"What mad Negro, or tone-deaf child
created this penny jewel, this crime,
that rings hollow, false under the file?"
“Ars Poetica,” Paul Verlaine
This mad negro has skills
you and all those pasty symbolists
better recognize, music in my
very walk, my laughter like Langston’s.
I have my gaudy jewels:
shiny dimestore pendants,
cubic zirconia rings,
phony diamond earrings,
and I make them look good—
strutting without a stutter,
striding in my own glistening skin.
My only crime was to be born
in this subtle and shaded hue,
born to marvel at curious things
until I had to write them down
ringing with the very sound of verse,
a kind of molten dignity
even a mad negro could recognize,
even on the edge of sanity—
knife slice of all that enmity,
all those ugly scratches history
etched onto my eyeballs.
Far from false, but still in your files—
a literary suspect, accessible wreck,
baby girl not fit for the Captain’s table.
Riddle me this, Verlaine:
how many poets does it take
to stop a war, to broker a peace,
to cut off a piece of any
reader’s heart, swallow it whole,
and live? I don’t know if you know
how it truly feels to be mad,
angered under the surface
of myriad subtleties while another
campus rages, and a city blisters with gunfire.
Allison Joseph lives in Carbondale, Illinois, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She serves as editor of Crab Orchard Review, moderator of the Creative Writers Opportunities List, and director of Writers in Common, a writers conference for writers of all ages. Joseph is the author of sixteen poetry collections, most recently Multitudes (Word Poetry), The Purpose of Hands (Glass Lyre Press), and Double Identity (Singing Bone Press). Her collection, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2018.