bird-poem (after biggers)

deeredition, boomedition, squom, squom, squom.
dee beetstrawist, wapago, locoest, locoro, lo.
voometeyereepetiop, bop, bop bop, whipolat.
bob kaufman[1]

birds, like brothas, are “carriers of music.”[2]

woody the woodpecker was woodsheddin:

doot oom bop
oo boop ba-dip dib-bid-it
dit-doooo
yooo-da[3]

we all just birds callin & respondin. melodic & paper thin.

…this is ultimately trying to be a poem about how racism tries to kill us & fails.[4]
Yolanda Wisher 1

dwayne bout to get hitched to yvette

my brother-in-law’s heart attack at 28. his church labor, a wagin against what racism wroughts. his search for heaven, strainin for grace. benjamin banneker wrote to thomas jefferson in 1791, asked him to tell his boys about empathy, to temporarily don the souls of black men, & “thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness & benevolence towards them.” but what of the shrunken, treasonous chambers of that white man’s heart? i know a black heart like a keg of dynamite, like a cartoon bird soot-faced with tailer feathers a-crisp. racism the match. hate the flame. for a black heart, such enlargin could be fatal, apocalyptic.

i concern myself with the problems of the world. do you? do you wake up wild with worry?

three little birds
pitch by my doorstep
singin’ sweet songs
of melodies pure & true[5]

the only reason i believe in hell is these people. people like the woman who lied about emmett till. a special chamber pot in hell reserved for this coward. those villains who slay little boys. a special poisoned coat made from defective salamanders.

& all our coats, our hides descended from wars, adapted from wars & work. to shield each other from nation rage. bomber jackets, pea coats, duffle coats, trench coats, field jackets, deck jackets, flight jackets & chore coats.

somethin moves through you & you remember you used to live elsewhere, some land that belonged to you & yours. the shirt on your back becomes a plot of land. a storied plot or deed or title that haunts you. like the hides, the shade of my grandmothers. sizes too big years ago but now startin to fit. coats of the 1940s with wide lapels & gilded buttons. church coats. goin to the bank coats. somebody’s being born coat. somebody’s dead coat. & the lining like to fall out. sanford may have had a grandma with a baddd coat. a coat worthy of the status of her soul. good coat like a well made name. it was your world skin, your warmth, your passport. meant you could do for yourself. be done for.
Yolanda Wisher 6Yolanda Wisher 7

this is the witch doctor’s saturday night coat. the preacher man’s friday night coat. peacock & ostrich like a josephine baker breath. feathered armor.

i wear my womanhood
like a shearling on the subway
royal minx in the bathroom[6]

this use of the erotic. this “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self & the chaos of our strongest feelings.”[7] this seductive sabotage pimp coat that a purple prince would wear. glorious & aquiline. this icarus poncho. this santeria slicker. where is this big bird without its cape? imagine james brown without his cape brought to you by maceo. imagine superman without his cape runnin out here naked. must be dead without its quills. must be dead without its plumage.

i’ve inherited coats & jewelry. my aunt in atlanta gave me my grandmother’s coat. a box of her jewelry. that’s what we keep. what we pass on. warmth & bling. handmade as the devil’s diaper bag. they came to me in ziploc. the fake gold bracelet with the lion’s head. the plaid button clip-on. a pair of butterflies i’ve only seen the likes of tina turner wear. aunt sook gave me a ring made from welded pennies. said it was from a boy she loved who died. but the pennies said 1980, a love too late. the last thing she gave me was a hug like a hand grenade. auntie-loom, heir-fact, faux-story. hallelujah for herculean heirlooms of struggle impervious to all dust, disease & despair!
Yolanda Wisher 2Yolanda Wisher 3Yolanda Wisher 4

& all the funerals. all the tears. no money to bury your funky ass. leave no frills behind. just your dirty debts. bury me in black shellac & plastic flowers in a storefront church. bury me with clowns & romance novels & red velvet cupcakes. bury me, then burn me up: anti-looms. heir-facts. faux-story.

she was the creator of clothing,
especially capes, made of feathers[8]

our coats. our hides. our skin color. no fake tan. no fake news. no new news. just this: we stay black & die. if we wise, we get free. put your coat on. coat your tongue. we would guard against the summers they call indian. cloaks of resistance. our culture in these deep pockets.
Yolanda Wisher 5

yr girl circa 1980, ambler, pa

picture me in the mettle of a brown coat in daycare. i zip up my baby’s coat before he goes to school. let’s make verbs of these nouns: coat. cape. cloak. our clothes are not enuf. to protect us. we must make new ones. bomb diffusin jackets. puffy coats that hold fugitives. wear chainmail while we email. frocks that beam through time & space. cloaks like clocks & clocks like cloaks to beguile the time.[9]

i want to rock this power that is meant for me, for us. the power in the robust songs of the john henry poets. the power in fela’s hips, in his melodic thrusts. let’s not be afraid of its fullness, its danger. we should be ferocious, we who wear the hips of the earth. we who wear the feathers of the sky. we can be our own bandleaders. it has been done before. we are grandmothers already. unafraid in the woods. searchin for traces of ancestors & keepin them hot on the fire until the young folk come & find us. lookin for answers & wisdom. which is carefully cultivated, plucked. we will blow smoke around them & calm them. we will tell them the little bit of things our grandmothers taught us which we have glass-blown into a universe of poems, sewn into a coat of feathers. each feather a black tongue. we’ll cook these bird-poems on the fire like flesh things we have caught, which have flown into our mouths & we will spit them back to the children.

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Yolanda Wisher is the 2016-2017 Poet Laureate of the City of Philadelphia. Wisher is the author of Monk Eats an Afro and the co-editor of Peace is a Haiku Song. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Fence, Chain, MELUS, PUBLICPOOL, Hanging Loose, and GOOD Magazine and the anthologies Gathering Ground and The Ringing Ear. Wisher is a 2016 Hedgebrook Writer-in-Residence, 2015 Pew Fellow, Center for Performance and Civic Practice Catalyst Initiative grantee (2015), Leeway Art & Change Award recipient (2008), and the inaugural Montgomery County Pennsylvania Poet Laureate (1999). She holds an M.A. in English/Creative Writing-Poetry from Temple University and a B.A. in English/Black Studies from Lafayette College. Wisher founded and directed the Germantown Poetry Festival (2006-2010), served as Director of Art Education for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program (2010-2015), and worked as Chief Rhapsodist of Wherewithal for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (2014-2016). She lives in Germantown with her partner Mark Palacio and their son Thelonious.
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[1] from the poem “Crootey Songo”
[2] Douglas R. Ewart in the video “MCA Chicago: Freedom Principle”
[3] my transcription of Ella Fitzgerald’s scat in the song “It Don’t Mean a Thing”
[4] paraphrasing Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.”
[5] from Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds”
[6] from my own “First Poem at Forty”
[7] from Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic”
[8] from Alice Walker’s novel Temple of My Familiar
[9] a phrase from Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth