after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981


When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we

cruise at twilight until we find the place the real


men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.

His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we


drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left

in them but approachlessness. This is a school


I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we

are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk


of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.

Standing in the middle of the street last night we


watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike

his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight


Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we

used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing


his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.

The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We


watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.

He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.


He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We

stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,


how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June

the boy would be locked upstate. That night we


got down on our knees in my room. If I should die

before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.



II. 1991


Into the tented city we go, we-

akened by the fire’s ethereal


afterglow. Born lost and cool-

er than heartache. What we


know is what we know. The left

hand severed and school-


ed by cleverness. A plate of we-

ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-


ing in the afterglow. A late-

night chant. Into the city we


go. Close your eyes and strike

a blow. Light can be straight-


ened by its shadow. What we

break is what we hold. A sing-


ular blue note. An outcry sin-

ged exiting the throat. We


push until we thin, thin-

king we won’t creep back again.


While God licks his kin, we

sing until our blood is jazz,


we swing from June to June.

We sweat to keep from we-


eping. Groomed on a die-

t of hunger, we end too soon.

Note to Poetry Out Loud students: This poem begins with an epigraph that must be recited. Omitting the epigraph will affect your accuracy score.
  • Terrance Hayes, “The Golden Shovel” from Lighthead. Copyright © 2010 by Terrance Hayes. Used by permission of Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

  • Source: Lighthead (Penguin Books, 2010)

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