Grandfather By Michael S. Harper


In 1915 my grandfather’s
neighbors surrounded his house
near the dayline he ran
on the Hudson
in Catskill, NY
and thought they’d burn
his family out
in a movie they’d just seen
and be rid of his kind:
the death of a lone black
family is the Birth
of a Nation,
or so they thought.
His 5’4” waiter gait
quenched the white jacket smile
he’d brought back from watered
polish of my father
on the turning seats,
and he asked his neighbors
up on his thatched porch
for the first blossom of fire
that would bring him down.
They went away, his nation,
spittooning their torched necks
in the shadows of the riverboat
they’d seen, posse decomposing;
and I see him on Sutter
with white bag from your
restaurant, challenged by his first
grandson to a foot-race
he will win in white clothes.

I see him as he buys galoshes
for his railed yard near Mineo’s
metal shop, where roses jump
as the el circles his house
toward Brooklyn, where his rain fell;
and I see cigar smoke in his eyes,
chocolate Madison Square Garden chews
he breaks on his set teeth,
stitched up after cancer,
the great white nation immovable
as his weight wilts
and he is on a porch
that won’t hold my arms,
or the legs of the race run
forwards, or the film
played backwards on his grandson’s eyes.
Michael S. Harper, “Grandfather” from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright ©2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000)

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