It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time: Poems

It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time: Poems

by Angela Jackson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810130517
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 02/15/2015
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Angela Jackson is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Voo Doo/Love Magic (1974); Dark Legs and Silk Kisses (TriQuarterly, 1993), which won the Carl Sandburg Award; and And All These Roads Be Luminous (TriQuarterly, 1998). She has also written several plays, including Witness! (1978), Shango Diaspora: An African-American Myth of Womanhood and Love (1980), and When the Wind Blows (1984). Her novel Where I Must Go (TriQuarterly, 2009) won the American Book Award. Jackson’s honors include a Pushcart Prize, TriQuarterlys Daniel Curley Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, the Academy of American Poets Prize, and grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council. Jackson lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time


By Angela Jackson

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Angela Jackson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3051-7


    The Fabric of Our Lives

    The streets had a cushion then
    like velvet.
    And streetlights shone like satin.

    The wind gave us lashes
    our parents wore
    on their backs.

    Mothers, fathers made velvet; saw by satin
    sounds of dreamers. Medium brown
    in touch with spirits, rejected
    just enough to be tough
    Enough to be proud.

    Everyone remembered cotton, the bolls of it,
    their backs still holding the bow,
    arms, hands still holding the pick,
    the toil of it.
    Our cushioned streets
    so many beats from cotton.

    Wearing the wind's warp and woof.
    The trees so bright, each leaf
    a sequin.


    I was crowning marble-Mary with bright
    colored flowers. I, in pastel silk,
    quiet, closed as a girl-queen, not light
    as those girls like butter, milk.

    He worked three-leven, the post office,
    from lifting sacks, to punching in zip codes.
    She cooked, scrubbed, till she felt it in her wrist.
    Did it for us to walk new aisles, roads.

    Me, among rows and rows of brown-black grads
    in full white wedding dresses, so white they
    shine in a church of arches, sublime, sad
    windows that tell each of us to pray.

    I walk the aisle this day and memory.
    Flowers, now, for the ones who really love me.

    Perfect Pears

    For Sharon

    My father nibbled our cheeks
    like a king nibbling pears, one at a time,
    holding each perfectly still. Our mouths shaped O
    in infant ecstasy.

    A love so fierce and tender!

    His mustache brushed like livid breath
    upon our new skin. We loved that too.

    He turned his right leg into a horse
    and let us ride, bumping along through
    a safe life.

    At the post office, a king among men,
    carrying the heavy sacks of letters, swollen
    urgent shapes, did he dream of the hard
    pears in his father's yard on that tree
    pears turned ripe and sweet?

    Later, what an imperfect king, prone
    to temper, he whipped us into lineage.
    Tolerating nothing he deemed outside
    the rule of his kingdom.

    A love so fierce and fearsome!

    Like any king he offered us protection.
    We were arrogant beggars who accepted
    his food, his shelter, and conspired
    against him in whispers, until we
    at distance learned to love him like pears
    once again.

    Now my sister has a pear tree in her front yard.
    Pears rain down onto her porch, bruise and bleed
    on concrete, or gray squirrely squirrels high in branches
    cast down pears they've ruined
    with their mean teeth.

    My Father's Prayers

    Every morning my father prayed on his knees
    at the side of his marriage bed. He bowed
    his head and poured his prayers into two loose fists
    over his mouth. We watched in wonder
    as the one who could give a whipping
    and scald us with his tongue turned
    into a penitent child; obedient and
    intense, petitioner. We lurked around his doorway
    like cowardly debtors observing his
    rich rite of passage into the working day
    or weekend that worked also, except
    for Sunday when he got up, dressed
    in his best, put on his hat and went
    calling on relatives, our Aunt Tumpy
    who had a piano. He could make it
    talk; the keys jangling an entrance
    to Paradise. Blue fire in his fingers. He threw his head back
    and let his hands go with his relaxed, ecstatic body.
    And with each sound he threw away or burned
    away everything that hurt a man or
    brought him to his knees.


    I rouse her and she looks at the clock.
    I could not sleep in the noisy dark. We dress.
    We go down to the basement together.
    It is the hour between midnight and one
    o'clock. Upstairs the radiators are singing, raw
    without lubricant, grinding without protection.
    My mother turns the key
    in the padlock.
    I hold the light, a circle around her.

    We enter,
    walk over the wet, concrete floors.
    My mother holds the tiny oil can.
    I hold the heavy light.
    She squeezes oil into the furnace pipe;
    the place where oil goes
    she knows.
    The basement was my father's

    Behind us is a dark, grimy counter where he worked.
    He knew what he was doing
    and he did it

    In the darkness I see him, ghost-light, moving, working
    at his workbench. His shoulders a study of what it means
    to hold together a house with wife and children inside.
    In the darkness he is a youngish man, then old,
    holding together promises made in centuries of unremunerated toil,
    in the hustle and rustle of the city.
    His is uncharted territory to me. The masculine wonder
    and defeat. The victory.
    Now, after midnight,
    the loneliness of this territory
    cries out to us.
    We hurry back up the stairs.
    Stumbling through the light.


    My mother could not understand how it happened
    That her brother's son died in his car on the railroad tracks
    When it was struck by a train.
    She could not understand that grim bewitching hope
    That clung to the tips of his fingers stubborn as calluses
    As he turned the key in the ignition.
    The motor turned over and went back to sleep like a grouchy husband
    Who will not listen when the wife shakes him awake
    Because the house is on fire; the engine died
    In its sleep,
    They were dreaming then, my cousin and his friend,
    Of a grand escape with the hot breath of the train on the side
    Of their fear sweaty faces (steel had never split ribs and splashed blood
    Past split skin, and their skulls had not been left crushed and leaking).
    They were dreaming of being old men in slippers
    Telling the story of how they got away just
    In time.

    Mama in Blue, White, and Love

    Was this in your blue
    print? That I be tempted by blue
    devils to cry instead of laugh thunderously?
    Is this the song (not blues)
    you planned for me?
    When did you map it out meticulously
    in the midnight
    house in a country of white as dead bones
    laws that would have struck you blind
    instead of right to witness winning blue sky
    horizons blue-penciled
    for your honest dream
    for me? You kept dreaming.
    Do you recall how white
    people could do anything
    to people of our hue or genes?
    Once your family fled north
    to avoid the twisted gray rope.
    Were you working on the print for me
    then when you returned?
    Or were you born with it as a fingerprint?
    Or a footnote?

    Did you walk your map for me
    and daughters in blue
    stockings and uniforms
    or bare legs who write with soft
    palms what you wrote with hard
    caress and powerful grip against hot
    trouble, hot blue
    water in a tub in an open
    yard in a closed land.
    The parts of your life I cannot
    consider, did you?
    The short order courses of the hotel kitchen
    where your coworker spit
    in nasty whites' food,
    did you serve the blue
    plate special?
    Weren't you special
    who brought everything good you could
    home to us? Did you draw a daughter in blue
    jeans off to a wide dream amid blue
    books, African-American blue
    blood with no register beyond the reckoning
    of my life and yours?
    Was I in your blue
    print: a blues
    note amid blue
    racers weaving? Is it once in a blue
    moon I kiss your blue
    collar and pin your blue
    ribbon in your gray-white hair?

In My Father's House Are Many Stories

For George "Sunni Man" Jackson, 1921–1993

My father made a garden by an expressway; the topsoil was grime, and neglected foot steps. My mother could not wash the exhausted soil from her windows for longer than the time it took her hands to heal from the hot vinegar solution. (They did not quit bending this mother, this father, bending from deep in the back. They did not quit straightening things contrived in crookedness.)

Every day is a form of trying. Every day in my memory is a gesture beyond acquiescence, though the whole city, the weight of it, suffocated and stunted portions of the self, clipped the wings of the dance, garbled some poem. I do not remember the blues as simple defeat. Every time I open my mouth is a form of trying.

If all word of me be used up and lost like newspapers rolling over and over on the way to the blind slam against a building, all my rolling a gesture beyond acquiescence. The earth will love me. Or I will wiggle through the cracks contrived to break my mother's back and I will blossom in the memory of footsteps in the way they did not quit.

My father returned to Mississippi to build a second story to the single story frame house where I was born after five others. He made space for daughters and sons of daughters, safe under one roof definite as blues sky he would lift into place with his hands that trembled a little with agitations sometimes when he could not call a piece of memory or story as fast as once.

He lifted that house on blocks and opened the roof to a wide dream too unfinished for him to stay inside. He moved around his mother's house amid dust and mice, to feast on dreams prepared in the monotony of the post office factory he hates to the death of every day. He nods to the boarded mouth of his father's house, to the pear tree, to the pecan, to the torn swing swaying air, no body cooling on the cooling boards. No story waiting for audience there.

Once, come Chicago-home from Home, he stood in the kitchen doorway, frightened still by the shining ghost who stood at the foot of his mother's high bed, speechless, both of them ghost and fleshed-out ghost, my father, nervous and certain of the visitation Mama disputed with reason crafted to quell his excitement. The northern sun crowded us together into the kitchen of that yellow frame house. My father's memory grew wider, open to fancies, fluencies.

Remember Germany. Where women and children called him "swartze" and king. Benevolent despot of nylons and candies. All the hero he ever was crooning out and in through black skin, turned barbed wire like the fences across the river where American Japanese waited in embrace throughout the war. Swartze king came home to barbed wire. He remembers Germany.

Once as a boy riding with Uncle Sweet in their father's wagon, a star fell down in a field near the road and lit the earth, earth opened up, brightness blossoming to near blindness. His Papa stopped the wagon and waited for some word to call this wonder to pass between them. But everywhere was mean, so he hid this in some narrow corridor to the great chambers he would only learn to live in a song, momentary and wry.

A thousand-fold the shame-story told over and again disguised as trickery in my father's eye. Triumph told and told lest shame sit in his mouth, and rot his teeth, and sink his cheeks, and his face be skull. All those mouths to feed. And the mouth of a dream yawning like an emperor bored with the pain of the peasant. The be-ringed hand across the mouth of a city, a country that called him nigger and worse while he denied degradation. And we children sang our songs into fans of summer that flew back song like amplified angels, death-defying because he and she made it so. A long window to shout out to the streets of the naked emperor who would not remember our names.

We grew swift on his anger, my father deposed and eloquent. We learned flight and early reply graceful as the path of stars rising out of the earth in a twist of his grand memory.

This is the second story of my father's house.

Children, hewn from wood of the tree he tells about that waters itself. That story. Blues songs and lost harmonicas, house shoes we bought he would not wear. Walking on the sides of his feet tracing the shape of his mother's grave and the edge of his own in hers.

Stories told a thousand times. And wife as sharp angel had heard all the telling. Stories. Not enough building to hold all the children inside.

In his century-lived, gone mother's house did he see at night in the tree-thick dark a leaf of light at the foot of the bed? Did it rattle and reach to speak? What did he reply? What did he say as a boy when the star-swallowing earth grew a coat of bright color that blazed and blazes this moment he will not lose? And the story of his destiny is written more quietly than he wanted in this moment and that when the earth itself opened and light came out the center of the dark to meet the light that tumbled from sky giving my father voice for dream I give back to him now. His story amplified by a gift of tongues. A house sheltering wonder and shame.

House with sunroof, skylight, windows, and tree that waters itself inside the great and listening chambers where begins the beat of a blues he gave himself to singing on a cruise on the Mississippi River. That house solid, constructed of deliberate hands and intelligent will, many roomed, stories, blues he lives inside and beyond beyond oh, beyond acquiescence.


    Elam House

    Hair brushed and bound. They
    Sat up all night on the train.
    Traveling between the wing of a Crow
    And the sleeves of a moon white
    As latrines in the South they were

    Their shoes tied to calves, the laced legs
    Hidden. They longed to help rouged
    Pink ladies enough to send money home.
    And live at Elam on their own—
    Sunday tea and gentlemen callers.

    After Elam, freedom, wedlock or not.
    But what husband could save a woman
    From a crow's wing of the South
    Or crow's feet anywhere?
    Or the moon's sleeves with anything
    Up them to ruin girl's reputation
    Or send her high on the rustle of doves?
    Or shine on a bed in which she must lie
    Listening to the grinding of teeth
    Wondering: Is it me? Will I be happy
    By and by?

    She'd make her bed hard
    And turn over often.
    And he'd turn over with her.

    And what was hard was hot.
    If she had to burn for all her mistakes,
    Why not then, with him,
    This way?

    If anyone smelled her burning
    They could bring cold water.
    Not a glass, but a bowl of porcelain
    Perfect as the ubiquitous northern moon.


Excerpted from It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time by Angela Jackson. Copyright © 2015 Angela Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Mississippi Summer 3


The Fabric of Our Lives 7

Crowning 8

Perfect Pears 9

My Father's Prayers 11

Territory 12

Hope 14

Mama in Blue, White, and Love 15

In My Father's House Are Many Stories 17


Elam House 23

The Day after All Saints Day Is All Souls Day 25

Her Memory Coming Home 26

Photograph: Circa 1960 28

A Thousand Pages 29

Pendulum 31

Phillis 33

After Work 35

Vocabulary 37


The Red Line Is the Soul Train 41

Notes above the Stream, a Part of the Stream 45

A Woman Was Being Raped 47

Eclipse 48

IV Suite: Ida

Ida Watches 51

Two Trains 52

Did Ida B. Wells Ever Pass Bessie Smith on the Boulevard? 53

Kokomo 54


Looking Back 59

Betrayal 60

Hot Pink Flamingoes 61

Fuchsia 63

The Scarf 64

The Rape of Memory 66

Sleep 68


American Justice 73

In These Times 75

Warm Weather 76

Beginner's Luck 77

Nocturnal 81

Niger: No Exit 82


The Last Door 87

Glory Land 89

Haiti, It Has Been Thirty Years Since I Last Saw You 97

The Moment of Arrival 99


The Smoke Queen 103

The Good Neighbor Observes the Celebrity Next Door 107

You Do Not Know the Hour 109

Heaven Is No Recompense 110

For Gwen, On Her Passing 111

The Poem in the Pocket 113

Faith II 115

An African Reunion 116

The Ritual Calendar of Yes 118

Leaf 120

April 6, 1991 123

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