Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget. If this were a domestic tragedy, and it might well be, this would be your fatal flaw – your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt because it’s the ‘all black people look the same’ moment, or because you are being confused with another after being so close to this other?
 

*

 

An unsettled feeling keeps the body front and center. The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth and puke runs down your blouse, a dampness drawing your stomach in toward your rib cage. When you look around only you remain. Your own disgust at what you smell, what you feel, doesn’t bring you to your feet, not right away, because gathering energy has become its own task, needing its own argument. You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences constructed implicitly with ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’ You and your friend decided that ‘yes, and’ attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes: you pull yourself to standing, soon enough the blouse is rinsed, it’s another week, the blouse is beneath your sweater, against your skin, and you smell good.

 

*

 

The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.

 
 

The above is an excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, published by Graywolf Press.

Photograph © Michael David Murphy

The Love Machine
Two Poems