Lewis is waiting.
That boat was so big
you could lay any ten a the sixteen men on board
or eight a me head to toe an still have enough
room for the dog.

We start out on the Ohio an swing up the old man a rivers.
When we gets to the mouth a the dark woman
they calls the Big Muddy
we sets up winter camp a good canoe ride from Saint Louie.

That spring when the rains come we cross the Mississippi
an commence to climbing the M'soura
an float right up through heaven on earth
more sky than I ever seen, rocks as pretty as trees
an game so plentiful they come right down to the river bank
an invites they selves to dinner.

Now, I ain't what you would call
a scripture quoter, but the first time
I seen the water fall at M'soura,
felt a herd of buffalo stampede
an looked down from the top
a Rock Mountains, it was like church.

And where else but God's house can a body servant
big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet ana bone handle knife
so sharp it can peel the black off a lump of coal
an the white man
still close his eyes an feel safe, at night?


The only book we 'lowed to know
is the bible, though many a slave
been sold south, had fingers chopped off
an worse
for the crime a reading an writing.

I figures my respect for a good telling
come from listening to Old York
weave his magic at night.
Folk hung from our porch like baby possums
an lived off the breath
he give to every story, no matter how many times
they tasted the tale.

I learned to 'preciate the power a single words
holding the lamp over Massa Clark
while he studied his brother's letters
an struggled with his own returns.

Them think all slaves dumb
'cause we can't cipher, but they be surprised
how many words we pick up
just standing 'round like trees
in a room full a "edjacated" men.

"Sundays and Christmas"

I cares plenty for my wife
but I been told a slave can't truly know love
being as Massa an white mens in general
have an takes certain privileges with our women.

I suspect the deepest hurt in the world
be to risk being tied to a woman's hearth
then standing on the front porch
while the massa part her thighs
knowing that any cry raised
is inviting death or worse.

But what else but love
make you hold that woman even tighter
try to rock her back to whole
long after the tears dry up
an the hurt
turns the ashes
back to flames.

It being night time an deep into winter
I can think a no other breath I wish to feel
an no other whisper I ache to hear.
What we 'lowed to feel might not rate as love
but it be powerful enough to make
you rue the time between visits.

"Her Current"

Working up stream against the current
be like courting a stubborn woman.
We spend the whole day trying to make a little distance
an her attitude don't change a bit.

If we don't seem to notice that she be thicker
at some points than others or how deep she can get
she punish us all an run the boats aground.
An just when we 'bout to give up
she feed us, bathe us an rocks us to sleep.

Capt. Lewis seems to think that if we puts up with her
long enough, like all women
she gone change her mind
an carry us along so fast
it likely to take our breath away
when she welcomes us with arms
as wide as an ochian.

"Wasicum Sapa"

Several mile up the river Capt. Clark
named after a tribe a the Sioux
a Hidatsa chief sent for us.
His eagle feather & pride
made him 'most as tall as me.

He spit on his fingers
an rubbed my skin hard,
thinking it paint that wears off.
Meaning to help
him understand, I took off my hat
an let him touch my wooly head.

Satisfied that I was not
a black white man
he looked deep into my eyes
an stared at his own reflection.

"Swap Meet"

After parading the uniformed men
an guns an other signs a power
the Capts. sat with each Chief
made great noise 'bout peace and friendship
before heaping upon them gifts of knives, tobacco
spirits, needles, cloth an beads of every size an color
which pleased the women very much.

Calling them "chil'ren"
The Capts. would point to everything under the sky
say it now belong to their Great White Father
an show off his image on the back ova big coin
they unwrapped an presented with much putting on.

Sometimes the Chiefs would laugh
an say the Great Spirit who own all this
could not ride on the back a such a small thing.

Sometimes them say nothing.


Many tribes speak they piece
by talking with their hands an faces.
When we sit in the circle to talk
with Sacagawea's brother, the chief
she take his words in Shoshoni
an measure them out in Hidatsa
Charbono hands it to Lebiche in French
Lebiche gives it to the Captains in English
then they talks between themselves
an sends it back down the line
an so forth an so on.

The words seem to be on they own expedition
but it hard to believe the truth
can be traded on that many tongues
an still taste like itself.

Now I'm gonna skip a little bit to the very end of Buffalo Dance. I just wanted you to try to hear York's voice and get a sense of his character, at least as I portray him. And move into the sequel, which features more voices and a rounder version of the story.

But, based on the research, one thing that was clear is that whatever the relationship was between York and his master, William Clark, once they returned from the expedition, everything changed. And if you read Dear Brother, letters that William Clark wrote to his brother, he goes into some detail about what the source of that conflict was, and that conflict had more to do with the fact that Clark was now stationed in Saint Louis. York's wife was back in Kentucky, in Louisville. York wanted to be with his wife. The journal's gonna detail and discuss York being jailed and beaten for his insolence and supposed drunkenness, and this new attitude really soured their relationship and changed what a lot of historians describe as a friendship, which...I challenge that. But, here's a poem that hints at that, and then I'll move to the follow-up book. It's called "Revisionist History":

When we set foot back in old Saint Louie
there was much celebration an putting on
as everyone had give us up for dead.
We paraded through the streets firing our guns
an made our home in the nearest tavern.
No one seemed to tire a hearing us tell
our stories night after night.

After too many cups an tellers
there came tales a herds a grizzlies,
big talking fish an Indian women ten foot tall.

The truth seemed to stretch so
that by an by I seem to disappear from they tongues
as if I had never even been there
as if my blackness never saved they hides.

Them twisted tales an leave out my parts in it
so much so, that directly I become Massa Clark's boy, again
just along to cook
an carry.

And I'll close there, and then open with...York in a new frame of mind. I imagine that after the expedition, after his experience with Native Americans, that he had a different attitude, having a chance to see himself be respected for the same reason that, supposedly, qualified him to be a slave, you know. Native Americans responded to his "blackness," and his "Africanness," and his size in a way that, in some cases, had to feel like he was being worshipped. The generals talk about some tribes arranging for York to sleep with young maidens, hoping that that young woman would become pregnant so they could keep some of York's power in the tribe. And they called him "Big Medicine," and, physically, you know, he resembled what we would think of as a NFL defensive lineman, and there's a lot of discussion about how nimble he was and quick on his feet.

And he was a skilled hunter, and he carried a rifle, and a hatchet, and a knife, which is unusual for a slave, but it's clear from the generals, he was instrumental in their survival. There were at least two incidences where it was decided that the Native Americans would have killed the entire party until they encountered York, and they second-guessed themselves on the strength of not knowing enough about York to take that risk. And so, he was responsible for part of the success of the journey.

But, the second book, you start to hear his sense of loyalty starting to waver a bit, and this is a poem that opens up. It's called "The Melting." Oh, and I will mention "Old York;" Old York is young York's father.

Ol' York say Mandingo, Ibo, Dogon
Akan, Yoruba, an more be chained together
in the bottom a boats
an brought to this land.

He say one a the tricks used
to make a man a slave
an kill his language
be to take away the name
he call hisself

When I listens to the Sioux, the Hidatsa
Arikara, Mandan, Shoshone, Salish,
Chinook, an even the Nez Perce
all be called savage

Indian, red man, or chil'ren
by the captains
I wonders how long it take before
they answers to niggah too.

So, that's the "new" York, a little more defiant. And I want to introduce the first non-York voice that's in this collection. It's in the voice of the river.

"The River Speaks"
[Please note, the layout of this poem has not been preserved in digitization]

call me the ohio, the mississippi, or the missoura
call me wood, teton, yellowstone, milk, judith, marias,
jefferson, madison, beaverhead, bitterroot, snake,
clearwater, or pallouse
call me the wide-toothed mouth of the columbia river
call me after my many creeks
my great falls
my hot springs

i am the snow atop mt. adams
i am the salty hope in the air
at cape disappointment
i am she who is the deep and the shallows
a thundering waterfall and a quiet storm
i am always present in the air, on every tongue
in every drop of milk and blood and tear
you will find me in every thorn and flower seed and fruit
there is no life without me

i am libation and baptismal pool
i am your sprinkle of holy water
i am older than man and light
i am of god not god
but like god, i am also inside of every man
for all are born in me and form there until
they are flushed naked into the world
and i remain there in them like god
until they depart and return to dust

captain clark saw me
as a great wet road that could be conquered
with the rowing and paddling of men
under his command
so i showed him
my many rapids and waterfalls
made his men carry their own boats
and supplies around me for miles at a time
these were the good years
white men had not yet studied the beaver
and learned how to redirect my paths
manage my flow harness it for their own use
attempt to enslave me too

captain lewis was different
to him i was a piece of art
he marveled at the natural
falling of my waterlocks and felt humbled
by the beautifully carved rock masterpieces
that adorn my canyons and walls

while i have at most been an open way
for the white man
to the red man
i have been viewed as a helpmate
considered a wife
carrying their salmon and trout
providing for their
transportation and nourishment
surrounding them
moving through them
in the heat of the sweat lodge
answering their prayers
when they dance

but the black one was the only one
taught to both fear and respect me
and though i was the road
that carried the ships of death
to and from africa's shores
i became the waiting outstretched arms
for those who refused
to be enslaved
for those who trusted me
to rock their babies off to sleep

my ocean floors are covered with his people's resistance
i carry their spirit in every splash i make

their humming
their lost voices
their last words
have become a part
of my sweetest songs

when he is whole
when york knows
what he is worth, i will well up inside
of him and he will hear
them sing.

And the second–I'm gonna skip ahead to the introduction of his Nez Perce wife. And the thing about his Nez Perce wife is that I have to imagine how different it was for York to be in union with a woman that he had a chance to choose for himself versus an arranged marriage in a plantation system. So this is him speaking, and it's called "Like a Virgin."

Grown folk don't walk 'round on the plantation
holding hands, go for canoe rides or take long walks
with each other.

My Nez Perce gal was the first woman I choose
on my own an that I didn't have to share with another.

I find myself staring into her eyes an smiling, learning
my big buffalo self to move like a turtle in her arms.

Men in the party think it strange that I not brag
'bout how many ways or how long we ride each other.

This way a being with a woman be so new an tender
I close my eyes an feel like a fresh born calf stumbling
on weak wet legs, discovering that it not the ground
that be moving.

And these next poems are in her voice. She's responding to him.

"Like Raven from Head to Toe"

His hair and strength was not unlike
that of the wooly-headed buffalo.

Some of my people thought
he had been burned by a great fire

Others thought he had been painted
with charcoal, as was the custom

for warriors returning from the warpath
making him the bravest among his party.

Two hard wet fingers did not remove
the black from his forearm or forehead

nor did the sweat from our naked turtle dance
make his salty skin any less like the night.

The next, I think, two poems are the reason the book is on the banned book list for middle schools, at least.

[Audience laughter]

"Art of Seduction"

(And this is the Nez Perce wife still speaking.)

I know a hungry man's eyes can undress a woman
from across a smoldering fire, because York did it.

When I grew warm to his advances,
I gave him permission and invited him over

without ever opening my mouth. I looked away,
then back, then away, then back, so slow

when my eyes returned to his,
it made his nostrils flare and my heart beat

like two drums in my chest.
He didn't have a courting flute, so the first music we made

between us was a way of looking into each other's eyes
and exchanging naked promises so full of heat

passers-by would swear we were already man and wife.
His big hands were rough from a life full of hard work

but when they were filled with me
each one became a party of men deep in the wilderness

intent on exploring every mound
and knowing all of the hollowed-out and sacred places.

"Lovers' Moon"

After the redheaded one's bed is made
and his stomach full of meat, he gives

my Tse-mook-tse-mook To-to-kean the slice of
daylight left to do as he pleases.

Pretending not to rush back to me
he passes by and nods.

After I track him down in the dark, jump on
his back and wrestle him to the ground

we wander off laughing towards the horses
then follow the riverbank upstream, holding hands

and looking for a private place to celebrate
the way the moon dances on the face of the water.

We find a rock to hold all our clothes
and play in the shallows like children

but after our bodies kiss, we stop to weigh
the gift of time alone and grow up real fast.

And the last one in this series is "Midnight Ride":

After the fires die down, a moon full of shine
allows us to wander off into the night's arms.

Urged on by the river
and the night's music, our two quickly become one.

Straddled aboard him
a buffalo robe around my shoulders and nothing else

I close my eyes and ride
low and close, the way a hunter tracks a buffalo

in the deep winter snow.
Our gentle trot becomes a gallop and after a good sweat

our gallop becomes
a quiet stand. Then we bow our heads an wait

for our breaths to catch up.
After a quick dip in the cold river, I mount back up

for warmth and we ride slow
and long until my legs quiver and York finds the strength

to harness himself.
When he carries me back home to our mat

folded up in his arms like a child
we lie down in the lap of the night

both empty and full and sleep.

Now, I'm gonna skip ahead 'cause I think at least find a inner arc or a narrative to close this with. I want to present the voices of both of his wives. That was a Nez Perce wife.

And I'll close this part of the reading with his enslaved wife and what she might have to say. And the thing about this situation, as romantic as it may have sounded to you, nobody can argue that it was infidelity. And I have to believe that when two people are in love that, if you've committed some kind of crime that challenges your commitment, that you could walk in, and your loved one could look you right in the eye and know immediately that something was different. So, I imagine that that happened with them.

But, before I read that particular poem, I want to introduce the enslaved wife that comes out of this idea that when the first book was being shared around the country, people would ask me the question: "What was his wife's name?" "What do you know about her?" And all we know is that after the expedition, York had a chance to visit her at least once, maybe a couple times, but the family that owned her moved out of Kentucky, and he never saw her again.

So I don't know her name, and so, this is my response for those people that need to know that. This is called "Say My Name."

York's enslaved wife

Folks round here wanna call me Auntie,
York's ol' wife, or Massa So an So's niggah wench
Like I ain't got a name a my own.

Dem don't know how hard it be t'put aside
a lil' piece a myself dat nobody can't neva touch
but me, a piece big enuf t'wrestle the long hard days
an keep itself warm at night, without a man around.

Dem don't know what it like to stand in the dark
night afta night wrapped in dat buffalo robe he sent
look up at the stars an wonda which ones
are looking down on him an believe if something bad
happen to him out there dat I would feel it too

When he come home, I don't need him to say he love me
Don't need him to bring me gifts, I just wants him
to hold me close, make like he glad to see me
bend down t'my ear an whisper my name.

And I try to imagine what it might have been like for them after three years. You know? Imagine you haven't seen your loved one for three years, and you come back, you meet at the end of the day. Do you talk about the trip first? Do you express something intimate? Do you just hold each other and cry?

I'm gonna read a poem from the first book called "A Love Supreme." That's actually the shortest poem in the first collection, and, I guess, a tribute to all of you who are jazz fans. But, this is me imagining what that first night for them together was like.

On that first night back
me an her move like turtles
unwrapping the old, the news
an each other.

We out last the candle an the moon
laughing an talking an crying
then pretends we are earth an sky
hunger an fruit, a black mountain
ana all-skin-quilt a snow.

Salty an sticky an wet.
We knows all we have
is this here,
so we unshackle us clothes
become one with the night
an be free.

And in the new book, this is the reality of the situation:

"Unwelcome Guest"

I don't think York knowed
I could see hur too.
Da furst time was in da corna a his eye
while he look far off but stare at
da plate right in front a him.

He didn't say nothin' bout hur
but da way his lips turnt up at da ends
said plenny.

Now, I ain't one t'sass. His growl help me
to know a slave woman's place
so I sits up all night wit both my hands
an ears wide open, waitin' t'catch hur name
on his lips.

Afta dat, no matta how much he talk
a grizzlies, buffalos, big fish,
mountains, or ochians
she become all I can see
all I wants t'know

It gets so crowded in our lil' place
I swears I can almost smell hur.
An by den I knows one a us will have t'go.

Now, she just can't take him to divorce court, you know? But she is not without means. This is called "The Sunflower Seed Oil Conjure":

First, I gets some fresh well wada
an puts it on t'boil
stirs up a tea brewed from
apricot vine, rattlesnake weed,
an plenny a honey.

Den I sets him down 'tween my knees
an wit a wooden tooth comb
left t'me by my mamma's mamma
commences t'scratchin at his scalp
'til his shouldas look covad wit snow.

Den I fills up my wash tub wit
boilin' wada doctored wit peppermint root
an sets to scrubbin' him slow enough
to–fo' the heat t'open his doors.

When his body is clean I starts back in t'work
on his head
bustin up a mean suds and usin'
my fingas to walk up an down his scalp
'til he let loose a low moan
an his eyes start t'roll 'round in his head.

Afta I rinses alla forest out
I starts back in wit warm sunflower seed oil
only dis time ev'ry finga make its own lil' circle
while both m'hands make bigga ones.

an they follows each otha from da stiff tree limbs
in da back a his neck, cross his crown
t'his soft spot while my thumbs dig in
slow an deep where da headaches come on.

I pours da extra oil inta my hans an rub
his neck an shouldas, down t'his ribs
an arms den like a turtle dance
I moves back up again.

I works slow an hard an afta a while
when I gets alla way t'his man sack
he open his eyes an be glad its me.

Yeah. That might fix it.

So, I'm gonna close this part with two poems: one in her voice, and then one in his. And both of these poems give the book its title. And it–you know, imagine this is both of their responses to the challenges of trying to sustain a healthy relationship inside the institution of slavery.

This is York.

"To Have and To Hold"

It do more harm than good
to be enslaved an agree to love forever
when there be folks over us
with even more power than death
to do us part.

Being another man's property
alls I can promise is
when we in the same quarters
no one will hold you closer
or with more tenderness than me.

If ever I have to choose between
another day a service an death
I will always choose livin'.

Even if Massa sell me down
the Mississippi tomorrow
or pair me up with another woman
to breed

I will only think on what we had
an chase away any thoughts
a what we had not.

I aims to see you ev'ry Sunday an Christmas
but if ever I'm away more than two whole
seasons without sending back word,

untie the ribbons from that broom we jump
mourn for me but a little
then set your mind to figuring
on how you gone stay warm
when winter come.

And then York's response...That was York. This is his enslaved wife.

"Real Costs"

Somewhere out dere
he learnt t'touch me
like I'm a woman
an not just some woman.

In our marriage bed
he seem as intrested
in pleasing me as he be
in spillin' hisself.

I knew he come back
when new words
fall out his mouf like
love an freedom
an manhood.

An dere come a look
in his eye
like he own all three
free an clear
an don't need no papers
t'prove it.

But it scare me
'cause I seent dat look
in many a black eye
b'fo white hammas
nailed it shut
o' leave it frozen open
an swingin'
t'teach da rest
what anything smell
like courage cost.

I have no doubt
he give his life t'stay
wit me
so I don't tell 'im dat Massa
takin' me back
down south.

I just kiss him soft t'sleep.
an stare at him long enough
t'call up his face
when I gets old an thankful
he still be breathing
when winta comes.

Thank you.

[Audience applause]

I'm gonna close with a sample of some new poems from a new manuscript about the death of Medgar Evers. And, in the same way that the previous poems were persona pieces, these are also in the voice of other individuals, with the extra challenge of being in the voice of people that...were hard for me to wear their skin.

I think what's really interesting about Medgar Evers' story is that most people separate him, or leave him out all together, when they think about the part of the civil rights that includes multiple assassinations, but he should be part of that conversation. And, as much as people know the traditional story, the narrative, a lot of people don't give the assassin that much time. So, the first poems in the manuscript are in the voice of Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin who shot Medgar Evers in the back while hiding in the bushes across the street. His family was in the house. He died in the hospital that same evening.

But, the thing that's interesting about the story is that Beckwith bragged about killing Medgar Evers. And he was tried three times, and it took the third trial to find him guilty. But one of the things that made it possible for him to be found guilty was he had bragged openly at a Klan meeting that — and this is a quote from Beckwith, himself — he said that, "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children."

So, this opens with Byron De La Beckwith making that comparison, and it's called "After Birth."

Like them, a man can conceive
an idea, an event, a moment so clearly
he can name it even before it breathes.

We both can carry a thing around inside
for only so long and no matter how small
it starts out, it can swell and get so heavy

our backs hurt and we can't find comfort
enough to sleep at night. All we can think
about is the relief that waits, at the end.

When it was finally time, it was painless.
It was the most natural thing I'd ever done.
I just closed my eyes and squeezed

then just opened them and there he was,
just laying there covered with blood,
but already trying to crawl.

I must admit, like any proud parent
I was afraid at first, afraid he'd live,
afraid he'd die too soon.

Funny how life 'n death
is a whole lot of pushing and pulling,
holding and seeking breath;

a whole world turned upside down
until some body screams.

And this next piece — I'm just gonna pull, like, five representative poems from the collection — it's still Byron talking, and he's trying to make a broader comment about you know...Imagine, this time of the year, it's about basketball, but in the south, football is really big. You've probably been to a pep rally. You've seen the kind of enthusiasm that can be whipped up against the other team. But, imagine that same pep rally, you know, a thousand people, excited and expressing their hatred for the color of the other team, but this predates football...that the sporting event is a lynching. Same kind of crowd. This is called "Homecoming," Byron De La Beckwith speaking:

Sometimes it starts with a bonfire
or begins with taunting and spitting

quickly graduating to cursing
and punching and kicking

some body as hard as you can
for the sheer joy of causing them pain

as entertainment for the crowd now
celebrating the crack or pop of broken bodies

showering outstanding individual
violence with applause and cheers.

All you need is some body wearing
the color you've been taught to hate

some body threatening to take
what's rightfully yours.

and a little girl with her thighs exposed
held high in the air and screaming.

And I'm gonna jump ahead to Byron's wife, Thelma De La Beckwith and, as much as Byron is presented as a monster, most people would interpret him as, it was hard to figure out how to feel about Thelma, his wife. And I think, initially, I wanted her to be a monster, too, but I found out that she had divorced him and then left him a second time, which meant, for me, that there was a line that she wouldn't cross, that there were things that she would not put up with. So, she became a little less like a monster but, at the same time, she remained loyal. She attended all the trials, and she stayed with him to the end of his life, and this is her speaking. It's called "Fire Proof."

Thelma de la Beckwith

He would come home
from evening rallies and secret meetings
so in love with me.

I could never see nothing wrong
with what he did with his hands.
I just pretended I didn't know

what gunpowder smelled like
or why he kept his rifles so clean.
If he walked through that door

and said, "Thelma, burn these clothes."
I'd pile them on the coals and stare
at the fire. I'd listen to the music

twix the crackle and calm as we danced.
And while the ashes gathered 'round
they own kind in the bottom of the grate

I'd watch the embers glow like our bedroom did.
Now, I ain't saying he was right or wrong.
He often confused hatred with desire.

But if you ain't never been licked
by flames in the middle of the night
honey, you got no idea what I'm talking about.

And the whole middle section of the manuscript deals with Thelma as a bridge between Byron and Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers. So, I'm gonna skip ahead just so you can hear these voices and read a poem in Myrlie Evers's voice. And this imagines, after three trials, that Myrlie finally speaks to Thelma from across the courtroom:

"Sorority Meeting"

Myrlie Evers

My faith urges me to love you.
My stomach begs me to not.
All I know is that day

made us sisters, somehow. After long
nervous nights and trials on end
we are bound together

in this unholy sorority of misery.
I think about you every time I run
my hands across the echoes

in the hollows of my sheets.
They seem loudest just before I wake.
I open my eyes every morning

half expecting Medgar to be there,
then I think about you
and your eyes always snatch me back.

Your eyes won't let me forget.
We are sorority sisters now
with a gut-wrenching country ballad

for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
and courtroom clothes for colors
and secrets we will take to our graves.

I was forced to sleep night after night
after night with a ghost.
You chose to sleep with a killer.

We both pledged our love,
crossed our hearts and swallowed oaths
before being initiated with a bullet.

And this next poem, it seemed appropriate to let the bullet have something to say. And the details of the bullet's poem came from the actual transcripts of the court records from the third trial. It's called "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead": the bullet speaking.

Both of them were history, even before one
pulled the trigger. Before I rocketed through
the smoking barrel hidden in the honeysuckle,
before I tore through a man's back and shattered

his family and a window glass, before I bounced
off a refrigerator and a coffeepot, before I landed
at my destined point in history, next to a watermelon.
The truth is ugly but what was cruel was the irony,

not the melon, not the man falling in slow motion,
but the man squinting through the cross hairs
reducing the justice system to a small circle, praying
that he not miss, then sending me to deliver a message,

as if the woman screaming in the dark or the children
at her feet could ever believe that bullet was small enough to hate.

And you can, hopefully, feel the tension in both of those voices and the story. You know, it's — in the beginning it''s rough. It's a thing that's hard to work through, but my intent is to frame them all together so that by the time you get through Medg–through Myrlie's part of it, you get a feel for what it takes to reach forgiveness and reconciliation.

And the manuscript's been produced in association with Mississippi's new Peace and Reconciliation Commission, where they're trying to bring together victims of violence in the civil rights era and people who perpetrated the violence into the same space and have discussion and conversation to admit the things that happened, give voice to those crimes, and then move towards forgiveness.

Supposedly, that same thing happened in South Africa, and we're trying to figure out how to make that same thing work in Mississippi, and it's been hard 'cause when I go to Mississippi, Mississippians don't want to talk about the past. But most people who are not from Mississippi, they're married to those stories, to those ideas, and they want to believe that it's gotten better, but they look for evidence of that. So, I'm hoping this book will try to contribute to that.

So, I'm gonna read some warmer poems in Myrlie's voice that come from the part of the book that deals with the reconciliation. Then I'll close with some personal poems, so that I'll give you a break from all this heavy history.

One of the things that Myrlie talked about in her autobiography was that when Medgar would come home from a hard day running the NAACP, as the field secretary for Mississippi, that sometimes he didn't want to talk, and they would lay in the dark together and listen to the radio and the power of music. And I thought about, you know, not just what that sounded like or felt like, I went online and figured out what the top 100 songs were six months before he died and six months afterwards and found the radio station they would have listened to, and put together a playlist and bought all the songs on iTunes, and then I laid in the dark for about a week listening to the same music I imagined them listening to for a week. And I think those, that exercise has contributed to this particular poem called "Listening to Music" and this is Myrlie Evers speaking.

The right song floating through the air
at the end of a long day full of kids

and no husband can not only set the tone,
but put the aroma of yesterday back in the air.

Smoky Robinson and the Miracles crooned
all the sweet words that his eyes carried

across the doorframe when he finally came home,
but more often than not, it was Sam Cooke

and Ray Charles or Bobby Blue Bland taking turns
in my ears, reminding me how much I love that man

no matter how mad or lonely I might have felt.
The right song was like a Polaroid of us cuddling

or an atlas, mapping out all the rough spots
and the ways around them. After dancing him out

of his suit and tie, after he unloaded the day's burdens,
we melted together in the dark, beneath the covers

and the crackle of the radio. The sound of my guys
singing backup and Medgar's jack hammer heart

finally slowing to match our leaky faucet, as he fell asleep
in my arms, completing the soundtrack for a perfect night.

And I'll skip ahead a little bit more. One of the things that was interesting is that when they exhumed his body to do another autopsy for the third trial...his son was almost as old as he was when he was assassinated. And he was–his body was very well-preserved, and people talk about how remarkable that the condition of his face was. And I can imagine a situation where it made it easier for Myrlie to get past the pain because her son was turning into her husband. You know, he'd laugh like him. He walked like him. He talked like him. That had to be a source of comfort for Myrlie. This is called "A Gift of Time."

When I was able to see beauty in a world
with so many scars

when I discovered stores of memories
that a bullet couldn't quit

When I watched a son grow into his father's face,
his laugh, his walk,

I saw how faith could be restored.

And I finally understood
that trouble don't last always.

And the last one that I'll read from this section is called "Heavy Wait," and it's spelled W-A-I-T: "Heavy Wait for Mississippi."

If Mississippi is to love her elephant self
she needs a memory as sharp as her ivory tusks
with as many wrinkles as her thick thick past.

If she forgets, she need only reach back,
caress her keloid skin, run her fingers across
a Braille history raised on her spine
or the bruised couplets around her supple neck.

For Mississippi to love her elephant self,
she need only to open her blue/gray eyes and move.

Move, as if she carries the entire weight
of southern guilt on her massive head.

Move, in any direction, as long as it is forward.

For Mississippi to love her elephant self,
she must ask for, extend, and receive

But she must never ever ever forget.

Thank you.

[Audience applause]

I'm gonna read one last poem...that, I guess, is in honor of basketball. Some of you know, I'm from Kentucky, and you know what's happening this evening on television somewhere. But the thing about growing up in a state that's so basketball crazy is that, for a lot of people and a lot of families, sports becomes a religion, and people bleed blue or bleed Cardinal red in Kentucky. And, unfortunately, a lot of communities that worship sports, you know, they don't develop the whole child. If you have a young person, as early as the third grade, who might be taller or faster or stronger, a lot of people are complicit in developing that kid as an athlete, and they forget about his intellectual development. So, this is just a comment on that, and I'll close with this poem and...hope that it will honor any basketball friends that you may be feeling. It's called "Death by Basketball."

Before and after school
he stood
on a milk crate
eyeballed the mirror
and only saw wayne turner
an all-american
at tournament time

a third grader
just off the bus
barely four feet
off the ground
he dropped his books
sank a j'
from the top of the key
and heard the crowd roar
beat his man off the dribble
with a break yaneck
and slammed himself
on the cover of a box
of wheaties

he was out there
every night
under a street light
fighting through double picks
talking trash
to imaginary body checks
'you can't hold me fool'
fake right
'this is my planet'
drive left
'is the camera on'
reverse lay-up
finishing with a trey
from downtown, swish!
'I'm inna zone t'night
more than a little
light in the ass
hands so small
the ball almost dribbled him
he formed his own lay-up line
in the bluegrass
wildcat jersey
hanging like a summer dress
on a court made bald
from daily use
and instead of writing
his spelling words
he signed a contract
he could barely read
inked a commitment
in big block letters
to the NBA
and NIKE
scribbled superstar in cursive
with a fat red pencil
and practiced his
million dollar smile
not his multiplication table
thinking of how many
chocolate milks
he could buy
with his all-star game
appearance fee
after recess.

another shooting
another tragic death
another little genius
who will never test out
of a dream
that kills legitimate futures
every night
under street lights
wherever these products
are sold

Thank you.

[Audience applause]

[Transcribed by Kaitlin Ring; Copyedited by Emily Mell; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, 30 July 2015.]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202