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Who needs a poem, today, these days. Who deserves one. “I know how visible / you are against the glass” Chloe Forsell writes to “Eric,” as in Garner, as in “I know how they saw you, but I don’t think they saw you.” “I have a pink headband just like yours,” she wants to tell Tajai Rice, “I watched you watch him die eleven times.” Who needs a poem like who needs to “watch the footage eleven times trying to find something beautiful.” Forsell has the tenderness to speak to those we’ve lost, and failed, and misunderstood, and tell them, in that tenderness, she’s there too. For Chloe Forsell does not write a poetry of absence; hers is a poetry that needs our being here, which is to say it’s a mode of attention, a charm against passivity: “I want earth on all four / walls,” she writes, “I want black women rising.” These poems dare—no, promise—to “contemplate the color of her body in landscape.” These poems know that as we go to ground through language, we open ourselves up to slip, to fall, to fault. “I’ll call my bluff,” Forsell writes, and for a moment we’re both at cliff’s edge and the edge of trust. That’s what it is to be American, somehow, today. How Forsell knows this is beyond me—“America, she is no home. She has no arms,” one full-nerved ode reports, deft song caught between giving alms and bearing arms—but so her poetry works on us, takes us beyond where we are to where we ought to be. “Plucked, flung, I am swimming”—these poems strum language as if we need to hear it. If you’re not listening, you’re drowning. If you don’t know that yet, these are the poems you need.
America, she is not
is nearby, is
nearly in sight
Enter vessel on the shore, exit
what family has
America, she is born only torso.
She is gendered by her fathers while
her mothers stitch her into star-spangled
quilts. She is named & made
to be a whole thing more than
she is America, she is only
torso but she takes the face.
America, she takes
a candle-light service.
To celebrate dismemberment,
disowning her own limbs. America,
father fatten her & cut her up
& a prisoner pays
the dowry. For richer or richer,
for ritual, for union: a lie
as true as vow: for worse or,
richer, in sickness. For richer, united
pretty young things, she feigns
tradition. Motherhood as currency,
another vessel returns pregnant.
Children huddled & tossing in
America, she is no home. She has no arms
to hold & so she thrashes
through her landscape. America, she
is sea to shining she
is destiny manifested in a stolen
She is performing coat-hanger abortions
in the middle of a corn field. She is drowning
the survivors like cargo off the coast
America, rename, America, reroute, America re—
she takes the blame
like a grain of salt mined
under the tongue.
America, she takes. America, become
the vessel. The captain takes
a nap on her brown back & turns
like a swollen white baby in his sleep.
America, she is still limbless—
is harder, balding, ugly
as much as she can
is America, as in America,
America, she can’t,
take, any more
• • •
February 24th, 1995: the Sun crosses Pisces
At night, I ask Revati how old
he is, how he feels
about what he has become.
Before black had a name, before
he was what broke the dark plane with a dot,
there were no fish in the sky.
Before there was ocean, before ocean
tide & the moon pulling my toes
into the shoreline, a constellation was nothing
more than coincidence & I was
untied. Still, I prefer this to a cabin,
the cosmos to the murky water
in my bathtub, oh how I dirty everything
I own. Oh, how I’ve dirtied myth. How we
may part and make our ways to other worlds
& remember, like origin, our home: tethered.
Our home: tails intertwined & scales all slippery,
a dorsal orgasm, loosely wound spiral galaxy.
Awake before dawn, I try to wear a horoscope.
To slip into the vernal equinox like a skin.
Revati responds, via email:
You will be happiest when you have created
your own universe.
I have spun my body into planets
when no one was watching,
globbing spheres from flesh’s red silk.
The moon returns to pisces once a month.
Usually, finds me alone.
Usually, I am wondering what fish I’ll become
when my toes outrun the rest of me, back
into the sea’s wet collision. Eclipsing
an LED lightbulb, I ask about the difference
between a few letters: onomy to a girl
& her fleeting hobby.
Revati responds, via power-out:
Plucked, flung, I am swimming.
• • •
after Lucille Clifton
Tear down the Mucha prints:
pink nipples upturned
like the pale palms of the ladies
wrapped in white gauze, turned
up to the sky as though heaven—
heaven is full up
with bodies like those. I don’t want
no heaven. I want earth on all four
walls. I don’t want no walls.
I want black women rising,
rising above me while I fall asleep.
I want to angel the wingless, blushless beauties
& plaster myself to the ceiling: sistine
chapel gone purple & brown
& black women & nothing
but a mattress, an altar,
an essential oil diffuser: coconut,
lavender. This is to say I’m tearing up
upholstery, cracking knicknacks, burning
the furniture. Nothing
but a mattress, an altar. Some new art
to lay down my head & feel
home (which is to say), when I wake,
I’m dancing. When I wake, I rise.
• • •
She contemplates the color of her body in landscape
The sky is the only thing that is ever all black. How negro
is actually a Spanish word.
How splayed out in the dew
on the top of thayer hill I see
the line separating lake erie from the sky.
I am doubting even this. I imagine
rolling, r’s rolling, my body
rolling & crushing wetgrass
beneath the weight of what, tonight,
I’ll call dark. I call my bluff
& find a star & roll upwards. Like this ascension
is mistranslated, but true.
Sand, a strand of coarse dark curl,
I am learning how to sink. How
black is less a color than the shape of a wave
dragging itself back into the lake. Language
is a fickle thing. Say: Grayday. Fishkiss. Say:
jumpoff the breakwall, part the surface,
ripple. To define this smalltown lakebeach
in westernnewyork: I call it whitesand, toodeep.
How to swim: I don’t know
how to speak: I float.
From above: the thicket of woods on second street
is a hole, nothing.
As though a hole is nothing; it is black.
Not black like the loose s-shaped curve
of my abdomen, but black
like the typeface in the book I read about
skin. Black that cleaves you. Black that wears you.
I climb a birch that I think isn’t a birch but know
it is when its bark ignites beneath my palms & sings out
you aren’t what you think you are & a branch
breaks on a word I’ve not yet learned.
• • •
I watch the footage eleven times trying to find something beautiful
for Tajai Rice
As though you are swallow & he is wind
you collapse together, halted by the men
who stop the weather. Stop time, the winter
settling in. Stop the soft gray that comforts
Cleveland in November. The grass lilies through the snow & you
through the snow as though you are
morningsong, a prayer to bring him back.
Your lungs expanding like an echo in my chest, I hear—
I see your face falling through the slush, your mouth opening to earth
as if to hold onto the ground like a blanket.
Drag his body back to you. Grip with your baby teeth.
I had a pink headband just like yours. Rode bikes
to the rec center with my little sister.
I feel something like love
small & warm inside my gut
you are swallow in a pink headband
but he is gone. As though
you are swallowing the breeze to keep &
after him, after speaking how he would’ve
loved us all.
As though you are swallowed up,
your pink headband buried in his belly
with the bullet. As though you, too, are gone
after collapsing on the lawn. As though
you are some hollowboned
beauty in flight.
No, you are a little girl.
He was your baby brother.
I watched you watch him die eleven times
& wondered if beautiful is ever what we’re looking for
or if instead it is more simply maybe the way you flew to him,
wingless, even when you couldn’t
• • •
The difference here is not the way they see, but if they see at all.
I know how visible
you are against the glass
how the window
didn’t break. I know
how lenses have a setting to detect black men
breaking up fights or standing on streetcorners
or standing at all or breathing. I know
how they saw you, breathing
saw your pulse quicken
your arms go up
your body retreat.
I know how they saw you, but I don’t think they saw you. I think every time
they saw you, they didn’t see you.
I think I can stand
in front of Sally Beauty &
they will see me enough
so that I will walk home
with my coconut jojoba oil
moisturize my curls
sleep in a satin cap.
I think the difference here is the part of me that makes me
the kind of visible that they don’t notice.
The part of me that makes me guilty.
The part of me that makes you gone.
Lytton Smith is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Genesco. He is the author of three poetry collections: My Radar Data Knows Its Thing (Foundlings Press), While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed By It (Nightboat Books), and The All-Purpose Magical Tent (Nightboat Books).
Chloe Forsell is a biracial American poet residing in Buffalo, NY. A Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets June Fellow, she recently completed her undergraduate degree at SUNY Geneseo.
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