The two books I pulled down were side by side; there was nothing else to link them. The books were not organized alphabetically, nor by author, or by genre; they were not sorted by height or an OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Designer) spine color system. They had been packed and unpacked and then shelved straight from the box when we moved. I had not touched them since. It was a surprise to me that each connected to Portland.
One of the two books was Lunatic, by Crystal Williams. She was teaching at Reed College (in Portland); I think I bought the book at a reading at Powell’s Books. Now, at least a dozen years later, I let it fall open in my hands, no thumbing or page flipping. The title of the poem I had marked before caught my eye and my breath.
On Cops & Color
Julani was driving his dad’s jag.
Methuselah wasn’t so old, we laughed.
“You shoulda been stopped
for driving that thing.”
Everyone knows if you are black,
don’t get stopped in Ohio—especially
not speeding, which we weren’t.
Those flashing lights panicked our eyes,
made our hearts pound like prey.
The Trooper’s inquisition tattered
our middle class quilts—
his mouth: a thousand nesting moths.
One mile down the road he stopped us again.
Saul’s five foot five inches grew into an
escaped convict from Florida who was six
foot two until the radio-voice told the Trooper
people cannot conjure themselves
into criminals with bigger bones.
I am guilty. These are not my people,
them with their narrowing eyes & slouched pants
& sitting on stoops & go-go bands. But, then,
there was Philip & something not unlike love.
New York (1995)
It hit me in Chinatown, where I was lost
amid a sea of color; Cops know where they are.
Eric got shot in the back
by his blue brother, undercover uniform
An expose tells: the looming destruction
of a city, its fate bound in festering accusations
& tensions thick as blood-pudding. Each side
to be believed—a little. Sometimes.
Saul won’t talk of Ohio,
says he is where he is.
Philip recounted strip searches:
his buttocks stretched , his balls
hanging. The fire looping him
was not desire & his eyes made me cry.
Eric sued the city & his brother.
His family & faith are gone.
I am guilty. Afraid
of the line I toe. I hope
when the day comes,
the cop will see me
whatever act I committed
could be no worse than this I carry,
than where I stand, teetering
between bones & brain.
I hope the jury considers this
was never my intention.
The second book was New and Selected Poems by Thomas Lux, whom I had met in Claremont when he won the Kingston Tufts Poetry Award. “A Little Tooth” has been read and published many times. But it wasn’t the poem that grabbed my attention when I opened to the page the book volunteered. Instead, it was a 3×5-inch white-on-black image, chart-like with markings, on thin printout paper. It took me several seconds to understand I was holding an ultrasound image of my then-in utero daughter, Chedin. The technician had handed it to us after the exam, and on our way out of the hospital, not far from the MAX Line stop, I must have slipped it into the page after the ultrasound appointment. I like to think we read it together.
A Little Tooth
Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you
your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.