Sunday Jul 14

ReedJustinPhillipcreditNicholas A. C. Nichols Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of Indecency (Coffee House Press), winner of the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry and a finalist for the 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His work has appeared in African American Review, Best American Essays, GuernicaThe Kenyon ReviewObsidian, and elsewhere. He is the 2019-2021 Fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Come see about him at


If We Must Be the Dead
after Claude McKay / ft. Sterling Brown

You misunderstand. Some nights you sleep as though
your chest is locked and keyless. We haunt, insofar
as blackout haunts the lamp bulb’s final flare—without
us, you abide the “gladsome land.” Have you numbered
our ranks behind their grinding ballistic freedoms? Let us
reanimate the panorama’s trimmed gore. Show us
where it hurts. How wide the prison sprawls. How brave
the gravestones stapled in the liquid hills, and for
the innumerable unmarked: silos of ice. Where their
tree lines sag low under sundown and some thousand
unlit back roads come to congress and what blows
in curbside weeds is not insect embroidery, deal
with us. We are the dead. We set the tone death.
We climb their sleep like bellflower horns and blow.

Along the walls once thought as tall as any
giant, or the giant inside the youth
who slew him, what gargoyled the centuries-old cathedral—
spaced apart as if, like earrings, one should fit
some renouncement or let diminish
wonder between them—were the most
fantastic creatures arguably never created,
certainly never seen in that sea-leaning wine city.
The horse-muzzled lion springs to mind
before the dragon, the hobble-horned unicorn,
the terrible legged whale. I imagine Daniel
in the den, surrounded by mouths designed
to love the meadow, snouts for moving aside the flower
to also know the weed’s woody base,
and his king nonetheless desperate, his god
a simplifying furnace, his enemies in the end given
to whichever mouths will shred them,
their children and wives. “Anything with teeth will,”
Momma used to say when I was a child gifted
picture books of animal species complete
with binomial nomenclature. My bible stories
were illustrated: white Daniel, white angel,
lustrous aureoles of heavenly favor,
no margin for surprise, no queer palette, all failure…

In this century live so many people.

They have never known the likes of my weird beast
but in their storied dreams where it giants

and it lions and its hooks are in their limbs.

They are looking for proof of the devil.
They have no interest in their kingdom’s architecture.

The Lorelei
o what does it matter
            the boatman likes the lure
                        if o the horizon line’s lead
longs for my resolute lurk o
            where luck of savage seizure lyric I
                        from his mind’s o empire
entire merrill heinrich heine
            saltbeard foamforder I
                        am rising into fjord o
am horn and head and harlot
            forger of your poorest rhyme
                        romancing babble lullabies
in slow controlled leak o hear me
            whistle in the whorl
                        ich bin es recluse of wreck
it been me curator of canon holes
            or o what matter is it hear me
                        not my song was hullrot
charading languor hang them
            their universal sails o let him
                        o let them one then one run
rough tongue on the teeth
            of my fool’s gold comb if he
                        whores for o black undertow if
he relishes his registry
            of reaving I reeve through
                        every o of flesh and form
my relic of rope and load
            of literal lingual removal
                        refusal to utter relation
to udder o leagues of lading
            I lovely and formulaic line
                        your dense mass with
voluminous melodies o captain
            o rapturous o hagfish the lungs o
                        umlaut the lazy laryngeal runnel
with r o ck r o ck r o ck o
            closer boatman are you o so
                        riveted haven’t you noticed
the mouths of the lamprey
            o their trailing bodies
                        of apostrophe

Photo credit: Nicholas A. C. Nichols