Two Poems

By Kwame Dawes


for Mama

she wraps love and slips it soft
in the corner of the tuck box
among the kenke balls wrapped in banana leaf
the cans of sardine and corned beef
the condensed milk thick sweet
the jar of pepper ground in onions
tomato and wild herb
bread still warm from the kiln
golden tender food to chew with
the fish fried so crisp it will last for days
the oranges the yoyi the mangoes

she shelters this bounty of tuck
in a silk red scarf and crowns it
with the holy word of god

then on a rattling sedan
she bears her gift
up to the convent on the hill
where the irish nuns
are crafting from the stone
a holy bright-eyed gem
a daughter to make her mother proud


To Buy a Pair of Shoes

The box, sturdy and assured, the sign
of money, a casket for something
treasured, something of worth. You
remove the cover and there, like
two loaves, the gleaming shoes,
polished leather, taut with newness,
nesting in thin delicate paper.
And you will try them on, one after
the other, like any other man would
in this city ’cause people can look
at you, look at the angle of your
hat, look at the cut of your suit,
the way it flows down your body,
and then study the shape of your shoes,
how well you care for them,
how strong they plant you down,
and know that no matter how
you came by them, you were good
for the soft shape in the leather,
good for the clean stitches of sole
to skin, good for the money
it would take to walk out of this shop
with these shoes. The thing is
you are black, you are a true black,
not a simple black, but the deep
black of an Alabama negro;
you are not the color of Booker T,
or Weldon Johnson, or Frederick
Douglass, or Langston Hughes,
or W. E. B Dubois; no, no, not
the high color negro, the kind
that make white folks feel at ease;
no, you are the affront, you are
the stone confounding the void,
you are the stumbling block,
you are that South Carolina
low-country Geechie strain
of negro, with no stain of white
in your skin, with the film
of yellow in your eyeballs;
you are cousin to Jack Johnson,
kin to Marcus Garvey, and sulking
Paul Laurence Dunbar is your
brother—negroes so black
the pure glow off of your skin
is something holy, something
heroic as a pitch night, and you
smile with a mouthful of even teeth,
everything about you inviolate,
clean, clean like these shoes.
You walk out of the store
cradling this box full of grace,
and you imagine all the pavements
you will walk along, all the thick
fine carpets you will glide over,
and all those dust yards you will
pick your way through, all that saw-
dust and beer spill which you step
through, shuffle in, stomp on;
all the boards you will make
squeal, all the beds that will shelter
these shoes—you imagine
how a foot put forward will
announce your presence as dignity
and power, and you will wait
for the quiet of familiar places
to wear these shoes for the first
time. And in that moment,
the moment you discard the old
shoes worn down to your corn-
covered soles and slip these new
shoes on, tie the leather laces
and then stand, feeling the press
of your feet into the embracing
skin of the good cured leather;
and looking down, you watch
the way the seams of your trousers
land lightly and perfectly
on the intersecting lines of the laces;
you feel the bigness inside you,
for a man is a man with a new
pair of shoes—and you feel to blow
a song so new and fresh it will make
people forget what just came before;
a song that will frighten
all those careless Ethiopians
who have gone astray into
the desert, who have forgotten
their way home, and it will
call them home, call them
to the congregation, call them
to that holy ground where those shoes
are glowing in the Sunday light.

Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, several anthologies, and plays. He has won two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Emmy. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner.

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