Sterling Brown Speaks 76 Years Later–Ferguson, No Isolated Case

Jeremy Nathan Marks:

Well said, David.

Originally posted on The Dad Poet:

quote-the-sincere-sensitive-artist-willing-to-go-beneath-the-cliches-of-popular-belief-to-get-at-an-sterling-brown-325378I have to avoid the comment sections lately (see word to the wise below), but these last ten days of US news have been very disturbing to say the least. Not too far in the past one of my own sons was questioned by police officers while he and his friends stood on a curb debating which house was the house of their mutual friend. Nobody had the guts to just go knock and find out. You know, kids can be socially awkward. And oddly enough, nobody had a cell phone on them at the time. They were however wearing hoodies, and the awkward teens looked suspicious to a lady who owned the car they were standing near.

I’m sorry to say that the thing that probably saved them from too much trouble was they all were white. Had they been black boys in hoodies in the Trayvon Martin days…

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Mark of the city

Mark of the city

When Ralph and Marcus arrived
at the Port Authority bus terminal they were met
by two of Ralph’s friends
one named Willard who drove a taxi and the other
who was a student at NYU on the G.I. Bill
named Frank

First they had gone to a bar on Amsterdam Avenue
but then over beers Frank said
I’ve got something you’ve gotta try
but we can only do it back at my place. Ralph said
Ooh, college dope
and Frank nodded and said You’ve got to try this, man.
For your mind. It’s gonna fucking blow it.

Marcus, who avoided drugs
wasn’t sure but when Frank told them about the things
he’d seen on the stuff
and how it had cleaned up his nerves after Khe Sanh
he thought about the type of peace he might need
when he got sent back into the shit

I got this from a dude who works in
a government lab Frank said shutting the door
to his cold water flat. We don’t need to cover the windows
or put towels on the floor by the door. This stuff is clean and clear
and when you take it you don’t cough
it just makes you feel pure.
Ralph looked at Willard whom he’d known since they were small
and Willard just nodded his head so Ralph said
I’m game and put out his hand

Frank took a small dropper from the inside pocket
of his beat up surplus army jacket. This ain’t going to make you no fiend
because we don’t use needles. I’ve got some sugar cubes
in the kitchen just give me a minute
and when he came back he said to Marcus
You aren’t gonna want to sit this one out, man, trust me
and handed each of them a cube. Marcus watched as they all popped them
into their mouths like some choreographed rite
and thought about that time when Fred Hampton had told him
Don’t waste your mind, son.

On the bus ride back
through a misting rain that hung so low over Boston
that the top of the Pru stood above the clouds
Marcus thought about the things he’d seen and whether
what he now felt could be called enlightenment.

It certainly wasn’t peace.

He was pretty sure that he had seen his own death.
He had been standing over some black body being sucked down
into a rice paddy and when he looked up to see
if anyone was coming he heard his commanding officer shout
Marner! and point in his direction before being
blown up on an embankment.

Then he had been on a C-130 watching Ralph
sit on a coffin blowing smoke
and saying You know man you brought us all some luck.
They’re gonna flood
the whole damn place when they blow those dikes.
Ralph was making pictures with the smoke
pictures of their whole platoon at camp. Then he broke up each
one by one saying: He’s dead. He’s dead. And he is too.
Until there was no one left.

Finally the trip had ended beside a frozen potato field
where his family stood laying a wreath before
an unmarked stone. He had wondered why they were not
in Chicago at the family plot. His sister Mags
was saying Ma, I know tubers bloom
in the dark and Clarisse said Yes, that’s right
so it’s like he is not gone at all.

Boston winked out behind the bus
and Marcus looked at his own reflection through
the very dim light of his rain battered window
and while he felt his face he thought Can I really be so soon for the Earth.
He was planning on taking another trip soon
but he wanted to do it with Lou
so he could confirm something he thought his brother already knew:
that he’d almost stayed over at Fred’s
the night he was killed.

Looking past the dripping lights of some drab textile town
Marcus realized that if he was going to go
he was going to go because there really was only one place for him
to go. He loved his family
but couldn’t be in their care anymore. And he wasn’t going
to come home an invalid. They’d already nearly made
him one here.
He had to let Lou know what he knew about the fates.

His life’s going to be different
not like mine. He’s not going to remain
marked by the city.

When the bus pulled into the terminal
Darnell and Lou were there with the car and they all went
for coffee at a greasy spoon making its livelihood
off of the college. It was crowded and they sat
under harsh fluorescent lights
and wisps of cigarette smoke drinking passable coffee
over passable pie in a maroon colored booth
upholstered in cracked vinyl.

The place’s appeal was that it was cheap.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks



On the 27th it began to rain.
It began as light, late morning drizzle but then at dusk
started to pour.
The magic of two days before was lost
to patches of frost burned grass and spreading pools of mud

Lou heard hydroplaning tires in the residential night.
Dark roots were stirring outside;
it felt like spring now with that scent of pine
he actually had not noticed before. The move had made
school and not the town his focal point.
It was an unpleasant surprise the way the forest could suddenly
encroach and he heard sounds and felt shadows
completely foreign to Chicago.

Lou lit every lamp in his room.

Claudette went out into the rain
to clear the scattered butts she had tossed
in fits of pique
across a long semester of poorly argued theses.
She felt the rain, warmer than expected, soak through her t-shirt
and wondered whether any of her neighbors could see
her liberated chest beneath
a translucent garment

Laura and Emmie were playing cards
in the living room with the phonograph on again.
But this time there was no Stevie Wonder
or Jacques Brel because of the moratorium on raw emotion
that had been imposed.
Laura felt Rachmaninoff would be appropriately soothing
and she nursed a Coca Cola while Emmie drank
Earl Grey with honey, lemon and milk

Claudette shut the sliding door and said
I should have used an umbrella! then went into the kitchen
to empty the can of beans she had been using
as an ash tray.
She shook her head at the foul smelling
residue on her fingers then placed them under the steaming tap
as the rain picked up.
She heard the wind rattle the spruce and watched
from her window as it heaved away
the last of the snow from those buried inner branches

The storm unsettled her;
it felt out of joint with the endless months
of unbroken white she had grown accustomed to.
The bitter, sterile snow pack was a comfort that she used to swaddle
her loneliness. Its bracing, piercing touch
was its great virtue.
Claudette had been raised on a steady diet of tales
about her ancestors’ fortitude, their hardy forbearance in that north woods
beside the impenetrable river of ice

Despite the snow it never really began until
les fêtes were over and New Year’s day dawned
usually with a hangover.
January was simply without mirth and those long dark nights
unlit by any festive lights were a reminder
of where she stood. She needed the snow’s reflection of starlight,
needed its insulation like some boreal hare.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Fountain pen

Fountain pen

The Devon house was deserted
John Devon had gone to Boston where an old
friend lived. He had been invited to spend Christmas
there after he made a precipitant phone call
and his friend, because of his wife
said Yes, John. Come down

Of course Emmie didn’t know this
her father had left without a word. In truth he knew
where she was but her security provided him neither comfort
nor care; he just wanted to go to Boston
and before he left threw the Bougainvillea into
the trash

Emmie found the poor plant
its petals now brown and crystallized
in the trash behind the house. She stood on her toes
and looked in through a gap in the drapery
but found no clues other than the locked garage
and the driveway empty

She had not come home to reconcile nor to stay
but to breathe a crisper air.
The desire surprised her but there was a stuffiness
–almost foetid now-
in those Rosella rooms; she kept her bedroom door locked at night
and had slept with the windows open because of a rising
fear that came all at once
of being tainted

It was Paul. It was all because of Laura’s mention
of Paul. He was no angel, she didn’t think that but she was offended
by the implied intimacy, the hinted desire of a dead man
for some insecure, flighty and slightly plump
Jewess. Yes, Laura was those things
wasn’t she.

And then there was the alcohol.
And the food.
The coffee and cigarettes, the intimate atmosphere
and that aura of the exotic, the sensitive and the committed
worn like a charm to guard against
her town. All those petty fools she heard Claudette shake her head about
fools like her father who was a fool. Yes, absolutely

But then to go and try and claim Paul
as one of them-
And he now being dead.

Emmie let herself in and walked very softly across
every room to make absolutely sure.
She half wondered what her father was doing just then.
She thought also of her mother as she walked
into their bedroom and placed a fountain pen inside one of Charlotte’s
real estate blazers -having cracked it first
then smirked and went back downstairs
and on an impulse took out the trash.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks



If they’re going down there I don’t want my son
walking into any blind pig
leave or no leave. I don’t need to tell you
Darnell what happened in Detroit
and I don’t want my son touching any alcohol

Clarisse was clearing her bed side table
Darnel stood in the doorway but when the conversation
took this turn he shut the door

They’re soldiers, Clarisse
if they can go over there and be trusted with weapons
why can’t we let them go down to New York
Ralph’s got people he wants to see and Marcus is already
restless here. And you can’t blame him
Trying to reassure his wife on this score he said
It isn’t us, dear. It’s this town
it might just be too much to ask for our son to come out here
from the war and try and feel normal

I trust our son. And I know he’s a good kid
and yes, I can tell that Ralph comes from good people
but that’s not my point
Clarisse shook her head
You know what it’s like to be a black man with a drink
in his hand. And those places aren’t just about
drink either. You know that

Darnell sat down on his side of the bed
I shouldn’t even mention that Lou wants to go along
and seeing the look from his wife he said
Don’t worry, I said no
but he loves his brother and he misses him
and frankly-
Darnell took a deep breath but couldn’t finish his sentence

Marcus doesn’t have to get on any train
maybe you might let his brother tell him that instead of you
Lou’s got a kind of moral authority
everyone always said that back home

We’ve got to find a compromise, Clarisse
you know that when we lived in Chicago it took every inch
of persuasion I had to keep our eldest from joining
the Black Panthers
he kept telling him me why he would
and his reasons were good. They were excellent and he was right feeling
the way he did. You remember

And then when that boy Fred Hampton got killed
Clarisse shot back
Remember that? You praised his idealism and I said
idealism is worth nothing if it equals suicide and I swear that boy’s death
proved me right so no uniform is going to protect our son either
not over here

It isn’t like Chicago, darling
this is about two young men home on leave
and it’s the winter so wherever they go for a drink people
aren’t going to want to go outside
even the police are going to move a bit slower
the fat ones will stay in their cars
the riots are over

Lou had heard his parents’ say the words ‘New York’
and snuck up to their door to listen
he knew Ralph had people in Harlem he needed to see
that Marcus was going to go with him
and Lou felt that there could be nothing better than walking to the Apollo
with two soldiers –two brothers- in full dress uniform.
He would wear his black leather coat
the one his mother had discouraged ever since they’d moved

Of course, this was not going to happen
he listened now more out of curiosity than hope
while his mother scolded his father
Lou thought about how his brother was always telling him to lighten up

Loosen up, man
you never know what can happen
Clarisse might just give in (Marcus always called his mother
by her first name except in her presence)
Lou gave his a brother a look that reminder Marcus of their mother
Ma won’t let anything happen
and you know that. It’s going to be you two only

He almost didn’t dare let his brother know
the true nature of his feelings, how Harlem was great but it wasn’t all
so it took every bit of bravery he had in him
to say: I know you’ve got to go but do you think you might consider
it’s one less day here
Lou tried saying this in the most nonchalant way possible
but his throat tightened and he felt almost like he was choking

For more than half a year
every conversation he had with his brother
(even their letters)
felt like it might be the last
the dread was worse than it had been during that fight over
the Black Panthers
worse than the darkness following Hampton’s murder
when the whole family thought Marcus might go the same route

In Chicago Lou had known someone
whose older brother had joined the party and when he found out that Fred
was visiting his friend’s home
he had gone to shake hands with Hampton.
He stopped himself from asking for an autograph because he didn’t
want to seem a fool
he had wanted to say that his older brother was thinking
of joining up because he thought it might impress the leader
but he knew that anything that he said could hurt Marcus in some way
recent events had taught him to be practically silent
outside of the house

When Marcus got his draft notice that June
Lou didn’t sleep well for two weeks before finally succumbing
to exhaustion. The letter came just before they moved
and after Marcus left for basic in August he had several nightmares
that all went the same way:
Marcus was heading home on Christmas leave
and he went back to Chicago by mistake.
He’d reach their street only to find the family house boarded up.
Or torched.
Or simply not there at all.
In one dream Lou saw him walking through Saigon with bombs falling
and gutters filled with bodies and watched as his brother’s face
became Vietnamese
which woke him up and his fear for Marcus’s life was so acute
he had vomited all over himself

The week of Christmas Lou didn’t sleep for three nights
and felt a temporary release that moment when
Marcus walked through the front door.
He had to hug him to be sure

Marcus knew more about this than he let on
knew that Lou never tried to stand in his way or take their mother’s side
or badger him into doing things with his kid brother.
He also knew that Lou worshipped him
that he was the central pivot in Lou’s world
so that even now at seventeen his kid brother read Soul On Ice
and Soledad Brother just because he’d heard Marcus
praise Cleaver and admit in a letter to his father (that Lou stole)
that Jackson’s murder traumatized him

It’s a one day trip, bro
we’re gonna take the overnight down to New York
and then spend the day and evening with Ralph’s people
then head right back
Ralph wants to stay longer and I said fine
but I’ve got to get back because I want to be at that party
you told me about

He slapped Lou on the shoulder
So don’t sweat it, man
I’ll be back and maybe bring you something too
Marcus winked and said
Ralph knows some Dominicans who know some Cubans
who’ve got a line on those cigars you’ve heard about
the finest in the world. I’m gonna get them and not take
a puff until I’m back here with you

We’ll find some excuse to get out the house
moose hunting, maybe? And he laughed and shook his head
and said Our father, the professor
Lou said We’d probably have better luck saying we want to find
some night life which amounts to
a country and western bar that my teammates say is down
a “back alley.”
Which is rich because you can see it sitting right across
from the dentist’s office.

I bet they serve only beer and grain alcohol, bro.

-Jeremy Nathan Marks

Towers of feeling

Towers of feeling

Lucky called over to the house and when he recognized
Laura’s voice said Is Em there, please
I wanted to wish you Merry Christmas
and I was also hoping that
I’d get to see you before the end of the holiday

Lucky leaned up against the wall of his family kitchen
and with one hand on his forehead said
I’m tired of fighting, Em
I feel like I have not seen you or even
been part of you for longer than we’ve known each other
if that makes any sense
after a pause she said It does but I am not ready to see you
just yet. The party is coming up, I will see you then
but I’m glad you called

Lucky’s heart beat inside his temples
Em, I have to ask
is this really about my getting drunk. I mean I know I’ve done it
more than once and that you hate it. Of course, I know
that but it feels like you think that I’ve cheated on you or worse
What’s worse? Emmie interrupted

Lucky knew of course
Or betrayed your trust, I was going to say
Yes, Emmie said. That.
He waited for her to say something else but she did not
I know that I should not ask, maybe least of all
today but is there a future still for us
and he held his breath. Emmie didn’t answer for nearly one whole
minute. There is, she said slowly
but not now there isn’t. We can’t talk now
you need to understand that

Okay he said, but you still believe
and he hoped she’d repeat Yes, I believe
but then he felt himself get mad. I have to ask because, well, you’ve never
punished me like this for anything else that I have ever done and I feel that it’s
pretty unfair now even though I know that I made a mistake
Yes, I did wrong but this-
he gestured into his empty kitchen
this is something else. This coldness -you’re being almost completely gone from my life
at Christmas

Not now, she repeated
and he took a very deep breath and counted
in his head then said Okay
Merry Christmas, Em
and she said You too but then waited for him to say
what he usually did at the end of their phone calls
Lucky knew this; he knew the quality of her silence now
it was very familiar. He felt his forehead grow hot and a ball of humiliation
flare in his stomach. He wanted to mutter under his breath
Some nerve but he didn’t and said
I love you . . . and I hope you know that

And then became even angrier with her
but most of all with himself for giving in further to her control
over his feelings On Christmas he thought again
Emmie nodded to Claudette and Laura’s empty kitchen
and wished that he could see her nod
maybe as a punishment, maybe not. She neither knew nor cared
she would not say anything more than that
Laura had talked her out. Even Claudette’s hospitality had
her fagged out

Me too, she whispered
Well, at least you still do, he said
trying to deliver the line as if he were in a movie
he saw himself tall and straight, debonair
a dignified, if jilted, lover
then he hung up

The party was in three days
and felt important now. Even though it was still
just a party Emmie realized that she might have staked something
on it. Was this an accident?
But then Laura interrupted her thoughts by saying
So? lingering in the doorframe
and then she knew (and thought again of Paul)
that everything that was happening now was not because of her
but that it did involve her and was going to be resolved
through her

She wanted to go to bed
it was late and all of the lights, the music
and the booze had grown stale
the tenderness of the holiday, those towers of feeling
Claudette and Laura had tried to erect around her with their
Latin hospitality(?)
their intimate, florid sensibilities
seemed less like paper cranes than some morning after wrapper

Emmie wanted to be alone
with the memory of her brother
alone with him so that he could now be reclaimed
time had gone on too long without him and she admitted
that others had taken him
And now Laura too!
like she was a Devon
but one in the worst possible way:
a blood relation

Her brother was not familiar
so he was not (and could not be) a Devon
and if he wasn’t Am I not?
Emmie almost cried out when she felt
a stone drop in her stomach that said he is not dead
but has taken another family
has other loves
is some Saigon whore’s ticket
or the hope of a fellow POW

Was he talking to her?

-Jeremy Nathan Marks