From the recording Cliche
Thanks to Michael Demsyn-Hanf for composing and playing the vibrophone part.
(Originally published in Margie: The American Journal of Poetry, subsequently in Ground Forces (by Paul Allen, Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2008)
The only thing duller than an African American
prattling on a panel about African American-ness
is an Irish American toasting his emerald kin,
or a Southern American reciting the wistful Ms of the South—
Mammies, Magnolias, Mint Juleps, Mansions, Moss, Manners—
and everyone P-ing: Persecution—
the Jew on persecution,
the born again Christian on persecution,
the poet on persecution (Poetry isn’t popular).
It makes for good copy.
You gather with those who console you
for your need to gather.
The welder, the teacher, the doctor,
the dentist (who “could have been a doctor”).
We have something special here.
The world doesn’t have a clue
what we really do. The world
doesn’t understand what we go through.
Well, here’s the fact:
The world does have a clue.
The world fully understands—
it just doesn’t give a shit.
You and your fellows hold hands
around the autoclave, the violin, the Bible,
a copy of Mien Kampf or Moby Dick;
you gather around the laundry, check book, coffee pot,
55 gallon drum full of burning scrap-lumber,
or any given heart in group therapy.
The poor have it tough,
women have it tough,
men have it tough,
old, young, teen, gay, black, brown,
elephants, trout, non-smokers,
keynote speakers, and panelists have it tough.
Different nouns, same verbs.
Everybody meets at the Hilton,
and the staff of the Hilton have it tough—
your group checks in the week after Tribal Council
and Associated Writing Programs,
and the week before the Little People’s Convention,
the Treckies, the NRA.
And in the overlap, the blue name tags
on the elevator have nothing to say
to the white name tags on the elevator.
But after the panel,
the way you went silent as you crossed
the threshold between the carpet of the session —
blue, celestial theme—
to the red swirled carpet of the mezzanine,
the way, outside, you noticed—while the others
were discussing where to go for lunch—
noticed the font on the truck blocking traffic ,
the way when the group begins walking
you give a silent look at the cigarette butts
in the cedar chips beneath the juniper,
or the way you woke up this morning
and before the room was room,
you stared at the hair on your hand
as though seeing it for the first time
because the light was breaking through
the crack in the heavy curtains you couldn’t close
last night to shut out the strangers, or strangeness:
that’s you, and because there was no one already up
and stirring the suitcases to ask “What’s the matter?”
you kept the hand up a little longer,
turned it for different moments of hair and light:
You are not a cliché.
You are not a cliché.
Well, you are,
but one that works, somehow.
One with an interesting twist.