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Considering My Disallowance

I lived. An absurdity. My body rose to stir in response to starshine, so much of me requiring its fire.

Within this one freckle of world, everything and I vibrated with need. The table-tapping pas de deux of houseflies. The bumblebee’s examining the redbud’s rash anxieties. A rusty ant harvested the green grass blade. The single cardinal started, started, blessing. My bladder trembled when the earth called water back into its circuits. Somewhere, a suspicion of hornets whirred.

In étude the vocal chords of other birds— some blue, some sparrow, coupled nuthatches— obscured among thronged arms of older things the still gray trunks of which loosened their reluctance to give up the squirrel beyond its quick quiverbristle.

My stomach’s eager auditorium applauded. Weathervaning such motion, I rocked like the bones of the dog that soon would die. Was I ever young? Was I free to enter all counties of pleasure? Someone told me my whole life was ahead and, ahead, a mountain spilled its hills and spasms of wild, violet wall irises and fields of gold-flecked buttercup topographies at sunset and the people there shot even their own horses.

Brown manes and me stricken in the same strum. How my senses rippled: dragonfly in the breeze or Dixie flag in the fucking breeze. I, who sometimes did not deserve to make music, was made to. Here, a hundred miniscule wings hurled themselves repeatedly against whatever force governed the galaxy

we spun in, but

a hundred miniscule wings hurled themselves repeatedly

against too far a departure from such governance

(a niggling difference)—gravity, God,

and the ground I let my lucky

unsevered toes touch.


How Many Model Mutilations Make a Single Slave

My fear of not existing being that blade that, having forced its entry, splinters and then rents out every segregate room

and now its sin sounds eking through the vents and now each piece’s own wild problem child and now the nightliness of its worsening knee ascending warped stairs and now the winter pipes the poltergeists knock timpanic with their terrible, gnarled knuckles, the neighbor’s bath occasioning their demonastic groan.

And now the whole nearly uninhabitable building I have to, in a one-mile walk to the bank and another half-mile to the bookstore, wend wide-load past

the medical school police in cruisers and the metropolitan police in SUVs and the metropolitan police on bicycles and the transit security on the platforms below four stops north of which the county police in habits of khaki, boredom their jurisdiction,

bullet into and expand within the heart of the red line just two stops short of the airport and the agents who glove around in my luggage

and softly backhand my buttocks with a touch more reliable than my lover’s. What poetry might exist in this has little to do with any right to my body I sacrifice to ride the sky in a condensed fiction of safety to the city where I witness a murder

of crows quietly chandeliered in the plead-reaching crown of a white oak the cemetery unrolls its hills of tended grass and gray gradient teeth

like a tablecloth underneath. These scavengers, they are only birds who happen to know the face of one who harmed them long ago. Their blood is familiar. The blood in them has in it the blood of my family who at one time, a long time, my own family owned in as lawful a betrayal as citizenship is.

These migrants, allied to Nowhere with their

hither thither necks, are chimed with law, each in the eaves

a shadow: here leaf, here lever. I look up at what’s been done in my name and riddles its interior, and I feel the body shudder in the ache of a capacity a while ago exceeded.

I already know what I’m up against. I recognize who heaped this cargo into me.

What poem lives here lives in my knowing what the weapon will become upon its coming in and, nonetheless, I lay it to my flesh again.


Photo: Dennie Eagleson

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. His work has appeared in African American Review, Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere. Justin lives in St. Louis. Come see about him at

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