A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
When I was a boy in a Virginia suburb,
The maids came on the bus each day,
And cleaned and ironed and made us lunch.
Outside, the colored vendor (“colored” was
The respectful word back then; he only became “black”
In retrospect) wheeled his cart and hollered,
And once in a while, the knife-sharpener would knock,
And Mom would let him sharpen a couple of kitchen knives
Seated on the stoop out front. When we went downtown
For dinner, always on the sidewalk near the Hot Shoppe, that
Other man, the one without legs and blind, sat
On his frayed blanket selling pencils from a coffee cup. We
Were too scared to ask if he’d lost his legs in the war.
More than one Thanksgiving, we rode
With our grandmother all the way to the East side of town
To deliver a huge box filled with cans
Of corn and green beans and blackeyed peas, a fresh
Chicken, loaves of Wonder Bread, a pound of butter,
Jars of peaches, peanut butter, and grape jelly. We
Pulled up at the curb beside the projects, and the family came out:
Our maid, her little girl, two boys, one of them
About my age, introduced as Robert, whose big toe
Poked through a hole in the top of his sneaker, two
Sizes too big. They thanked us kindly, and we
Drove home, hearts warm with love and Christian charity.
And when the sit-ins started way down South,
And the redneck bullies surrounded them at the Woolworth’s counter
And yelled and spit and smeared their hair with custard pie, and poured
Hot coffee on them, kicked and punched, and in the streets,
The cops sicced German shepherds to tear the pants
Of full-grown men, and clubbed and carried them,
Bitten, bleeding, off to jail,
While firemen knocked down little boys and girls with blasts from fire-hoses,
My great-aunt sneered and said how they were witless dupes
Of Stalin’s evil henchman, Martin Luther King, and we
Stared at the TV news and hoped
The contagion wouldn’t spread to Richmond.
Later, I learned to hear the blues, and even how
To play and sing them: to see and sing
The world through other eyes and voices, feel
The weight that bears them to the bottom. Once,
I shook hands with that tiny dynamo named Gwendolyn.
Oh, yes, I’m righteous, but I can’t forget the long time when
I just had a single pair of eyes, and I can’t deny
The shameful innocence of the world they showed me.
Copyright 2018 John Lawson