blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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And Ever
     for Medgar Evers
     murdered June 12, 1963, Jackson, Mississippi

You rise
to watch the leaves

breathe light to their edges
and burn,

drawing day from the night
to wake the birds.

You’ve learned this sound,

white chord of a filling lung
that will set the wren to sing,

so you rise
only today

it isn’t leaves—
it’s a moth you’ve never seen,

its wings
not flock, not felt,

but paper—

hundreds, thousands
of photographs

flickering in your breath
then falling,

each into its own light,
another pair of wings.


Now the windows switch,
Wallace incandescent

in the schoolhouse door,
Kennedy at his desk.

The children curl
in the broadcast’s glow,

and beyond, silhouettes drift,
blotting fireflies from the night.

It hasn’t rained for weeks,
and everyone is looking

for something to fall.

The airfield strobes planes
from the night.

Leaves pocket
the carhop’s music.

And honeysuckle yawns
till everything smells like breath.

Dust settles
on the sleeping faces,

as headlights sweep,
tires hush the drive.

As the moth on the window
folds to a bullet,

then unfolds
to watch again.


Then the light
is as fine as dust,

dust a moth strews
as it lights on the screen,

that falls on the face
like honeysuckle’s musk.

Eyes flutter
the dust to angels

and the room
is a heaven,

throngs flocked
from the closet’s sleeves

to the window
and out into the dim

where they hang
their trumpets in the vines.

They call through the crickets’
ever and ever,

then silk themselves
in question marks

beneath the leaves.


Or the light
is weak as a candle’s,

swelling, then cooling
as you reach

for those unnamable wings.

and they fan over the grass,

the yard’s a writhe of flashlights,
fireflies when there shouldn’t be,

dozens now luminous
in the fractured air.

Drift, shrivel,
they whet,

they hang themselves
in the honeysuckle

then bore deeper
into the leaves.


Fold back those wings,

the sleep they’ve gathered
in their eyes,

sleep that has forgotten you.

Fold back those wings
to a vial, a tablet,

lilac his shirt forgot.

The perfect sleeves,
the shirts you ironed

he said he wouldn’t need.
The closet’s furl

of empty arms—
fold back each one

until the shadow gutters
into the shoes,

into dust,
until you find

a breath
of yesterday’s breath.

Somewhere here is an inch of cloth
light has not faded,

color not beaten white
by sun.

You look and then you’re
gripping the sill

in that moment
when everything glows a little,

when the light is everywhere
and there are no shadows,

no matter how
you fold the curtain back.


The brother’s face
at the airplane window.

And the dream again.
Willie Tingle,

their father’s friend,
those hands,

broad day,
closing on his skin.

His face
as they bind him to the cart

and drag him
through Decatur’s streets.

The field
where they tie him to a post.

His face
as they lash the shirt away.

As they tie the noose.
As they walk away.

They leave the shirt,
a shadow to outlive.

The hum of the body,

or its absence,
its sprawl.

The name
in the field he walks each day

with Medgar,
the only way to school.

Now he walks alone
through the damp clay of night

to watch moon soak
into the shirt’s easing folds,

to watch moon crust
then flake into wings.

Light like a blind man’s fingers
reading everything.


Then morning is dust
engrained in light’s trajectories,

shirts that pollen
when you move.

Everything escapes us—

why we opened closets, doors,
what we said,

faces too bright to see.

Dust would settle
to flock the wings of touch,

lint would rise
if anyone was looking

when the shell is lifted,
the print peeled from the glass,

though to see is to know
everything as aftermath,

not the window
but the bore,

not the oil but the cotton
in the bullet’s grooves,

plaque of light
on everyone’s skin.


Soon the day will unfold its cruelties

and someone will have said
and someone will have written

Maybe this will slow them down.
Then everyone can read it,

and the bright faces
will fold like curtains

and leave you at the window
once again.

the moth is spreading.

Lean close enough
and you can see

Medgar, fallen to the drive,
house key in his outstretched hand.

Lean closer,
while the paper’s turning,

while the light is bruising
to a dozen children caged in wire,

their fingers
all you see at first,

and then the dark equator
that halves their eyes,

the jagged latitude of pines

that swallows the last ash
and embers of the day.

Closer, now,

the weave of each child’s shirt
is opening.

The cotton, the paper
swallow all the light.


And after day has staled
like a glass of water beside the bed,

after morning’s gone,
what does anyone remember?

Nectar. Sweat.
The river’s musk

neither a history
nor a promise of rain.

the only breathing thing.

Children file with their flags
down the streets

and their flags are taken,
and they are taken,

from the street to the wagon,
from the wagon to the pen,

and the street is left to darken
the way the sky never will.

If anyone is missing
check the fairgrounds first,

check the cages they made
to hold them all.

Check the bushes and the vacant lots.
Someone ran away.

Something rustled in the vines
where they found the rifle

and a fingerprint so sweetgum-sharp
someone will know its tree.

Someone saw an empty car
in the drive-in lot,

the kind of white
that talks through the night to the moon.

The moon was failing and someone
turned as the t.v. cooled

to see the president’s ghost
in the dimming tube.

A cab trawled the neighborhood,
a telegram or a passenger to unfold.

A man at the depot
read a phone book to the air,

and somewhere in the night
a radio played the speech again

and someone laughed
at one hundred years of delay

and someone stayed late
for the picture show.

and at the end when the ship was burning
and the theater filled with smoke

a moth rose into the light
and came apart in the air.


Whatever falls
falls quietly

into the wool of breath,

into the handkerchief
or the sleeve.

An eyelash.
A tear.

Drops of sweat
to suggest the withheld rain.

And whatever falls
falls through the temple’s boiling air,

switch of paper fans
and photographs

and the strobes
that hold your face a moment,

first one cheek,
            then the other. . .

And whatever falls
falls quietly

into the eulogy
he hadn’t wanted

because those who give them
never mean them,

into the newsreels’ whispers,

into the scent of gladiolas
and the stink of film

which is the smell of memory
as it leaves you,

given like a pollen.
Its flowers

write themselves
into your fingers

and become a part of everything
you touch.

The arms that hold you
when you leave the temple,

the hands,
the crowded air.


What follows is the sound
of song choked back,

forbidden hymn
that needs to break

like glass on the asphalt
and give back the day.

What follows is the hush of cloth,
the silent march

down Lynch Street
and across the tracks

where policemen thicken
on the white side of town,

then Farish
where every window

is a book of eyes,
faces, noise.

Crew-cut teens and jukebox blare
in a drugstore’s door

till someone pulls the plug

so the wish of pants legs and skirts
can fill the street again.


Later the song will break,
one voice, then another,

this little light of mine,
then dozens, hundreds running

all over Capitol Street,
I’m gonna let it shine

on the riot squad’s
bright helmets.

And later, the man in the paper
with a bandaged skull

and a shirt torn to gauze,
a room of song behind him,

will be pulled from a building
and beaten again

and thrown in the fairgrounds’ cages
with trucks of other mourners.

But for now his is just one of the faces
waiting as the coffin’s drawn

into the funeral home,
where the wood is polished,

where the flag is tucked
for the ride to Washington,

just one of the faces
the bearers can see

through the curtains,
the shirt

just one of thousands
now blistering in the sun.


They’re waiting in their Sunday bests
when the hearse arrives,

knowing somehow
he would be coming,

crowding the platform
when the caisson rolls into the frame

with the flag-draped coffin,
turned away

toward the schedule
that tells how long they have.

When the train is boarded,
they crowd the window

where the women sit
with the flag

and as the station pulls away,
as town gives way

to field, even in the thickets
they’re there, their shirts,

their hats and dresses
flowering the blur,

and in Tuscaloosa
and Birmingham and Anniston

turning the stations into churches,
knowing somehow he would be coming.

Whenever they wake,
they are there—

impossible to see them all,

waiting like water
in the trampled fields,

like shards of moon
in the evening’s failures,

glass that gathers
the fugitive light.

And even now

as dust lays its unclosable wings
on the faces of the sleeping,

as it settles into the breath
and the tangles of vine,

the window’s bore,
the kitchen’s pale seizures of light,

even now,
as she looks again,

glowing soft as honeysuckle’s lamps,
as moths against the glass.   end

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