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Skin Trade Analysis

Author: poem of Reginald Shepherd Type: poem Views: 10

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And then I said, That's what it means

to testify: to sit in the locked dark muttering

when you should be dead to the world. The muse

just shrugged and shaded his blue eyes. So naturally

I followed him down to his father's house

by the river, a converted factory in the old

industrial park: somewhere to sit

on threadbare cushions eating my words

and his promises, safe as milk

that dries the throat. If I had a home,

he'd be that unmade bed. He's my America

twisted in dirty sheets, my inspiration

for a sleepless night. No getting around that

white skin.

                   He throws things out the window

he should keep; he collects things

he should feed to the river. He takes me

down. While there, I pick them up.

The river always does this to me:

gulls squawking and the smell of paper mills

upstream, air crowded with effluents

like riding the bus underwater. I'm spending nights

in the polluted current, teaching sunken bodies how

to swim. My feet always stay wet. Sometimes

I leave footprints the shape of blood; sometimes glass

flows through broken veins, and I glitter.

Every other step refers to white men

and their names. The spaces in between

are mine. Back of the bus with you,

. They're turning warehouses

into condos, I'm selling everything

at clearance prices: here's a bronze star

for suffering quietly like a good


       River of salt, will I see my love again?

Cold viscous water holds its course even after

it's gone. Throw a face into it and you'll never look

again, throw a voice and you'll hear sobbing

all the way down. Narcissus, that's my flower

forced in January, black-eyed bells echoing

sluggish eddies. Who hit him first?

The muse has covered his face

with his hands. It's just a reflex

of the historical storm that sired him:

something to say, "The sun is beating down

too hard on my pith helmet, the oil slick

on the river's not my fault, when are you going

home?" What he doesn't want to see, he doesn't

see. In the sludge that drowns the river, rats

pick fights with the debris. He calls them all

by their first names, he's looking through his fingers

like a fence. They make good neighbors. His friends

make do with what they can. They drink beer

from sewer-colored bottles in the dry stream

bed, powdered milk of human kindness and evaporated

silt. They stay by the river till past

sunrise, crooning a lullaby

to help it to sleep. The words

of their drinking songs are scrawled on the ceiling,

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin: a madrigal

for the millennium's end.

                                           I'm counting

down the days in someone else's

unmade bed, let these things break

their hold on me. The world

would like to see me dead, another gone

black man. I'm still awake.


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