Death by Water Suite
(Heavy Water #74: going down)
© 2016, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey
the version of my father’s brother’s drowning i was raised on and prefer
is the one in which his friends and cousins –
having lost their week’s pay to him at cards
having drunk not quite enough to down the piddling affront –
held him there below till it was done.
they must have stood the three of them
and left him there to drift a while
the soberness of their act
falling swift as the temple virgins’ shared veil
thin chilly cover against the frank and palpitating country night.
i like to think they did not brook the possibility of talk
though like as not they did.
like as not the younger cousin tried and failed.
and likely it was he who waded out into the water
glass-black and stroking, kissing at his hips
and tried to cry but couldn’t
until the others rushed him
pulled him to the grassy water’s edge.
must have been quite handsome that one.
why shouldn’t he have been that smooth opaque we used to
in my own dreams of drowning it is always so:
i find him handsome
almost too dear to look on in the starry swampy night
easy in his movement the way some men just are –
easy in his laughter, his gait, his clothes –
but no one’s ever said
though surely someone knows.
how long they stood that way is anybody’s guess
before going on –
neither home nor away
but to her –
to tell the thing they’d done
to find the gumption to say they’d drowned her son
witless honesty to match the stupid intimate human act
down the path? one begins
over near where we go out wading sometime in the evening?
we killed him out there, auntie he interrupts, the younger one,
impatient to begin the clean clear suffering that will hound them now for all their too-short lives
we killed him.
drowned in the night
drifted four more
coming up at last
half-eaten puffed up water-something
perfect teeth exposed in nothing like a grin
no longer man or son or friend –
to the thing we all swam out from to the light.
and there below the less than potent undertow
floating uncle-boy himself
face some transfigured riddled mask
realizing – no doubt to soon – this is no young fellows’ teasing gag –
only to surface in the dullish mid-late-morning of ordinary day:
eyeholes nests for quivering things
logged hands that carry
harmless enough brownish mosses
a something adrift
adrift agog and gaping about for kin
these dreams run all the same:
you go into the water wearing pearls of every color
– and nothing more –
strands of ochre black and rose, steel grey and bone.
perhaps someone is calling – you're not quite sure –
perhaps a something from behind –
and go on ahead uncaring into the still warm waters.
if you see him then or not you never can say for sure.
at some point he is simply there and
unlike deathsheads of film and fact and children’s tales
he is lovely
lovely and still and smooth and perfectly perfectly glass-black.
and you know-him know him
know exactly who he is
rooted then in the glass-black water
until a weight
a heaviness –
this is drowning you say foolishly.
yes, he answers in the language of the deads
– in which you are by then apparently sufficiently fluent –
this is drowning.
it lasts a while he says, just making conversation.
he does not smile
no strike or flail at all
you breathe the salted water
and go down
he’d come into the city young my father
too young but strong and rearing to have a go
to make his living boxing.
had stamina and punch –
good punch the ones who knew agreed
good punch, swift solid feet
country-boy whose family owned near everything he could see
– none of the drive that comes from hunger or from need –
plain unshakeable ability
to do a thing dead-on
that and a punch to strike and fell and maim.
his brothers all died violently or insane.
the one brown-skinned sister who'd left home a girl never did return.
brother drowned –
like a dog the story goes –
would-be twin sister gone just hours, minutes after birth
and him come in to the city to work the ring
brothers all died violently or insane.
i have told this story in small after-hours gatherings of friends
and as early morning pillowtalk
have gone round it in my head now many years
and it seems to me he must have been beautiful that one.
have come to know him some –
one cannot know so lovely a man too well after all –
wouldn’t care to, truth be told.
so so many years now
brothers and both sisters dead
old man and woman gone and buried and drifted together again
only my father left fit and well into a frank old age
now fallen too – surprised by death, they said –
who knows which dreams and grudges the dead hold to?
who knows how long until it’s safe again
to call them one by one
AS YET UNTITLED: a Seasonal Suite
©2015 by Brenda Marie Osbey
it is that time of year when the killings increase
season of hate and of violence
puling entitlement of those with only blank whiteness to trade
to stand behind before
to hold up
frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond
its own small patch
and blood on those fields
seeped into and under how many well- or poorly-paved sidewalks
highways littered with shells
campuses littered in candles
and the rant and rant and rant of what
how many suddenly vacant streets
this nation waking from its own vast dullish sleep
into whitest direst deepest nightmare reflections
it is any day date year month time
it is time doing time
it is hard sun in regions without borders or bounds
all-inclusive all-enveloping explosion of hard daylight
where night somehow fails
to encompass embrace condescend
fails to fall
unlike the bodies humped
spattered outlined heaping the
customary after-crime scenes of suburban cul-de-sacs
small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes
kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches churches
no longer interval or spell neither span nor while nor stretch nor term but season
having evolved as do flora fauna land formations hurricanes
thundering up out of oceans across seas bearing
mitochondria of lynch mobs of men and of women of children mutating
quickly stealthily away
from implement drudge shifting swiftly morphing to
appliance shifting continually perceptibly imperceptibly to
bureaucracy industry post-industrial apparat service-oriented
era and epoch season absent reckoning absent succor
inclement both to shadow and to shade to twilight and to dusk
that time of year
to the gloaming
to the dark
to the black.
©2015 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All Rights Reserved to the Author.
First published in the anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump edited by Martín Espada. Northwestern, 2019.
— an excerpt from HISTORY
“But I am tired today/ of history, its patina’d clichés/ of endless evil.”
from “The Islands”
by Robert Hayden
and so we begin again our weary wearied and wearying lessons
because we have not learned them well enough.
only this time
without chanties about some ocean-blue
because for us
all oceans are forever red.
and we begin this time without the head and finger count
for whats the real measure of human loss
once figures climb into the tens of tens of thousands
multiplied by however many ships debarking from however many nations
to archipelagos of death, to continents of doom?
and still for all that chatter
gorée persisting into the red and golden sun
its few hundred or so inhabitants
making the daily ferry run
barely even eye-ing the western born
borne on across unroiling waters —
and boys are playing at games
innocent as all of time.
time and even more time is what has dullened us so.
for we are tired of lessons.
and yet it is to lessons we must go.
the looming sea is all about the wide wide world.
and it is wide
oh yes it is
the world is wide and wide and full of evil ides.
and the history of the world if we would tell it
would strike us all down dead upon the spot marked
its greenish stain like money in the poker-mens upturned pot.
oh and oh and i am weary with it all.
and here is yet another castle
another monument to look upon.
and docents with their sad or singing eyes —
the sharp accentuated hush that follows as they speak
men fingering chains and such
and women who will not turn their eyes
and children who look about beneath the words that take so long to tell —
the history of this world which if we tell it straight
will kill us all before we even taste the smell of even the most rudimentary hate.
on with it then.
then once and once and oh so long ago.
we can only tell so much at any telling.
we have lives — such as they are — and other work to do
and can perhaps only stand the telling of this history
in parts one and two.
in bambara and shango
wolof and peul tshihiba twi éwondo
in sara and sérère
in toupouri hausa mandara boulou
in yoruba kinyarwanda and ki-kongo
and all the languages around the hardy cape then
let us tongue and tongue as the aperture of the hardiest of the old-line trumpeters.
and this time
let us try for once to get it right.
and this time let us tongue it deep and well into the night.
and bring me now the bones of diogo cão
and bring the shroud of pope nicky the vth
bring me the cape of old victor schoelcher
bring me the bastards
and let me have my way
and let it last until i’ve earned at last my full pay.
bright disk cast against the sky
that shines without warming ever
wasted gold set against blue skies that are not mine
nor ever will be.)
o são tomé
o são vicente
o cape o cape of all good hope
elmina and cape coast
île de gorée
cabo de delgado
all of them “ages ago/ last night/ when we were young”
shame shame of ghana
thirty-six of forty-two built there as barter
elmina grandest patroness of them all
wings of floors reconstructed into such grandeur:
“the womens quarters have a most unpleasant, most befould odor”
and thus the viewing balconies up above the sweltering human hum.
fort and forteress
but never you mind about that
for theres enough to go around and then –
300 miles of coast
60 known castles
remains of half as many
monuments to green and gold and silver god
cape coast built by hardy swedes 16 & 53
fort osu 16 & 61 by the very captives who would stand and die there
rotting blood into the
hard packed earth.
lust for gold
lust for blackest black of gold.
all so much whoring in the veins of a continent laid to waste
trading all along the coast
capturing and herding deep inside the hot interior
“oh, there be wealth enough for plenty,
and kingdom come before we bleeds em dry.”
“decreed: that greater benin will export no more men as chattels; for to continue in that way should only weaken the core of our kingdom.”
women and children remain free, however,
to be enslaved at any time.
and kingdom come indeed.
kingdom of kongo
bight of biafra
bight of benin
southeast of africa from good hope to delgado and all of madagascar
why is it called cape of good hope?
sugar cotton coffee metals tobacco
shipping finance insurance
such cities as amsterdam, liverpool, bristol
stade-en-lande whitehaven la rochelle and boston
rotterdam newport nantes lisbon
such kingdoms as _______________ (fill in the blank)
and along north africa herself indian ocean
and so-called middle east
sahara of shifting footprints
why is it called, do you believe, cape of good hope?
and then of course that red red red red sea
worlds continents of exclusion
la trahison des clercs
the disironic unwillingness
of colonial powers to self-destruct —
mercantable movable property
tyrannies of words thrown ad lib against the abject body —
there is no history of this world that is not written in black.
THE EVENING NEWS: A Letter to Nina Simone
©1986, 1988, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey
a line brought back from nowhere.
deep violet of memory,
stored up against hard times' coming.
we were righteous then,
experienced in things we had not seen
but always knew
would pass this way.
we had righteousness on our side.
they say you stood before a small audience in
new orleans last year and abused them for their smallness.
not just their numbers
but their looks.
their soulless way of sitting
and waiting to be entertained.
they told me how you stood there and cursed them good.
told me how they took it
for the sake
of all they used to be so long ago they never could forget.
could only say like the old folk, when cornered perhaps,
said “i disremember”
i asked them what you wore.
i remembered the years i struggled with the very private fear
that i would remain a child forever
and miss all that was major in out one moment of glory.
even a child knows there is one such moment.
even i had sense enough to see you and not weep.
even a child then understood the words
and anyone could see we were all the evening news.
and hear you sing –
at least that was what they called it.
it was my best girlfriend's sister
who came up on us closed off in her bedroom
laughing over her cosmetics, her jewelry, her sex, her t.v.
and instead of sending us out
leaned there in the doorway and smiled.
“you two know so much,
want to be so grown and everything,
need to quit all that giggling
and learn to listen to nina.”
that was late autumn.
aletha came into her own bedroom and sat between us on the bed.
she turned up the volume
but did not change the station.
we watched her and her college friends
in dashikis and afros
on the evening news.
that year marceline and i listened close
to the lyrics and the ways
the easy breaths and breathless lines
the underground silences
of you and roberta.
we argued and sassed,
slapped hands on our hips at the slightest provocation,
and learned when and when not to apologize for it.
two brown girls acting out,
mothers looking out over our heads that way they had then
whenever we went so far we did not need to be told.
we gave our telephone numbers to those boys
with the hippest walks
the better grade of afro
the deep-changing voices,
and we never took their calls.
we danced the sophisticated sissy
the soul strut.
we counted our girlfriends
“soul sister number 1”
“soul sister number 2.”
marceline learned to cornrow
and i braided my older brother's bush each night.
we were too much and we knew it.
we thought we understood it all.
but that was years ago.
and you were in your glory then.
while i was still younger than i knew or admitted,
and studying in the south of france,
i danced four nights out of five and all weekend,
my arms on the hips or shoulders
of some wiry brother from cameroun or ivory coast
senegal, algeria, panama, martinique,
one of only six or seven young black women at university
among the dozens and dozens of dark men who circled us
weaving their weightless cloth
their heavy guard.
escorted when i would have been alone
fed when i had no hunger
driven when i lacked a destination
protected from the mere possibility of danger --
and danger to them
courted and cossetted
and danced into sleeplessness.
“you will be old one day, sister.
then, you will sleep fine.”
but their hearts,
the dark wiry hearts of the brothers,
were in the right places.
the foolish ones said
“you are like women of my country”
and feigned weaknesses no one would believe
they ever even remotely had known.
and often enough
had the immediate good sense
to laugh at themselves
and then at the rest of us.
the others did something like waiting,
danced endlessly, and at the end of evening said
“i have this sister,
play some for my sister here, man.
man, get up and put on that nina simone.”
and we sat in the silence in the dark
as one found the shiny vinyl
and put the needle to the darker groove.
we sat choked with roman cigarettes
too much dancing
too much good food.
we sat listening and did not touch.
we looked at one another's hands
and read recognition there.
one day we would be old.
we would sleep
and no longer know one another.
we sat into the night
until we grew hungry again and sick from the stale air.
we did not touch
or bow down our heads.
and that is the meaning
of the word expatriate.
if you live right
if you live right
if you live right
but what has living done for you?
i heard your voice
over the radio late one night in cambridge
telling how you never meant to sing.
whoever interviewed you hardly said a word.
he asked his questions
and you took your time.
you breathed long breaths between phrases,
your speaking voice lighter
and less lived in than i remembered.
you sang a line or two
and talked about your “life.”
i asked my question
directly into the speaker –
“what the hell did living do for you, girl?”
i sat on the floor and drank my coffee.
i paced the carpet between your pauses.
i pulled my nightdress up in both hands and danced.
but i got no satisfaction that night.
and, for what it matters,
heaven did not come to me either.
don't talk to me about soul.
don't tell me about no damned soul.
years and years and years
of all night long
and-a where are you
and making time and doing right.
years, woman, years.
where were you?
and then you sang “Fodder on My Wings”
with not a note of holy in your voice,
and what could i do?
a young woman,
i put myself to bed.
it was the following year
that you cursed them down in new orleans.
dragged for them like muddy water.
i listened to the story on the telephone
or looked into the faces i came on in the streets.
i asked them
“did she wear?”
and do you think they could tell me?
all i asked the people
was what did the woman have on?
and what about it?
if your country's full of lies
if your man leaves you
if your lover dies
if you lose your ground and there is no higher ground
if your people leave you
if you got no people
if your pride is hurting
if you got no pride, no soul
if you living in danger
if you living in mississippi, baltimore, detroit
if you walk right, talk right, pray right
if you don't bow down
if you hungry
if you old
if you just don't know
outside-a you there is no/
these are the expatriate years, these.
what is left.
the people dragged their sorry asses out to see you
and you cursed them
and you looked out into their faces, those you could see
and accused them
you called them down for all those years.
you sang the songs you sand when you were younger
and you made them pay.
and a longer time no one will speak of.
i want to say to you how we did not mean it.
how we did not mean to give you up
to let you go off along that way.
i want to say how we were a younger people, all of us.
but none of it is true.
we used you
and we tossed what w could not use to the whites
and they were glad to get is.
we tossed you out into such danger
and closed our eyes and ears to what was to become of you
in those years –
deep violet –
and worst of all
we did not even say your name.
we ate you like good hot bread
fresh from the table of an older woman
and then we tossed the rest out for the scavengers.
does it matter?
does it matter when and how we did it to you?
does it matter we got no righteousness from it?
that we felt no shame?
does it matter we took all good things in excess then,
and then again?
not only you
but all things?
does it matter we sometimes return to you now,
in the back rooms of childhood friends,
does it matter this is no gift or tribute or right or holy thing
but just a kind of telling
a chronicle to play back
against those images that never quite made it
to the evening news?
how sorry a mess of people can we be, nina
when outside-a you
there is no place
Author's Note on Song Lyrics:
The line, “heaven did not come to me either,” is based on the song “If You Pray Right (Heaven Belongs to You)" by Nina Simone. The lines, “outside-a you/there is no/place to go,” are from Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband.”
— from the collected poems, All Souls: Essential Poems by Brenda Marie Osbey (LSU, 2015).
Previously published in All Saints: New and Selected Poems (LSU, 1997), and The American Voice, Summer 1988.
©1986, 1988, 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All Rights Reserved to the Author.
by Brenda Marie Osbey
All Rights Reserved to the Author.
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