• Be Camera, Black-Eyed Aperture

    Ross Gay

    Winter 2021


    Nikky Finney concludes her National Book Award winning collection Head Off & Split with the poem, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica.” Its lines read as an ars poetica, and as a kind of ars pedagogica:

    Be camera, black-eyed aperture. Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal that can outrun a hurricane. Be 250 million years old. Be isosceles. Sirius. Rhapsody. Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot. . . . Become the lunations. Look up the word southing before you use it in a sentence. Know southing is not a verb. Imitate them remarkable days. Locate all your ascending nodes. Chew eight times before you swallow the lyrics and lamentations of James Brown, Abbey Lincoln, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and Aretha. Hey! Watch your language! Two and a Quarter is not the same as Deuce and a Quarter. Two-fisted is not two-faced. Remember: One monkey don’t stop no show. Let your fat belly be quilts of quietus. Pass on what the great winemakers know: The juice is not made in the vats but in the vineyard. Keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air. Grow until you die, but before you do, leave your final kiss: Lay mint or orange eucalyptus garland, double tuck these lips. Careful to the very end what you deny, dismiss & cut away.

    I have spoken the best I know how.

    Let me start with devotion. Let me start with love. For instance: how I love this poem, and will be displaying a considerable, even admirable amount of restraint by not delving into every last aspect of it, every nugget of poetic glory: its range of dictions and registers, its broad scope of knowledge (mathematical, cultural, spiritual, ecological, vernacular); its ability or gall to signify, which just means talk shit (“look up the word southing before you use it in a sentence”; “One monkey don’t stop no show”) and a few breaths later say careful how you talk that shit (“Hey! Watch your language!”); its rhythms built out of short and long sentences, staccato and legato phrasings, the beautiful sensual mouthwork of “let your fat belly be quilts of quietus”; “Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot”; those long sentences at the end (I have theories!); the poem’s palpable love for everything it lays its eyes and pencil on. (Excellent assignment, by the way: have students look up everything this poem carries in its sky-sized satchel, and then have them write something so full!) You are thinking my restraint flew out the window, but believe me, I’m not even started.

    But for the purposes of this thinking I want to turn to the first (final) line, the first (final) command, the first (final) imperative breath of this poem—which, remember, is the best the poet knows how to say, and is maybe why I’m titling this essay “Be Camera, Black-eyed Aperture.” It is a powerful and concise command that reads as sort of straightforward—something like: Record what you see. Make the document. Be that kind of thing. But the magic of the sentence is that that very first reading is really only the very first reading. In which you might notice that there is not an article, no little a that would serve as a kind of lasso between the verb be and the subject camera. The metaphor is weird from the get: it includes the first reading (“Many things are true at once,” says Elizabeth Alexander), but it also—what?—adjectives the noun camera—like “be smart” or “be fast” or “be good.” Be Camera. What’s that even mean? Be glass-eyed and thirsty, be manual, be silver if you’re on the black girl’s neck. Oh, a good phrase sometimes will settle behind my eyes like a butterfly trying to balance on a zinnia in a breeze. And we’ve only done the first part of the phrase! But hang on.

    Because the second part—“black-eyed aperture”—describes, simply, the camera. The lens is a black eye, and a camera has an aperture. That’s easy enough; but it’s not easy, because the metaphor has blossomed the camera into the brown poet, into we brown poets (the recipients of the instructions): black-eyed aperture. To be black-eyed, yes, perhaps, to have the eyes of a black person, and we can have a lot of conversations about what that means, but at the very least, it means to see black people. Since her earliest poems, Finney’s model for us has been to see black people. To lay her eyes (and pencil) on her beloveds.

    But to be black-eyed also means to have bruised eyes, hurt eyes: eyes that have been hurt by what they’ve seen, and eyes that have been hurt maybe for what they’ve seen. And an aperture, in addition to being a part of a camera, is a hole or an opening through which the light comes. Be a black-eyed opening for the light to come through. Be this. It’s my first final instruction. It’s the best I can say first and last. Let’s start here.


    With a photograph of a boy looking out from the pages of Nikky Finney’s Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. It’s a mugshot: the captured child in a striped prison outfit captured both in the profile, where he seems to be looking slightly toward the camera, and captured full-on, where his large, sullen eyes look plaintively, exhaustedly, toward us, the viewers. There is something familiar about the photo, something profoundly American, where the incarceration of black people has been the state of the nation since long before it was one. He is small. He is young and small. His hair is close shorn. He has no hair on his face. He has around his neck, where a key might be for another child, a tag with the number 260. This child has been turned into a number.

    We learn from the poem “Black Boy with Cow: A Still Life” that follows the photo, that we’ve been looking at a photo of George J. Stinney Jr., fourteen years old, the youngest person to die in the electric chair in the United States. Stinney was falsely accused of rape and murder—among the litany of black men and black boys, black children, falsely accused—and subsequently executed. Stinney was a child who loved to draw automobiles and airplanes, who cared for his cow, who was beloved by his baby sister and family, who would get his friends to sing. We learn from the poem that he was so small that he had to sit on a Bible to fit in the electric chair. The poem articulates the many terrors and humiliations of living in the Jim Crow South, among which, Finney writes, “Remember, the eyes of (any) white person are always out of / range.” Which is to say, in addition to the Jim Crow danger of looking at a white person, to white eyes—and especially the white eyes of the law—a black child is invisible.

    Finney’s poem recounts the details of the original case, if it could even be called that, along with some entangling information. Finney grew up in the same South Carolina county as Stinney. Finney’s father, the crusader against the death penalty and first black Supreme Court justice in South Carolina since before Reconstruction, we learn, was almost exactly the same age as Stinney.

    Escape. Luck. The poem also follows the court case brought by the surviving family several decades later to try to clear the name of this child who had been murdered by the state. Finney attends the trial, as she says, “to be George Stinney’s reporter,” to look clearly and unafraid at the history by which this child was murdered by the state simply by looking wrong—by having, as Finney repeatedly writes, “Negro hair and maroon eyes”—or by looking wrong—in the wrong direction, at the wrong person, into the wrong person’s eyes.

    And throughout the poem, the bowl of Stinney’s eyes collect all the violences until they nearly overflow. Remember: the poem’s a still life, a life stilled—and rather than that form’s normal subject of grapes and citrus and figs, Stinney’s eyes hold the horror. And we hold it too, with Finney’s witness at the poem’s conclusion, “bearing the weight of her pen all the way down.” Here, she shows us how he might “never disappear from our bowl,” our looking. Stinney, captured in the photo, captured by the brutal machinery of the state, of Whiteness, of our broken imaginations, softly lit by Finney’s poem, her looking. Light through an opening upon the beautiful black child.


    An occasional poem by Danni Quintos:

    Once I wrote a poem on a bridge
    because you told me to find my ghosts.
    I remembered you once said, Our job as poets
    is to not look away
    . I looked & wrote
    the scariest thing I could think & after
    you read it, you gave me a book
    (to borrow) which I hugged so hard
    that the million synonyms inside
    could hear my heart beating.


    This looking, described above by Finney and Quintos, this black-eyed opening—this not looking away—is a poetics, yes, but as any poetics is, it is also an ethics. What we look at, what we see, and how, and if we say what we see, is an ethics. Tender black looking with the light coming through is an ethics. Kin to testimony. Kin to witness, I think I’m saying. I will not not see you, Finney’s work repeatedly insists. I will look and say what I see. This witness is my occasion. With my pencil behind my ear.

    Another remarkable aspect of Finney’s work is the many subjects and registers her witness might take. In “Black Boy with Cow: A Still Life,” the stated objective is a kind of poetic reportage, a lyric blending of the journalistic, historical, and personal. Several other poems in Love Child take as their ostensible occasions photographs or pieces of art—so that her ekphrastic witness in these cases becomes the witness of witnessing—whether it be a laborer taking a break or two young men in an embrace. Finney thereby sees the seeing. In Rice, Finney’s second book, she does a kind of lyric family history, which is also a lyric regional history, and the witness so often articulates and cares for what might otherwise be lost. In Head Off & Split, Finney meditates on state violence, negligence toward black people following Hurricane Katrina. There are poems born of the hurt of homophobia, and plenty of poems born of other kinds of hurt. And some of the tenderest love poems you have ever read. Probably all of Finney’s poems are some of the tenderest poems you have ever read—tenderness being that quality that perhaps best characterizes her entire body of work.

    All of which is to say that it feels crucial to me to mention that Finney’s witness is as complex as the accordion wings of a swallowtail. Her practice of witness, her black-eyed looking, her work, while often articulating and studying and testifying to the brutalities of white supremacist patriarchy, is not rooted in resistance to white supremacist patriarchy, although her poems often resist those things. I’m saying Finney’s work and vision and witness is far too capacious for brutality to be the ground from which it grows, which is a danger and a risk when we write about the brutal—if we make the brutal the ground of our imaginations, of our poetic lives, we come to need the brutal. I want to say that again: if we make the brutal the ground of our imaginative and poetic lives, we will come to need the brutal for our poetic and imaginative lives. This is neither good for our poetry nor our souls nor each other. This is to me a profoundly important point or question: How do we write a rich poetry of witness that does not make brutality the ground? A rich poetry of witness that articulates or responds to or contests or resists brutality, while not granting brutality the status of essential truth.

    Finney’s work is an answer inasmuch as it comes from a ground that precedes the terrible, that is far more capacious than the terrible that it confronts. This is a ground, which the writer Kevin Quashie calls “quiet” in his beautiful book The Sovereignty of Quiet (italics mine):

    Quiet is antithetical to how we think about black culture, and by extension, black people. So much of the discourse of racial blackness imagines black people as public subjects with identities formed and articulated and resisted in public. Such blackness is dramatic, symbolic, never for its own vagary, always representative and engaged with how it is imagined publicly. These characterizations are the legacy of racism and they become the common way we understand and represent blackness; literally they become a lingua franca. The idea of quiet, then, can shift attention to what is interior. This shift can feel like a kind of heresy if the interior is thought of as apolitical or inexpressive, which it is not: one’s inner life is raucous and full of expression, especially if we distinguish the term “expressive” from the notion of public. Indeed the interior could be understood as the source of human action—that anything we do is shaped by the range of desires and capacities of our inner life.

    “The Squatting Sun,” a poem from Finney’s 2003 book The World is Round, is a clear example of the interior ground I’m referring to, the ground from which her vision emerges. She describes the sun emerging from the horizon from her perch in an airplane (again, italics mine):

    6:38, flying east, I witness birth,
    pushing out of the blushing vaginal rim

    like some wide cherry-dropped child.
    All the colors that make red have come

    to the only straight line on the earth.
    Ghostly, I blink, my eyes tweak her nipples,

    she releases and the head does not wait
    for my awe.

    I thought I knew what red looked like.
    Believed I had seen this daily drama before;

    the earth in morning-mother motion,
    the first bowl of earth-bread sipped,

    but never had I been asked
    inside the sun’s womb so deep.

    What I see has so much to do
    With the permission to look

    My egg-white eyes labor to midwife
    this moment out all the way.

    The baby day pushes clean,
    a quarter rim of cherry-spilled earth

    lands in a head-back wail
    inside my ladling pupils,

    the first rising brightness, its long
    equatorial head bursts, then crests;

    new life passed on
    to a pan of waiting salted water.

    What you will notice about this exquisite and profoundly interior poem is that the permission to look is at the beautiful beyond the beautiful, the beautiful beyond comprehension, what is sometimes called the sublime, though is so commonly astonishing that it “does not wait / for my awe.” Here, in contrast to the policing of black sight—“permission to look”—this poem witnesses the quiet interior horizon of experience, during which the unfathomably beautiful emerges, and is the contemplation of it. As Finney says, “I thought I knew what red looked like, / believed I had seen this daily drama.” Indeed, it’s the quiet looking that brings the sunrise, the day, wailing into the speaker’s eyes. Both the quiet looking and the new day, then, are in the frame of her black-eyed aperture.

    When the speaker’s eyes “labor to midwife / this moment out all the way,” it is a concurrent working toward and submission to the full flowering or birth of the beautiful day, yes, but also of beauty’s witness. The beautiful cresting sun being born, or seeing it as such, makes the witnessing a kind of birth. That is, the beholding of the beautiful midwifes oneself into life. It makes one be newborn.

    But it also reminds us that proper witness—which is looking, yes, but also feeling, attention, and attending—is labor. Come seriously to the page, Finney is saying. Pay attention. Do your work. Because looking is a generative act; it is a birth; looking, by which I really mean seeing, makes the world. This witness, black-eyed, is labor, and labor is birth. And labor, let me say it again, means work.

    5. “How you / live your life can be the child you / never had”

    . . . are the final words from Finney’s father in her poem “Linea nigra,” written “on the occasion of the death of my father . . . and the death of a Black girl living near you.” I want to talk about this poem not only because of its particular manner of witness but also because to call attention to it as a feat of the imagination unlike almost anything I’ve ever read: a kind of black-eyed opening; a kind of witness; a kind of inquiry that is also an in-choiring, an interior singing but also a singing with the others within. It is, to me, an emphatic example of the poetic potential of witness, which I earlier wrote as the refusal not to see you, which must necessarily also be the refusal not to see myself. But I also want to talk about it because it is a poem about labor. About birth. And about work.

    However, I first want to digress into a meditation on the book in which the poem is housed—Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. This book is an astonishment, one that contains several occasional poems written in response to photographs or pieces of art or significant events in the poet’s life or the culture. There are also several pieces of a prose form Finney calls the hotbed (after the petite greenhouses for starting seeds): the hotbeds are diaristic, ruminative, speculative, reaching back to Finney’s early days as a writer. Of the photographs, many are of family (Finney’s mother, father, and a few of the author herself), some with the patina of another era, the remnants of the old developing processes legible. There are finally various documents from the poet’s life as a writer (her first contract, newspaper clippings about readings, quotations, and several handwritten love notes from Finney’s recently deceased father), which serve as evidence of a long life of love, of beloving, of being beloved.

    The book as a whole is a kind of elegy for Finney’s deceased father—after all, she was the love child. And as you know, every elegy is a love poem, and every love poem is an elegy—the father is maybe the first subject of the elegy, but also elegized is a way of being, a way of holding, a way of beholding. The handwritten notes from her father are the record of her father’s hands, the script one remnant in the archive of holding. Photographs of the poet being held by her father. A photograph of the three-hundred-year-old family tree held by Finney’s mother, Frances. A photograph of beautiful Uncle Bobby—to whom the book is dedicated—holding a black doll he sent to the young poet. The photograph I mentioned of the two young men in soft embrace.

    In The World is Round, Finney quotes Ida B. Wells saying, “I just want to wrap my arms around my people and fly away.” In Love Child, Finney wraps her arms around her people while at the same time making it feel as though we all are her people. There’s a photo in Love Child that makes me think of my Aunt T, whose real name was Truly. And Uncle Bennett, who, when my Uncle Roy dropped out of college and came to work at the GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, sent him to the worst place on the line, known as The Jungle, which he quit in five days, went back to school, and became one of the main sickle cell doctors in West Philadelphia. I hear my ninety-seven-year-old uncle laughing as he tells the story, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief—He turned out alright, didn’t he? And my own father, also gone, somehow he’s in this book, holding me.

    There’s a way the book itself—the analog slowness of it, the years and years of material, the study, the transformations it holds and reveals, the lives it describes and renders, the future and present ancestors it brings together, the true quiet gathering of which it is comprised—makes me realize I am witnessing the true and beloving witness of ourselves. It is an archive of love, the likes of which the “official archives” have often ignored or denied or, I would say, suppressed. This book reminds us that our eyes, our hearts, our love, our poems, make another archive—a wayward archive, to quote Saidiya Hartman—that holds us. That beholds us. An archive in which we are being held and seen by who loves us.

    Finney’s black looking, in the midst of so much that does not, beholds us. Her soft black looking holds us. And it occurs to me that what I’m saying, too, is that this book is more like a person than almost anything I’ve ever read. Full of birds and tupelos and rainstorms and heartbreaks and the soft black looking that might bring us forth. Labor us forth. Birth us. And Love Child is a book whose form shows us that the holding we wish to do, the tender black looking where the light comes in, sometimes requires a different form.

    6. In which the form breaks for the holding

    —after Kwame Dawes, kinda

    Dear Nikky,

    I am writing this in pencil because there is some thread, some line, some black line I’m trying to follow through your poem, “Linea nigra”—the imperceptible though irrepressible flecks of light, of flight, flickering in every silver strike. The writing in black-flecked light makes sense to me. A kind of black-eyed aperture-ing, I suppose, though truth be told, it’s because I know you love pencils too, so I’m hanging on to that line too. I am thinking of your poem “Linea nigra,” a poem that, I have to say, the more I read it, the more I feel that breaking behind my ribs that is part flock of geese breaking into flight, part family oak felled by an axe, part the sound of water slowly breaking a cataract through stone. The more I am broken into aperture, I mean: black-eyed, becoming.

    As you say from the start, the poem is on the occasion of your father’s death (a death that, in the order of things, was not unnatural), as well as the occasion of the death of a Black girl near you (which was). The sorrow of the poem is palpable. And there is some miracle of poetry, of your craft, which is simply a ship taking us from here to there, my friend Gabby reminds me, by which you manage to express the intense wonder, delight, and magic—the free and flying unbroken bliss—of Black girlhood. Being held, as you describe so powerfully, in the backseat of your Dad’s Deuce and a Quarter, gazing into the sky. Being held, too, by the land, which, as in all your poems, is entirely alive, one of the reasons you are one of our true eco-poets too: “Japanese irises, towering / canopies of biscuit magnolia, / . . . the most golden mortise of after / afternoon sunlight.” Being held by your mother (another Black girl looking through the trees), by the neighborhood children and games and playgrounds and basketball courts. And the sorrow of the poem is how brief the bliss is, because the speaker’s second birth, which maybe also constitutes a kind of death—of bliss, of the imagination, of childhood—is in knowing the brutal holding that lurks for this Black girl, for Black girls—a Black girl near me.

    The Black girl in your poem—that Black girl is you, isn’t it, Nikky? The soon-to-be Black woman with pencil, sharpened, isn’t it Nikky?—wakes up to the violence that Black girls endure, that Black girls are born into and reborn into in this America. Part of the power, by which I actually mean the sorrow, and the horror, and truth of the poem, Nikky, is that this poem on the occasion of these deaths is named for a mark of pregnancy or birth, a birthmark: the linea nigra. And among the Black girls this poem holds—this is part of the poem’s black-eyed looking—are those women and girls who are more than three times more likely to die by deaths linked to pregnancy; there’s a black line between this violence and the long history of violence the medical establishment has perpetuated against Black people, Black women especially. And a black line connecting that violence, as well, to the fact that today, in 2020, an astonishing number of white medical professionals actually believe Black people feel less pain than white people. We have thicker skin, they say. That’s today.

    One of the miracles of your poem is how, while it laments and articulates a world in which shelter is denied, it offers the most loving shelter to all of the Black girls. Like Love Child, your poems are houses; they are rooms, and bodies, and choirs—they always have been. I suspect they always will be. This poem brings in the hurt, and holds them. And that you manage to make this ten-page poem one single sentence is itself a kind of grammatical assertion, a grammatical holding, which, to me, compresses the past and present and future into a single unit, one grammatical container. Though the line breaks constitute breaths (and this poem is a master class in the line and line break—the latter as suspension; surprise; as musical amplifier; as grammatical rest) one testament to this remarkable precision is how many stunning individual lines occur throughout this poem: “thin black line of my long Black,” and “the most golden mortise of after,” and “vicissitudes of life, my girl” and “live your life can be the child you.” They refract and complicate meaning in ways that make me shudder, and shake my head with wonder. That make me remember, oh, yes, a poem is a beautiful accumulation of lines lovingly labored into one radiant song. But back to the sentence: I got distracted from the single, wide-armed sentence this poem is, this long black-lined poem is, which seems in this poem to be an enactment of the holding the poem does. The poem, the sentence, does that holding.

    It is an in-choiring, a singing with the quiet multitudes gathered in you, looking out from your black-eyed aperture. I am reminded, of course, of your speech for the National Book Award, when you reminded us that you were joined in that room by so many to whom that room—with its celebration of books, reading, writing, literacy—would have been forbidden. In their field hats or tomato-red kerchiefs or cotton croker-sack shirts or Victorian finery. And some there too, who had not survived the transatlantic passage, still wet after having climbed from the sea. You brought them all in the room so we would remember that they brought you into the room. They gave you all the keys they had. Told you how to heel-toe the rice in. Taught you tupelo and magnolia. You brought them in the room so we would remember they gave you all their keys, gave you all their seeds: they brought you into the room. And they look out from the room of your body, which is also the room of your work: your black-eyed aperture. As Aracelis Girmay puts it, “their faces sitting inside the windows of the letters e and beside the shores of the river N and the river y of your name.”

    And one of the Black girls being held by this poem is the young Nikky, the Black girl before and after. Linea nigra holds the baby Black girl Nikky and the sorrow that is the loss of that child’s unencumbered and fearless gazing into the sky at the monarchs making their wobbly commute, the sorrow that is her second birth into the world that hurts. This world. But just as the poem does not look away from the sorrow of this world, that brutal rebirth, neither does it look away from those monarchs, also of this world, which keep fluttering their papery wings through the sky in the poem, which is the sky in a body, their fearless orange and black line scrawled through the sky from Canada to Mexico. Making their arduous, ardorous journey, as you say, “refusing to give up on their next line.” Refusing to give up on their next line.

    Nikky, there is so much flying kin in this poem—in addition to the monarchs, there are black swans and ivory-billed woodpeckers and brown-headed thrashers and chickadees, juncos, goldfinches, and songbirds. In a poem whose ostensible occasion is death, the ostensible occasion of which is the absence of flight—or the opposite of flight—whose many elegiac engines are strong, there is so much flight. So much flying. It makes me wonder how far you grew up, how far that little Black girl grew up from Igbo Landing. For they, too, look out from your Black looking. I’ve always seen them looking out from you and your poems.

    But it’s the beautiful butterflies little Nikky keeps staring at that won’t leave this poem alone. Despite the violence, or maybe because of the violence, your little Black girl-self is fixed on this linea nigra of butterflies that refuses to give up on its progeny, its line. The speaker, she says it again and again, was born that day watching that arduous, ardorous black line be written in the sky. Witnessing the labor, the love, by which the next line continues. Despite everything. It is a Keatsian moment of negative capability. It is, again, Elizabeth Alexander’s “many things are true at once.”

    That’s the poet’s birth. Her birth understanding—I mean knowing—her lines (of poetry and progeny) would be made of her lines (of poetry and progeny). And her lines (of poetry and progeny) would be for her lines (of poetry and progeny). Nikky, this is the poem, I think, where you explain when your black-eyed looking was truly born. Which is to say: your labor. Which is to say: your work.

    It should come as no surprise that I’m thinking of Toni Cade Bambara right now, one of your first mentors, and her instructions about being a writer that you have cited so often that it’s obvious: she, too, looks out from your black aperture. She’s part of the black line, the linea nigra. As I recall, she was in the library or post office (in my mind it’s in Philadelphia, but it could certainly be Atlanta or someplace else), when someone from the community, a neighbor, asked her if she was the writer. She said she was, and the man asked if she would help him with his résumé or job letter or something that required some writing. And she helped that man because, yes, she was a writer. It was her work. It was her labor. In addition to her brilliant novels and stories, Bambara’s work as a writer—her vocation, her labor—was to her community and to community. The labor of these lines is for all the communities they make, as well as all the communities they might serve, might see, and might birth.

    It is important to mention that these events to some extent almost always exist in some zone of immortalizing, with at least some faint stake in and whiff of the empire of time, the notion of an exclusive literary everlasting. In my capacity as a framer of some things in this essay, I here say that the literary everlasting is a myth. It just isn’t true. And wanting it to be true is probably a violence. Regardless, all our plaques and prizes and medals will go away. All of our books will go away. All our libraries will go away. All human eyes and fingers and ears too will go away.

    But the labor of your tender, black-eyed looking that brought us forth—that effort won’t go away. We your students. We your readers. We the many who have been made and remade by your generosity, your care. By your looking. By your seeing. By your love, I’m really saying. The love carried in your work, carried by your work, and carried from your work, is, in fact, outside of time. And we have been born—so many of us—studying the beautiful wingbeat of your crafted Black lines: lines that make us possible. Lines that, yes, we are.

    We, too, are your lines, I’m saying.

    And that child’s calling, her birth, that day—I mean your birth, Nikky—beckoned by the beautiful wingbeat, the black-eyed labor of those who would never, have never given up on their line—was as a poet whose body of work would be, in addition to her many beautiful books, us. It was our birth too.

    I’m saying: we, too, are your body of work.

    7. Coda: a Cento

    —with lines from Ama Codjoe, Vaughan Fielder, Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Essence London, Danni Quintos, and L. Renée

    The befores swirling the blood; the story
    of her librarian, have you read all the books
    in the library?
    Audre Lorde, slowly, taking
    our time. Like that learning
    to read, to carry our buckets, to feel
    our hearts an accumulation, a swirling.
    Took me seriously, took me
    to the bridge from which
    the scariest thing I could write.
    From which a hurtful thing, a beautiful thing
    and looked with me, and brought me
    into the looking, and saw me, all
    long hands and running horses and oh my god
    seaweed and sunflowers and blade too
    and took me seriously, brought me
    into the looking, saw me.
    Bade me forth. And a garden
    of blackboards’ beck and call
    and clanging bell how it gave
    without question, the pear tree
    in me, taught me to be daughter
    and citizen, to be an accumulation
    of people, to carry the story close
    in the places where we carry things.
    To be on the lookout, to pay attention
    to the accumulation, magnolia,
    tupelo, pear tree, butterfly, black-eyed,
    come seriously to this—the fact
    of our being here—this love—
    all of us—this accumulation, this
    fact, this story, this love, this
    fact of our being here at all.

    Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His new poem, Be Holding, was published by the University of Pittsburg Press in September 2020.

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