"No, Really, Who's Counting," "Make a Difference!," and "While Reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen, a White Male Awakens to Yet Another Layer of His Complicit Racism"

No, Really, Who’s Counting?

Ever since that dream about García Lorca
rhyming nationalistic jingles on Majorca,
I can’t depend on anything. Only cadences
coming at me on my cats’ velvet paws or
via the news: nine dim stories followed
by the ten it would take to make an even
hundred, the odd thousand, the 100K
dead in Ukraine and uncountable Yemeni
innocents. But who’s counting? Bark
curls then sheds off the sycamore, its even-
or-odd-year ritual, birch-bark-like scrolls
I shape and stitch into a solo canoe, codes
stuffed into brittle crystal bottles to bob
toward the hinterlands. I’m warning
other worlds of this world’s lost nostalgia,
found neuralgia. I’m wondering out loud
about cures for the triple-digit indignities,
400,000 who died in Darfur, from disease,
the XXXK in Ethiopia, from each other,
forever curious about wandering beyond
the out-of-bounds bounty I’ve always
been thankful for. Turns out bombing,
from above, that tried-&-failed approach
to peace in our time, like landmines, from
underneath, leaves a little to be desired:
very little, since the current count equals
the last two and the new plan resembles
all the rubber-stamped chapters jammed
into The Big Book of Battles, this Merry
Christmas’s coffee-table best-seller. Luckily
the Dow Jones just closed up for once, though
by only .1 of 1%, so perhaps after breakfast
and my grimy handful of pastel pills I’ll tack
some bark back on its camo branches, glue up
a few shards, leave less to write on, more time
to kill, fewer views of the honorable
tittle-tattle, then paddle my ass in search
of all that pain they’re spinning isn’t there.



Make a Difference!

—a villanelle to commencement speakers everywhere
Tonight, fatigue’s grim flower unfurls,
but Gandhi, gunned down, had this to say:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Oh?  Even when casting before swine my pearls,
every action seems absurd, and all the day—
and tonight—fatigue’s grim flower unfurls?
Even though, in my disgust, I’d hurl
the grenades myself, I should, anyway,
be the change I wish to see in the world?
What about how resolve just sways and swirls?
What about colleagues countering, “Let’s pray”?
Especially then fatigue’s grim flower unfurls,
failure feels relentless, all fervor whirls.
But still I’m to spin—on these feet of clay—
this Be the change you wish to see in the world?
The global Bottom Line confirms I’m the churl,
binds me with a twist to the old cliché:
tonight, fatigue’s grim flower’s unfurled
by the change I’d wished to see in the world.



            —first published in Tuck (September 2017)



While Reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a White Male Awakens to Yet Another Layer of His Complicit Racism

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye
of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and haunt me
with thoughts of my wretched condition.
         — Frederick Douglass
…the discrepancy between outrage laced with vulnerability and outrage
housed inside privilege…       
— Claudia Rankine (divedapper.com)


I don’t hear the bumpers’ unbroken droning
along the pier. Pinned there, you’re as close to sailing
as you’ll ever be. Me, I leave and return and
leave again, no wondering whether weather
or dock lines will hold me fast against the oak
that never became a mast. Once I’m loosed I’m free,
each syllable of Liberty’s language meant for me.
I’m like Frederick’s soft-winged angels that fly
around the world—if I choose to be. No turbid force
disturbs my broad-beamed freedom to exist, while
no file smuggled in ever severs your bands of iron.
Still, I’ve let “It’s so much better now!” hypnotize
my gallant unconsciousness: no longer is color
the hottest hell, the brutish storm, not even
the gentle gale. We’ve moved on beyond the chains….
My ancestors (née White, no joke) bore the first
New England offspring just off-shore, thereafter poised
to enjoy the Atlantic sunrise by land or by sea. But
for you the test was—and the test remains—get caught
or get clear. The years have merely leapt from slavery
to invisibility.
                          —Leapt? For whom? Nearly every
fevered sibyl’s foretold your stand has stalled. My kin and I
are still the owners, still masters of the ship and whip,
and we suspect your stroll or stance as lethal loitering.
By our arm, the protecting wing; by yours, self-defense;
from our calm multitude, your running under the yoke.


—with language adapted from Narrative of
the Life of Frederick Douglass,
Chapter X



D. R. James

Recently retired from nearly 40 years of teaching college writing, literature, and peace studies, D. R. James lives, vegges, writes, bird-watches, and cycles with his psychotherapist wife in the woods near Saugatuck, Michigan. His latest of ten collections are Mobius Trip and Flip Requiem (Dos Madres Press, 2021, 2020), and his prose and poems have appeared internationally in a wide variety of print and online anthologies and journals.



Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, January 27, 2023 - 06:39