Free Pt. II

after Jasmine Mans

“400 years of slavery sounds like a choice”
Kanye Omari West

Celebrity is a ghost town. I can’t deny that you are free or ill—white marble floors, calabasas, paris, glasgow, lonely heartsore son of Black academia-chasing spirits like a moth chases flame.

I love you like boys who grew up Black as me in the burbs, my day 1’s and play cousins. We never dreamed of growing up and being you. A star is not a sun without planets in orbit, and we orbited you like moons. You, diamond-cased name-brand deity of Otis Redding and Chaka Khan samples, rap fanboy turned it boy, multimillionaire by marriage and major record sales, collector of awards along mansion walls.

We can’t tell you nothin, nah, but we can tell that right; money got you believin there was an option other than the yo money ain’t ship, or the jaws of a shark, got you thinkin whip, fist, rope, and poplar tree were not the only destinations besides house or field, got you forgettin enslaved Africans were born and raised on plantations, sold, rented, or freed by death off plantations, got you blankin on written passes enslaved folk needed just to leave plantations, got you slow to state the police state is an evolution of 19th century slave catchers-why get yo money right just to get yo history wrong?

Who are we without our ancestry, Ye? Who are you without the musicians you resurrect through samples? How can you say race doesn’t matter anymore when the media won’t acknowledge your mental wellness, but will empathize with white nationalist shooters? You were right about one thing: no one man should have all that power. You are mortal after all, not a G/god, or the son of one. You are your Momma’s Blackboy, from chicagoland, who rapped and made soul beats until the world took notice.

Who would’ve guessed what idol-worship and riches could draw out of you. Your world is so distant from mine, I fear hear me even if you heard this, but Kanye, I hope you live to remember the immeasurable strength our grandest parents had, you can’t and the sacrifices they made to survive. What more can we ask of those who risked it all for our chance to be? We hold them in flesh and spirit; we are their wildest dreams.

Sean Avery Medlin


All my time has been focused on my freedom now
Why would I join ’em when I know that I can beat ’em now?
They put their words on me, and they can eat ’em now
That’s probably why they keep on tellin’ me I’m needed now
They tried to box me out while takin’ what they want from me
I spent too many years livin’ too uncomfortably
Making room for people who didn’t like the labor
But wanted the spoils, greedy, selfish behavior
Now let me give it to you balanced and with clarity
I don’t need to turn myself into a parody
I don’t, I don’t do the shit you do for popularity
They clearly didn’t understand when I said “I Get Out” apparently
My awareness like Keanu in The Matrix
I’m savin’ souls and y’all complainin’ ’bout my lateness
Now it’s illegal for someone to walk in greatness
They want the same shh, but they don’t take risks
Now the world will get to see its own reflection
And the anointed can pursue their own direction
And if you’re wrong and you’re too proud to hear correction
Walk into the hole you dug yourself, fuck a projection
See me in my freedom takin’ all my land back
They said a lot against me thinkin’ I’d just stand back
I got my legs beneath me, I got my hands back
A lot of people sabotaged, they couldn’t stand that
I turned the other cheek, I took blow after blow
There’s so much crisis in the world ’cause you reap what you sow
When you keep what you know is meant for someone else
The ditch you dig for them, you might just end up in yourself
I’m in the secret place, I keep a sacred space
They keep showin’ their hands, but keep hidin’ their face
If I’m a messenger, you block me then you block the message
So aggressive, the world you made is what you’re left with
Pride and ego over love and truth is fuckin’ reckless
Y’all niggas got a death wish, the stupid leaves me breathless

Lauryn Hill (a verse from Nas’s “Nobody”)

Guilt Mountain

When he does his taxes,
He finds charges for things
He didn’t sign up for.
No chance to read about penalties and
Interest rates.
He didn’t sign up for life’s contract.

Would he initial
“I agree” after reading life’s
Promising him a chance to

Stroll, sprint, and trot on a star. Flowers, honey, an unlimited chance to walk in a meadow of peace like the one at Yosemite, a crack-house pile of money each day and
Straight A’s.

The penalties are spelled out in a font so tiny as
To be unreadable.
Would the fines be: “Hurt Heartache Tragedy Grief”?

He’s had his share yet lives like a prince
Or at least as a court member.
He remembers
The beauty now dust
Who could not
Bring children to full term.
He and she were educated.
Read books and turned
Them over to Science,
Where they floated in jars.
She became The Cat Lady
And gave each cat those
Stillborn children’s names.

Were his genes to blame?
Do miscarriages run in families?
Is that what his mother meant when
She said, “A lot of your brothers and sisters didn’t make it”?
He woke one night to find her lying on the living-room floor.
He thought that she was dead.
When his stepfather called 911, he could not say “miscarriage.”
He said “misfortune.”

One day, he felt excruciating
Pressure on his back; the Doctor said,
“The Baron has been riding you. You hurt
Every time he grins. He’s always thirsty,
Which explains your dehydration.
He likes the Bayou and hates deserts.”

For a while, he found desert life agreeable.
The burden on his back ceased.
He dreamed of a nude woman with a Benin face.
An orange-headed condor with black wings
Was lifting
Her to one of those California skies, the color
Of robins’ eggs.
This scene occurred above Big Sur.

Desert life was cheap.
He raised prize cacti and explored cliff dwellings, but he ached for the city. On his heart is a street directory. That’s where their survivor found him, her voices in tow. She taught him why some people subject to foul whispers get mad when you praise their gifts.
The chatter that berates them spends more time with them than you.

Out here, smiling climbers
Take selfies when they
Reach the summits of mountains.

But Guilt Mountain?
It has no top.

Ishmael Reed

Conversation with Mary

What language did the angel speak

My most private language

Was the angel fluent

Nuances were lost

Where did the angel come from

The ground

Did you consider yourself a woman or a child before this


And after


What was the tenor of your joy then


Did it hurt


Did you feel rewarded

I hallelujah I assented

How did it feel

Cold blood on the cock of God

Whose blood

My blood

Gabrielle Bates


If your name will ever not be
gravel in my mouth, I wonder.

A is how public alphabets begin.
A is what I write at the top of your letters.

[Happy Anniversary] A-
[Happy New Year] A-

As a child I was forced
to make a show of saying

I love you, day after day
to a woman with cruel blue eyes.

Now, I say it to you,
and you say it to me.

What a marriage ending looks like
I saw up close before puberty-

financial stress, infidelity-
I do, I do. I do, I do, I do, I do-

I hear myself say I’m married to a room,
and in the room, am the most startled.

I attend a monthly dinner alone
(by which I mean without you)

where people share hot tips
for how to be less in debt

then get drunk on wine and convince me
to buy things I don’t need.

Growing up, I associated guilt
with wanting anything

except books; good books were safe
if used, if read more than once.

Language was a rewarded vice,
and the Good Book best of all

to be caught eyeing,
though dangerous in its own ways

with its impossible orders like
Walk as a child of light.

To want light. I tried. I did.
My trying has cursed me more than anything.

You say I should be more selfish with my time
because you don’t know the hours

I photograph myself
naked to share with no one.

I’m sorry. I love you. I’m a creature
most at home

replenishing my venom under rock.
The entire days of silence:

this is how I knew we could work.
Of all I could seduce, only you could I imagine

crawling over, crawling beneath
for close to a century, curious.

Gabrielle Bates

The Dog

He didn’t want to tell me. He almost didn’t.
It was luck much more than gut that made me ask.
A beer opened an hour earlier than usual,
the desire for conversation. There was no sense in me
that he was in some sort of aftermath.
He said, when I asked, I had a bad day,
or, I had a weird day, I can’t remember.
I saw a dog, he said. I was on the train.
A man with a dog on a leash. The man ran and made it
but the dog hesitated outside, and the doors closed—
no, not on his neck-on the leash, trapping it.
The man was inside, and the dog was outside on the platform.
The button beside the door, ringed in light, blinked.
The man was shouting now, hitting the button,
all else silent, the befuddlement
of dog pulled along, the pace slow until it wasn’t.
The tunnel the train must pass through leaving the station
is a perfectly calibrated, unforgiving fit.
The dog had a color and a size I don’t know,
so it comes to me as legion.
Large. Small. Fur long, or short. White, or gray.
But the man always looks the same.
As I held him against me in our kitchen,
the moment sharpened my eyes. How easily
I could imagine a version of our lives
in which he kept all his suffering secret from me.
I saw the beer on the counter. I saw myself drink it.
When we went to bed, I stared at the back of his head
split between compassion and fury. My nails
gently scratching up his arm, up and down, up and down,
the blade without which the guillotine is nothing.

Gabrielle Bates

The Blessings

i gave mine away—
not all, but the greater portion,
some would say. i gave
away the ready claim
to goodness, to purpose. i gave
away mary, sarai,
and isis. i gave away
necessity and invention.
i gave away a whole
holiday, but i kept billie.
i gave away the chance to try
and fail to have it all. i gave
away the one thing
that makes some men
pay. i gave away the pedestal,
the bouquet. i gave away
nel wright, but i kept sula
peace. i gave away
the fine-tooth comb, but
kept the oyster knife. i gave
away the first word
the new mouth forms, the easiest
to parlay across so many
languages. escaping
the maw, i gave away
the power to hold—and be held
in—sway, but i kept
cho, parton, finney, chapman,
and tomei. i gave away the eve
who left the garden
that day, but kept the cool,
green, shady, fruitless,
fruitful stay, the evening
that did not fall

Evie Shockley

A Way if Putting It


Unfortunately, I’m given to the pronouncements of age
As I get older, but it isn’t complacency or the cocktail hour.
It’s simply the frustration of revising what I used to feel
And hope in order to accommodate the demands of the page

Of seventy-four, or to see myself anew through “ancient,
Glittering eyes” while being faithful to what I’ve been all along,
As it alters slightly in the changing light, while remaining
A version of what it always was, like an echo of the same song.

In the end what matters is the feeling of life as a whole
As reflected in the details of each day, which are difficult to see.
As truth becomes altered in the telling, so the individual life
Becomes an artifact of its history, no matter what its original goal

Might have been, or what it might be happy to settle for now.
And it’s not just the individual life, but the collective life of art
That’s subject to revision, however unimportant it’s become,
Involving at the same time both “a wholly new start,
And a different kind of failure,” which feel the same.
Sosostris, Eugenides, Sunday Morning from the Palisades
And Innisfree-what hides behind every “order of monuments”
Is an ordinary person with the usual anxieties and a name

That might be anyone’s. That’s what I still find so extraordinary
After all these years: that however transcendent the outcome,
What it articulates is there for everyone to see, and whatever else
You might aspire to, anything you ultimately become

Is what everyone becomes. But even though what you feel
Is of no importance sub specie aeternitatis, and isn’t even
Conceivable by anyone else, it’s the only thing that matters
For the short while it lasts, the only thing that’s real.


I suppose that most of this is true
In a sense that’s important to me alone,
But basically I’m an ordinary person
With a life that’s much like your own
Except for the details, whose significance
Resides in its insignificance—somebody
Factual and prone to please, good company,
A “smiling public man.” I have my own history
Too, involving California and Catholicism,
Whose demands were so severe that when my
Dear Baptist grandmother Nana died in Texas,
I knew she’d burn in hell forever for her sin.

It felt more human once religion fell away,
To be replaced by microscopes and chemistry,
Then by science fairs and track, mathematics
And physics and a final collapse into decadence,
As smoking, philosophy and poetry had their way.
I dwell so much on the years when I was young
Because they last forever, and they set the tone
For whatever happens later with increasing speed,

Like variations on the themes I’m skipping over:
Marriages, homes, careers, interests I lost interest in
And friends who still matter to me as they disappear,
Leaving nothing but the facts I’ve summarized.

I feel this ambivalence about the personal,
So let me try to make it clear. It’s real enough
As far as it goes, but in the end it’s just a disguise
Of a different kind, one that leaves out everything
Of importance that you can’t articulate, like the sense
Of what it feels like to be impermanent and alive.
Even though I say one thing and mean another,
Even though “everything I’m telling you may be a lie,”
The underlying poem is a part of the imagination,
Mine or someone else’s, and as it reveals itself
Without autobiography, it embodies the sense of a life
That’s no one’s, and of what it’s like for it to be your own.


Who cares whose voice it is, as long as it’s alive?
I’ve heard it now for sixty years, and yet I don’t know
What it says, or why it sometimes makes me cry.
It isn’t my story in particular, or anyone’s,
Though it captures the tone of what it’s like to think so
For a while, and the way life feels as it goes by.
It all adds up to something in the end, even if it was there
All along and I didn’t see it. It doesn’t change
Or outlast anything, or reveal anything that isn’t clear-
It just touches me this way, and makes me glad.

The deepest happiness is to see the ordinary world
For what it is, but to see itt without sadness
You look at it over and over through your own eyes
And the words of others, but always for the first time.
I sit here on my balcony looking at the same sky
I remember from high school and the poems I loved in college,
And it’s as though I’d never seen it before, and the feeling
“Of being absolutely safe” Wittgenstein described were my own.
It’s a poem captured from the air in a voice that’s undefined,
Which as it starts to deepen and increase feels like mine.

The simple soul that issues from the hand of God;
The necklace that’s a carving not a kiss; the bee-loud glade
That gathers from the air a live tradition… I don’t think
They were ever the little world I wanted them to be,
But it meant everything to me to think they were, and still does.
I’m writing this without embarrassment, because no matter
How inconsequential it’s become, and how beside the point it seems,
It still defines my life, and occupies it like a waking dream.
It isn’t the sudden shaft of sunlight or the gradual transformation
Of experience or the unkept promise of a different life-

It’s simply that I’m happy. I like the sense of being
Part of something larger than myself, of telling you about it
As I try to remember how it started, and wondering how much
Longer its presence in my heart is going to last. I’d like to say
Forever, but that’s an exercise in futility, and isn’t even what I want.
It’s sufficient that the past remain the past, this summer afternoon
Be simply what it is, and the future…? I’ve gone on enough:
Instead of reaching a conclusion, getting older is a study in tone
That leaves you where you are-still listening to yourself
A lifetime away from where you started, and not far from home.

John Koethe

A Romantic Poem

It’s supposed to be solemn and settled
And in celebration of the individual human life,
Whatever it is. It’s each of us of course,
And yet the view we have of it is so oblique
It might as well be one of nobody at all,
Or of a vague interior with a figure in a room
Who could be anyone. This sense that it’s so close
It must be you: what do we really know of it,
And how could anything that simple be that real?
We would be kings of our domains, alone in majesty
“Above this Frame of things,” but those are idle thoughts,
As idle as the vacant pleasures of a summer afternoon.
The truth is much more down to earth: we make things up
And celebrate dejection when we see they can’t be real.
Instead of clarity, self-knowledge is a study in confusion,
Driven by the need to see what isn’t there. Begun
In gladness, something carries you away until you’re
Everyone and no one, for no matter where you are
Or what your name is, it’s the same styles
Of thought, the same habits of contemplation
That carry you along to the inevitable conclusion
That life is either ludicrous or not worth living
Or both. But why does it have to be worth anything?
It’s just there, the way we’re all just there, moving
And needing to be moved, without knowing why.

John Koethe

The Reality of the Individual Life

As one who thinks of poetry
As a way of talking to yourself,
I probably do too much explaining,
But that’s what talking to yourself is like:
The things you can’t explain to anyone
Are suddenly made clear to no one, as though
Nobody mattered but yourself. And it’s the same
For each of us, whether you’re listening to me or not:
An enveloping cloud of not-quite-language
Hovering on the verge of sense that puts you
At the center of a world that doesn’t quite get you,
But of which you’re part, a world in which
Each individual life is so completely ordinary
And at the same time so extraordinary it never ends
Until it does: each individual life eternity
In miniature; each life a world.

Yet here I am, lying on my bed
In the middle of the day, feeling the years
Tick by with nothing much to say about them,
As though I’m supposed to. That’s the point though,
Isn’t it? Without the sense of an individual self
Creating time and bounded by it, I wouldn’t be real,
I wouldn’t matter, nor would you, despite our
Sentiments and appetites and dreams. It’s how we
Differ from our animals, however much we love them-
Something you and I know, but Daisy, sleeping
At the foot of my bed, can’t know. Dream on, Daisy.

John Koethe