“[…] as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.” — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
“It is now nearly five years since I was an ape, a short space of time, perhaps, according to the calendar…” — Red Peter, from “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka
Red Peter, it is so nice to meet you—I mean, you have to know how awful online dating can be. My father set us up—I think, based on your preferences in women, he thought we would have a lot in common. I must admit, I was excited to come to this restaurant. It is an excellent choice; the banana pudding is fabulous—the best in the city. I too love frequenting Paris, although I missed your performances with Hagenbeck. He also brought the world Otta Benga, did he not? I believe Mr. Benga resided in the same state where my father wrote his Notes. You are such a kind gentleman, compared to others. Here, let me adjust your bowtie; you’ve learned to be more human than most. Now, tell me, in your report to an academy, did you address your desires? Your dating preferences? Is the preference of the oranootan, in fact, for the black woman over his own species? Red Peter, my father would be very happy to hear about this date, if your preference is as such—I mean, for a woman like myself.
It is more difficult than you think to slice the cusp of belief, Sándor. The skim on a soup : the light chinking off the parabola of a wave. They disowned us from reason too. You are not the first or only one to have said that the ocean is a womb is an ocean. We used to believe in our gills; sanity isn’t always necessary for survival—on the contrary. You crossed the line; you married psychology, science (or it was at the time), and your intuition; there is a genetic taboo against incest, and these are siblings sleeping together. You said that when we were thrown to the land, that we kept the water between our hip bones. A way of grieving is to try to put something in the place of the lost object. They called you crazy—they called us animals, this isn’t a parallel, but facts fished up on tentative lines. They called us, the women, animals. This isn’t advocacy for your conclusions, but an interest in your methods. In this braid. What do you think of that Sándor? Now, what do you think of that?
Hex / Too Much of Any Certain Thing Over Time May Be Poison
3 This was the tree’s name until a Nancy Morejón poem told me different. See also araucaria.
Jessica Lanay is a poet, short fiction, and art writer. Her work focuses on architectures of interiority, escapism, history of psychoanalysis, and southern culture. Her poetry has appeared in Sugar House Review, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, Acentos Review, Fugue and others. She has work forthcoming in A Bad Penny Review, Indiana Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her short fiction was most recently published in Tahoma Literary Review, and Black Candies. A short autobiographical essay was also published in Salt Hill Journal. Her art writing can be found in BOMB and ArtSlant. She is a Callaloo, Cave Canem, and Kimbilio Fellow.
She says there are so many …
people here. After confusing me with
a different black person here in this
room full of swing dancers,
so confused and disappointed I’m not, in fact,
this other person I look nothing
like. After asking me: where, then, is
this other person. Like I should know. Like
we are too many things with our own names
for you—too inconvenient, too much dark skin
invading your space, like she doesn’t know
this bastard dance was lifted
from black bodies, like can’t shit
belong to us, not even our names.
I arrive at a Black Lives Matter rally
on campus in Ann Arbor
and three white boys show up
next to me and I cannot help
but find them ravenous. I cannot help
but always be afraid. From where we’re standing
across the square, the boys try to identify
a girl who’s active in the rally.
That’s her, one says, with the “don’t shoot”
sign. She waved at me. Presumably
it’s a girl they know from a class.
They’re in such disbelief to see a person
they know actively be part of something
like this. It couldn’t be her, can it?
They turn away and one says
All African Americans …
I don’t hear the last part, but I heard
that first part clear—had heard enough.
I know how this one goes.
It’s easier to eat the meat
if the thing doesn’t have a name,
if you can’t recognize its face.
I hear Tim Allen on my radio
say There’s something special
about coming from a small
town—an honesty, an integrity,
down-to-earth goodness not found
But we here are not
of how we’ve learned to rise
from the ground, how we have learned
to find because my country counted
to a hundred and then decided
not to seek, closed her eyes again.
Though if you do choose to look,
you will miss us
if you’re looking for purity.
In the city,
I walk old streets with
black and brown bones, code switch
like the alternation of pistons.
I started to make a list
of tourist attractions
in Detroit, but
fuck it. I understand
that the view from the freeways
wouldn’t be pretty in a commercial
by these nature-porn standards.
And I don’t wish to be
pure, especially if pure
means we are
flattened into white paper,
pretend to be scrawled in the ink
capitalism. Especially if
purity means a reddening of the water.
Especially if the legacy is as it is:
the desire for pure-breed causing the disease.
This is what I’ve seen
of how we are seen:
the need for teacher strikes keeping us
home from school for weeks—that same
need now dripping down like rainwater
into a bucket through a weak ceiling
in the school hallway.
If you want, I can direct you
to the small towns where children
still learn to call me terrorist
and a nigger. I can show you where
to kayak down a fresh cherry
river. If you want pure, I can show you
where to look. As for us, we have learned to swim
in our own blood. But we will
be here. We will be Michigan.
We will not hide but we
are not waiting to be found.
portrait of my country
my country hold you down / better yet / force your hand / better yet / handcuffs / he say get on the floor & don’t resist / insist you stop resisting even if you already dead
my country expect you say thank you / tell you it an opportunity / my country say get over it / (but don’t forget his greatness though) / & he don’t realize what he done / or maybe he do / i’m not sure which worse
my country make plans / without asking you first / ‘cause he assume you free / tonight & always / free & always proud of him
my country demand you say his name / america / co-opted metonym / at home / at baseball games / at school every morning / whenever you buy anything / when you come back home / think he slick / & sweet as honey / but you don’t want to call this home no more
i love my country
like i loved the greased hands
pulling at my scalp
to arrange afro into too tight braids
so tight they lifted my eyebrows
into a mcdonald’s double arch
so tight it hurt to sleep
even with just a pillow against my head
the inability to soothe the itch
the dream just out of reach
this isn’t about the braids
their pain & beauty
it’s about shit people see
look pretty & neat but don’t
know the pain we experience
at some point I decided
it wasn’t worth it anymore
so I cut my hair
playground bully who brag
& beat up the other kids
‘cause he know how much
cowardice lies under the muscle
u.s.a. you beast
to my beauty but too far gone
the roses all wilted & fallen
i did not consent to this
ain’t it pretty
how we learned to be proud
of so much ugly
how the ugly
so proud he trick folks without
even needing a mask
my country you bonesaw
through my femur
you needle in my arm:
drunk tattoo of an ex
who promised me everything
but meant it for someone else
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and studied poetry in University of Michigan’s MFA program. His writings have been given homes by Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and The Journal, among others. He is an editor for HEArt Online.