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September 25, 2014

Poetry by English prof Terrance Hayes

Black Confederate Ghost Story

Attention African-American apparitions hung,

burned or drowned before anyone alive was born:

please make a mortifying midnight appearance

before the handyman standing on my porch

this morning with a beard as wild as Walt Whitman’s.

Except he is the anti-Whitman, this white man

With confederate pins littering his denim cap and jacket.

(And by “mortify” I mean scare the shit out of him.)

I wish I were as tolerant as Walt Whitman

waltzing across the battlefield like a song

covering a cry of distress, but I want to be a storm

covering a confederate parade. The handyman’s

insistence that there were brigades of black

confederates is as oxymoronic as terms like

“civil war,” “free slave.” It is the opposite of history.

Goodbye plantations doused in Sherman’s fire

and homely lonesome women weeping

over blue and gray bodies. Goodbye colored ghosts.

You could have headed north if there was a south

to flee. In Louisiana north still begins with Mississippi,

as far as I know. East is Alabama, west is Texas,

and here is this fool telling me there were blacks

who fought to preserve slavery. Goodbye slavery.

Hello black accomplices and accomplished blacks.

Hello Robert E. Lee bobble head doll

on the handyman’s dashboard whistling Dixie

across our post racial country. Last night

I watched several hours of television and saw

no blacks. NASDAQ. NASCAR. Nadda Black.

I wish there were more ghost stories

about lynched negroes haunting the mobs

that lynched them. Do I believe no one among us

was alive between 1861 and 1865?

I do and I don’t. We all have to go somewhere

and we are probably always already there.

I know only one ghost story featuring a brother

in Carrolton, Alabama, dragged to the center of town

in a storm for some crime he didn’t commit.

As he was hung lightening struck a window

on the courthouse he’s been haunting ever since.

Attention apparitions: this is a solicitation

very much like a prayer. Your presence is requested

tonight when this man is polishing his civil war relics

and singing “Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier”* to himself.

Hello sliding chairs. Hello vicious whispering shadows.

I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable

as something hanging a dozen feet in the air.

*Oh, I’m a good old Rebel soldier, now that’s just what I am;

For this “Fair Land of Freedom” I do not give a damn!

I’m glad I fit against it, I only wish we’d won,

And I don’t want no pardon for anything I done.

Cocktails with Orpheus

After dark, the bar full of women part of me loves—the part that stood

naked outside the window of Miss Geneva, recent divorcée who owned

a gun, O Miss Geneva where are you now—Orpheus says she did

not perish, she was not turned to ash in the brutal light, she found

a good job, she made good money, she had her own insurance and

a house, she was a decent wife. I know descent lives in the word

decent. The bar noise makes a kind of silence. When Orpheus hands

me his sunglasses, I see how fire changes everything. In the mind

I am behind a woman whose skirt is hiked above her hips, as bound

as touch permits, saying don’t forget me when I become the liquid

out of which names are born, salt-milk, milk-sweet and animal-made.

I want to be a human above the body, uprooted and right, a fold

of pleas released, but I am a black wound, what’s left of the deed.

Wigphrastic  — after Ellen Gallagher

Sometimes I want a built-in scalp

that looks and feels like skin. A form of camouflage,

protection against sunburn and frostbite,

horsehair that covers the nightmares and makes me civilised.

Somebody slap a powdered wig on me so I can hammer

a couple sentences like Louis XIV small and bald

as a boiled egg making himself taller by means

of a towering hairpiece resembling a Corinthian column

or maybe a sky-scraping Kid with no Play wig

worn by someone playing Niggaz Wit Attitude

at a penthouse party with no Black people.

We up in the club humming Hmm-mmm, Hey Mamma

and our numbskull caps underscore the brain’s captivity.

Somebody slap me. Norman Mailer’s essay,

The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,

never actually uses the word wigger. I’d rather say whack.

It may be fruitful to consider me a philosophical psychopath.

We clubbing in our wigs of pleas and pathological

coulda-woulda-shouldas. Oblong with longing.

Some of the ladies are wigs of No Nos and nots,

knots of nots: do nots, cannots, aughta nots.

Wigs dipped in dye the colour of Cosmopolitans,

citrus, wheat beer swirling on their scalps, off their scalps,

sides of scalps, their centre parts, and irrigated plaits.

Flirty Bangs dangle below a bow clip of sparkle.

A lady places her bow about face to place her face in place.

Which is a placebo of place, her face is a placebo.

Let’s wear ready-made wigs, custom-made wigs,

hand-tied wigs and machine-made wigs.

‘No Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty

that violence will not visit him,’ wrote Mailer.

Bullets shout through the darkness. Dumb people are dangerous.

‘Calamity pimps come out of the woodwork

and start to paddle their own canoes.’

This was a white dude’s response to the death of Martin.

Later let’s beat that apathy wig off him.

You wear the shark-head wig and I’ll wear the wig of tidewater

rising to the ceiling. You wear the buckaroo wig

and I’ll wear a wig of tumbleweed. When anyone says,

‘You look beautiful,’ reply: ‘I feel beautiful’

like the beautiful shoulder length locks

shorn from a cancer stuffed bride in need of money.

Let’s get higher than God tonight like the military wives

of Imperial Rome smiling in the blonde and red-haired wigs

cut from the scalps of enemy captives. Somebody slap me.

We awash in liquor watching the coils curl,

curls coil, coils coil, curls curl on the girls.

Nonslip polyurethane patches, superfine lace,

Isis wigs, Cleopatra wigs, Big Bootie Judy wigs

under the soft radar streaked music of Klymaxx

singing ‘The men all pause when I walk into the room.’

The men all paws. Animals. The men all fangles,

the men all wolf-woofs and a little bit lost, lust,

lustrous, trustless, restless as the rest of us.

In my life the wigs eat me. The wish to live awhile on the mind

of another human is not inhuman. The wish to slide

for a while inside another human, it is not inhuman.

If you like ‘like’ like I like ‘like,’ you should wear a hairpiece.

It is peace of mind. It is artistic. It is a lightweight likeness,

comfortable, wash and wear, virtually looking and feeling

with virtually no side effects. Let me hear you say:

‘This wig is terrific!’ A coloured despair wig

for your coloured despair, an economic despair wig,

a sexual despair wig, a wig for expressive despair,

political despair, a movable halo. New and improved,

your wig can be set upon the older wig

just as the older wig was set,

when it was newer, upon the wig beneath it.

Where’s your wig? Wear your wig. Your wig is terrific.


Poems reprinted with permission of author
Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 3