National Poetry Month 2021: New poems by our contributors MAKALANI BANDELE, FELICITY SHEEHY, GEORGE RAWLINS, and VERNITA HALL.
Table of Contents
makalani bandele | “unit_33,
a higher-level unit now”
Felicity Sheehy | “Stations”
George Rawlins | “To Be Human”
| “Epistle to the Hangman’s Mistress”
Vernita Hall | “Chauvet Cave: Divination”
a higher-level unit now
By makalani bandele
she held her down, so she could get up, get out and get some soul food for us. outside the gallery space proper, somebody’s tripping, you can smell the slow contrition. caint nobody talk like this unless they saying some real springboard off back. it was a match made to conform to heternormativity, she didn’t want nothing from him and he tried to ignore how bad he wanted him. even when you know how it came to be, the expression still feels like nothing short of a catfish sandwich. bust up outta the closet. who and what are behind this probe, i seent ’em. counterhegemonic on the serious tip. to not realize you got skin in the game. deacon leading hymns he don’t know. oh, hell to the naw, to the naw, naw, naw. get it down in your soul closet some. no he didn’t just. caught up in resonances that only resonate when intertextual readings of a work are done. free lil’ mike. the shout that ends with a leap out a stained-glass window.
By Felicity Sheehy
The year I didn’t kill myself, I was very, very good.
I rose at 6 AM. I wrote. A thousand words a day,
at least, my notebook bristling, my fingers smudged.
I ate chia seeds. And kale. Sometimes I went to the gym.
I stared at the weights, their iron sheen. I trod the rubber
tongue of the treadmill, its smooth expanse, sliding over
itself. I thought about buying a membership. I looked
at the options: six months, a year. I put the card down.
I said I was grateful for the things you’d expect:
my family, my friends. I did not say I was grateful
I would die someday. I did not say things like that.
What I said was educated, and dry, and made old men
laugh at cocktail parties. Briefly I would feel some sense
of triumph. I had been to a cocktail party. I could leave.
I could put on my coat and walk home alone. The stars
shivering above. The buildings spooled into light.
Every night the dark gear of my body wound up and reset.
I listened to it the way I listened to the train, shuddering
past the station. Another metal thing, crawling through darkness,
over stone, over grass, over fenland and heather and heath.
Two Poems By George Rawlins
Note from the poet:
These poems are from a book-length sequence that reimagines in 57 sonnets the life of the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton. At age 16, Chatterton invented the imaginary persona of a 15th-century poet he named Thomas Rowley and tried to pass off the poems as the work of a previously unknown priest to the literati of London. When that and other attempts to help his mother and sister out of poverty failed, at age 17 he committed suicide. Decades after his death, he was credited by Coleridge and Wordsworth as the founding spirit of Romanticism.
To Be Human
Tides, Thomas, inside the body betray
our spine. A rigid schooner transports
us—a simple membrane to seal the drifting
shapes that squirm like ants into an eternity
of amber. How to fathom such until
our hearts blow their red
doors open? What it is
to be—our blood a syrup
salted with alphabets to contort
into legend on the tongues of knaves,
poets, and footmen—guilt inbred as a little
one knows to suck, how the female
worker bee knows honeycomb and when
to dispense the one sting its given.
Epistle to the Hangman’s Mistress
Dear Most Excellent Madame, consort to the King’s
duly appointed murderer, the rope’s
incandescent on a rainy gallows
feast on Execution Dock, his rough
fingers smoothed by years of ragged hemp. This
life’s not just for the hard stipend of Newgate
wages to buy what love and death may sell—yea,
to smell the pink that once adorned today’s neck
du jour. You may gloat over one whose spine’s
been boned by rope—newborn to loss like Jesus
to disbelief. Now off to the two-face jakes
to primp till he staggers home to caress your neck
above the trap door, pried
wide to peer into the deep beneath your shimmer.
Chauvet Cave: Divination
By Vernita Hall
If God is the skull of a bear
on a rockpile altar
then you can be Buddha
in half a million years
for evolution charts in mortality
the path of least resilience
for the slow learner.
Ask the auroch (an erstwhile steer),
the mammoth, the woolly rhino,
ask the cave bear Godhead
the secret of longevity.
Their laughing scattered bones here
echoing to dust will whisper:
makalani bandele is an MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky and an Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem fellow. He is the author of under the aegis of a winged mind and hellfightin’, and his work has been included in many anthologies and journals, including African-American Review, Killens Review of Arts and Letters, Prairie Schooner, Foundry, 32poems, North American Review, and Sou’wester. He lives in Lexington, KY.
Felicity Sheehy’s work has appeared in The New Republic, The Yale Review, Narrative, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Shenandoah, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She has received an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Jane Martin Poetry Prize for U.K. residents under 30.
George Rawlins’s poems presented here will be included in his new book, Cheapside Afterlife, to be published this month by Longleaf Press at Methodist University.
Vernita Hall is the author of Where William Walked: Poems About Philadelphia and Its People of Color, winner of the Willow Books Grand Prize and of the Robert Creeley Prize from Marsh Hawk Press; and The Hitchhiking Robot Learns About Philadelphians, winner of the Moonstone Press Chapbook Contest. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous anthologies and journals, including American Poetry Review, African American Review, Atlanta Review, Barrow Street, Solstice, and The Cortland Review. With fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center and Ucross, Hall holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and serves on the poetry review board of Philadelphia Stories.