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Pool Players (after Terrance Hayes, after Gwendolyn Brooks)

 

I. August 28, 1955

 

Sunday is now Monday, and it is the first and last time

a nigga will ever step foot on this side of the road. We

 

struggle far too long before I realize that I won’t

live to tell the southside 'bout how what Billie sang is real.

 

It’s as bad here as mama said it would be. I wish I’d listened,

and that she’d taught me how to stay cool

 

like my country kin in Money, Mississippi — where the air is thick

as manila rope and our bodies sway purple in cypress trees. We

 

s’posed to know how to fly but that’s some made up shit. Like black folk

thinkin' we can cheat time and death if we show up everywhere late. Left

 

at the bottom of the Tallahatchie for three days, I am nothing but

water damaged flesh and a ring engraved with my initials. At school,

 

I used to sit next to white girls who will have the privilege to grow up and

lie 'bout black boys who wouldn’t dare think to whistle or look their way. We

 

are born to die. Fitted for a casket long before my first kiss, I learned that

mama couldn’t teach me to stay cool cuz it’s hot wherever we be, the sun lurk

 

and burns through our skin just the same. Fourteen seemed like lots of years

lived til even I couldn’t tell if I was Emmett or not, but it ain’t too late

 

to make a legacy outta my name. Mama I beg you, leave the casket open.

Invite our family and the rest of the world to see what happens when we

 

stare too long or walk too tall. Smile. Are born. When we breathe.

Flood this country in a pool of your tears, and strike

 

them with the before and after of a face I hardly know how you can

still love. And watch who sinks and never makes it home straight.

 

II. September 24, 2021

 

It is Wednesday for thirty days in a row and my mother weeps

enough tears to fill two hundred and seventy-three miles of the Illinois River that sings

 

songs I thought only the waters of the Atlantic knew. Since

I was a little boy I’ve known how to swim but when we’re

 

killed, they bury us along with the truth. Some of us have no one who thinks

twice before creating a legacy of candle smoke and puddles of gin,

 

or whatever niggas pourin' up on pavements, outta us. But we

don’t blame ‘em for when or how they grieve. Just pray they sing our names jazz

 

as our loved ones sway like purple in cypress trees. By June,

I wonder if my mother will have stopped weeping

 

two hundred and seventy-three miles of the Illinois River, and if they’ll know how I died.

Twenty-three seemed like lots of years lived til I forgot my name — Jelani, gone too soon.