Saturday, January 24, 2009

Song of Myself

If in the end,
I were to soar
skyward and still
higher, how would
it matter if none had heard
me shouting, “I am, I am, I am.”

A Kiss To Comfort Him (revised)

When I consider how hard Dad worked
on perfection, and I know
with certainty, how clearly he understood all
his achievements fell short,

I think then about the passion
he put into handwriting—with a fountain pen—
and the delight he had in his strokes and curves,
immodestly admiring those graceful loops, those elegant spaces.

In my vision, he sits back,
gazes at his signature complete,
thinks to himself,
“Yes. Almost perfect this time.”

You really should have seen it. Really.
At the bottom of a page, how it soared and glided,
his clear message to the world.
“I am here. I am me.”

Letters precise and self-assured,
the work of a meticulous man.
Today—many years after he died—
I think how that signature began to ail,
that the passion and the pride was gone before he died.

His last few signatures,
quivering, shaky, imprecise,
not his, not grand. I wish I could have given him
some gift to restore his will.
A kiss. A kiss.

The 1983 mayoral campaign in Chicago,
a victory for so many, a triumph
for Southside and Westside,
for Harold Washington,
for African Americans
intolerably shut out,
for neighborhoods
neglected without

But for Bernie—for Bernard E. Epton—
it was defeat, It was dealings with devils,
It was the catastrophe of his life,
the end of celebration.

Angry, hiding the throbbing of wounds,
weepy, listless, brimming with bitterness,
he was fallen, he was doomed,
And it was there, in the way he signed his name.

He was so deadly disappointed by who we would remember.
I wish I could have given him something of mine, anything
to comfort him.
A kiss.

Would he be happy to hear my sometimes delight
in his gifts of love, reliably exciting, rich with our pain and our striving?
Or would he charge me with too much delight
that I am not him?

Oh, but I am here and, sometimes, him.
It’s as if some secret side
of him is awakening
in me. As if
he kissed

You’ll Need My Help

On the Fort Totten Metro platform, transferring from the Red to the Green Line, I heard a conversation behind me.

“Hey, Good Clothes. You got a dollar?”

“Naw, man. I don’t have it.”

Turning, I walked back to a black guy sitting on a bench, the only one in sight who could have asked the question. I gave him a buck.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate this.” As he spoke, he slid over on the bench, clearly inviting me to sit down next to him.

I sat. “Did you just call that guy ‘Good Clothes?’”

“Yeah, I did. He was dressed nice. And who are you, man?”

“My name’s Jeff,” I said, holding out my hand.

“Gray.” And shook my hand. “What’re you doing? Where you going?”

He sounded more than curious, maybe a little stunned that we were fraternizing. I know I was.

“I’m going over to Georgia Ave.”

“Oh, I’m not going that far,” Gray said, as the train pulled in.

We got on together. Gray again asked where I was going and I again told him Georgia Ave. and he again told me that he wasn’t going that far.

He evidently thought I had boarded the DC Metro with the goal of traveling to the state of Georgia, not a stop on the Green Line. “Are you confused, man? Georgia Ave. is the next stop.”

He didn’t answer directly. “What time is it?”

“Almost six,” I estimated.

“OK. OK. I’ll be riding the train for hours.” His voice lowered as he checked to see if anybody else on the train might be listening in. “I live in a shelter.”

I smiled and mumbled affirming sounds. Gray kept talking. “How come you sat down next to me?”

“When you said, ‘Hey, Good Clothes,’ I just liked the feel of that. How it sounded,” but Gray didn’t seem to get what I was saying, so I elaborated. “You know what I heard when you said that?”


“I heard you saying something like ‘Hey, man, sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. Right now, you’re looking good, you’re up, and I need your help. Maybe next time …”

Gray finished for me, “you’ll need my help.”

“I’ll be up,” I said. “And You’ll Need My Help.”

Gray laughed. “That’s cool, man. I thank you.”

My stop was coming and I stood up.

“When will I see you, again?” I asked him.

“You and me, we’ll both be around.”

We gestured toward each other. I offered Gray a power shake, he offered me a fist bump. We switched. I offered a fist bump, Gray came back with a power shake. We both laughed. I grabbed his hand, now in a fist, to keep it that way. With my other hand, we finally fist bumped.

Gray smiled one last time. “You don’t wanna shake hands,” he said. “Too many diseases these days.”