I have known and admired and been astonished by Lynne Procope’s poems for years—both as an audience member (she is a beautiful performer, a member of a national slam champion team, someone whose work on stage and in the air and in the body I’ve been studying for some time), and as a reader, on “the page,” in the various publications where she has shared her work. I have been, again and again, devastated by her poems. Astonished feels like a dumb word right now; devastated too. I mean this: in an audience, my elbow digging into the person next to me, thinking Are you kidding me? Or this: lying in bed after reading a recent poem of hers called “the poet’s lover is white and speaks in his sleep” and more or less looking at the ceiling for a half-hour or so before shaking out of it and thinking, Goddamn, that’s what a poem can do. Or reading the first of this bunch of poems, “Shakuntala,” to a friend, whose eyes filled up with water, who looked out the window of the café where we were sitting and asked me if I would send her that poem. Who told me that she needed it. Needed it.
Shakuntala: found dead 1978
I turned nine. My uncle proposed
to a woman he would grow to hate.
The church said, better to marry.
The pouis and bougainvillea bowed and slumped.
Everything in full flower grew to mourn.
I was nine. It was the last year we were young.
There were glass louvers to wash
in his new house, before the bride came.
In the cane fields, before the season of burning,
young girls broken open like split stalks for sucking.
It would take me thirty years to remember.
Shakuntala was the first. I was nine.
There was more to be learnt of desolation
of the body than I had been taught. I can tell you
I knew what the word meant. Body taken
to a temple of splinter and fragment;
monstrous to itself. I will tell you
I had already learned to lie, to forget myself.
The newspapers used the broken girl too;
leg-spread and torn, the rage of the rape.
Grainy black and white is too honest about blood.
My parents didn’t hide the blood. In class
teachers cleared their throats, asked if we’d seen,
as if we weren’t sitting in our gleaming sport whites
drenched in her. I should mention again, forgetting.
I can’t walk into cane or corn or tall grass
or stay in empty houses alone.
Everything I am saying is a way of erasing
my own splay. I’d lie if there was anything left
to say about it. Mothers said, I don’t want to know
or words to mean they knew but loved brothers,
uncles, or new husbands more. Mothers said,
pull up your socks, clean your finger nails, keep
your mouth sealed against the stalks and ash.
My body said if you forget you will survive and I
let go of nine, twelve, fourteen, and twenty-three.
If it mattered what our mothers thought
none of us would have survived. I forgave
the parts of me still disappeared in the sugar.
I go back. I go back to the year I turned nine, pull
a dozen shattered girls from my chest. Each
far more split cane than I ever was, tall grass
cut straight to the root. Each of us still beloved
of our mothers,
ready for the fields to burn down.
He saw her bathing on the roof.
i: perhaps a rooftop in Laventille: David on seeing Sheva
the washcloth slip
behind she ears suds bubble
slide & tickle she nose with rose
& bitter almond,
she rub she throat
knead and clutch
with hands I think like me own
she pass she hand across she shoulder,
& my breath
she rub down the valley
she rub up she waist & turn
up again to the nipple down
to she hip so lazy
in the evenings i see she
she lift she leg up on the basin
she turn up she altar
to the warm cloth
the water squeezed between
hand and thigh slips down
i want to worship want
to come unbidden to God
she turn she breasts to the west
the sun heat up the pine wood
oil. she hand smooth
in fenugreek and honey she body
she stroke. she wash. she stroke.
i slip down i sluice into a ruin
the water lick her thick legs
i want to rush her door.
i will break that door down.
the water rush to rest in the dimple
back of she knees. the wind catch
she scent and bring she to me.
i whisper back to the wind:
she is already a widow.
On meeting myself aged 9—leaving El Dorado
Already you hold your mouth in that tidy beauty queen smile,
you’ve learned to maximize your flaws; the indented canine,
the goat-mouth mark on your tongue that grandmother says
can name the devil and call trouble. You learn to be silent.
To see you standing here, eyes a terrified snarl, body
a stilled exclamation, bare feet on the dirt road, builders dust
between your toes, rage or else actual glass between your teeth.
You don’t know what brings the blood or how to eat this anger
so you bite down, curl your fingers and draw in so tight
you become a fist. You begin to hide. In the street the boys
throw themselves into August. The low-lying heat ripples off
the asphalt. The boys are thorned with new muscle and bleeding
at the knees and elbows, at any bare spot. Their pitches are long,
slow, and wickedly smart. The wickets tumble under the snap
of the cork ball. You watch the wildness in the boys, the flash
of the ball, the hard swing and slap of the bat.
You have begun to say only what you cannot do. Cannot catch,
a sudden dyslexia of your limbs, which was not there before
today, nor was the flinch in your eyes at every quick movement.
If your father does not come soon either your uncle calls you
back into the cool dappled bedroom of the new house
or the pot-gut neighbor slides his sun blacked fingers along
the waist of your shorts, asks how old you are—now.
Your father will take his time, stop to talk to the old men,
carry a woman’s grocery bags. You will stand on one foot
as close to tumbling as you’ll ever get. They’ll tell your father
that you leaned into the concussive hit of the cork ball
as if you knew the flat plane of the cricket bat could knock
the memory of this day clear out of your mind
across the decades you will hear it like a crack.
I am the rain.
after Nate Slawson
There was the day you watched me strip naked in the backyard. The rain had hammered the Brooklyn sidewalks as we staggered home. You wanted to run and I wanted to stand in it, the cool pelt of rain, until it soaked into my blood. What I couldn’t tell you was how much distant drum and symphony those streets sang for a moment. I splashed the puddles, one bare block from the House of D. They smelt like the long curving roads where I grew up and for me those rain drops flooded on fertile blossoming bougainvillea, gushed into the succulent hearts of hibiscus and I wanted to make love to you in that rain as if I could have made love to you when I was thirteen and scarless or twenty-three and still confident in my bones. You know the truth. By the time you found me I’d already given them up to dishonesty. But that day, with the grocery bags soaked to breaking, my summer high tops filled up like fish ponds. All I had was a mouth full of tadpoles or arms made madder for the want of crocuses and everything was already wet when you said, come inside. Everything was already breaking wildly into the birdsong and flower that follows a hard rain when you withdrew behind the door and then pulled it shut behind you.
he consent of a woman who would be queen
i rise her roundness her valleys her scent pervades
i rise behind
i rise in her
i push i am a king
i squeeze i . i press close
in her the scent of cinnamon
this woman is as close as a king gets
to being a god
i will not be denied i will not be denied