- BLACK VOICES SERIES
BRIAN FRANCIS | Three Poems
Who invited who into this room Each threshold posits
We are just passing through Strangers at the foot of the bed
Radiant diamondmouth scowls Beauties covered in riverwater
The discoball glitches The service starts & the stars go
Missing The masquerade Wildflowers pressed into pages
Before expulsion from the garden We were dressed to go dancing
Keepsakes dog-eared pages & our teeth marks Change my name
To the one that got away Through soil to sand & back
To water Reflecting sky Dear horizon line reaching back its vanity
Our elders appear flowercrowns sit at the slightest angle They play
Dominoes Sharpen machetes Break into song Wind their hips
Fill their cups til spill Laugh a little too loud discussing legacy
Crests on their armor remind me bow to the sword
Make us night Our bodies & the brightblack glare
after Louis Armstrong
Muggles uses mason jars to store homemade holy. Less recipe. More ritual. Call on the wildseeds, steady hands and what he calls a harvester's faith. We’ve seen him bring back to life what was long buried beneath tongues we never knew to decode. Imagine me, a man made of jewels, plucked clean from this dirty blue blanket.
I deserve wings. When Muggles catches fireflies, he makes sure the lid is tight and recites the same words. Every day they scrimmage, training for when dark swarms. Split him clean down the middle, smash the mason jar. Sew him back, clean, quickly, he pleads, I want to stand electric.
In and out of a fire escape fog, follow a cloud across night’s nervous twitch. Muggles fancies himself a prophet of the parkbench. Boney hands, a full deck of steps along 116th & 7th.
Harlem summer maneuvers these days against flesh like the sun came up, a caricature of a face, unrecognized. A smiling synthetic exclamation— the audience does not know if the tears come from the hurt of bottom belly laughter.
Crack and scatter Glass against walls where children congregate and the last, great graff heads still mount murals. A glint of light on bottle shards bounced onto memorials. Respect shown in tilted brown bags. We are tilted brown bags.
The name prayed into the pillow does not know the body beside. Muggles wakes to recall nothing. Early August afternoon he asked me to sit and dream with him. We lose the exhale. Nod in agreement to night. The corners are buzzing.
Watching the Good Trains Go By
After Romare Bearden
Where are you headed
Does that song take you
Along this funny loop
This portal Oh the beating
Of one’s own blood Metronome
You nod off and there is this dream
Everything repeats just altered
In glimpses understanding
The turn that could have been
Lament this game of snake
Was it midnight Unharnessed
Your own little algorithm
A crying child My child crying
Will you have to watch your mother die again
Asking uncertain if this is the dream
The myth of the next stop
A full stop An entry point
The hope of reprieve
The world as it should be
Wishing on the breakdown
We contort we spectacle to be paid
A fleeting glance To be seen
When all feels transactional
How low for the high
Isn’t pigeon shit still good luck
A napkin offered wordlessly
Is this grief Asking the way home
Early autumn conjuring
Stop on tiptoes Hold that breath
Riding past a cemetery
You think those bodies know
Flowers sprouting inconsolable
Is it respect or fear of what is kept
With a pull It passes
Does it matter You move
A toddler tall for her age face round
Stained with raspberries writhing
Her tiny revolt Against what
Not for us to know
From here Soft curls thrash
Under the thumb of a pastel bow.
Attempts to suppress
Ineffective until our little siren
Hears her own feet sing crunch
With dried leaves on the platform.
This an unusually warm October
Morning I am already late
- For Toi
A few good words with Brian
Interview Questions for Brian Francis
BVS: I loved “Preservation” for its invocation of Preservation Hall in New Orleans and jazz great Louis Armstrong. How do you see that space and its history speak to the place of the poem (Harlem)? What ties these two artifacts together?
BF: History is always growing. As our present becomes history. When I consider Louis Armstrong’s music I think of the preservation of legacy in the broader cultural sense and personal memories that tie us to spaces, to people. The idea of how space changes over time, but there are crystallized moments that will endure. Sometimes it’s in a song that was playing or a memory on a specific block or it’s your best friend saying “sit and dream with me.” Some things just live forever inside you.
BVS: I wanted our readers to see the Romare Bearden collage that your ekphrastic poem, “Watching the Good Trains Go By” references: What called you to this work? What spoke to you about it?
BF: This was born out of a prompt from the last year of my Cave Canem fellowship. Toi Dericotte had us sitting around a desk, each randomly picking a postcard. Each postcard, a different piece of art. We were to use the artwork on the postcard as our inspiration/prompt and mail the final product to Toi.
I was only vaguely familiar with Romare Bearden’s work when I picked the postcard, but I was immediately drawn to the guitar and the expressions on each face. Almost resigned. Wanting, still. I tried to write for weeks and nothing came. I carried the postcard with me for years, switching it from journal to journal.
It took me 6 years to return to the postcard in a meaningful way. I stared, thinking about the transcendence of some elders. I thought of riding the MTA in New York. The quotidian and small miracles from different angles. The impermanence of the vessel. The repetition of routes.
I’m struck by the thought of all we leave and all that awaits us. Each person, their own possibility.
BVS: These are wild and trying times. What art (literature, music, film etc.) are you turning to to find joy, levity, or light?
BF: Stevie Wonder, Black Thought, TV on the Radio, Bill Withers, Brittany Howard, Neil Young, Run the Jewels, Khruangbin, Fiona Apple, Anderson. Paak. I’ve spent time running through their respective catalogues this year.
Bisa Butler has been a visual artist whose work has been inspiring me all year.
I’ve been reading Natalie Diaz, Dean Young and Ross Gay pretty obsessively this year. I really enjoyed Educated by Tara Westover and Natasha Tretheway’s Memorial Drive.
Most of my Joy has been watching my toddler experience music from the Sesame Street archives. There aren’t enough versions of I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon for me.
Brian Francis is a Cave Canem fellow from New York City. He has a BA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA in Poetry from NYU. His work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Vinyl Poetry, Kweli Journal, No, Dear, Pittsburgh Poetry Review. He teaches Middle School and lives in Harlem.