The One-Handed Concerto

After Paul Wittgenstein
lost his right hand in the Great War,
he begged his friend Ravel
for a concerto of muted tom-toms
& peacock feathers underneath the tempo.
Something oceanic, with gusto & pulse
inside a refrain left on the battlefield.

Phantom fingers played the bridge
between ivory, allegory, & wood.
If the left hand can’t forgive or forget
its brother, blood seeps from the song
when white bones peer out of earth.
He rehearsed the Concerto in D
till Pan & Beauty danced in a grove,

till he could lift a hem with a smile
& five knowing fingers on the keys.
Perhaps he could even forget & snap
the fingers of his lost hand to call his dog home,
& it would come running full trot, wagging its tail.
But he didn’t know if he’d ever learn to play absence,
because he could cover only one ear.

Weeks later they stood at a window
gazing at an orange sunset when a grackle
flew into the glass & knocked itself crazy,
& that was when he first said, Okay,
I may have learned to articulate the silence of silk
falling, but I cannot teach my shadow to stop
limping three paces behind when I take a bow.


Dead Reckoning

Fishermen follow a dream of the biggest
catch, out among the tall waves where
freshwater meets a salty calmness.
For hundreds of years they’ve crossed
this body of water, casting their nets
& singing old songs. They’ve slept
with the village women & ridden waves
back to the other side to loved ones.
Now, lost in the old clothes of unreason
& wanderlust, their nets sag with the last
of its kind, with bountiful fish stories,
& soon the flirtatious mermaids are
beckoning from a swoon of reeds,
calling their names. The first dance
is desire. The second dance is love.
The tall grass quivers like a siren
snagged in a shabby net. Now,
as if on a journey of lost souls,
love & desire dance with death,
twirling bright skirts till flesh & cloth
turn into ashes. What did they do
to make the gods angry? Forbidden
laughter of the mermaids fills the night,
& if humans try to sing this laughter,
their voices only cry out in the dark.


Cape Coast Castle

I made love to you, & it loomed there.
We sat on the small veranda of the cottage,
& listened hours to the sea talk.
I didn’t have to look up to see if it was still there.
For days, it followed us along polluted beaches
where the boys herded cows
& the girls danced for the boys,
to the money changer,
& then to the marketplace.
It went away when the ghost of my mother
found me sitting beneath a palm,
but was in the van with us on a road trip to the country
as we zoomed past thatch houses.
It was definitely there when a few dollars
exchanged hands & we were hurried
through customs, past the guards.
I was standing in the airport in Amsterdam,
sipping a glass of red wine, half lost in Van Gogh’s
swarm of colors, & it was there, brooding in a corner.
I walked into the public toilet, thinking of W. E. B.
buried in a mausoleum, & all his books & papers
going to dust, & there it was, in that private moment,
the same image: obscene because it was built
to endure time, stronger than their houses & altars.
The seeds of melon. The seeds of gumbo in trade winds
headed to a new world. I walked back into the throng
of strangers, but it followed me. I could see the path
slaves traveled, & I knew when they first saw it
all their high gods knelt on the ground.
Why did I taste salt water in my mouth?
We stood in line for another plane,
& when the plane rose over the city
I knew it was there, crossing the Atlantic.
Not a feeling, but a longing. I was in Accra
again, gazing up at the vaulted cathedral ceiling
of the compound. I could see the ships at dusk
rising out of the lull of “Amazing Grace,” cresting the
waves. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her,
but she tried to fight. They pinned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor’s power was absolute. He said,
There’s a tyranny of language in my fluted bones.
There’s poetry on every page of the Good Book.
There’s God’s work to be done in a forsaken land.
There’s a whole tribe in this one, but I’ll break them
before they’re in the womb, before they’re conceived,
before they’re even thought of. Come, up here,
don’t be afraid, up here to the governor’s quarters,
up here where laws are made. I haven’t delivered
the head of Pompey or John the Baptist
on a big silver tray, but I own your past,
present, & future. You’re special. You’re not like the others. Yes,
I’ll break you with fists & cat-o’-nine.
I’ll thoroughly break you, head to feet,
but, sister, I’ll break you most dearly
with sweet words.