Rigorous
Volume Two, Issue 1



Gabrielle Daniels


For LaDavid Johnson

Dis-em-bod-ied.   I think of the witch    who chopped up her brother    throwing the carmined flesh    into the water   to slow her father’s armada   plowing the waves     without an outboard motor     It wasn’t sorcery    just craft    Braving the sharks    here and there     they collected each limb    without the blood        to assuage the young man’s spirit    to mollify his father’s anger    if not the gods’    Did the brother     give up his life willingly    for her    or was it terrifying    that death would arrive    not so unexpectedly    at his blood sister’s hands    They lost the quarry    but carried him home    glum under black sails    nonetheless   the body was properly entombed    reassembled    like the broken, artificial  borders     of territory    made whole only     from the eyes of space    Like yet another torn deity

I think of the young widowed wife   who was warned   like Pandora   not to open the coffin lid   or else   truth would escape   lay waste to forests of lies   She wanted an open coffin    like any black wife     who leans on the Lord    proof against the horror   of what they did to him   whether white or black terrorists    or police at home     while the baby La’Shee within nested   fruit against her bone   so that she and everyone would know    it was him    and was he washed?   Identified.    Framed.   the still, tortured face   to the tearing, sorrowing one   perhaps fainting   into the arms of the Nurses Auxiliary   Instead she heard the words    like a hex pronounced    even her husband’s name    was written backwards    and charred with his tongue   when he couldn’t recall it    performing    even before witnesses   that he gave a damn    about a finger    about a hand   She will sooner know    whether LaDavid will return    in the child’s face     than what was returned    in that coffin

I think of what remains   of LaDavid   is the vibration in his name    recalling    both male and female    commander and not sergeant    in two or three tongues    he was named    because three syllables    in his mother’s mind   was a whole new spell    from the one that had    quickened him into being    This was the only magic   that created heroes   and wheelie kings from Miami   and yet the dried, blood-wine pools     and faded trails   echo the young widow’s moans   at the doorstep to his remains    in Africa, in America    constantly seeking why   in the cracked dust   not even ours    until only the lowly   beasts and insects    and questing children    the sons of allies    merely playing at     the war around them      can bring the soldiers   to find and gather    the work of ISIS    Bones that may have been fingers    bones that may have been toes   bleached cartilage that was    a nose or an ear    pressed with whose teeth    a tattoo    become evidence    Catalogued.    but in a much smaller box    on a cotton pillow    piece by piece    of how he died    belying his badges and honors    well celebrated     for that moment    and sung.




Perfection

Serena Williams on the cover of Vanity Fair

Not superhuman, but human
she was never too big, at six feet
to do what a woman must do
at the height of competition
it was too much to withdraw,
to apply for salts days after discovery
the vapors are for women without will and
           sistas are stronger than that,
no doubt buying that myth, but she did it
because she found that she could do it, safely
she won marveling at herself, over morning sickness
weeks into pregnancy

Inner strength she already possessed
stomaching the yearly slingshots and cannonades
firing at that body of hers; it wasn’t just
her birthdays creeping higher
or her paler, younger competitors
paid more for endorsements
or the lack of concentration, practice
or health, it was always
the big ass that would not quit mesmerizing
the legs and hips that shone like new pennies
the tennis shorts that hinted of her darker
chocolate pleasures, flashing judges, McEnroe, TV
audiences; the killer service from those arms like rifles,
the hair that baffled, long or braided,
flying like a cape, beads banging
her back with encouragement
with every win, she rose a whole woman singing
to the gnashing of teeth
queen of her court

Is real strength measured being a woman
who will keep her child like any other woman
without the change?
Caught before deciding love was enough
uncertain who she will be at the end of this journey
the baby’s room stays half empty with no crib,
a vessel incomplete beyond tennis or business,
and part of the knowing choir will again cluck
           that baby will always have good hair
while the elastic of a rubber band will stretch beyond
its farthest before it tears itself apart
or snaps forward intact just about anywhere
and the other part of the choir will croon
           one day she will come back to black
but the future is not decided
by the toss of a coin
or who presents her with a ring for loving her
that much.  Some women lose a tooth after pregnancy,
it is said, for the child riding so close to the bone
so gain is as inevitable as loss
she knows this just as surely
as the new life could overthrow
even her bigger need
to eat clay
and spit out the rest




Little Richard at Sunset

The performance is never like the ecstasy
of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
Sung short and close,
like the spin of a 45
played over and over,
it’s never enough for many
Backstage was the bacchanal,
later was the self-hatred,
a flagellant at the imperfection
that perfect god made
you relapse, recover, relapse
it’s never clear from which life
you even change denominations
but the flesh keeps talking
drily, even at a whisper; it remains

And you really don’t have to, now
everyone is out and about, being
even married before time runs out.
The Dew Drop Inns* of the world are shuttered,
almost meeting the kiss of the wrecking ball
shrugging with age from waiting so long,
The perspiration and smoke in the walls
the pee in the toilet bowls, the blood
in the sinks, the funk in the keyholes
have long since evaporated
Reopened, they will become museums
to still more money, the kind that sank you,
you said, not to the lives and time that existed
the edifice will be homogenized and sanitized
sanded and glossed and painted over
when the straights, the grays, the blacks and gays
and in between that came to savor your lips,
the height of your pompadour, the bat of your eyelids
your make-up perfection, rivalling that of the finest
black woman in the house, even sweated out

Every interview is the same
you can’t or don’t want to recall
everything in detail
but it’s just enough to scandalize
and proselytize, never staking out your middle ground
embracing both music and holiness
You come out of nowhere
this time on Christian TV: balding, wheelchair-bound,
those wide-eyed, wild, seeking eyes
once lined with Maybelline
are crimped, the whites sunk deep and yellowing
condemning who you were and are
and defending yourself against that forever book
where everything is never forgotten
never erased, way ahead of time running out
This is holy language written that you can’t even read
weighed before you can pass through those gates
but you can say your name, can’t you?
You can say your name, Richard. Still?
Hear your name, Richard, Richard, Richard
over and over
Just feel Richard get caught up in the light
one more time—the moment
before your fingers met the keys—
when there was nothing to apologize for.


* The Dew Drop Inn was a former African American entertainment venue in New Orleans, comprising a hotel and nightclub.  Every major black rock and soul artist between 1939 and 1969 performed here, from Gatemouth Brown to Etta James to Joe Tex.  It was here that Little Richard perfected his consummate style, while “stealing” from drag headliners like Lady Java and Patsy Vidalia.  He even wrote a song about the nightclub, its environment, and its patrons.  Now closed and dilapidated, the Dew Drop Inn is still located on LaSalle Street in New Orleans.




The Valletta Balcony

for Ric Sajor, from his photograph,
“Maltese man on his balcony (Valletta)”

This maze of windows and shutters and balconies
              that must open
This maze of laundry and telephone lines
              that must convey
This maze of pathways and byways and lanes
              that shadows and diverts and distracts
This maze of stairs and ladders and fire escapes
              that frees and resigns and climbs

All to find one man
who never looks up and around
way past marveling
who only wants to look down
while enclosed behind the filigreed ironwork
gazing at one more man
who paces toward
who knows where, and to whom,
and both are barren of purpose




Dream No. 1

Always at the top of the world,
sometimes a building, a bridge,
even a mountain,
I must be contemplating
a drop, a jump, a fall,
a leap of faith, throwing myself down
floors and feet below, as if to shed
the weight of the world
to give up my life

Then, a maelstrom appears,
opening below my feet,
funnel-shaped,
as if an invisible borer
dug deep
with the city collapsing,
drawn into that hole,
like the hem of a theater curtain
leaving a blank scene,
with debris spinning, sometimes
hitting me in the face,
mining in the darkness

Always, I decide there is no guarantee
that I will come out the other side
There is no light there,
no light that I can even make out,
so, I step away tempted,
but resisting the dare,
because I can't see a bottom
where I could conceive
survival, if not renewal,
and what would I do
and who would I be
when I got there?

Waking gives me no choice
even to stand still
the day impels me forward
in living color
into something I don't know,
into something I still can't imagine




Dream No. 5

I’m like my old rag doll
that I clasped in a photo
when I was four or five:
mute and loose,
wide-eyed,
open-handed
splay legged, propped
against a very old tree
in a thick wood
forgetting myself
in slumber, though my new
blue eyes stay watchful
of my surroundings
to any visitor
including the crows

who alight at my feet
confused at my scent
neither roadkill or awake
and then climb up the trunk
of my body—between or atop
my breasts—for closer
inspection

They tap and peck
at my glasses, cracking
an uneven web
in one lens that splinters open
at the next jab, but there is
no flash or jet of blood
from the eye and
there is no loss of vision
but the blue iris swims darkly
to brown

When I shudder, blink,
fully aware of a second sun, I slide up
like a drunk, still using the tree
for support, while the birds flutter
to the ground
like blackened, curling paper
I stand swaying then take my first step
and a path opens where before
there was nothing but tall grass,
dry leaves, and nettles poking through
to burn my fingertips, bushes
to tear at my clothes,
roots to pull off my flats.

It’s already day and
I smell heat and taste sound
yet I’m walking clothed in
this white dawn,
this new cockcrow,
unashamed and unafraid,
and I’m seeing forever
and ever,
forwards and backwards
and around
I am feeling that I am seeing
forever


Gabrielle Daniels: "Back in the day, I appeared in This Bridge Called My Back: Works by Radical Women of Color, edited by the late Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga. My work has recently been featured online in Poets Reading the News, and Silver Birch Press: New Voices in Fiction, Nonfiction, Plays and Poetry. I was also featured the collection Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative Writing 1977-1997, edited by Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, and at Communal Presence, a literary conference held in October 2017 at U.C. Berkeley, reconsidering the New Narrative Movement."




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