Getting the test back and discovering I am .5% black

Not enough to make a difference, perhaps —
and if it did, what would the difference be?
I am the near-beer of the black community,
which is to say, barely there.
An online book peddler hasn’t heard the news.
They send offers for heirloom editions
titled Your African-American Heritage.
It’s a proud history, they tell the black me

though, according to family rumors
my African-American heritage is the possibility
a paternal great-great-great grandfather
once owned slaves in Guadeloupe:
he is far enough gone to distance from,
close enough to make it real.

In some seller’s database, then, in this wide
uncomfortable place where Plymouth Rock
landed on me, I’ve been co-opted.

When we hung around
the Oakland Dyno-Burger
they didn’t seem to care
I was the only white guy for a mile
in every direction / it was all
warm smiles, bro hugs, fist bumps
like I was a mascot, a leucistic bird
from the hood, wrong-wayed, at sea.
As if it didn’t make a difference
and if it did, what would the difference be?

More than we’d think, or care to think
between our blood and our experience:
we bleed red, yes, but I bleed less.
More than I want, perhaps, but less.

Graduation Day: 2 Tankas

In the photograph,
my father’s seersucker suit
is too big for him.
He will die four months after
this, my graduation day.

North of the city,
near the edge of a small lake
scarred with August fires,
we drink ten-year-old champagne,
the green shoots soft at our feet.


When it had flown first
he felt like an idiot
to have spent a nervous night,
doubting the wind at the park
was strong enough for kites.
But Roger said, “You wait. It’ll go.”
They’d seen the scud of clouds fill up
with rows of diamond and delta
and box kites — Indian fighting kites,
a shock of hibiscus on the pale
tweed suit of the sky.

His was no beauty:
dowel and glue and butcher paper,
but it flew on the third try
when his brother turned a little toward the bay,
the two of them running north, northeast.

Then taking the spindle back,
he eased the cord in starts,
as it tugged or pulled away,
and for almost half an hour
he watched the thing become a stamp,
a thumbprint in the gray,
and then, imperceptible, a narrow smoke,
a speck that might have been a bird
above the grounding tension of his grip.

Well before he was sure, the string went slack,
bowing and never going tight,
though the brothers squinted for ages
into the inlet air.
They found it in an oak,
a full sixty feet above the parking lot,
too high for pulling down.
“We’ll make another,” Roger said, and so they left.

And it seemed to the kite,
tethered in the tree,
that they were leaving for the first time:
the flight before, just kids
agreeing to lose themselves
for an hour or two
and then, in silent counting
reel each other in.
But the boy with the strong hands
turned and walked away
and crossed the street,
until at last, far into the bright day
he disappeared from view.

Tervuren, Hit Not Hit

Late summer in Belgium,
Dad with a job offer from the British school
and enough money up front
for two rooms in a hotel in Tervuren.
We killed time before the term began:
on the terrace, drinking Trappiste from glasses
big as fish bowls;
at the Africa museum
against the reflecting display
of disembodied heads strung with fiber,
impenetrable and stern;
doodling lists on napkins, the way a kid will.

I spy with my little eye
something beginning with S, Mark said,
and I said, “shopgirl? squid? Sayers?”
because we’d been reading The Nine Tailors
and Irish stories.
“Soul cages?” I said.
And then Dad, sensing we were bored,
started in with his three jellyfish song, slurring.
It still feels like merriment
and could have been,
until roughhousing, I shut my brother’s foot
in the bathroom door, and Daddy raged, shouting
I will not have a sadist for a son!
smacking me across the face.

But when we went down for dinner
in the little bistro
he had recovered,
and even put his hand on my arm
before the bread arrived:
ramekins of cold butter,
crust that cut the gums /
and the black-shirted busboy
grunting like a docker —
the whole thing so vague and threatening
I put my head down
like the cup of a flower
closing in the dark.