A collaboration with Etheridge Knight based on “The Idea Of Ancestry” Empty Space
The 47 black faces stare back at you. Taped to your prison
wall. Did they come all at once, a cousin arrived with a shoebox,
or maybe it was the hat box your grandfather kept; pictures rooted
next to never-used-one-way-bus-ticket up north, or did they arrive
in drips, a picture from an aunt, and a few from your mother
before she stopped visiting.
Picture of your father; young. Had he posed: a wooden platform,
ironed suit, same he wore to his brother’s funeral,
or was it a picture of him with a fishing pole; bluegill suspended,
hanging, dead now. You remember the glassy-smooth rocks
under churning water and the way your father’s right hand crushed,
flattened the head, blood marked on rock. Both your grandfathers are dead.
It was grandfather Davis who came home bloody, his scalp bruised and bent,
battered pulp-flesh, beer bottles splintered in skull. He went into the Clarks’
yard to get his grandson’s baseball. Your aunt left you candy in flower pots
said it sprouted from soil or draped like fruit from trees. She still looks for
you every Sunday. Nieces and nephews: they stare back. You know
their style. Do they know yours? Sprawled on your bunk.
Your five-year-old niece never licked vanilla ice cream from your finger.
She smiles at you; the only one that smiles back. You are all of them.
They are all of you. They are farmers. You are a thief. You did stand
in rows of cabbage, feet cracked in compost, your rows always 12 inches
apart. If you bent now and placed seed in soil what would
come up? The earth doesn’t know your hands anymore.
Empty space. You are all of them and they are all of you. Grandmother’s
bible with everybody’s birth and death dates cracked open,
the pages tattered, yellow-worn. She used to let you hold it.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
You hitchhiked your way from LA with 16 caps in your pocket.
The monkey on your back. Hills and red gullies of Mississippi crying
for you. Genes, galvanized; the call electric. It was laying next to your sister,
the black eyed susans and ironweeds nearby, that you heard the cicadas crooning
their trill; dobsonflies and may beetles never bothered you. Leaping now
and bucking up your birth steam, a salmon quitting the cold ocean,
or like the black carpenter ant carrying the leaf from the weeping willow
back to its colony, 40 times its weight, you squaring 900 pounds
over your head; a lumbering journey back. The monkey on your back;
its finger nails already clawed your neck, hands cling to your shoulders,
choking and retching in your ear. Grass under your feet, the hickories
and willow oaks not too far away. Did the eastern-eyed click beetle
remember you? Azaleas and trumpet honeysuckles send you
their smell. Cornwhicky in fruit jars. Your habit came down. You had almost caught up with yourself.
This year the gray stone wall dams your stream;
water, ancient as the Clavius crater on the near side of the moon shakes
and rouses your soul. You stare at the 47 black faces across the space,
pacing your cell. You are all of them and they are all of you.
By Paul Conlon
Paul Conlon is a poet from New York. He leads a creative writing workshop
for members of the Queens, NYC community and his poems have recently
appeared in the Newtown Literary Review. He is a K-12 educator where he
enjoys teaching English and theater.