~This poem previously appeared in Sewanee Theological Review (2010)
If I Could Write a Song
…for my grandfather, I would make it start
With Pardon me, Boy, old-fashioned southern tune
Of trains, trysts laced in satin, and the art
Of Boy, gimme a shine,
and soon New York
A stop in
, a silver spoon Baltimore
Set in the diner, ham and eggs, the clock-
Struck morning hour, one leftover moon.
But still the tall white pines whisper and mock
You: “Boy” in caps like “God,” so I’d rechart
The triptik, change our destination, prune
The lyrics back and make the song impart
Pardon me, Boy, is that canvas cocoon
A straightjacket? And this brick-front festoon
The state asylum in Kalamazoo? The shock?
The Haldol? Haloed, do you feel immune?
And still the tall white pines whisper and mock
Us; so, I’d make that bin our where-the-heart-
Is home, and sing there’s no such thing as loon.
Let’s make a break; and, Boy, you don’t bogart
That vodka now. In a
Let’s go to
like a baboon, Asylum Lake
Beating our chest and, let’s invite the schlock,
Polack, and every other nameless goon;
Yet, still the tall white pines whisper and mock.
I, then, would end our song with this: you’re strewn
On us: Mom holds your gun but she won’t cock
And shoot. Sometimes she hears a raven croon,
And still. Your tall white pines, whisper, and mock.
~This poem previously appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review (2008)
Little Black Boy Heads
Up at the top there lies a cowlick I
Just got to wrap my finger in, but can’t;
Their cuck-a-bucks clipped down to the root; can’t pry
One strand loose with a pick. Though I could plant
A kiss, perfect, on their round scalps’ short threads
Like splinters on my lips, I’d rather fill
A field with a thousand little black boy heads,
Ascend a white oak high and stare until
Their shorn cowlicks appear to swirl. No hair
Would move, then one by one, the heads would tease
With growing spirals, hypnotize like air-
Embodied branches braced for lift-off. Please,
You stubborn noggins, take your hats off.
Day when I have my own, I’ll palm his skull
And he will nap against my nipple. Thumb
In his soft spots, I’ll sing of how I cull
Him from the black field bound beneath a sky,
Bright blue, and sun so yellow the whole span
Splays green. His always-girl, I’ll sing him, Fly,
Boy, fly your still, then run as fast as you can.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
“If I Could Write a Song” was one of the most difficult poems I’ve written. I knew I wanted a ballade. That refrain feels like home. I’m just now realizing that every ballade I’ve written is clearly about mental health. Analysis aside, I wanted desperately to write about my grandfather. He lived in the days where institutionalization was a first ditch plan. A requisite seventy-two hours in a hospital’s psych ward wasn’t the norm. I researched the state hospital in Kalamazoo, MI, and started writing, making sure I referenced his nature—things he enjoyed (music, food, trains, the outdoors)—and other natures forced upon him in a place where authority figures drugged men into stupors and herded them like animals around what could have been a beautiful landscape.
“Little Black Boy Heads” was a completely different experience. The experience and the poem happened in the span of about 12 hours. The night I wrote it, I sat behind a black little boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, at a poetry reading held in the Elliston Room at the University of Cincinnati. The room is close quarters. I listened to the poet, but stared at the little boy’s head the whole time. The swirl of his cut-off curls kind of captivated me. It was as if his hair was hovering over his head, like a hurricane over the grass. It didn’t move but moved the entire time. I left the reading as soon as it was over, went home, and immediately started working on the poem. I wanted it to be a tribute, of sorts, to the innocence of that little boy, or, rather, all children still perfectly unaware of the impact they’ll have on others. When you’re that young, it’s all “Me. Me. Me.” That’s a delicious kind of ignorance.
ABOUT ERICA DAWSON
Erica Dawson’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2008, Barrow Street, Birmingham Poetry Review, Blackbird, Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology (7th edition), and other anthologies and journals. Her collection of poems, Big-Eyed Afraid (The Waywiser Press, 2007) won the 2006 Anthony Hecht Prize. Contemporary Poetry Review named it the Best Debut of 2007. Erica is an assistant professor of English and Writing at University of Tampa, where she serves as poetry editor for Tampa Review and teaches in the university’s new low-residency MFA program. She lives in Tampa with her Shih-Tzu, Stella.