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Poetry

Audio: Read by the author. 

 

Montgomery, Alabama 

 o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new… 

                                                                       —John Donne 

General Duckett
Adam King
Benjamin Jones
Edwin Goodwin
Joseph Jones
Joseph King
Moses Jones… 

She reads their names aloud, 
men, beloved to some, 
lynched in Little River County,
Arkansas, each appellation
engraved on a six-foot 
steel slab
hanging from the rafters
by a black pole, 
tall tombstones 
accruing a layer
of patina, resisting 
what corrosion
weather always brings.  

Her voice quivers 
in the wet wind 
gusting through the southern
spiral of counties from Texas 
& Mississippi, Florida 
& Alabama, Georgia 
& Kentucky, wending 
through every body’s 
Gothic horror.   

I follow the floor
descending while 
the monuments rise
above my head, 
my eyes straining
to see one 
proclaiming,
                             Unknown
                             Unknown
                             Unknown. 

I hear her chant
more names,
women’s, children’s.
When an EJI employee
draped in nylon poncho
asksAre you okay?
the words that waft
my way break, blow,
& burn me: 
                        I’m saying the names,
all of them. 

O, how my ancestors,
like Achan of old,
were unfaithful,
stealing, like those
precious metals & 
that irresistible
robe, those 
God was devoted to,
those who bore 
not Cain’s mark
but the autograph
of the Almighty. 
How I want to rend 
my clothes like Joshua, 
drop to my knees, 
then 
          lie prostrate
before every single
marker & beg
for forgiveness.  

I bow my head, 
wipe my eyes,
cup my cheeks.
I am so fickle,
I realize here, I who 
eschew the Old 
Testament’s wrathful 
God who ordered 
the slaughter of those 
I’d call innocent, 
I who interrogate him
now, demanding
to know why 
he didn’t show up,
drown in his tears
every white woman & child,
every man who cheered 
like football fans
at these lynchings 

The same employee
now checks on me.
I simply make
eye contact,
nod my head.
How to say
it feels as though hope,
long withheld
& heavy as gold,
hurtles through
the atmosphere,
lands on my head
like no ordinary
conviction 

God commanded 
Joshua, Stand up! 
What are you doing 
on your face? So I 
move along
the boardwalk
                         of broken necks,
the man in Ohio
lynched for hanging
around a white
neighborhood,
the woman
lynched for daring
to complain
about her husband’s
lynching, the legion 
of lynchings in the Tulsa 
massacre of 1921… 

It seems to go
too far—
                   north
east & west, 
our history terrifying
as any fascist
purge: misspoken
word, wrong-way
walk, sideways
glance, all reasons
for the rope, 
& the double,
even triple deaths—
the tar, the knives,
the bullets, those 
unquenchable 
flames—as if Black
bones required
brute force, their flesh,
fierce fortitude,
their souls, no mercy.  

I don’t want 
to be a fragile, white 
woman, but I am.
I know that now.
I am undone 
by one woman’s 
recitations
                   Water spills
over the back wall,
dissolving the distance
between heaven
& earth. Another cloud
like the hand of God
passes over. 

 

for Ariel Sabrina Ferguson Lee

 

 


Julie L. Moore is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Full Worm Moon (Cascade), which received a Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Award as well as honorable mention for the Conference on Christianity and Literature’s 2018 Book of the Year Award.

 

 


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