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Tiana Clark

Visiting Poet

Tiana Clark

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.

Select Poems

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—

metallic scythe,

nicking your bottom

fat lip into another

ruby mouth drawing

caterpillar blood

three beads dripped,

spilling a tiny

river—liquid dahlias

and burning raspberries

on a stove. I felt your

tongue—a pink

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

and torturing

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.” 

     —Bertolt Brecht

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)

About Tiana

Poetry Center Reading Dates: December 2018, September 2021