Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Joseph Ross

                        On A Classroom Discussion of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”
                        “Or does it explode?”

                        for Drew

                        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

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