Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

Originally posted to The Good Men Project on August 21, 2017. 

Red, White, Black, or Before the Eclipse

14 Aug 2017

The darkness drops again – W. B. Yeats

Odd to see it there in the old temple this summer, the sign
of wellbeing—a bent cross turning, a swastika, the sun—
so odd to see it in stone, even though we know it means

it meant something different. Was that the same temple where they
said Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims prayed together, bathed
together in holy water, until they no longer did? The place

was holy; we wore the red sarongs required to enter.
That seems so long ago. Back home we see flags the color
of blood, that bent cross, stark, in black and white. At Tirta

Empul’s holy springs we didn’t bathe, despite an offer
of lockers and green robes. Bert said it felt wrong
to step into someone else’s sacred ritual. We watched

wet tourists standing waist-deep in the pool smile
for selfies, flash peace signs. It didn’t feel holy. Still,
there among grinning tourists and Hindu faithful, we’d filled

a water bottle, not knowing what for. Tanah Lot
felt different, the sky white with rain, the sun a bright spot
out on the face of the sea. Our guide said our offerings

would help with renovations, so we fell in line, leaned over
the pool to wash our faces. Priests daubed foreheads with water
and rice, tucked frangipani behind our ears, the tide

coming in
the beach a babble
of scattered voices,

a book
of useless phrases
in my pocket.


The Balinese wrap trees and statues in sarongs of checkered black
and white like men at worship, the harmony important, balance.
Guardian figures flank a temple door. Our guide explained a mace

against the left shoulder means evil, mace against the right,
good. Otherwise they look the same. You must have both,
he said, but you have to see the difference. Everywhere

we saw small offerings at doorsteps, bright flowers and rice
cupped in leaves woven with prayer. The air was incense and kites,
everywhere the empty black chair of the god of gods, outside

every home, in every field, at the bend of every road,
at the bookshop where we bought incense blessed
by a priest and bound together with braided thread, red,

white, and black. Temple signs still forbid entrance
to menstruating women. A woman at the coffee market
asked why travelers don’t like Trump. We talked difference

and fear. You are you, she pointed at Bert. I am me.
We accept. The only lingams we found were gaudy
bottle-openers in souvenir stalls. Our last day in Bali,

we found a small bird shuddering on our front step—
small sounds and then it was still. Bert scooped it up
gently, left it in the flowers. It felt something like a sign.

One day, when I told Wayan I’m a teacher, he pulled over
for a large statue of Saraswati, so I could see her better,
her book and lute, her beads, her swan, her jar of water.

One night, as he drove us back, we saw men in white
shirts and dark sarongs walking along the road, the night
quiet. Wayan drove slow. They’re going to temple, he said,

The thin line of men and boys, torches lifted, thickened
into a crowded procession, women with baskets, children,
and then at the end, like a grinning apparition

from the dark, the barong—more giant dog than lion,
more muppet than rough beast, great shaggy guardian
of the good, and then it was gone,

and we drove on,
and darkness

took back
the road.


Coming back, jet lag was hard, our bodies on a different clock,
the news one long banner of anger, hard to watch,
men in white shirts lifting torches on a college lawn,

and then the air was tear gas and mace, banners
wielded as weapons, that old sun sign back on flags
and armbands the way we know it now, in white and black.

A card tucked with the incense said to wear the braided
thread around the right wrist for protection, red,
white, and black. I’ve placed Saraswati on my desk,

the bracelet on my wrist. Soon, a wave of darkness will pass
over us, the sun gone, the air cold. We’ll wear the glasses
that let us look into the dark without going blind. Our last

day there in Bali, we avoided news from home.
We ate breakfast at a French bakery, watched a woman
bless the ATMs across the parking lot. At the museum,

we picked our favorites. Bert stood at the fountain
of Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Waça, radiant and one,
god of all gods, beams of light like spikes shining from

his body, like forks at each joint, his genitals a curling
trident of light. For me it was the painting of Rahu swallowing
the sun, light shining between his teeth, the sun emerging

from his severed throat. Everywhere,
that last day there, I remembered,
tried to remember

to say thank you
in their tongue—

That evening,
when we returned
to our rooms,

Bert washed the step
with the bottle
of holy water.

Poem for the March for Science South Carolina

for the SC March for Science, 22 April 2017

suburban deer pause in the empty lot next
door ears up bodies rigid in the light someone
leaves corn out for them they follow
the scent the creek to the river clatter
across asphalt streets at night eat the day-
lilies the kale the limelight hydrangeas one
day we find a fawn curled in the long grass
leaning not yet a lien the county will levy
against an absentee owner somewhere
glaciers calving caving carving themselves
off Antarctica where have you been where
would you go the calves drifting north a fawn
loping down Elm Abode’s not yet busy daylit

streets we will not know it will not notice
will not know that it is not the catastrophe we
expected though no less catastrophic hardly
hardy orchids budded at winter’s end not
ended white blooms the cold browns we
discover an armadillo burrowed beneath
the roses my mom says she’s never seen
them this far north before the gold spiders
gilding the air between the oaks mosquitoes
not killed not cold enough the cherry weeping

too early somewhere it’s Survivor another
season another immunity challenge somewhere
steam rising off pools of pale blue water
laced with boron and spent fuel rods resting
at the bottom a great desert ditch bristles
with warning cobalt blue yuccas modified
to blue like test tubes of blue blood bled
from horseshoe crabs Limulus polyphemus or
the one-eyed monster that sees the world
askew collected and bled for medicine and
released back to the sea most survive only
a third die the yuccas are modified to mark
the ridge the ditch the hot spot for millennia
to come


As poet laureate, I gathered 6 “river poems” by local poets that appeared on film screens between films during the 2016 Indie Grits film festival last year, Watermarked. April is also National Poetry Month! I wanted to do this again this year for the 2017 Indie Grits festival, Visiones, a multidisciplinary film and arts festival focused on the Latinx community and Latin American artists. So, if you attended this year, you may have seen one of the following poems ahead of film screenings.

Dream/Sueña – Vera Gómez
Believe me – Juan David Cruz
State of Nation – Loli Molina
La salida – Santiago Garcia-Castanon
Visions – Manuel J. Torres-Angel, aka TManning
Las Semilitas (Tiny Seeds) – Lissette Landa Treanor
Contigo y sin ti – Gloria Bayne
Thanks to the Nickelodeon Theatre, Indie Grits, the wonderful contributing poets, and the City of Columbia. Happy National Poetry Month!

Did you get a parking ticket??

A big happy National Poetry Month to you! …..And, happy April Fools!

Maybe you walked out to your car today and found a “parking ticket” under your windshield wiper. Were you shocked? Were you upset? But then you were met with the realization that a poet had pranked you while giving you a lovely little poem to take on your way. Be sure to share your experience on social media by using the hashtags #columbiapoet and #parkingpoems! Here’s a gallery of all six poems, provided by South Carolina poets Brian Slusher, Vera Gomez, Dale Bailes, Kathleen Nalley, Barbara Hagerty and Tim Conroy.

This project, coordinated as part of the activities of Columbia’s Poet Laureate, was the kick off to a celebration here in Columbia of National Poetry Month. You’ll see a few more activities around the city that are being coordinated including an updated set of poems on the COMET, poems on screen during this year’s Indie Grits festival and maybe some surprises you’ll only see when it rains (more details to come).

Celebrate poetry. And, I hope you enjoyed the fun joke.

Body Politic

Written for Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City address, 31 Jan 2017.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. – I Corinthians 12:15

When thousands of women with pink hats
and placards fill the streets, think
about how a city handles
bodies, guides them down sidewalks
and streets, between walls of stone
and state, about the way a mass
of bodies is a way of saying
something, as when a march exceeds
its brief circuit of the city
and ends up on the interstate,
as if to say these bodies matter,
precarious, here and now. A city
is a body, the old philosophers
say, a leader the head, the soldiers
his hands. A church, they say, or palace
is like a brain, a place to pause,
reflect. Or it’s the heart, stained
glass and cold walls, glimmer
of something larger. But that’s too easy
a figure of order and power. A city
is many bodies, moving, touching,
talking, gathered together, a place
where differences matter and meet,
a song written to the beat of many feet.

In the neighborhood assessment, the teacher
asks us to think about how bodies
move, how and where they go.
How many banks or payday lenders
within a mile of your house, she says,
how many grocery stores, libraries, schools?
These are moral questions. How far
is health care from where you are,
if you had no car? Are there
sidewalks where you live? She turns
her hands up as she asks—as if
they could be filled. What can people do?
What do they have access to?

Sometimes, the prophet says, your body
is your only weapon, he says,
you put your body in the street
to say what needs be said. Sometimes,
he says, you tuck your body in
so the wheels don’t turn. You hold
your hand up, empty. You lift
your hand above your eyes, as if
to shade the sun, as if you’re looking
into the distance, when you’re just
looking to the future, for what’s
not yet here. Hold your hand out
to someone—we do it all the time—
consider how we greet each other
in handshake or bro hug, fist bump
or bussed cheek, what we do
when we meet, the grammar of hands
and bodies, of who we are and what
we think of one another. A mass
of bodies is saying something—
whether it’s a market shutting
down Main, a dinner on a bridge,
a great crowd of witnesses watching
a flag come down, or maybe a room
of people sitting together, listening
to a man who asks them to imagine
themselves part of one body,
one city, one place,
sharing each other’s fate.


Our city lifts its hand to shade its eyes.
Our city wants to see into the distance.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city does not hog the table.
Our city knows everyone is disabled in some way.
Our city offers a hand, opens a door.
Our city likes to talk.
Our city would rather build a bridge than build a wall.
Our city wants to hear your story.
Our city leans to listen.
Our city knows its soul is filled by art.
Our city sets a light out when it’s dark.
Our city is not a clenched fist.
Our city does not turn its back.
Our city never says I alone can fix it.
Our city knows we only get there together.
Our city wipes its brow, gets to work.

At the corner of Lady and Main

a poem for South Carolina Pride, 3 September 2016

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about a First Lady—
not the former First Lady who may
become the first, but the first
First Lady, the one this street’s named for,
her husband,Washington, a block away.
And I’m thinking about Kenny Rogers,
or maybe Lionel Richey, who wrote
the song—Lady, for so many years
I thought I’d never find you—and after
so many years of marching around
this city and state, we found the place,
Lady and Main,and we’re here, we’re queer,
and we’re ready, I think, for a party.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main
I’m thinking about where and when
we live. Ten years ago and a block
behind me, a bunch of men decided
to put an amendment on the ballot
for that November, and they would fight
to the bitterest end to keep our love
illegal. That March, a group of students
stuck black tape across their mouths
in a room of legislators who liked
to talk about us but not to listen.
Ten years ago this very week,
a rich white guy complained when our
campaign included anti-racist
training. He said that he would cancel
his fundraiser and cut off his donations
to the cause, if we made race
a part of what we do. We did,
we worked hard, and lost the vote,
but still we won, and still the work’s not done.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m humming Lionel Richie, but maybe
also a little Lady Marmalade,
since I’m sure there are some
voulez-vous couchez avec moi
conversations out there in the street,
as there should be on a gorgeous day like today.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking about where we live.
Main is straight, stops at the statehouse.
There’s a wig shop or two, a few
places to eat, and the only theatre
in town that shows that queer film
you really wanted to see, and Main
may lean and swerve around as you head
up north and out of town, but here
it’s a street that’s very straight
that begins and ends at the state.
Stand here at the corner of Lady
and Main and you can’t help but think
about gender and race, whose story
gets told, whose stories don’t, here
on a street that stops at a monument
to men who died fighting for a lie
they’d been told, that black bodies
only matter when they’re bought and sold.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I’m thinking it’s nice that Lady runs
athwart, across, she runs at odds
to Main, reminds us there are other
places to go, other ways to live
than those dictated a block away.
She lingers by the river, heads over
to Waverly, the city’s first suburb,
a home to black artists and activists.
Lady reminds us of place and time,
one end rooted in a history of civil
rights, the other ending at the river
that keeps sweeping by, gone
before you can hold it in your hand.
She keeps a little distance between
herself and that big copper dome
that kept out blacks too long, doesn’t
welcome many women, and has never
seen an open queer of any gender
or color take a seat at the table.

Here at the corner of Lady and Main,
I remember when I was growing up,
in church, we talked about the kingdom,
about living in this world but living
for another at the same time.
It’s like living in two worlds at once.
A few years ago at Charlotte Pride,
there at the corner of Tryon and Trade,
three people in a row stopped by
the South Carolina table to say
that they were the only gay in Gaffney.
They had to go to Charlotte to be free.
There were at least three queers in Gaffney
who didn’t know each other, couldn’t
see each other. They had to go
somewhere else to see what was possible.

So here at the corner of Lady and Main,
look around,and see what’s possible.
Live what is possible, love
who you want to love, and be kind
to one another. Sometimes we’re not
that kind to one another. There is no
somewhere over a rainbow, somewhere
a place for us. This is the place.
Put the rainbow here at the corner
of Lady and Main, and make of the here
and now a future—a there and then, not if but when.