“I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land”
after Rita Dove and not
And I forgot to rub in the cocoa butter
before leaving that morning like my
mother instructed me to do every day.
My knees, assimilated to blank paper
as though I genuflected in the ash tray
with all the cigarette butts Ma’ Collins
put out something like six, seven times
in one day, not that I ever really counted,
but what I do count is the large number
of folks who walk by me in the hall without
speaking. And that’s just the teachers. And
they are just kids, and I am just a kid, but a
black kid, with the way they pet my hair
so roughly, is really more like a goat: an
animal. And all of them are animals too,
in the way every human being traces
their roots back to Africa, but with me it is
not the same. It could never be: I didn’t
know rhythm could be put in curriculums
before coming here; I just knew how to
dance already, and besides, nobody was
going to teach anything otherwise about
me outside of a few cold days in February,
and that was just my peoples doing their
best to remember what they had done
their best to forget; ran out the house
without putting on some cocoa butter.
Not even the white pickets I had imagined.
There were no fences here. Where the word
neighbor was an inviting red sweater, still
relevant day-to-day, like saying the pledge
of allegiance or voting Republican; fences,
an electricity only dogs with special collars
knew. And I certainly recognized where my
plot ended, where another’s began, what it
meant to trespass, all the requisite lines drawn
by other means, other averages of expectation.
Status quo: do not disturb without invitation,
because the cops will actually show up, turn
our radio knob left, personally. Nowhere found
as they blast Jackson Browne, light trashcan fires,
forget to invite us over, walk through our yard as
if there was not a fence there, but I know better.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is an emerging poet from the Chicago suburbs, but currently lives in Jersey City, NJ. He is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and its premier performance poetry collective, The Excelano Project. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Lunch Ticket, Bird’s Thumb, Kinfolks Quarterly, Linden Avenue, and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, among others.