The gallows stood in the “Burial Ground for Negroes,” a Black cemetery more than two centuries
old that today lies unrecognized and nearly forgotten under a privately owned parking lot.
North up 24th Street a fire truck laments
past my porch to the projects where someone
is rising through the living body of Sunday afternoon
in flames. I felt the siren’s incompletion follow me
inside, holding to its failure, the air easily harmed,
scaffolds of the tulip-tree botched with mites
and it doesn’t seem to want to not rain.
I need to feel that I’m better than this, the tree,
the siren, all of it, to devise a way to mend a life,
maybe not even mine. The stray dogs choking down
chicken bones in the market’s trash don’t even
consider me, rope leashes dauntless in dust,
no names, former lives they recall only in passing scents:
work glove, Lysol, chain-link, hot dog.
The bread factory is beyond help, is now condos,
and the water tower on its roof pumped dry,
repainted, hollowed out, used to resurrect
the archaic, the idea of water not water itself.
There is no end, no destination.
Should I feel nostalgia or just defeat
about a breadcrumb poultice
on the stray German shepherd’s neck, the work
of an old hand that has not forgotten how to mend?
Gabriel in the gallows, do not misunderstand.
This is meant to signify ache, someone other than me.
When I write under the hospital cobbles, two swallows
pull a crow down. Ghost rope taut means the horizon
looms the rain, neighborhoods dim, the parking lot
empties and medical students in their scrubs drive past
the boarded-up sandwich shop and over your grave.
Come and start a new country. I swear there is hope
in vacancy, in Mini Coopers and stethoscopes, dialysis,
ibuprofen, warehouse rats. When I write curse,
another fire truck rolls by, numerous engines catch
and ignite, catch and ignite, the meaning of a history
is its animal, its curse. Architecture rejects, descends,
the crabgrass cruel between sidewalk bricks.
I cannot begin to tell you how cities are founded.
There was never one place I belonged. I came from an egg,
from under the raspberry bush where to dream of blood
meant your children will perish from the face of the earth.
I do not think you will remember me.
Gabriel in the gallows, decay doesn’t begin, it was here
the whole time. Ruin can mean anything you want it to mean.
It could even be a method of devotion.
Look at the highway, so close to your grave.
The trucks roaring by make a routine wind
in the guard rail’s rigging and you are not that wind.
My words are less than the touch of its rising.
It’s getting late. I’ve walked down here
to disown my past, and now I can’t make out
the telephone poles from the trees, each one
buzzing the black droplets of night from wire
to branch, transformer to leaf, as if night
was engineered, a system for us to console,
then grieve. Regret comes to me like this,
standing here in your parking lot next to
the forgotten sandwich shop. Last year
a storm took down the old wooden sign,
Sandwiches, black-on-white gravestone
of no reverence, no memory, the one
I coveted for its charm, weathered
from all the working-class mouths repeating
through the years, sandwiches, sandwiches.
There shall be no famine, there shall be no fear.
What a lovely, simple word.
When I write it to you, all the world goes out.
Introduction: From Replica of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, Fall 1900
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