Read an Excerpt
A. VAN JORDAN
John let's strip off our words to speak without our tongues. let's try to tongue without saying a word. let's turn speech back into struggle tonight.
MacNolia no, in the middle of the night, afternoon, or morning, let's pull up our voice, our moan, yes, our song.
at 3:00 A.M. bring back words.
John why bring words when we've waited so long for silence?
why bring light when we've needed to knead heat from our shadows?
when dark rooms call out our names?
MacNolia in the shadow's heat,
in the dark's light, in the night's promise of morning,
there's always a language born out of the struggle to touch.
I don't know if I
have the words to touch the back of your knees, the small of your back . . . brown lines in your palms . . . what language can frame you?
MacNolia our language frames us as we resemble our words.
the words we speak when an open window carries our new language to rooftops.
John and here I thought I
was teaching you! now, you show me a mirror in which I see a stranger, how good it is to meet me when--
MacNolia when we are standing,
nose to nose, as my wedding dress falls to our floor.
A Black Wedding Song
First dedicated to
Charles and La Tanya,
Allen and Glenda,
Hake and Safisha
This love is a rich cry over
The deviltries and the death.
A -weapon--song. Keep it strong.
Keep it strong.
Keep it logic and Magic and lightning and Muscle.
Strong hand in strong hand, stride to the Assault that is promised you (knowing no armor assaults a pudding or a mush).
Here is your Wedding Day.
Here is your launch.
Come to your Wedding Song.
I wish the kindness that romps or sorrows along.
I wish you the daily forgiveness of each other.
For war comes in from the World
And puzzles a darling duet--
tears hearts, mashes minds;
there will be the need to forgive.
I wish you jewels of black love.
Come to your Wedding Song.
the heat you left with me last night still smolders the wind catches your scent and refreshes my senses
I am a leaf falling from your tree upon which I was impaled
If I am your heart
Imagine me inside
Beating, pumping, loving
I have never been a slave
Yet, I know I am whipped
I have never escaped underground
Yet, the night knows my journey
I have never been to Canada
Yet I've crossed your border
If I were a poet in love
I'd say that with you
I have found that new place
Where romance is just a beginning
And freedom is our end.
E. ETHELBERT MILLER
On your left hand a paper cut near your thumb.
I notice small things because I love you so much.
When opportunity knocks
I open my door
First in a line
Of homeless men standing
Outside a shelter.
You enter my apartment
The neighbors on my floor
They come and go
They stand between the elevator
And my door,
Waiting for a way out,
They curse me,
"That Black faggot bitch got crackheads coming up in here."
Peering through their peepholes
They don't love us
Or even know how the pairing of two Black men
Is so much greater than the rumors they've reduced us to,
Rumors I hear when I enter the bar
Where no handsome stranger flirts with me,
Rumors that litter the streets we walk
And pollute the eyes around us
With -self--disgust and -self--pity.
When opportunity knocks
I let you in,
My refrigerator door,
And ready to be eaten
I run your bath water, wash your clothes
Lie in my bed with clean sheets,
But there are places within me
French kisses and erections cannot reach.
When opportunity knocks
America sees shiftless garbage walking
Through my door--a crackhead, a killer, a thief,
Another nigga racing past them in disgrace.
I live beyond the expiration date men
See stamped on my face.
I'm a forty-year-old Black gay man
Living a life challenged by HIV disease.
What makes me different from those who would
Knowing you are
And a crackhead on call who sells his body
For a rock, food, and shelter?
I worry about you
You don't have to fuck me
Or get fucked in the mouth for a meal.
I won't wet your appetite for -self--destruction
With my cum,
I won't buy you crack
Or give you money.
I will grieve each time
You tell me you can't stop
And that you like your life
Just as it is.
When opportunity knocks
You fuck me with the sincerity and passion
Of a condemned man in prayer.
Isolation binds us
Soul mates locked in Hell's hotel room
And this is our wedding night.
Am I liberated or lonely,
Lucky or reluctant
Free or afraid to be hurt again,
Discarded by men
ISO (in search of) personal ad playmates
Wanted--Black men, must be younger, must be lighter, must be darker, more
Muscular, more masculine, more status conscious, more attractive than_._._.
When opportunity knocks,
I want you to find a way station of comfort
Not at the bottom of a beggar's cup
I want us to give more to our lives
Demand more of ourselves
I am on an island_in the Indian Ocean. The sun is strong and constant; it is holding me up. There is wide blue water to soak in, salty and warm. Spicy Swahili pilau and fish, cold beer, and a warm man. A slender young man as dark and smooth and supple as the sun is bright. Issanda is lemony sweet. I am so far away from my life that regular rules do not apply. We are here, with our bodies, what can't we do? What can we do?
Seduce each other. He was in my workshop; I was the leader or facilitator. It would no longer be unethical for us to venture closer, the workshop is over, no grades were given, and now, on this island, Lamu, we are all writers here, together. But just last week I acted like I had the knowledge; since I was published, I pontificated and was in charge. He listened, not exactly at my knee, but close to that position, it may have been easier to impress him. When he walked into the workshop on the first day, my mind went yummy, but hid it in the very back corner of my mind where thoughts that pop up unbidden are stamped down and locked away. As the workshop continued, I couldn't help but admire his physical beauty, his eyes that were sharp with intelligence, though a little red from the dust, bright sunlight, or -late--night drinks, who knew? I noticed with secret delight his -sharpish--flatish nose that is a bit like mine; and his neatly cut toenails that are a tawny color that matches perfectly the coffee of his feet and the even darker leather sandals. I was amused and impressed by his effort with English, which he is still learning, and which comes out with a French accent, not a Congolese one, as I expected. His ability to make jokes in a foreign language, betraying a sly humor that belies his boyish face. His tiny teeth shielded by lips a little too large, a little too much, but by whose standards? I asked myself. Musing about that was pleasurable too. I was also genuinely moved by his writing, which would have struck me even if nothing else did. Thank goodness it was not wrong to voice admiration for his words. To the contrary. It was easy then to enjoy the nurturing that is part of teaching, of both him and my other students.
And now he is no longer my student. About fifty writers and I came from the United States to join about twenty African writers at a seminar in Nairobi. After a week, we flew from the Kenyan capital to the Indian Ocean coast, an hour's quick trip, for a writing retreat on the island of Lamu. We land on a dusty airstrip by the shore, with a long low shed for an airport, and, walking, push through a wall of hot humidity, across long brown elephant grass to a wooden, rickety pier. At the end of it are two dhows ready to take us across the water to Lamu. Yes, dhows, those -age--old wooden boats that plied the route between the East African coast and the Persian Gulf for centuries and led to the intermingling of Arab and African that became the Swahili people, culture, and language. We will live among them for a week, soaking in the sweet and spice of their hybridity that is clearly revealed by their skin color. The islanders are a kaleidoscope of browns that recall the word for brown in my language, Runyankore--itaka--which means the earth, mud, loam, or soil.
On the dhow, a giant creaky brown bowl, under a huge -khaki--colored flapping sail, between the wavy carpet of dark blue water and canopy above of brilliant blue sky; stroked by the -half--understood Swahili shouts of -half--naked sinewy sailors; brimming inside with beginning-of-foreign-holiday excitement, as tingly as the salty breeze, amid all this, somehow, even more: Issanda is standing next to me. The jokes we shared in class continue, or perhaps the flirting starts. He says, "My favorite teacher!"
It is time to make it clear. "I am not your teacher anymore; I am your friend." We go silent. I can only guess what he was thinking, and that is the scary thrill of another person, an other. I cannot enter his mind nor he mine, but I wouldn't want it any other way. My mind is a place of private little plays, where my character adopts the scene by having me emphasize your friend with a bold and meaningful look. In reality, I look out over the blue expanse to hide my face, too embarrassed to make a deliberate pass. Still, I feel a tremor of flirtation between us, that nervousness of wish that is a reaching out, hesitation, and prickles of sweat. Something not yet, but could be and is becoming, or not.
Our group more or less writes in the mornings, eats lunch and swims at the beach in the afternoons, has dinner and talks into the wee hours of the night on various rooftops overlooking the wide ocean. We take dhow rides, explore the surrounding islands, shop, meet with writing mentors, or lie around and read in clusters large and small, or alone. Bliss, in short, but my body wants more.
One afternoon Issanda and I are part of a group that takes a boat to Manda beach. He does not spend much time in the water, but wades out in loose white and red swimming trunks. I note his lithe body and hairless chest with approval, and his solidly dark arms that are muscled in a natural, not exaggerated, steroidish way. His legs are spindly thin, but by now anything that could be a fault is a plus: a confirmation of his uniqueness and my uniqueness too, because it proves I am not shallow. I can stare freely because everyone is half dressed and in full view of one another, but I would not be surprised if he felt my stare like bores through his back. I am sure even he takes this chance the beach offers for -full--body scans. We are half naked already but protected by being in public.
The top piece of my aqua blue swimsuit covers my rather flabby forty-year-old belly, but something about this island makes me unself-conscious. Who cares about -knock--knees, thighs rich with cellulite that would be more useful on my boobs, and hair that puts the dread in dreadlocks? Unlike Dutch courage, Kenyan courage is a heady brew of sun, sea, and the confidence I gain on (well, near enough to) the black soil I grew up on, with a topping of extremely smart and funny writers who admire my work, and I theirs. Potent stuff. I swim in it and, with each stroke, reach for more and relish the reaching.
I follow Issanda out of the water after a few minutes so that it is not so obvious I am after him. My inner cat is prowling, -sure--footed, as I join him on a canopy made of roughly hewn poles covered with beige sisal matting, sandy on the skin.
"You didn't swim much."
"I don't swim very well." He is shy about it, which is so sweet.
"I'll teach you."
This is a role I relish. It is an opening I want to enter like a man. The others join us in the shade, and we joke and laugh and are generally relaxed. Issanda remains in the background, a little silent. The resident clown fuels his performance with vodka straight from the bottle. I take sips of it, and it shoots straight to the center of my head, making the play in my mind sparkle and squirm to get out, get real. The salt water drying my skin gives me a good excuse; I take out my sunscreen lotion and hold it out to Issanda with too coy a smile.
"Can you spread some on my back please?"
"But of course, Doreen!" He moves over quickly. Oh, the accent, the willingness, the way he laughs at himself because he is so obviously willing. The guys laugh approvingly; the girls giggle. A man can be publicly willing and as lustful as he wants to be; in fact he should be lusty if he is a real man. A woman must be coy, act unwilling, must woo by running away, but not too fast, of course. Thankfully, I am beyond all that, liberated by past frustration.
His touch is surprisingly soft. The cream is deliciously cool as he spreads it over my shoulders and back, but it is not a sexual caress. His hands are polite, and my skin, all smiles and relief. I am glad for the tentative tiny steps, for time. Skin and skin greet each other, saying more because we say nothing, and nothing is perfect right then. Still, I want more and desire is pleasurable too.
A little later. "Okay, it's time for your swimming lesson."
We get back in the water, I in the lead. He sputters and splashes around like a little kid, which makes me laugh out loud. He can swim but not well, so I show him how to move his arms better, how to breathe, showing off some too. Isn't that what teaching is? We enjoy the focus together on something else besides each other, which paradoxically is one of the most intense ways to be together. I see that he must learn to trust the water, so I ask him to lie back in it and float as I hold him up. The water gives me a perfect excuse to wrap my arms beneath and around his body.
"Relax, I have you. Let the water hold you too," I say. He does. I turn him slowly around in the warm seawater and tell him to empty his mind, all is clear. To simply float between the blue sky and blue ocean. I turn him the other way slowly, as I was taught was a form of water shiatsu. We are silent together, all feeling. The play in my head and reality are meeting; they are becoming one. We switch positions, and this is no longer a lesson: Class is over, and a serious game has begun.
From the Trade Paperback edition.