Ars Diaspora with Drinking Gourd

Omotara James

after Richie Havens

As morning unspools new glory
across the earth, it rescinds an inch,
at least, of borrowed light. Today
those who wake heavy and heaved

beneath the lowest rung of love,
press their ears to the first quail calls
of sky. I ride the train north,
underground, having hollowed the enemy

of its gourd-mouthed pride. My father’s gaze
across my flesh measures the distance
between my life and the grandfather
I never met, on Earth. The evening

before I arrive, my father’s father,
disembodied by time, visits him in Trinidad.
The Caroni River of my father’s tide surges,
eversweet, as sorrow runs through the sugar belt.

He recalls the dream’s wordless joy,
my granddad smiling ahead of me. Today,
we are headed into New York City, rare
luxury, to dwindle time. Stripes of shadow

and light play the width of my father’s face,
brown, dappled black. The present moment:
a ribbon, a slideshow, a conjuring of tenses
we emerge from, pulls tunnel through light.

Dad dips back into memory, like an acrobat,
to find a young man’s posture, shifting
in his vinyl train seat. He recalls granddad’s face,
a map of my birth, each dark twinkle of his eye,

a dead tree, summoning. Yesterday’s grief
has traveled on ahead of us, between two hills,
a haunting where love waits. Dad says, our dead
return when the flesh is weak, to remind or warn against

—each beginning and ending, a landmark. Tonight,
midsummer sits, across the unset table of the moon:
the meek yet to inherit the earth, the suffering yet to end
in peace. Upon me, the measureless distance

between words I need to believe, and what
spirit has always perceived. Parched of favor,
I follow the drinking gourd. I call and call and call
and call and call and call and call. When conducting

the music of the departed, thirst hums the gospel
of the body. I almost always lose my way. Dark,

my most loyal friend, sings only me.

Omotara James is the author of the poetry collection Song of My Softening. Her work has received support from various organizations, including the African Poetry Book Fund, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Lambda Literary, and the Cave Canem Foundation.
Originally published:
July 11, 2022

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