Joshua Bennett is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Princeton University. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, his work has been published or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Boston Review, Callaloo, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust, and the Ford Foundation. Penguin Books will publish his first collection of poems, The Sobbing School, in September 2016.
Owed to the durag
Which I spell d-u-r-a-g because that’s the way it was spelled
on all the clear plastic packets I grew up buying for no more
than two dollars, two fifty max, unless I was at Duane Reade
or some likewise corporatized venue but who buys
the majority of their durags at Duane Reade anyway,
who would actually wage war on the durag’s good name
by spelling it d-e-w hyphen r-a-g as I recently read
some sad lost souls do in an article in The Guardian
this isn’t botany. This isn’t a device one might use
to attend to the suburban garden & its unremarkable
flora, drying freshly damp wisteria with black silk
or the much more common nylon-rayon-cotton blend.
I could see d-o hyphen r-a-g. That works for me.
One could argue this version makes more sense
even than the spelling I am accustomed to,
reflective as it is of nothing other than itself.
I have never heard the term ‘do used in a sentence
by anyone other than a long-lost colleague
at Princeton who once reached wide-eyed
for my high top fade before a swift rebuke,
marked by my striking his wrist as if some large
though distinctly non-lethal mosquito, surely a top six
proudest moment of anti-colonial choreography
I have dared call mine in this odd, improbable
life I hold to my chest like a weapon. I know.
I know. This wasn’t supposed to be about them.
You make me inordinately beautiful. Let’s talk
about that. Or how I’m 12 years old & the cape
of a white durag billows from beneath
my Marlins cap like a sham poltergeist,
flight & failure contained within a single body, worthy
core of any early 2000’s era New York rapper’s coat
of arms. I was lying before. Once, while we sat,
quiet as mourners on the front porch, my father spat
that’s a nice ‘do you have there, eyeing the soft mess
of cork-screwed darkness atop his second youngest
son’s aging face, no sign of the good hair he praised
for years to family & co-workers alike. Alas, old friend,
you somehow make me even more opaque, make
me mystery, criminal, dope boy by the corner
of Broadway &127th compelling respectable
women to reach for smart-phones, call for backup,
smooth, adjustable shadow, like policy
or fire, you blacken everything you touch.
Trust, it was not so much that I thought the icon of Michael Jordan’s smooth,
triangular flight on the back of my first cousin’s new shoes a proof of God, but rather
that I too yearned for glory & honor. And so, after 13 years of living at the lower end of
the freshness spectrum, I figured there was no better way to spend a first check: White
and red Retro III’s with a triple XL tall tee to match. Ecko Jeans. Size 7 and 5/8ths
Oakland A’s fitted cap, New Era sticker above the brim shining like a Spanish
doubloon. So fly later that night I would stroll into the party slow as water shifting
phase, bathed in strobe light, unfazed as every yet-uncoupled senior class girl swooned
without hesitation or shame, their glances cast like fisherman’s nets through the air
above the dance floor, giving musculature to the darkness.
The first time I saw a black patent leather shoe fly across the living room I knew mama
was nothing to be fooled with though the lesson did not last long. Up to my senior year
at the prep school she spent all the extra cash she hid from dad on, I was wild as any
brown boy with half a head of sense could be: slamming doors and sneaking through
windows once the streetlights were already warm. It would be another year before I
found the beretta, or the spare bullets—which, back then, I took to be little more than
the broken, steel fingers of an elaborate necklace strewn, as if rock salt, throughout the
dresser drawer. Let me try this again. Once, my mother gave her life to three great
loves: Jehovah, travel, geraniums by the porch. These are not arranged in any
meaningful order, depending on what your last great claim would be given the grace of
a window in which to speak before it all goes dim. It is only a list. Hear me. My
mother, South Bronx-born, state-sponsored gun for hire, threw a shoe across a packed
room and hit no one. Not even the boy she bore and taught to walk, now a foot taller
than the man she named him after, yelling for minutes on end at no one but her,
whom he loves, whom he would give all the blood in his body for.