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Kai Coggin for Mid-America Arts Alliance

Izibongo for Black Women
(a praise poem after JP Howard, for my Sisters)

praise you Black Woman
because you never be praised enough
let me lift your collective name here
let me strip you of all your forced-on shame here
praise you for the stars that unfold when you smile
praise you for the way moons rise in your eyes
praise you for your tragic hope and sacrifice
life for you ain’t been no crystal stair
but you still keep climbin’ on
praise Langston’s mama
praise her wisdom and truth

praise you Black Woman
because you never be praised enough
praise be your laugh
let me say that again because it’s the song
that makes the planet spin
praise be your laugh
how it cackles and coos loud brassy beautiful
unafraid and unbroken
honey and fire

praise you Black Woman
because you never be praised enough
praise your natural hair and its curls
how whole galaxies swirl in the furls of you
praise your box braids and your twist outs
praise your locs and your bantu knots
praise how I got a Sister whose afro blocks out the sun
praise how I got another Sister whose afro is so tall
God uses it for a microphone
infuses her as gospel
Black Woman
praise your fingers braiding and trading beads
and weaving histories into wild glorious hair
the ceremony of pulling
praise your pulling
praise your pushing
pushing back on all that no longer makes room
for your crown
here Queen— here is your crown

praise the Motherland of your womb
how everything comes from you
and is stolen from you
and is returned to you again in glory
or entombed
I can’t begin to know your story but
praise you Black Mama
forgive us for what we have done
and all that we still do
how we don’t do right by your Black sons
how they are followed all their lives
by the shadows of guns
and how your Black daughters atlas the weight
of systemic cycles yet undone
and you still teach them to lift their faces to the sun
praise Breonna Taylor right here

praise you Black Woman
how you still raise continents of sons and daughters
despite their predisposition to being slaughtered
how the Atlantic ocean is still found in your transatlantic tears
the salt of you betrayed and splayed out  
creating lands under your feet from all your centuries of grief
praise you as homeland
praise you as shore of a brighter world
praise the holy map of you
praise the North Star  
that hangs from your earlobe like a pearl
praise you Black Mama
for how you hold the world
praise your swaddle and thick body
your warmth and your song
how you lullaby the night with a defiant hope
praise your hope
praise your dreams
praise the scripture of your face
praise the lines on your hands and crows-feet hymns
make an altar of my tongue
so that my words are poetic reparation
burn nag champa and sage in praise of your fire
praise be your fire
praise your persistence and your resistance
praise how you Harriet your children to a new freedom
praise how you Rosa until someone else offers you a seat at the table
praise how you Audre deliberate and afraid of nothing
praise how you Maya rising and phenomenal
praise how I got a Sister who named her daughter Revolution
Black Woman praise you
how your heroes and saints speak to you from the edge of the world
how your ancestors tell you the mountaintop is near
how every step toward freedom
is emblazoned into your DNA
encoded in your retaliations of Black Joy
praise your Black Joy
praise your Black Joy

praise you Black Woman
because you never be praised enough
praise your hips
praise your thighs
praise your arms and your legs
praise your back and your heavy head
praise your neck and them tight-ass shoulders
praise your temples
and how your whole beautiful Black Woman body
is a Temple
praise you Black Temple
praise your knees and your elbows
your fingers and your toes
praise your perfect beautiful Black nose
and your perfect lips
praise your voice that sings and hums and hallelujahs
praise your voice that shouts for justice
that leads us all to shout beside you BLACK LIVES MATTER

Sister praise you
praise your heart for all that you bear
praise your ears for all that you hear
praise your eyes for all that you see
how your eyes and ears sometimes
bring you your biggest fears
and yet somehow somehow you soldier on
praise you Black Woman
I don’t know how you be so strong
I don’t know how you be so strong

this praise poem could just go on and on and on and on
because Sister—you never be praised enough

Fertile

I have so much
dirt
under my fingernails
from gardening

so much thick soil
new mooning black
I could plant ten thousand seeds
in these garden (nail)beds
and sprout a whole forest of trees

make a whole ecosystem
under my touch
huddle
the howling fox
the heavy elephant
the sky-kissing giraffe
the wild black bear
and quick cheetah
to rest quiet in my palms

perch the screech owl
the eagle
and the wide-wing condor
between my fingers

lifelines turned riverbed
fresh with moving water for all who thirst

because I have so much
of the earth
under my fingernails
coated
on my hands

I swear that
my whole body is fertile
for planting



 

Tendrils

I seem to be finding
all of my poems
in the garden,

this isolation from people
has me speaking
in the language of leaves

and leaving, this morning
I find my poem in the raveling snow peas,
twisted up in their reaching

their climb and striving up
the guiding trellis all tendrils and swirl
all growing and beauty unfurling

more and more each moment,
the way I reach for you
more and more each moment,

all wanting and ache unfurling
the way my gentle tendrils reach and ravel
into the
space



 




between us.




 

Filling Spice Jars As Your Wife

It seems like all my poems
after this will be different,
they will hold a different weight
like how the weight of my heart
has shifted into indistinguishable float,
into lifting cloud,
into weightless flight tonight
as the rain gently falls
on the summer-heated tin roof,
the din of casual raindrops
and warm low lights glowing
and wind blowing through the house,
we have all our doors and windows open.

We have all our doors and windows open
and I am pouring spices into glass jars,
coriander cinnamon cumin ground sage
and it’s hard to describe this
moment in the confines of a page,
tiny hills of vibrant color
and intoxicating fragrance
and you hear the cadence
of my heart
from the kitchen
where you build perfect fitting slip-in shelves
for our spices over the stove,
match the colors,
match my colors to yours,
I have all my doors and windows open to you.

I have all my doors and windows open to you
and you have come all the way inside,
sat down at the table of my deepest desires
and lit a fire to warm us both,
the wind blowing through the house,
the rain gently giving way
to turmeric sunrise
and you, darling,

you are my wife.


You are my wife
and it’s like I have been waiting
my whole life
to say those words,
and I feel held in a way
I have never felt before,
to look down at my fingers
dusted with ginger and thyme
and see the gold of my wedding band
glint and shine in the warm low light glow,
I am yours
and you are mine,
promised on Zoom in our garden
of giant zinnia and hummingbird vines,
sung out in the morning song of bluebirds,
this union that ripples love out to the world
and infinities back into us again
love —
in the fine powder of these spices,
ground up essence of oregano and basil,
I see our love in every atom suddenly
and every cell in me finally exhales,
and perhaps that is the wind.

Perhaps that is the wind
blowing through the house,
this release of eternal searching
and finding you there,
calling me your forever,
naming me your always,
to have and to hold,
till death do we part and start all over again
looking only for each others’ hearts,
taking my life in your hands eternal,
marrying me to the heavens,
latching me to the star-trail of your white dress,
in this orbital dance,
this lift and spin,
this knowing from within
that all my poems after this will be different

because you are my wife.


 

Quantify
(upon the milestone of 1,000,000 American COVID deaths,  May 2022)

When we get beyond a certain number,
our brains just turn off,
we stop conceptualizing
the actual numbers
and just blur it
into abstract and unfathomable,
into words like countless and innumerable,
but let them all be counted—
let our dead neighbors come to the altar of rust,
the red and the blue and the red again,
let their names be inscribed among our unnecessary losses,
our vigilant stubbornness,
our unvaccinated ideals of freedom (and guns)
and let us say their one million names
as we try to keep turning this page in this chapter of collective grief.

It didn’t have to be this way.
the richest country in the world
with access to the best of science and medicine—
it didn’t have to be this way,
but let us bring our one million to this reckoning hour,
this internal reflection of what keeps breaking in this country.

Divided, we continue to fall, to die, to lose,
to choose the ideologies of hate
over the lives of our neighbors and this headstone
cannot hold all of their names,
this poem cannot count their disappearing syllables.

Two years ago,
I marked the morbid milestone of 100,000 dead Americans,
Memorial Day 2020.
I wrote my body into a makeshift memorial,
tried, with some poetic license,
to touch the fading portraits of strangers,
to dance with their ghosts in a country so ready to forget, to move on,
but how do we count the countless?

How do I quantify the unfathomable today?

How do I wrap a poem around one million breathless bodies?

One million is a thousand thousands.
One million pennies stacked up would reach almost a mile into the sky.
One million moments of silence one second long
would take eleven and a half noiseless days.
One million miles could fly us to the moon and back, twice
but here we remain, earthbound,
stuck in the orbit of cycles repeating,
violence waxing and waning with the tides
and rise of white supremacy
and just a couple weeks shy of George Floyd’s murder anniversary
an 18-year old white terrorist guns down
grannies and pop pops getting their groceries,
executes innocent Black folks on a social media livestream,
bookends of racial violence and a million dead neighbors—
is this still our American Dream?

Black Lives Matter.

These one million lives shattered by COVID also mattered to someone,
each with their own close circle of grief,
their own infinite ripple of loss,
sea to shining sea of tears.

One million is ten times one hundred thousand.
I was never too good at math,
but I know it just didn’t have to be this way.

How do we return to our selves?
How we we turn off the numbness and start to feel again?
How do we stop doom-scrolling and actually look in each others eyes?
How do we RE-sensitize our senses and see that we are all still connected?

I try to quantify,
to find what a million looks like compared to what I can understand—
a one with six zeroes,
but every zero becomes a hole
not deep enough for all the bodies
not wide enough for all those beautiful cut-short lives,
but let them all be counted,
let our dead neighbors come to the altar of rust,
the red and the blue and the red again.

 

Candle

Thank you for reading, listening, watching, feeling.

Thank you to Mid-America Arts Alliance for for supporting artists in the region, and amplifying voices like mine. I am truly humbled and filled with gratitude.

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