My Black Ash in the Sun Is Not a Phoenix
The orthopedic surgeon tells me
after the surgery,
after seven stitches,
after three nights in the hospital,
after the IV drip in the vein,
after several treatments of antibiotics,
after the prescribed capsules,
after ten days in a soft cast,
after having my stitches
I am more likely to have scar tissue
because I am African American.
And I wonder if he wonders this beyond clinical fact,
if, somehow, he’s been following the news,
reading headlines, doing his research.
Does he know
how many nights I’ve been planning
old tissue reform,
watching skin thicken beneath skin,
waiting new flesh to take?
VLMT: Black NASA
va - cant \ˈvā-kǝnt\
adj. devoid of multi-
storied dreams / child-
hood hopes / where we lived
in unemployed / and abandoned /
n. one part clearing / one part mattress
dump / a point from which we confused
heaven / for brimstone / a stone’s throw
from which we cast lot
n. we made our bed under / these
conditions / burned down
to silver-spring crisp / stacked
tall like tomatoes / hogtied
to olympic bounce / ‘til rockets
propelled us to legendary status
tum - blers \ˈtum-blǝrs\
n. street gymnasts / who
aeronauticaled / the flight
of negro soles into outer / space
A Love Poem
: Michael Brown as an old man
He entered the park’s archway / hands withered like the leaves of November / shuffling beneath his feet / finding and losing them- / selves like the memory / of one / who pauses every few steps to admire the buildings / that had once been trees / and searches the sun / until he finds himself lost and lingering / like a stray to the public bench / where he removes his cap / balances his cane on his leg / and examines the faces of strangers / as one would / a map
When I found him there / he had already begun speaking of rivers / going on about the weather / seasons / and the earth’s axial tilt / how it was perfect like the curve of his Cardinal’s cap / or the hem of his wife’s ballroom dress / He complimented the sun / and spoke highly of the moon’s obsession with shooting stars / how he whispered dark matter / into the celestial ear of open space / how the shadow of the earth passes over a smile as a light wind / lifting silver leaves
like embers from their place / and he spoke of how / the same happiness can remind / a man of sorrow / and how both reminded him of his bride / in the garden / and the first dance they had ever danced
A few good words with Chaun
BVS: All of these pieces utilize different kinds of structuring, from staggered lines, to prose-lineated slashes, to italics—how do you decide how each poem is built?
CB: Forms, be they nonce or fixed, are ways to heighten content on the page. Unlike prose, poetry can make as much or as little use of white space as is desired. We, as poets, are given a blank canvas to create our Rembrandt. The colors we employ are words, made into images. To me, the content of a poem is just the first layer of paint on a blank canvas.
The question I try to ask myself is how can I be more than one-dimensional? I try to do this in a number of ways. I utilize line breaks/slashes to slow the poem down, so, like looking at a Rembrandt, readers can identify and take in every brush stroke; I use “staggered lines” to create alternate narratives when read separately; italics, in cases of dialogue.
Due to the relationship between content and form, a poem is multi-dimensional. Layers of meaning are made from the conversation the structure creates, and I enjoy seeing how these pieces—words, stanzas, and space—come together to make one stand-alone poem. In short, I decide based on the needs of the poem itself.
BVS: I was so moved by “A Love Poem” and its gentle imaginings—I feel like the tenderness of the banal (“When I found him there / he had already begun speaking of rivers / going on about the weather / seasons /…”) is so important; our dead were also whole people, and here Michael Brown is afforded the simple pleasure of witnessing the space he’s in. How do you see your work engaging with the imaginary, or better, perhaps, how do you see the alternative possible shaping your work?
CB: I guess, subconsciously, I’ve been drawn to the “imaginary” or the “alternative possible” in a poem because of the opportunity it allows for escape/forgiveness/reconciliation. Not just for myself, but for the reader and, if possible, for the gone. I believe poems of this nature hinge on optimism, and I’m learning to be an optimist. I think I have to these days—with all that is taking place both home and abroad.
I also believe the “alternative possible” poems tug at the heart. They go beyond the “why” and the “how,” and ask, “what if?” In this case, “What if Michael Brown survived?” What if he was able to live long enough to experience love, marriage, dance? What if he had the good fortune of revisiting Ferguson after many years had passed? And what if he sat there on a public bench and gazed out into what used to be? What if he was able to say things like: “I remember there used to be a field there; and there, an empty lot; and here, trees”? What if he was able to marvel at change, give witness, reconcile?
I think, these days, poetry finds itself, again, in an interesting place in American history. We are experiencing a revitalization, a renaissance on several fronts, but also resistance. Because of this, I feel it is important to create work that tells-it-how-it-is, tell-it-how-it-ain’t, and provides an alternative—because optimism is part of the human experience.
BVS: In turbulent times (and oh, dear do these feel like turbulent times), I look for work that builds out some better future/alternate space to heal. What books/poems/stories are doing that for you?
CB: Being overseas has made it difficult for me to keep my books current. My wife and I purchase the poetry books that are available to us in the summer, and we reread them repeatedly throughout the year.
In regard to “better future / alternate space,” I think you hit it right on the head. There is certainly a change of tide that is happening and being felt by many all over the world. Because of this, I believe poetry readers will indeed turn to poems that create this different place, a place in which hope is found. One poem that does this for me (over and over again) is Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere.”
Raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Bernardino, California, Chaun Ballard is a graduate of the MFA Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. For eight years now, he and his wife have been teaching in the Middle East and West Africa. Chaun Ballard’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ANMLY (FKA Drunken Boat), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Frontier Poetry, International Poetry Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Rattle, and other literary magazines. His work has received nominations for both Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize. Find him at chaunballard.com