Jim Limber Burning Where No Fire Is

Shane McCrae

Such as I’ve been I am I never was

Bad or a good boy   ’cept as I was born

Bad like you know the badness in a glass

Of fresh milk if       you leave it in the sun

 

Will be exposed by the blazing inquiry

Bad like the sun won’t make it       fresher not

Bad like a white boy’s badness lights the sky

With a strange second sun that dies       unnat-

 

urally from the sky       that while it shines

Down on him makes the ground he walks a stage

And when it dies he is himself again

A living Negro never walked a stage

 

We are the ghosts of who comes after us

And their memorial I       bet I was sent

To Limbo       ’cause whoever watches was-

n’t sure what good and bad things I had done

 

But saw the good and bad       things millions of

Negroes had done before me on my back

And couldn’t add the figures up       and thought

Limbo was good enough and not to dark-

 

en Heaven       darker than Heaven has to be

Or it might be a storm       of Negroes in

Heaven I bet whoever watches sees

A storm of Negroes piled high thrashing on

 

My back whoever watches sees a pile

Of Negroes thinks       they’re thrashing ’cause it’s so

Many in one place but the thrashing’s all

The rush of the eye from one black body to

 

The next and it’s no       thrashing in the bod-

ies but the wrong is in the eye       I bet

Whoever watches didn’t see I had

A storm of Negroes on my back but it

 

Was a black cloud like the black clouds I’ve seen

In the far Heaven I’ve seen from Limbo       like

The clouds I’ve seen       from which I’ve seen stars born

Such storms as are the glory of the dark

Shane McCrae is the author of Sometimes I Never Suffered among other books. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and an NEA fellowship. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Originally published:
April 1, 2020

Featured

Conversations

Emily Ogden and Dana Spiotta

Reckoning with middle age and complicity
Emily Ogden
and
Dana Spiotta

The Stakes of Dictee

An introduction to a famously difficult work
Ken Chen

Theater of Shame

The rise of online humiliation
Charlie Tyson

Newsletter

Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.