Excerpts > Fall 2003

Rachel M. Harper

Three poems

A Child Reads Invisible Man
in memory of Ralph Ellison, 1914 - 1994

She slips into your office
during naptime, driven
by restless sleep, she dreams
in typescript sheets
she is too young to read,
translating your page into images
where the repetition of ‘nigger’
looks like a flock of crows
in a wheatfield, her eyes drawn
to the shape, the elegance of a word
she hasn’t grown to fear.

Could it be Van Gogh
to a black girl’s eye?
An oil-brushed canvas
as rich as the word-soaked page;
there is a stroke she cannot see
the metaphor hidden
in the background,
layers of meaning lost
as the paint dries
in subliminal rhyme.

This language, sketched
from your imagination,
will set in her mind
as clearly as a picture,
the text becoming sound
as she learns to read
her memories as art,
hanging like a portrait
on all our walls;

she will stare at the arc
of letters, the sweep
of the hypnotizing line
till she whispers words
she’s never heard: a lullaby,
a chant of saints,
that will carry her to sleep,
and just beyond.

American Collage
“Art is something you hold onto,
like a root, it should be
connected to the earth.”
—Romare Bearden

America is an improvisation—
a harmony of form and function
where colors change like identity,
the art of our country cut
from a prism, as pigment bleeds
from one piece to the next;
the reds of high noon,
green sunsets, nights
of blue black gold—
is it not America he paints?
Fill this industrial landscape,
railroads and jazz fused
into subject matter, into dreams
where each work is a city,
an exercise in integration.
Cut and paste these shapes:
paper-torn limbs, displaced eyeballs,
we are all maimed in the final draft,
polished with a pungent gloss
till we shine from equal coats—
this is democracy we celebrate as art,
all tracks laid by foreign hands.
How many immigrants does it take
to paint a picture? To build a nation?
Steel flattened with every hue
we roll fresh logs down a river
like human cargo, Huck and Jim
hidden by the banks, by the darkness
of our own imaginations;
every instrument has a color,
let’s change this one to gold:
banjo, clarinet, harp—
there is no train faster
than the blues.

B.B. King: History of the Blues

No need for lights
in a house full of music:
homespun rhythm, murky tune;
the guitar as broom wire
tied between two nails.

He plucks the moonlight:
burnt indigo fire—
calls it blues.

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