Amherst College’s sixth annual literary festival will take place virtually this year, from Thursday, February 25 to Sunday, February 28. Among the guests are 2020 National Book Award poetry finalists Tommye Blount and Natalie Diaz. The Commonis pleased to reprint four of their poems here.
Join Tommye Blount and Natalie Diaz in conversation with host John Hennessy (poetry editor of The Common) on Saturday, February 27 from 11am to noon.
How Sweet this Great Land
By Tommye Blount
The white girl is arrested
by joy, or is it hunger?
Whatever is there bubbling
in her perfect little body,
she has been taught
to subdue it. Crossed,
her arms make an X
like a contract’s signature; her wrists
rest against her skirt’s pleats.
Almost as if I were a lecherous savage
and not the co-inheritor of this
moment, my nose brushes
the photograph—what must her hands
smell like? Not an odd question
when I consider the dangers
of hunger. Ah yes, there it is—the scent
too loud for even history to shush:
sweet relish, sharp chives, crush of dill—
sandwiched under her nails; a sandwich
some Black child’s mother made. How sweet
this great land of nostalgia—
when there were fewer
houses than there were trees;
safe. She looks as if she might hum;
so happy to be in the cool shade
of the man swinging from his branch.
The Hunger of Luther Vandross
By Tommye Blount
Honey, what would a thinner man know of hunger,
I mean to be forever, for always in hunger.
When my stomach has had enough, when my body goes quiet,
I let my mouth take over. It’s a calling, this hunger
to sing for a love I’m too ashamed to want for myself, so I
practice; the pitch has to be right to sing the hunger
of other lovers, a take on a take, a rendition no one has heard
before, with this voice I wed the lives of others. A hunger
to set the mood—I make them turn the lights off,
turn them on. A gift, this first instrument of hunger,
this tenor. I can feel it in my body, all 300 tender pounds of me.
You’re never lonely when you’re a man, who knows hunger
like I do, as big as two men holding on so tight that you would think
there is only one. There are two of me, both of us hungry
for the stage. Look at how the spotlight searches for me, it can’t keep up.
They chant my name; want more of me. Who am I to let them starve?
“How Sweet this Great Land” and “The Hunger of Luther Vandross” from Fantasia for the Man in Blue (c) 2020 by Tommye Blount. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
My Brother, My Wound
By Natalie Diaz
He was calling in the bulls from the street.
They came like a dark river,
a flood of chest and hoof.
Everything moving, under, splinter. Hooked
their horns though the walls. Light hummed
the holes like yellow jackets. My mouth
was a nest torn empty.
Then, he was at the table.
Then, in the pig’s jaws.
He was not hungry. He was stop.
He was bad apple. He was choking.
So I punched my fists against his stomach.
Mars flew out
and broke open or bloomed.
How many small red eyes shut in that husk?
He said, Look. Look. And they did.
He said, Lift up your shirt. And I did.
He slid his fork between my ribs.
Yes, he sang. A Jesus side wound.
It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He reached inside
and turned on the lamp.
I never knew I was also a lamp, until the light
fell out of me, dripped down my thigh,
flew up in me, caught in my throat like a canary.
Canaries really means dogs, he said.
He put on his shoes.
You started this with your mouth, he pointed.
Where are you going? I asked.
To ride the Ferris wheel, he answered,
and climbed inside me like a window.
By Natalie Diaz
My brother has a knife in his hand.
He has decided to stab my father.
This could be a story from the Bible,
if it wasn’t already a story about stars.
I weep alacranes—the scorpions clatter
to the floor like yellow metallic scissors.
They land upside down on their backs and eyes,
but writhe and flip to their segmented bellies.
My brother has forgotten to wear shoes again.
My scorpions circle him, whip at his heels.
In them is what stings in me –
it brings my brother to the ground.
He rises, still holding the knife.
My father ran out of the house,
down the street, crying like a lamplighter –
but nobody turned their lights on. It is dark.
The only light left is in the scorpions –
there is a small light left in the knife too.
My brother now wants to give me the knife.
Some might say, My brother wants to stab me.
He tries to pass it to me – like it is a good thing.
Like, Don’t you want a little light in your belly?
Like the way Orion and Scorpius –
across all that black night – pass the sun.
My brother loosens his mouth –
between his teeth, throbbing red Antares.
One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife.
One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.
Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020)—a finalist for the National Book Award—and the chapbook What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A Cave Canem alumnus and graduate from Warren Wilson College, he has been the recipient of a fellowship from Kresge Arts in Detroit and the John Atherton scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Blount’s work has been featured in Magma, Poetry, New England Review, Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Ecotone, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye now lives in the nearby suburb of Novi, Michigan.
Natalie Diaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press, and her second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, was published by Graywolf Press in March 2020. She is a MacArthur Fellow, a Lannan Literary Fellow, a United States Artists Ford Fellow, and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. Diaz is Director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.