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Image: Carlie Febo

Three poems by Porsha Olayiwola

Editor’s Note: Porsha Olayiwola was a semifinalist for Boston Review’s 2021 Annual Poetry Contest. Due to their complex formatting, we recommend reading these poems on a computer. 


“I name this paradox the wake, and use the wake in all of its meaning, as a means to understanding how slavery’s violences emerge within the contemporary conditions of spatial, legal, psychic, material, and other dimensions of Black non/being as well as in Black modes of Resistance”      —Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being

when a ship sets sail

across a body of water

turbulence occurs beneath

the glutted belly

even the ocean births waves

in places unfamiliar

the bow pierces forward

a trail restructures the gods

of the atlantic

once, a vast portal

now, an atlas, un-made

a wake where it hadn’t been

objects in motion

never mourn what was killed

in order to be born

instead crossing continues with

the wreckage of sea—

sainted ocean, keep in memory

the self, who breathed

formed gills of atlanteans

a sopping procession

silting the silk of water yet

tide still running over

what tried to sever

a saline’d reflection

a slave ship hauls

bodies as cargo and

both the surface and ocean floor

rifts. even the clouds break

open in sobs. trauma

welts—swells the earth.

the past is not pass but vessel

people emerge from the bowel

but never the ship

now a grave

cast onto the back.

a wake where we have been, we

never mourn ourselves

instead we feast

instead we ritualize

the evasion of death

and the death itself, how holy

us who have not drowned

when they drowned us,

with a resurrection of bones

along our mouths,

us grinning, still.

what tried to grind

us into sand failed and

cannot keep us from surging


Birmingham, AL 1963

“My gran use tuh tell me about folks flyn back tuh africa. A man an his wife wuz
brung frum Africa. Wen dey fine out dey wuz slabes an got treat so hahd, dey jis
fret and fret. One day dey wuz standin wid some udduh slabes an all ub a sudden
dey say, ‘We gwine back tuh Africa. So goodie bye, goodie bye.’” — Mose Brown

a high pressure water hose can take the head
clean off. on the curb—a pair of tinted glasses

 small enough to dress a toy. in the street’s
marrow—a pigtail, wrapped like caduceus & still

fastened with beret. sky-colored uniform, each
with an arm cawing to a friend & the other limb

in the leaping throat of a K9. the teens skip
school to crusade—songs shrieking like squashed

berries. pressed skirts cadeting knees—patent
leather sunday shoes, glinting from the fire hose

& the body’s leaking grief. to shield against fatal,
go fetal—huddle the black of the pavement.

muzzle the face to the red brick of a storefront. spines
sprayed—pinned like a crucifixion—righteous.

the youngests, though, could not ground
themselves with their own child weight—

lighting them like feathers. see it from the window:
porcelain hoofed melancholy—waters—rising

them up— flapping in grimace —jetted black
birds—grinning little ebony figurines soaring

the sea. kum…yali, kum buba tambe—my god,
the children—did you see them? salt-blood—

they took flight.


a vessel can be
a shipped prison



to which her purpose
is to haul pretty cargo



a girl, however prisoned
can be ship & cargo



a vessel can be
a shipped person

to which its purpose
is to haul precious cargo



a girl, however precious,
can be shipwrecked



a shipped person can
also be a vessel



to which its purpose
is to haul petty cargo

a girl, however priced, can
be both ship & cargo



a ship can also be
a prison vessel



to which her purpose
is to hide her pretty



a girl, however wrecked
can be a vessel

¹  “By what sweet name, and in
what tuneful sound wilt thou be
prais’d?” — Phillis Wheatley

Porsha Olayiwola is an Individual World Poetry Slam Champion and the founder of the Roxbury Poetry Festival. Olayiwola is Brown University’s 2019 Heimark Artist-in-Residence as well as the 2021 Artist-in-Residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She is a 2020 poet laureate fellow with the Academy of American Poets. Olayiwola earned her MFA in poetry from Emerson College and is the author of i shimmer sometimes, too. Olayiwola is the current poet laureate for the city of Boston. Her work can be found in or forthcoming from with TriQuarterly Magazine, Black Warrior Review, the Boston Globe, Essence, Redivider, the Academy of American Poets, Netflix, Wildness Press, the Museum of Fine Arts, and elsewhere.

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