Vievee Francis is a finalist for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award for Forest Primeval: Poems. This collection brings the reader on a journey to the wild, untamed side of society as Francis delves deep into issues of race, class, image, and more. Her poems are a distressing yet beautiful exploration of the human spirit and the world we inhabit. The following is a series of poems from the collection.


A Small Poem

for Jen Chang and Martha

From a morning without expectations a surprise,
a word unanticipated and meant. Rare
and jarring. Syllables moving one to tears
when the winter sky is a simple blue, and nothing is there to impede the dailyness of things. But
the word grows from a note a hello a salutation
and plants itself like a spring dandelion seed that by
afternoon is full grown and blowing more seeds,
lightly, sweetly, a coloratura of delight, and I
feel as if I were both the plucked and the child
plucking the stem and twirling. How a single word
can set the world turning from one moment into
the next in startlement. 



She’s not “maternal,” she’s dangerous.
                      —Jamaal May

I have no charms. Admittedly.
No gold comb can move through
This mane. My skin is not translucent.
Mine is a tail to fear. I know.
And though a mother may destroy,
She too sees fit to create beauty
That would eventually grow into forms
I would swallow if I gave in
To my hungers. Nothing will come
Of this womb. But, up from my wounds—
From this goat’s body—
Up from my wood-smoke lungs, from
The milk of me, comes a song, a melody
To open yours, then lick them clean. 



But I was never the light of my father’s eyes, or any
other brother’s (that deep-husked choir), so there
was no height from which to fall. I began here
                                  in the proverbial bottom:
undertow, base from which one may rise but briefly,
like the failing horse knowing it must now race, must
tear out of its rusted gate, must further tear
the pleuritic lining of its lungs, let its tongue loll
                     ugly from the side
of its mouth. Have you seen such a thing?
Its brown coat salted with sweat as it lunges
forward and lunges again, forcing its measure
not up but out, knowing its ankles could fold
under such weight, its nose opened
into another being, sucking and snorting
the only thing it takes within that does not judge it,
the air. The sweet, sweet air
as it makes its way around a curve that might kill it,
that assuredly will kill it. Do you see me there?
Of course not.
                      I’m over here. Here,
in this hollow running for my low life. O Father,
for the rub of a hand over my back. O Brothers,
for the gold-leaf wreath that might have meant
a stroke of my calf, for that, I stretch these legs to breaking,
I wrench this belly’s hull, dark
as all alluvial things are. Lucifer’s is a common story, a
child’s boogeyman. What should frighten you is this: 
imagine what he would be had he not fallen, had he never
known the elusive light at all, never been privy to the chords
of God’s neck, if he, in fact, doubted such things,
believing only in what anguishes and writhes, trusting
nothing more than what soils his hands. 

Copyright © 2015 by Vievee Francis. Published 2015 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN Open Book Award

Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.