MUKETHE KAWINZI | Two Poems
y’all sell goat milk? //what the hell kinna place this is
you like this kinna work? //make sure you don’t feel like a sharecropper or nuthin
you been here long? //you got people looking out for you
they don’t work you too hard? //don’t let them work you too hard
stay safe out here //you know what it is
plain old check-in tender,
holding, soothe you like
stay fine, baby! //stay fine, baby!
never did learn about the black family next door That they 40 acres? Them cattle they mules? They Wall Street money with a hobby farm? Someland Pop-pop shaped up, handed down, blood-swore generations to ’til the last son passed? What soil they got? Cracked, airless clay? Rich, fruitful loam? Silt? Sand washed out to poverty? They don't grow nothing over there? How long they been raising cows? How they get so many cows? Them dairy or meat cows? They slaughter them cows? What they butcher over there? How old them trees? What them trees seen? Who fed them roots so ropey-fat them trunks roughchuckle at knockdown-dragout wind-wauls tell me about them trees don't tell me about them trees how come sundown smoulders copper abyss conjuring them limbs to thump an admonition an absolution thump an accusation who bought the farm? Who bought the farm?
countryfolk make sure you make the right turn here a slight right don't go that way go this way fella lives that way said if he saw any of us again he'd shoot us dead for taking the wrong turn that's his property said he'd kill us shoot us dead for not knowing the right turn the right way to the rear cow pasture wouldn’t it be funny to have left it all to get shot here boy i’d laugh vowing my crocs were sus my shortalls threatening wouldn’t you have to laugh toss him on the list with pigs & other villains: topless cigarillo-smoking harley-davidson fella his fallow tilth longgone to seed & boundless rights to protect his property
nomenclature, determinative and otherwise
my god 100% shame on me I they have tried it with me
let these white people call hit em with the ipa my whole life see why I tried
me for max for six whole ass transcription if necessary to get in front of this shit
months me at my most with max max max?
negro meek straightup even might make em say first
hapless middle last reparations for 100% shame on y'all calling
max max max me max for six whole ass
up here I feed everybody months
mix up the web food with say my name say my name
the dry for the dogs who say it's next time and the nine-
leave half behind for the a kenyan flew from the year-old on the new farm
roosters cut down pear-tree villiage to isk sent back wells said he couldn't pronounce
branched for Cocopuff so electricity a bathroom inside it said can he call
thick&tired she spends the a tv inside skip what he me max
day laid up prayed up didn't do it for me say it
hoping she don't get bred I told him he could say it
again never browses but still say my name say no and he did after one try and
sniffs sneers and rejects a full Ion't fuck with the lion king he does
quarter of the handdelivered due to the fact the kids that
leaves year wouldn't stop calling he and his brother and his
me mufasa I would have sister who only two and they
kicked up all kinds of feasts minded less if they listened momma and they auntie and
for the house gone moon to to my swahili lessons eg they daddie and they
moon making sweetreates listenup! simba means lion grandmam and they other
every night lemon thyme and rafiki is baboon auntie and they cousin and
blondies mango coconut ice the two guys who help out
cream caveat iced coffee say my name say no on the farm and some girl
chocolate cayenne it ain't kathy with a moo who stopped by to buy
snickerdoodle one time I even in a poem about all robiola
cultured my own goddamn names matter I gotta ask
créme fraiche what kinda fucked up name all of em they even say oh is
mookathy would be it a hard t or a th sound?
eat my food but can't give whew thats polite thats how
me one day without max say my name say no I know these the kinda white
max max I need to be fed too Ion's got no nickname say people I might be able to stand
no you can't call me stand
mukey or mookey or thay or
trust: next time i'm forcing mook or moomoo I won't end this on white
afrique from the jump folks so let me send up one
last prayer lord let there be
more colored folk on this
journey of my life please oh
holy one some negros on
this road please some
dirt brown comfort to come
home to i'm tired some soup
that look like peanutbutter
my bones please I cannot be
at sea on these farms forever
a sip even please even a
A few good words with Mukethe
BVS: I love your use of space in this work—could you speak to us more about how you decide (or the poem decides) to format? What work do you hope your use of spacing, punctuation and enjambment does for your reader? (Here I’m thinking about “countrynod,” “countryfolk” and “nomenclature, determinative and otherwise” specifically).
MK: The natural concision of poetry prompts me to play with physical form on the page as a means of packing in more layers, more marrow while (ideally!) keeping the language tight. Take “countrynod.” There is such comfort in the kinship of passing communication between two Black folk; a nod is transformed from mere greeting to an acknowledgment and a promise: we see and can thus protect each other. Yet our identities are multifaceted and such communication is necessarily mediated not only through race, but also gender, age, class, ability... My attempt in that piece was to leverage spacing/punctuation/enjambment to represent text [what was actually said], subtext [how I interpreted and found solace in the unspoken meaning of this person's questionings], and reflection [both in the moment and after the fact]. I wondered if I could break and scatter the tale in a way that was a bit crooked but still satisfying for a reader to translate and absorb.
Once I toss some language down, I try massaging the syntactic elements to see what else might surface. How many voices and places and sentiments can I represent at once with a line break, an em-dash, an exclamation mark? Fussing about with form gives me a opportunity for density and opacity, which is perhaps what I most adore as a reader of poetry.
BVS: This collection of poems made me think about the ways that American culture relates “nature” and agrarian production with Blackness—either we don’t participate (i.e. Black people don’t swim/hike/camp, etc.), or our relationality is relegated to our historical roles (i.e. Black enslaved people doing farm work). I would love to hear more about how this work (and the lived experience that informs it) helped you to (re)build your relationship to this kind of labor.
MK: There's a joke I've enjoyed making during these months at times when it so happens that I (Black) am working while others (White) are not: “the optics aren't great.” Moments arise in which I feel deeply aware of what it looks like in my society to see a body like mine shoveling hay or hauling a wheelbarrow up a hill. And yet, I'm ecstatic that my everyday life can testify to the grand intersection of farm labor and Black American history.
“The optics aren't great.” Of course they aren't. Working class. The American farmer. Ranchers. All categories that the dominant culture codes as White despite the reality of the people whose knowledge and traditions coaxed life from this land. There's something there about how vast an erasure can be: the optics are mere stories, fundamentally nonsensical mythologies created to shame our labor while also taking credit for it.
Yes, the optics can look like a troublesome reinscription—the man from “countrynod” who wanted to make sure that wrangling goats was my choice, that I wasn't lost. I am so much the opposite: the joy of connection between body and animal and land feels like I found a whole universe. In a Marxist sense, I no longer feel alienated from my labor; the product, the activity, my humanity have a clarity amidst this tangible, earth-bound work that I've never had before. These poems and others I wrote at the same time helped me uncover that any alienation I experience comes from outside of the labor itself (interactions with townfolk, fellow farmworkers who balked at my name, a steady stream of yard signs and bumper stickers that remind me of “my place”). That alienation is real but I insist on pushing it to the margins of my experience. I will not cede my body to ahistorical demands of what I should be; this new intimacy with the natural world is mine.
We out here! Support Black farmers y'all: https://blackfarmersindex.com/
BVS: What books are making you feel tender and sweet in these decidedly rough and sour times?
MK: May I pivot to highlighting some recent comfort I have found in film instead? Specifically because I have just watched The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996) for the first time and it poured tender sweetness all over me. A gem of nineties independent film that snatches back stories of Black folk in early Hollywood—untrue optics, one might say!—to reveal the complexities that exist if we chisel away the limited cultural narratives we're shown. If you are Black or queer or femmesomething or a Philadelphiaphile and definitely if you are any combination thereof, grant yourself the pleasure of viewing it soon! As with farm labor, as with American Blackness irrespective of the context, The Watermelon Woman explicitly reminds us, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” Indeed! I also recently enjoyed Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1973), a Senegalese film which leverages the aesthetic of the French New Wave to delve into a peripatetic journey of a cowherd maybe on his way to Paris—the visual and aural intertextuality of pre- and post-colonial, urban and rural, Europe and Africa, melds into something truly sumptuous. Movies are great. Poetry is wonderful. Art is the best. To anyone for whom times are feeling rough and sour, I highly recommend art!
Mukethe Kawinzi lives and works on a goat dairy in North Carolina.