big chair #1
not like quasimodo, son of claude frollo,
created by hugo, lover of dancer,
gypsy, a view of the river seine, we are
not humble bell ringers in paris
unable to hear the nasty chatter of
streets, slick posturing of
politicos, pick pockets, people
pushing past paupers, part of us we
should just accept but cannot, and that
is the crux of the long limped
walks, the cockeyed stares,
the inner struggle, napoleon,
or mummar who put sand and camels
outside his camera kingdom, or george,
who did interviews with haystacks
on a farm that grew nothing but
inner doubt. but frankie d had
no legs, polio, and he rose up
like a oil well on the horizon,
he never knew the toxic drain
of it, and there are so many others
who don’t want to rule the world
they are not everybody.
big chair #2
and it is that simple. the world
wants to be ruled by everybody
and everybody is a lover who is
no good for me. and the lover
is beautiful and vicious like sid.
because everybody wants to marry a
pop singer, a model, someone who
invokes their childhood, someone
who lifts up shoulders, we can
walk in that world that wants to
be ruled. the song did not lie to us.
it is that simple. like first grade
math, or cornbread made from
a box. some day millions are dead
because of the song. some day we
will all eat cornbread and no one
will want to kill anyone.
big chair #3
a poet asked many moons ago:
where are all the love poems for dictators?
i think of a faculty meeting, a moment as dumb
as a bag of rocks. napoleon is dumb. mugabe is
dumb. bush bush. reagan clinton obama thatcher
blair cameron, did i say reagan is dumb? ketchup
is dumb. it is not a vegetable. everybody is dumb
and is here at this meeting eating subway or quizno’s.
i drink water. i check my facebook. i log onto
twitter. i text my daughters. i check out reddit,
do an “ask me anything.” no one asks me
anything. i am good. with that. if someone
would have, i would have laughed myself
into a coma.
i walk the halls, go talk to a maintenance worker. he
has never read any love poems for dictators. in fact,
he hasn’t read any love poems.
all the president’s men (for frank wills)
that summer, those endless boil of days, we played in
the alleys amongst the rocks and steel trash cans
drank kool aid, ginger ale in the can, water from a
garden hose, played baseball, stood under trees
by the little grey wall where we also kept our gloves and
chalk that drew the lines for the bases.
mr. henderson’s yard, the one with the one eyed boxer patrolling
amidst manure scattered about like landmines was an automatic out
and if you let the ball go under your legs, it was a long
chase into concrete oblivion while one of your friends circled the
bases to an imaginary roar.
lunch was probably grilled bologna on wheat, more kool aid,
or Tang, because we all thought drinking what the astronauts
drank might help us swing like Mays or Aaron or Banks.
so quickly back out the door for more baseball and sun, or the
sprinkler out back, that would cool our heads like popsicles from
the Good Humor Ice Cream truck that came just about everyday.
yet, we are children of the capital of the world where
big things are as constant as gravity. not just in the
summers and not just baseball in alleys.
a black man, paid mighty low
with big responsibilities
is the latest big thing. he
happened upon this guy
richard in the wrong place
at the wrong time and so
richard had to explain to
the world over and over
why the king of the world
need steal jacks from kids
on playgrounds and hang
out in hotels
i asked my parents of richard; my
mother said go ask your father;
my father, eyes deep in the washington
post, just shook his head and said nothing
at all. he just put down the newspaper he was
reading, and stared at me telling me all i
needed to know about why the game
shows and soap operas were not on tv.
and then one evening, my parents
made sure we were all right there
in front of the television and there he
was, richard, talking nervously, reading
from a prepared script, something
he obviously had thought about for
a long time. he was leaving town for
good, it seems; the capital of the world
and him had finally decided to divorce.
the men would talk about him no
more each day, there would be
no more television showing of it all. the
game shows and soap operas would
return at last and soon the summer
would just be summer again. lightning
bugs, popcicles, endless days where
what was happening downtown
was not even noticed, as meaningless
to us as lines to tour the white house.
the next day richard and his family boarded
a helicopter. he waved like he was napoleon
being sent to elba. just like that he disappeared
like a balloon that slipped from a child’s hand and
soared into the sky. i will never forget richard,
the summer of baseball, grilled bologna,
and those boiling hot days. i hear richard had a
great life after he left the capital of the world.
this city, my mother always said, is not for
friday night lights (for richard harris)
we stood over him like he was dead. in a way, he was. he just laid there like a horse at churchill downs or pimlico or hollywood park. one who took a bad step and who didn’t know the end was near. i remember the dirt and rocks all about him and us, scatterings in a field that claimed his future and one i knew like grown men know the backs of women.
summon up the grass stains all over his uniform and pants all the time; the pigskin still near to him and everyone just standing around waiting to hear the ambulance.
his coach was there like a parent, and this we know is good. his father was there as well, kneeling and waiting and this too was good. but there was nothing else good about this; his leg was broken or was it his knee cap (no one knew) and everything was different now because this wasn’t a flat tire or burnt toast, this changed things like rain can change weddings or dates, like church sermons can change hearts and minds.
it was said he could have made it doing this. college maybe. he was fast and strong and he was but 11 but this was a gayle sayers moment, november 68, kermit alexander laying him flat in wrigley field, and back then, even the ‘kansas comet’ crash landed and cried.
and he went to jail.
ran with the wrong
lousy jobs. saw
he’s alive today
he walks with a limp.
every time i see him i am
standing over him
again amongst the dirt and
rocks. it is saturday
morning. we know
what it all means when
our eyes meet.
like in “friday night lights” when boobie miles tries to play again knowing his leg don’t work because the doctor from midland told him so. boobie wants to die is all. why didn’t they just put me down, his eyes say each and every time? don’t let me go on like this. don’t let me grow up and not know what to do with my legs. don’t let me want to kill my children.
almos’ a man (for richard wright)
he said to me that wright was a homophobe and that he will
never read him again. those books, he says: native son, black
boy, 22 million black voices, uncle tom’s children, are no longer
credible. they are like a witness in court testifying who has
changed their story so many times they no longer know
their own name.
we all used the “f” word in the alleys. the gay men in
my neighborhood had to learn how to run fast or fight.
when they all began to die from the skinny man’s disease
many said i told you so and something about God. once,
one of my friends got whistled at by a car full of men and
he wanted to go home and get his gun. malcolm x had sex
with a man, someone alleged; people wanted to kill that guy
for writing that.
but he is a strange guy this richard.
he has no friends. no brothers. no sisters.
no children. he is, someone once wrote,
the consummate alien.
in 1940 he landed on a ship in chicago.
he was arrested and jailed. put in solitary.
it has been said he ate beef and vegetables
drank liquor with reds, killed two women in a panic
and hid out in the snow. when he was caught he confessed
and they gave him a huge cell all to himself and allowed
him no visitors, mail, he couldn’t even write letters.
none of this is true. the young writer wanted
a father. richard wanted to forget his life.
he was a dented can of tomatoes.
he had no time for hate though he was told
he should. it might protect him,
like an umbrella
an army helmet
aspirin after work
in the field
and he needs it, most of all;
brooks say he is the before
and after, i am sure he understood,
ollie harrington say, they came for
him like old lem, slowly. john a
say, he is, am, was,
and so he tried, yes, tried, like he
cried every night
and day, and he was all that people
said he was, one of too many
homophobes, but we would be crazy
not to read them books, crazy to forget
why he had to write them.
midnight cowboy (for israel)
now they report, many decades later
that richard’s wild irish rose wine
might have arsenic in it. my former
drinking buddies send me emails.
they are sure we all are soon to die.
they still drink these days but better stuff
like johnny walker red or black. but
don’t they know that the arsenic is why
i was drinking it even though i didn’t know?
if i had been told of the arsenic back then i
would have drank more of it. tried harder
to escape this place longer. flung the sting of my
days in some body of water or into the sky. forget
about all the pretty women blowing me off on
streets like i am rico rizzo from the bronx in the
film, midnight cowboy. or the fights i lost
over a girl and the bully, bad guys willing to go
primal for love. get the girl, hold her hand and
kiss not far away from me. my head full of her
and grog. my heart broken like a television dropped
from a ten story roof. my belly full of arsenic
maybe but hopefully, some of that red, red, wine…
richard pryor and america (for deangelo)
“i’m in love with b—h i can’t stand…”
if i told you i loved you, you would
step out, get full of yourself like some
boxer with hector camacho like hands.
i can’t have people see you go ESPN
on me. so, quell the noise, make me
a tuna melt on rye, hand me the remote.
district building, washington d.c., a short history, 70’s (for Maurice Williams)
richard the copy man wore leisure suits
marion barry pranced cooly through these halls
richard was disabled but that did not hold him back
marion barry working the hall tree top tall
richard printed the laws for city strivers making worlds
marion barry was there, don’t you all recall
i ate lunch with older men who talked sex all the time
but marion barry’s the one who had all enthralled
one guy said he was going to live off minerals in the air
marion barry, radical, walks tall, never will he crawl
another said he had sex with half the women in the building
marion barry’s i was sure would never be very small
muslim radicals would one day take over this place
marion barry like everyone up against the wall
these muslims said they know kareem abdul jabbar
marion barry will one day be bigger than charles degaulle
they killed a young reporter and shot a few others
marion barry filled with buckshot, he too took a fall
ethelbert miller say one day that man will be mayor
if marion barry wins a king we shall install
all of this happened just steps from a great big mall
marion barry as always ready to answer the call
richard the copy man wore leisure suits
marion barry pranced cooly through these halls
“Big Chair #3”: “where are all the love poems for dictators?” is a quote from a poem by E. Ethelbert Miller, in a book by that same title.
“District Building, Washington, D.C., A Short History, 70s”: Maurice Williams, a young radio reporter for WHUR radio, Howard University, in Washington D.C., was shot and killed during the Hanafi Muslim takeover of the District of Columbia’s District Building on March 9, 1977.
Brian Gilmore is a poet, writer, and columnist with the Progressive Media Project. He is the author of three collections of poetry, elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem (Third World Press, 1993), Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags (Karibu Books, 2001), and his latest, We Didn't Know Any Gangsters (Cherry Castle, 2014). He has published in The Progressive, The Nation, The Washington Post, Book Forum, The Baltimore Sun, and Jubilat. He currently teaches at the Michigan State University College of Law. He divides his time between Michigan and his beloved birthplace, Washington, DC. To read more by this author: Brian Gilmore, Spring 2001; Brian Gilmore's Introduction to The "Woodshed" Issue, Fall 2001; Brian Gilmore on Waring Cuney: Memorial Issue; Brian Gilmore: DC Places Issue; Brian Gilmore: Evolving City Issue; Brian Gilmore: Split This Rock Issue; Brian Gilmore: Audio Issue; Brian Gilmore: It's Your Mug Anniversary Issue; Brian Gilmore on Drum & Spear Bookstore: Literary Organizations Issue; Brian Gilmore: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue.