John Woolman’s 21st Century Blues
By John Paul Davis
I have an idea about justice. The smartphones
remember more & more for us every year. We don’t
call it slavery because we pay the laborers
next to nothing. The workers in China
with their faces blown off because the machine
was in bad repair are in the newspaper
but no one is asking where our sugar
& clothes come from. Machete scars
on a sharecropper’s arms. The children cuffed
to sewing machines. The last man
on the computer tablet assembly line
seeing the miracle screen ﬂicker on over & over,
each device worth two months’ pay. The magic
always just out of reach. The hands
of a riveter in the Mercedes plant in Africa
that respect the machine’s complete grace
more than the mogul rapper
who only drove the car once. Someone’s daughter
ruining her hands to stitch the silk lining
into the blazer now limp like a dead ﬂag
or a hollow man on the discount rack,
the needle bruising her ﬁngers so often
she’s forgotten what it’s like to touch
& feel no sting. The ones
who can’t strike so they jump from the factory
rooftop. The women forced to have abortions
so the alarm clock shipment will leave
on time to make the Black Friday
sale where the pro-life activist
will buy one so she can make the clinic
protest on time. I have a feeling
about justice & I bury it. The company makes a thing I like
so I say it’s morally complicated. We all have
to eat. Someone is going to have to pay my student loans.
Someone is going to do this easy work
I do if I don’t. Someone will move into the foreclosed
mansion. Someone will rent the luxury
apartment across the street from the faded
& chipped spray paint mural of Biggie Smalls
& someone else & someone else until the barbershop
is replaced by the national coffee chain
& they sandblast the homage because the focus
group suggested the clientele prefer exposed
brick. The folk song about justice
& I sing along. Less rainforest
means cheaper coffee. The President promised
change so he moves assault drones
from one nation to another in the Middle East.
I take a moment for justice until I feel better
for having felt bad & then I pre-order
the latest model with the better tech specs
and ﬂintblack screen. I can see my own face
in its darkness. I have an excuse
about justice. Something caught
in my throat about justice. There’s always light
here in this, the shimmering capital
of the last days, the sun setting
on the empire. I tighten my coat
against the wind of justice. Permanent daylight
& I can never quite get a good night’s sleep.
If he is anywhere, God is not thinking about me.
By John Paul Davis
The boy in the Polaroid is thirteen,
black, angry, his plaid shirt, more fashionable
than any clothing I own, covered in blood.
The detective wants me to say I remember
him. He could have been one of the ﬁve
teenagers I didn’t cross the street
to avoid, I say, but I really don’t remember.
The blood on his shirt, the cop
says. That’s yours. We have three eyewitnesses
so we don’t need your testimony,
but it helps get a conviction if the victim
testiﬁes, the ofﬁcer prompts. One county
over, my friend is teaching poetry
to a room full of black boys
in jail. I really don’t remember,
I say. In the hospital,
to test my memory, my wife quizzed
me on the book we’d been reading together,
The Autobiography Of Malcolm X.
What was Malcolm’s nickname
when he was a gangster?
she asks. Detroit Red,
I say, because of his hair.
I remember seeing them walking
toward me. I remember the cascade
of panic brimming as they approached.
I remember the sinus heat of shame
that followed, how like a cliche
I felt, white man nervous
at meeting a group of black boys.
They’re someone’s children,
I remember thinking. They love
what I love. Their mothers
& a day off from school & hip hop
purling from a car across a boulevard
at sunset. How a lover’s hand
is both cool & warm on the skin.
The drowsy downward tugging
in the body right before sleep. Malcolm, shining
down from a movie screen
in Spike Lee’s ﬁlm. We intend
to prosecute this as a hate crime
the detective says. I don’t believe him. You think
they did this because I am white?
Did they steal anything? They’re just kids,I say. I sit up.
I had to read the police
report to know I fought back, that they passed
me, then turned around, knocked me down
from behind, pretended to offer
help as I got up, face split
open from its fast meeting with the concrete,
then hit me again as I reached
for their offered hands. Even in the leaden
haze of my concussion I think
about it as a metaphor. When did Malcolm change
his name? my wife asks. In prison,
I say, after converting to Islam. We can ask the court
to require restitution, the detective
says. With what money? I ask. They didn’t steal
anything. There are your medical bills
to consider, he says. For months after
I carry an old heavy u-lock, even when I’m not
biking. I learn every kind of silence
my neighborhood makes. If we classify it a hate crime
the state will pay for your hospital stay,
the detective says. They shouldn’t hate
me; I’ve done nothing to them. They should hate
me; I rent a house in a neighborhood
their great-grandfathers built & their grandfathers
loved & that their parents were pushed
out of when the rents rose. I am increased police presence.
I am tax cuts the President promised.
I am a six hour wait at the health clinic. Who did Malcolm
call devil? I am the shuttered library. I am a reduction
in the bus schedule. Here I come with my voter
registration & good intentions. The police report
says I fought them off, bleeding, my voice
a ﬂattened echo from the storefronts
where other white people watched
but did not come help. They were tired,
the detective says, from the three white men
they assaulted before they got to you.
Otherwise your injuries would be more serious.
What made Malcolm leave the Nation Of Islam,
my wife asks, while I suck an ice chip.
I am the warming planet. He went to Mecca,
I say. He saw that Islam
was interracial. I am stop & frisk. I am a food
desert. I have never been to jail.
Closest I came was once, when a bus driver looked me in my eyes
and pulled away anyway; I punched
the side of the bus. A cop took me aside
like he was my uncle, asked don’t you think
you just frightened that man? He’s only doing his job.
I was let go with that lecture. Who killed
Malcolm? The book hangs from my wife’s hand.
Next month I will be reading the story of a black
woman named Peace who bore the sins
of an entire town. I am the curiosity
that accompanies luxury. The detective
gives me my own copy of the police report,
and the photo. I imagine Detroit Red
in the polaroid, covered with my blood, contempt
& pride on his young face. Those boys split my face
open from my lip to my septum,
blackened my eyes, kicked a memento
into my spine that to this day still beats like a second
heart when I walk or make love
& I know they hated me & I wish I could tell
them I never hated them. I wish I could ask
their forgiveness. Who killed
Malcolm? The state is going to press charges? I ask.
Regardless of what I do? Yes, he says.
I am the sky-wide concrete invasion
of the BART tracks that cast a shadow
over your street but doesn’t stop
in your neighborhood. Who killed
Malcolm? I’m recovering from a concussion,
I say. I really can’t remember clearly.
The detective stays seated. Quiet. A look
on his face. I can’t walk, so he lets himself
out. I am a street without streetlights.
In the hospital, my answer took
long enough my wife grew concerned.
Who killed Malcolm? The ice melting
on my tongue. No one knows,
I ﬁnally say. I am the Audubon Ballroom,
February 21, 1965. I don’t remember any of it.
That is the only mercy. The face of the handcuffed
boy in the photo says he is ﬁghting
a war. It says by any means necessary. His face
broken open where I’m told
I hit him. I want to change
my name. I want him to be okay. I will turn
on you when I no longer need to feel good
or when I need something else more. I touch the tender
healing ﬂesh on my mouth. I know no prayer
that will make me holy. Listen, I know
I can leave this place any time I want.
Love Song With Drones & Wiretaps
By John Paul Davis
Forgot what I was going to google
so I googled what was I about to google?
which is like a dream I had. You were in it, bioluminous,
ﬁlled with asking. What is my new name? you google.
We made love. In the dream & in life. The trees grew
taller. How do you feel? you asked. I said too Google.
I meant I wanted to data mine myself. Why do I adore
a woman 800 miles away? Can’t ﬁnd that answer through Google.
But I bet the NSA knows me better than I do. My search queries
are prayers, & the unknown knower I pray to? Google.
Which makes the drones angels. & the President
is President, but also really smart & plugged in to Google.
At night he clicks an ethernet cable to a port in his neck,
becomes a node, downloads & uploads to Google.
Memories are data. Love? Data. This American heartbreak?
Data. The data-river eternal but changing. Every day a new Google.
My texts go unanswered. One too many vodkas show up on my debit
card. Then the President knows I’m lovesick through Google.
But does nothing. What could he do? Send a drone to watch over
me? Admit I know your heartache because of what you googled?
I dream we tumble again on your unmade bed. I dream the reverse galaxy
of your freckles. Why does your voice undo me? Remind me to google.
I want you to know my passwords. My browser history. My cookies
will be your cookies. I will google what you google.
But you wanted the night. Or you’re not heartready. And so. I type
how do I become wilder? Beautiful? How do I let go? into Google.
Emperor Of Drones
By John Paul Davis
Yes, I voted for you, twice, & the second time I knew
already about the nerve net of wires tangled
like seaweed, fused to your crown & temples
through which all our wiretapped conversations
stream. You must recall the terrible things
I said to Hannah on the phone when I realized
we would break up or the lies
I told Alecia during the divorce negotiations
as I’m sure you know the times I called
in sick when I just wanted to be in the sun
on my bike with Brooklyn opening
up before me like a new book
like I’m certain you know what I deleted
from the cover letter email before attaching
my résumé & how I don’t date the same kind
of women I like to watch in porn
so I am not at all going to pretend I am not guilty.
Can you close your eyes & see the terriﬁed faces
of the not-guilty as they run from what you send hawking
down out of the sky toward them
as they stop to pour more radiator ﬂuid
in the beaten car or talk with a neighbor
(who also dies in the attack) about how grown
now are their daughters (who are the same age as yours)?
Do their last prayers ripple
in your veins? Do you see their broken bodies
in dreams? Emperor of Drones, Lord of War
& Dollars, King of Secrets, do you have two
hearts, one that lushes alive when your brilliant
wife & gorgeous children enter the room,
which you tuck into a velvet-lined box
before entering the Situation Room
where you snap the other into place,
clockwork heart passed down President
to President forty-four times now, same cold
pump that compelled Jefferson to accept
the three-ﬁfths compromise, that gave Jackson
the steel face he needed to kill
off the Indians, that whispered in George W’s ear
the Iraqis had missiles? Does the other, human
heart ﬁt less & less comfortably
the more often you lock the metal, ticking
one in? Caesar of Torture, do you have to wear
the robot heart to bed lest the wet screams
of the waterboarded invade your sleep?
When you wash your hands of innocent
blood, does the face of Jesus look like Bradley
Manning chanting in solitary my god my god
why has thou forsaken me? Yes I am guilty.
Yes I voted for you because the alternatives
were worse. Dammit, yes, I even hoped
for a season but I don’t blame
you for my naïveté. I know you are watching
me like the worst kind of god, the kind who thinks
the existence of paradise at all justiﬁes
the invention of hell. I know I am the fool.
I know the lesser of two evils is still
evil. I know you’ll miss it when you leave the white mansion,
the humming dance of tiny chilly gears
you have started to ache for even when it is not wearing
you like a human suit. You’ll leave ofﬁce & reminisce
about it with its previous vassals. Clinton will say
I grew to love it more than my wife’s smile. Bush
will choke a little, say it was stronger than church.
Carter will say I still sometimes cough up little cogs.
You’ll each fall quiet, watching the newly-elected man lose
the light from his eyes, years from his hair. The ﬁrst
time you hear him lie on television your chest
will ache & you’ll yearn for the diabolical mechanism
to whir in you again the way a child can’t stop probing
a wound, hungry for the short stab of pain. You won’t even be a man
any more. Just a countdown that never ends, ticking away.
John Paul Davis writes poems, and reads quite a few of them as well. You can find out more about him at http://www.johnpauldavis.org.