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One can hear heaven murmuring in between the lines of francine j. harris’s poems owing to the poet’s wholeness, which here she makes look effortless and seasonal. By whole I mean without duplicity or piousness, a marrying of all things artful with personal and political material. While the rage for being continues unabated in dissimulated portraits of the self, by performing language in new, exciting, and honest ways, harris makes a case for a complicated, unique selfhood. If you expect these poems to sing the blues or tell you how insufferable and boring your superiority complex is, or if you expect any other kinds of recitals of black subjectivity that allow you to shrug your way to the next page, then you are sorrowfully smoking post–Civil Rights juice.
The accomplishment of these poems lies in their ability to exquisitely render a consciousness in which violence, excessive capitalist consumption, literature, patriarchy, popular culture, and nature all collide and synthesize into a glorious, unabridged series of atavistic, perceptive, and humorous commentaries on our age (“Obama // Obama wants to be a palindrome”). The poet’s gifts are not merely her possession of language but her ability to enact and signify beyond literalness, such that a painterly poem like “Canvas,” with all of its O’Hara-esque unfolding into being, accumulates into a collaged statement about art and suffering and psychic compensation. Call it figuration or codification or what have you, all I know is I feel these poems and their confident, perfect exaltations of intricacy.
What Milkman Leaps For
after Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
The sugar wings of a myth, a guiltless grandfather, a man with no
dark side, a gelatinous memory that feels pretty good, three hundred
dollar shoes feel right, alright. Like wings look good on in the mirror, handmade
so you could star in a play with ’em. Or host a garden party in ’em. So you could
dim the lights and burn myrrh, tank it to the hallways where guests linger
perusing installations of you in your wings. Where you could fly off
but all flights up and leave someone. All the rebels who
choose flock over children at home. The warrior who thinks a good fight
and whose family sits home practicing the epitaph. Back at Pilate’s, she
scratches out hair and her good looks. The bed ridden turns to cough
in the absence of a hero. Her gold miner, her reborn takes to air
to transcend the what, the dark marks on the wall. Awakened, it ain’t
as easy as it lifts. It can take up the outside, let alone it has to be
a man at all. Let’s skip that part, and say it can walk
over heavy shoes, over bear-eaten bodies. Be the one
to fly the flight homeward, with myths thick enough to drag river, to turn
up bodies, to unrest the dead with their socks on, who still reek of corn
whiskey, who still smell of many masters’ breath. And better yet, who still fingerprint
gunpowder, or worse, who still like little girls. Oh, what Milkman steps off into. The air
full of no one you can’t consistently count on. (Let’s try again) whose fault it all is. He
no one who show up for nothing you aren’t celebrating. No one who bounce you on
or who bounce birthday checks. No one not high enough to talk to when school is out, it’s
a myth with its skin lightened, with its orderly shoes. He no longer has to pinpoint
the balance; it has perched itself in the wreck of nesty hair clumped at bedside. He no
has to be the unsettled, the conquested, the harvest. He takes to the air
to tribe in good grace, to stake the ground, to clan. He puts on wings and throws open the
to faceless partygoers. He rounds up all the sexy people, calls them all
fam, drops brown liquor to their mouths and let’s not even
speak of rebellion. The heroes do their rounds. In troops
they brush. They take targets from a distance, just the four
or fifteen of them. Just the crew. The families back home, taking out
little bits of their skin. For this point, this nation. One less song so tomorrow
is the fight in a cave and milk walking out.
after Frank Stanford’s “The Brake”
The eden the Negro shows the country boy poet, so she knows
the look in his eye. She knows the crook of his hat, how it stalls in the mist night
where fireflies and hissing crickets move over fields. The Negro
knows watching, how much standstill is twill in prairie. Whatever brush
between the star and dirt. She knows lowland. Tamp down and seed. What
hunkers down between the plush dander and the country poet’s scythe. She has boots
without a sound to make. He has tree vision, the crawl of summer
bugs stuttering nameless. Unless the poet says cicada, think locust. Unless a poet
presses down a wing’s sod to crush thorax and antennae, think hay. Then the poet
the Negro, the country boy configure their horse and steady pistil behind standoff. Break
over pinball and dartboard and a bartender who makes bourbon barrel in a bath
where epithets infuse. How one might find a hick in the dark, like a frog, like
a white meat for bone and churn in her mouth against the stark row of evening to pulp.
Maybe they want one another’s head. They don’t know the difference, the growl insect
and how stirred its body, as if blossom, as if the ink creek of midnight speaks itself.
You see men in retro glasses, you see men behind
retrofitted glass and men
on black bikes and women with small
piercings in their sharp noses and you see their bad silver
nail polish, you’ve got
bad silver nail polish
and everyone wheezes. You wheeze
and the small gay men at the bar spend sunset
tuning American Idol onto two screens.
They talk like bar glass. In their gravel, they vote singers.
There is a tingle at the back of your throat that holds
the phone on hold and thinks the words
Obama wants to be a palindrome.
You catch yourself in a plate glass window, you catch yourself
in the neighbor’s glass plate, you catch yourself
wondering if you look like your hair
in their windows. They put away things
as soon as you ask about them.
The fat of the fog hovers over
a man who sits inside his canoe, beached at the shore. He sits
inside it swaying. The thick is so close, only a few
ducks swim, visible. The lake itself has vanished. Behind me
traffic lights like helium as evening
rolls forward and I wave. Because one figure is sketched
inside the steam of another and down
the beach, geese lift. A couple on a bench
scatter inside their own gray mist. Earlier
it was clear and warm. I was on the phone
for hours with a woman I keep getting it wrong with.
I tried telling her which fruit I cut too early. The hard green
pulp of avocado that won’t yield its pit. That I bike
out of breath in warm months, and how empty the dark
buildings in the city, glass on the floor. What you could hear
crunch and echo like voice, but that’s a story
she knows. Everybody knows it. Instead, I tell her
I can’t help but wait. In the fog, that cruelty
waves back from his boat. He gets out and wraps
its skin like an ankle inside a ballerina’s slipper. He docks it
on a squat dolly. He walks toward me and drags
the limp thing through the sand.
francine j. harris was the winner of Boston Review's 2014 Poetry Contest. Her first collection, allegiance (Wayne State University Press, 2012), was a finalist for the 2013 Kate Tufts Discovery and PEN Open Book Award. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Poetry, Rattle, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Vinyl, and Indiana Review among others. Originally from Detroit, she is a Cave Canem fellow and has joined the creative writing faculty at Interlochen Center this fall.
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