Woodworking with Ashes
Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science
For Jackson, Mississippi
We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.
~John F. Kennedy
My city walks with a limp—
stiffens its neck against the pole of a crossed flag
prodding clouds above a Mississippi elementary school.
My city chuckles and makes hate sound civil,
throws a penny to champion the skeleton army
of our people
shooting our people
to shackle our people.
Children don’t understand the words black and white.
Girls at church call me light-skinned
and scold each other if one calls me white
like this half-empty glass of history’s milk
that drips justification
as if heritage were an excuse to build an empire on a graveyard.
Toss the remnants like confetti; say hope’s cremation is ancestral celebration.
It’s like we’re interrupting a funeral with complacency’s birthday party,
feeding egos like fattened pigs,
bred and farmed and cherry-picked for plump and slaughter,
rolling in slop of brutality’s leftovers and sucking juice
from bigotry’s full-course meal.
The ghosts here trample progress graveside,
stomp cut flowers, drink crumbled concrete like shaved ice
by trashcan firelight, play cards with men who sleep
on air vents under skyscrapers,
give them a dollar to buy a bottle
and a coat to brave the night.
Culture is subject to murals and graffiti-boarded buildings,
the fabled demise of Capitol Empire, destruction’s petty ashes.
Preacher says it is hard to hope in ruins,
worship in the armpit of this city,
this adolescent giant anxious for manhood,
if masculinity means belonging
and belonging requires bullets and bail funds and blood.
Nobody pays the light bill in this ash-ridden house,
but at least there’s flame in the hearth.
The children play gunfight in the church gymnasium.
I can’t explain poison in the water fountain or bulging floorboards.
A seven-year-old girl gives me the finger in exchange
for a piggyback ride.
I tell her I am disappointed,
I tell her I love her
and she doesn’t know what she did wrong.
if any of us are even trying to build anymore.
If Jesus really was a carpenter,
the Devil must be stuffing my city into an urn.
This poem’s sense of self is immaculate; there is a crystal clear voice that rings within each line of the poem, from the way identity is handled to the elaboration within the stanzas. Also, the use of metaphor and imagery is phenomenal (my favorite instance of this is the one with the pigs in stanza four), and allows clear images to be drawn from the major points of the poem. An incredibly honest thematic exploration.
Shelby Tisdale will graduate from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus, Mississippi, in 2021 and resides in Pearl, Mississippi. She believes poetry is the quietest way to be loud and hopes her words may act as vessels of perspective.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR