Age of Discovery
You walk past a map. Poseidon and leviathans
long gone as new provinces of cruelty opened:
no need for monsters with priests or princes rabid
with God-In-Vanity. You’re here on your travels
for a faded gold and russet tapestry; its allegory:
Europe schools Africa. What has the pupil learned?
Master teach his heathen how to long for. Master teach his heathen
how to look.
Westerlies rattle the chains of the sea.
Shuttle and traffic. So many ports and none.
See the land and tropic birds carrying green sprigs?
See the tide-revised shore, its welcoming profusion?
See capital? See chattel? O America!
Brutal imagination, colonized bone, fractured argument.
You are a rebuttal, like the sea.
By June, I was still already grieving.
Strobe lights swarmed over the dead in Orlando.
A cop executed Philando Castile in front of his beloved and her daughter;
Citizens shared the video like a chain letter.
I cloistered myself in grief. I did not shave. I ate bread and wine
And wine. Heard voices were my mother’s calls.
I could not answer. I could not answer my phone. Was I an I?
The sky like a plum with a patch of gray rot. The wind, light.
A man I’d been fucking took me sailing on Lake Mendota.
We heard the disordered drums and yelps
Of someone who shouldn’t sing marimba music
From the crescent of light where people caroused, forgot themselves.
He reached for my crotch, felt its excitement beneath the denim.
I stopped desiring him months ago.My pleasure was in his not knowing.
And wanting me still. He returned me to simplicity, lust, selfishness
—Of the powers that separate us from animals, cruelty.
A smell like salt in the air, like the Gulf.
The scent of the coast that claims me,
Where I knew my people and myself.
Blue algae’s been bad lately, he said.
That’s why it smells like a beach. It’s rot you’re smelling.
And the living. It’s where the living’s done.
for Barry Graham
Your face was all angles the last time he saw you,
mom says. I sent him pictures when I could.
She flips a fried egg, chucks orange peels.
Shame’s familiar mist.
This morning’s alarm
is still going off: a chainsaw gnawing a branch
hanging too near a power line.
Today feels nearly the same as the last
time he visited, ten years ago, all of us watching
Doppler chart a hurricane.
But today’s the solstice.
What should I do with the extra light?
Remember mom walking through smoke with breakfast.
Remember watching the city lights with your grandfather.
Remember what you want to say, watching her pass,
when you reflect on this later
in your vanity when you are cold, hurt, or bitter.
When I return to my apartment the first thing I do
is lock my bedroom door: I’ve done this all year.
Gin and tonic. Greasy wrappers. Too much gin.
I’m puffy and soft.
My eyes were figs once, bruised with stitches.
You have beautiful eyes, said the man who kissed me.
This is what I wish I could tell you both.
He is gone, but we may still have this year.
Mom and I on the seashore:
I’m drifting in and out of thought
like a man floating on algal bloom.
Silence is one way to love someone.
Can it be done unselfishly? After I fail
to coax her into the water, I wade in
but don’t dive under the gradient
waves. I stare into the offing,
its journeys and crossings,
the edge of knowledge, the beginning
of fear, where, as a child, I thought
the ocean spilled out like a bowl
of ink and water, but it goes on and on.
A few good words with Derrick
BVS: In your poem, “Age of Discovery,” I was so stuck by and drawn to the line “Master teach his heathen how to long for. Master teach his heathen / how to look.” I think a lot about the concept of belonging and how we as black folks are socialized to (be)longing—for freedom, a home safe for our bodies, for joy. Literal place & home-ness & belonging come up in this collection of poems often—how does this idea, black citizenship as a practice of longing, inform your work and the way you feel/see yourself as a black poet in a larger literary community.
DA: Decolonizing desire is a phrase I’ve thought about a lot in recent years. It’s a mode of thought that would have us consider how white supremacy has warped our relationship to love, to the erotic, to bodies. I also think about decolonizing desire more broadly, desire not just as it relates to sexual longing but longing more generally, what we want out of life. Until I got to grad school, I truly didn’t have a concept of community that extended beyond my small social circle. I didn’t know it was something I could long for or cultivate or require for my well being. For so long I walled myself off and would barrel through any indignity: do your work and then go home, that’s how I lived. Black citizenship means uplifting our work. Black citizenship is a circle of care and learning and fellowship and liberation and joy.
BVS: In “The Offing,” you employ meaningful section breaks—how do you decide when and where to segment a poem? What’s the impetus for the use of an extended break like that?
DA: I wanted to indicate a longer pause, something I don’t think a stanza break would allow. It marks a shift in the poem: tonally, formally, temporally, spatially, etc. I think that’s pretty common practice though. What interests me about poems in sections is how they’re cordoned off. What’s the difference between using numbered sections, dividing sections with symbols like asterisks or tildes, or giving sections their own page? I like using tildes as a gentler break, it’s like a scene break in a play instead of an act break.
BVS: After doing the necessary/healing/heavy work of writing through and into pain, whosework do you look to to find black joy? What writing envelopes you in gladness?
DA: Morgan Parker and Erica Dawson for their wit, dexterity, and masterful modulation of tone in their poems; their work has given me so much permission. Tommye Blount and Nicole Sealey for their clarity of line and formal elegance. Angel Nafis’s new work warms me so deeply. Airea D. Matthews’s intellectual rigor. Safiya Sinclair, Justin Phillip Reed, Charif Shanahan, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, jayy dodd, Tiana Clark, Luther Hughes, Natasha Oladokun—what a time to write alongside all these poets! For prose, Brit Bennett’s work fills me with joy. Dantiel Moniz and Tia Clark are two phenomenal fiction writers everyone needs to know. Brandon Taylor is a writer whose work I’m always excitedly waiting for. And, of course, Hilton Als.
Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions). A Cave Canem fellow, his work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Gulf Coast, and other anthologies and publications. He was a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.