All in by Allison Joseph

by Allison Joseph

"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, 
my sold-on-late-night-television 
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 is Professor of English and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University. She serves as poetry editor of Crab Orchard Review. She is the author of 17 collections of poetry, most recently Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press, 2018), which won the Gold/First Place 2019 Feathered Quill Award in Poetry and is nominated for the 2019 NAACP Image Award in Poetry. She is the literary partner and wife of poet and editor Jon Tribble.