On A Classroom Discussion of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”
“Or does it explode?”
We held Hughes’ question in our hands
with the danger it deserved.
Then talked our way through the brown
sweet of a raisin, the yellow
disgust of a moist wound.
We held our noses to guard
against the assault of decomposition,
the stench of failed flesh turned
the color of no.
We nearly smiled at the morning
pastry, the candied version
of our country’s sin.
We wondered about the dead
weight, the way it lies and drags
down every hopeful shoulder.
But when faced with the threat
in this final question, you see
it for the terror it is.
* * *
On A Classroom Discussion of Frederick Douglass’
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
for K.A. and M.T.
He sat on the edge
of the classroom, having learned
the safety of edges. Before him,
American Literature, a stone
of a book, lies open to
a lion’s page. Douglass’ questions,
a low growl, quiet for now
but their teeth are poised to sing
an attack, to devour anything
the color of complacency.
Last night as his human eyes
stalked this speech, this student
caged the words in his own notes,
furiously underlining and writing
like the skin of our century
hunting down the answers
to Douglass’ questions that live
to haunt his country.
Today, those questions claw at this
free student, stunned by their teeth.
As the discussion begins, the lion’s
words lunge off the page.
Everyone in the room panics
and scatters into brilliance. Some are
unprepared for the animal precision
of this nineteenth century
man the slave breakers
could not break. But this student’s
pulse thrums with post-slaughter
adrenaline. Never before has he
seen words rise up and fight
like the predators they are.
* * *
Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poems appear in many places including, The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Drumvoices Revue. He has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and won the 2012 Pratt Library / Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Howard County, Maryland. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at www.JosephRoss.net.