Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Girl Woman – Age 26
(because sometimes you need somewhere to rest between the rock and the hard place).
moss was my first (and last) chapbook, an effort to launch my “writing” career. I was fresh out of graduate school and idealistic about the writerly life that I assumed awaited me. The activist in me struggled for poems that addressed my experiences with at-risk youth, entitled peers, and unwieldy as it was: the Human Condition. The artist in me struggled for authenticity, accessibility, and a bigger afro.
I stapled all night before one festival; chewed a blood blister into my left forefinger trying to get my logo just right, abused my printing privileges at one of the three jobs I was working at the time, and spent half a summer in Kinko’s having it printed on business cards and posters to adorn my table at festivals, panels, and readings where I hawked my books and made my way.
The money I made paid for gas and entry fees to national publishing contests I later discovered were biased at best.
I sunburned under the Alabama sun one week and projected for a crowd of less than what one would name “a few” less than a month later.
My thesis advisor simultaneously lauded and questioned my drive, and I practically ignored both. Eventually the urgency took on a new face; I learned to be more discerning about the opportunities to read, present, or publish and to compartmentalize the Human Condition into more manageable pieces. And I dated and wrote some terrible love poems. And struggled through my multiple jobs to make ends meet. And dyed my afro a few fiery shades. And stopped writing. And started gluing and painting and flying and dancing. And started writing again. And as the fire under my feet simmers, savor the slow burn. So it goes…some poems from moss:
he will always be lock-knee’d and barely nineteen
in the history of north west third street;
in Adidas shelltops and two-tone jeans,
fur collared Beat Street bomber; ear pierced on the left;
in a b-boy stance enhanced in sam’s fade or ‘fro chair.
soft brown hairs swept away
like kickball in the lot turned to woos and l’s in the alley.
on t.v., green tee shirts preach: Just Say No.
and a fried egg warns:
This is your brain on drugs.
those messages aren’t for us.
we are junebugs
wading in stagnant summer ponds,
multiplying like mosquitoes
trying to make a pillow
out of the moss growing between the rock and the hard place.
he collects homegrown girls
fresh and newly ripe—
anna’s neck is red with blossoms;
belly plucked from time to time—
as if he were gathering for winter.
it’s natural as spring wringing snow into april puddles
to wanna be free,
especially on fridays
when the eagle gives free flights
to folks looking for some moss to rest on
between the rock and the hard place;
between the red scooter and an ambulance ride
the line blurs:
cheeks bare of hints that there may be more
breath smelling like Similac; lips turning fastblack.
on the seventh day:
the details record his real name
wag their heads
back and forth, to erase the blood:
a rusting monument parked in the yard;
the alley christened with beer;
babies limping under the weight of his name.
weather come on around 11:15; after that i dream for a little while,
watch a joe brown trial with a cold one from the icebox; lights out by twelve o’clock.
tomorrows start early in this town.
life’s a journey to one place—a pine box in the plot mama bought;
daddy’s shotgun, a yellow canary, prepared me.
should be a crime to live past seventy ‘cause ain’t nothin’ to look forward to
and ain’t hardly no kind of work you can do; my daddy knew.
i’m no threat. i cough up more breaths each step i make home from the black womb
that claims us like prodigal sons; we all live and die here.
weather comes on at 11:15; i’m gonna take a second to dream of kicking up dust
on the road with a freckled girl and being the world she left me to see.
the bus arrived at six;
i return exhausted.
maybe someone’s son will call tonight, report:
hey mama, i’m still making it.
malice green is a granite monument; his mother grainy
in my memory; was she really on the podium?
a witch rides me, teases me with sleep:
i could die out here
and live forever
i tell myself as i permanent marker
the poster board, tack it to a two by four,
splinter my hands, blister my feet
shout to be free—
from toilet plungers shoved up my ass,
firebombs under my armpits
because my passbook is out of order,
.38’s that serenade my late night affair
with big-chinned leno and balding letterman
in a sorry salute to the breathless statistics;
the brothas who ain’t here
because their going rate has been 21
since long before i was.
because to whom much is given, a lot more is required.
my late night lovers already forced
to share me with prayers
for good parking spaces,
that the cable line up would be good,
that my favorite restaurant wouldn’t
run out of jollof rice;
i turn them all into a black screen—
the worries, the wooing all brought to me
by sponsors of trigger locks
now that glocks have found hands other than
those of the boys on my block who face Exile—
prompt arrest, minimum sentence after quick process—
from projects that lie
at the margin of the same madness
that brands brown boys and apologizes to suburbia:
it has to be this way.
the plague is spreading fast.
so i twist the childproof seal off guarded tomorrows.
i don’t want to fear
drunk men with trucks and chains,
long hair and black trench coats;
the numbers behind my name.
because my we shall overcomes
were silenced in the hail of 41 bullets
that hijacked amadou’s someday;
my dreams lynched with antoine’s
left hanging limp from a hampton jungle gym;
because if i’m gonna die out here,
i wanna live forever.
*”Moss” originally appeared under the title “Purgatory” and was later published in The Hoot and Holler of the Owls (Hurston-Wright Foundation Anthology, 2003) under the current title.
**”Resistance” also appeared in X Literary Magazine (Flipped Eye Publishing, UK, 2005).