by John Amen
J scales a ladder up & up a steep pitch of memory
toward a smallish star, writhing from the manhole,
black son clawing through the black film, his eyes
rolling across a patio as the guests applaud, sloshing
their olives & gin. Dr. Kilgus hacks the London broil.
After a group charade involving a breast pump & a
green test tube, J’s mother’s bound to the scaffold,
his father sparks the Jacksons tucked beneath the tinder.
J wails in a red world, witnesses the gluttony of fire,
sensation as a second birth & first demise: root of
ambivalence. A wet nurse in camouflage delivers
the needle. J’s scaled & weighed, paperwork’s filed,
he’s swaddled in steel wool, wrapped in cellophane,
carted to an empty barracks on the outskirts of town.
Someone croons the national anthem through a static
intercom. Someone stages an aptitude quiz. J finds
his feet, his hands, unzips his innocence like a clown
shedding a costume. He steps forth a full-grown man.
Twenty-six years sober, I smell vodka in the tulips,
aged bourbon in the blankets, water reeks of gin.
Twenty-six years, still hear my dead mother calling,
drunk in the hammock, drooling into her cleavage.
She slurs help me while guzzling her Chardonnay.
I see the white father in me, I hear his no, the way
he lowered his magnifying glass on every prayer,
our petitions curling to smoke, he planted dread
in my belly, the C-section after I passed out naked
in the ice shed. I’d wake in the driveway, gutted.
Now I light the rood as he lit the rood. No, I can’t,
I respond, though I could, my dead mother in flames,
my show & tell: an iron, rusted nails, loaded dice,
jujus found in the weedy backyard. Fast-forward:
my wife spread-eagled in a shadowbox. I curse my
white father’s shimmering crown, a black son vowing
to return home & avenge the women of his dreams.
They call me liar, you watch I’ll prove them wrong.
I’m the black son; doesn’t matter if this is factual,
it’s my life story, the metaphor that locks my throat.
Raised in a flooded town, I belly-crawled dirt roads
in a county of Stars & Bars, pale Jesus & pit bulls,
succubi lying open-legged in a hayloft. My eleventh
birthday, I grabbed the rattler from the priest, held
its face to my face. I watched its eyes turn to glass
as the congregation booed. Don’t believe the white
father, his myth of origin; truth is, he turns a crank
in the background, he keeps the keys, he sprays the
fig tree with pesticide when believers aren’t looking.
Don’t entertain that crap about the dead mother being
sculpted from a rib, bear in mind that this white father
is simply another white father in a line of white fathers,
each of whom burned in a pyre of Jacksons, screwed
by his own ballyhoo. That said, there are indeed doors
in the white father’s house that can only be opened
by a black son. Not every black son. This black son.
John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry; most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. In addition, he has released two folk rock CDs: All I’ll Never Need and Ridiculous Empire. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.