A South American Quartet,
by Ward Kelley
It would be better if the trees burned people,
instead of these great fires we make to cloud
the sins of our souls from the ghosts of our
Yet if the trees burned us, the smoke would be blacker,
and the smell of these flames would not be maternal,
or protecting, as the scent of smoldering wood often
Your black skin smells like safety, a hearth fire;
I didn't think it would, and in fact expected an exotic
or spice smell to your thighs, never imagining you
I first saw you on the other side of the bus, and you
turned immediately to apprehend my eyes, for
beautiful women always detect him when a man looks
It's an evolved sense, is it not? To see the man quickly,
before any possible impact occurs? Yet your ancient
eyes assented there within your youthful face, and I
like smoke wafting over this foreign land, a ghost
who has learned nothing from the trees we burn
and burn, never comprehending why your dark limbs
cannot protect them
as deftly as you deliver salvation to a white man.
I wandered into the dead ones here,
in barren jungles filled with ghosts
who do not yet know how to use the tropics;
I first saw the dead ones when they cavorted
across your black thigh . . . my hand
slid over your custodial skin,
kicking up the dead like tiny imps
of dust flickering in a ray of sunlight
which might penetrate a musty jungle.
I came to think of your black skin
as a receptor of souls, and perhaps
this is where I, myself, belonged . . .
ah, these little wisps of dead souls syncopated
within the skin of my own soul, "we all struggle,
struggle to belong, but once there we all
struggle, struggle to get away again."
But why would they pronounce such cruel
words here on the tropics of your childless skin?
Then your black skin had one final message
for me, how we are such contrary beings
and even the dead ones here who kick up
the dust of our own breathing lives
cannot accept the contrary impulses
that drive us both, living and dead . . .
so then salvation comes,
but it comes repeatedly . . .
by touching someone new.
Help me, help me, I am never coming
back to these weary mountains, never
returning to your black skin . . .
for white men do not truly know
how to return to women who have
waited for centuries.
Save me, save me, I was never leaving
your custodial skin, never wandering
off from the belief in what waited
at your thighs.
It was the dead who waited there . . .
you never told me your skin was so
clever as to provide maternity
for both dead and breathing,
and I now see that even though
you never spoke the words,
your eyes danced again and again
from the joy of this consummation.
You sought to marry me with
the dead. Yet why must I leave?
It is not you who sends me
away, and not the dead . . .
then at the circumference I understood
that I cannot see the enormity
of the problem the dead souls
must solve, while they, themselves,
do not have the solutions provided me
by touching skin.
Then in the end, I walk alone;
there are no dead ones with their
rather odd counsel . . . no black
sirens whose skin can redeem
even the whitest devil . . . no
country, foreign and sensual,
where I can blend into the mass
of jungle souls.
There is only my own soul, alone,
and given the chore of making sense
of all this, this through which we wade,
this of which we touch, this skin
in which I live . . .
the worse of the loneliness
is when I miss that part of me -
the consequential part -
that was left behind
as the price for living
here in the foreign country
where we breathe . . .
we have made this terrible trade
of knowledge for flesh.
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