Listening RoomThe Poet Speaks




My black father touches a poinsettia bush
on his morning walk, and from the back
he looks like a praying mantis. He walks
to greet the iceman, the sun of Jamaica.
My father asks for a little more time
to answer my questions, to give me
the words I need. He pleads for patience.
We drive through pits between the hills
to see a hundred sick at clinic.
They cry for the belly, they toss at night,
their skin prickles with jaundice,
their sores will not heal. My father
fills their empty Kola Champagne bottles
with tart, black medicine. He delivers
a thousand from death by putting a knife
to their bodies, a thousand from death
by spraying the swamps for mosquitos,
a thousand from death by preaching the Bible.
The Queen receives him in London
and gives him the Empire. My father
puts the British Empire into a drawer
of memories. We listen to hymns in the dark.
We listen to fierce cries of Jamaica
so compelling that crabs lumber toward them.
My father takes me to Kingston, a city
smoldering under the weight of tin and grease.
He eats vegetables, plantain, and Postum.
I take peppered crayfish and chicken.
My father asks for a little more time.
He begs me some patience for the future.
Later, when I see him swollen
like an old tree dying of fungus,
still, he brings me visions of Jerusalem,
a black city full of his sons.

Poet’s Commentary:

“This is a poem about my black father who was a physician in Jamaica. I once wrote a series of poems about the many, many fathers I’ve had in both reality and in my imagination. And this one was written in memory of Dr. H. M. Johnstone.”

*Reproduced with the permission of Jack Coulehan and with special permission of Nightshade Press: First Photographs of Heaven, 1994.

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