The Kenyon Review described Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018) as a book that “unearths what many have hoped to obscure and demands recognition for the fact that the echoes of slavery, segregation, and racism are not only in existence, but in fact, maintain our country’s personal and political realities today.” I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Clark’s first book, Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), was selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. In addition to scholarships at Bread Loaf, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Frost Place Seminar, and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Clark is the winner of the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She is the recipient of the 2021-2022 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, a 2019 Pushcart Prize, and is a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Clark is currently the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College.
Tiana Clark's reading will be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube on September 28, 2021 at 7 p.m.
is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle
chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice
for white people. Or, rather, white people now curate hot
chicken for $16 and two farm-to-table sides, or maybe
they’ve hungered fried heat and grease from black food
and milk—but didn’t want to drive to Jefferson Street or
don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s
Half Acre, north of downtown. Where freed slaves lived
on the fringe of Union camps, built their own new country.
Where its golden age brought the Silver Streak, a ballroom
bringing Basie, Ellington, and Fitzgerald. First-run movies
at the Ritz and no one had to climb to the balcony. 1968,
they built the interstate. I-40 bisected the black community
like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits.
120 businesses closed. Ambulance siren driving over
the house that called 911, diminishing howl in the distance,
black bodies going straight to the morgue. At the downtown
library, a continuous loop flashes SNCC videos with black
and white kids training for spit and circular cigarette burns
as the video toggles from coaching to counters covered
in pillars of salt and pie and soda—magma of the movement.
On I-65, there is a two-tone Confederate statue I flick off
daily on my morning commute. Walking down Second Avenue,
past neon honky-tonks playing bro-country and Cash
and herds of squealing pink bachelorette parties—someone
yelled Nigger-lover at my husband. Again. Walking down
Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back
of my husband. I turned around to find the voice and saw
myself as someone who didn’t give a damn. Again. I turned
around to find that it was I who lived inside the lovely word
made flesh by white mouths masticating mashed sweet potatoes
from my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name,
a slave from Warrior, North Carolina, with twelve children
with names like Pansy, Viola, Oscar, Stella, and Toy—my
grandmother. There is always a word I’m chasing inside and
outside of my body, a word inside another word, scanning
the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots: 1577, 1584, 1608 . . . Tracing my
finger along the boomerang shape of the Niger River for my blood.
1856, 1866, 1889 . . . Who said it? A hyphen—crackles and bites,
burns the body to a spray of white wisps, like when the hot comb,
with its metal teeth, cut close to petroleum jelly edging the scalp—
sizzling. Southern Babel, smoking the hive of epithets hung fat
above bustling crowds like black-and-white lynching photographs,
mute faces, red finger pointing up at my dead, some smiling,
some with hats and ties—all business, as one needlelike lady
is looking at the camera, as if looking through the camera, at me,
in the way I am looking at my lover now—halcyon and constant.
Once my mother-in-law said Watch your back, and I knew exactly
what she meant. Again. I turned around to find I am the breath
of Apollo panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair, chasing words
like arrows inside the knotted meat between my shoulder blades—
four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamored with pain.
I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself:
Who said it?
Who said it?
Who said it?
My braces cut you—
nicking your bottom
fat lip into another
ruby mouth drawing
three beads dripped,
spilling a tiny
and burning raspberries
on a stove. I felt your
dolphin arcing the pink
muscle in my mouth
to undulate. Years later,
I would see your cherubic
face again, this time lit
inside a box—frozen
bright from a mug shot
on the news, wanted
by the police for kidnapping
a black woman. A black
woman you thought stole
the drug money hidden
inside the cotton lips
of your mattress and bed
frame. They said you tied
her to a chair and I won’t
say what you did next. It’s
too unbearable to say here—
inside a couplet that can’t
stop the shattering glass
you broke inside of her.
I won’t say what you said
to me—after I made you
bleed, opened you rare
as a new wound. I won’t
talk about the scar I
scraped into the velvet
puckering of your lip
or how you called it
your love nick—looked
like a thin piano key
that you once tapped
like a sharp note
with your index finger
and I kissed you again
because I felt bad
for cutting you in this
manner. It takes a special
kind of cruelty to damage
another in this way. Lil’
Chris, do your lips still
itch for me or the dope?
—knocking and unknocking
your mouth for more
and more blood.
“You can’t write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen.”
A video looping like a dirge on repeat, my soul—a psalm of bullets in my back.
I see you running, then drop, heavy hunted like prey with eight shots in the back.
Again, in my Facebook feed another black man dead, another fist in my throat.
You: prostrate on the green grass, handcuffed with your hands tied to your back.
Praises for the video, to the witness & his recording thumb, praises to YouTube
for taking the blindfold off Lady Justice, dipping her scales down with old weight
of strange fruit, to American eyeballs blinking & chewing the 24-hour news cycle:
another black body, another white cop. But let us go back to the broken tail light,
let’s find a man behind on his child support, let’s become his children, let’s call him
Papa. Let us chant Papa don’t run! Stay, stay back! Stay here with us. But Tiana—
you have got to stop watching this video. Walter is gone & he is not your daddy,
another story will come to your feed, stay back. But whisper—stay, once more,
with the denied breath of his absent CPR, praise his mother strumming Santana
with tiny hallelujahs up & down the harp of his back. Praise his mother hugging
the man who made her son a viral hit, a rerun to watch him die ad infintum, again
we go back, click replay at any moment. A video looping like a dirge on repeat—
From I CAN’T TALK ABOUT THE TREES WITHOUT THE BLOOD (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018)
Poetry Center ReadingWinter 2018