The train grumbled out of Baton Rouge
as I tapped my heels against the wooden
floor of the platform and waited for my escorts
to ferry me to the sanctuary of their church.
Rubbing my finger against the barrel of the gun
you swore you’d never use, even after Tyler’s
bullet grazed your forehead, “No gun for me.
If I am to be killed, then maybe it is my destiny,”
I was greeted by a host of nervous congregants
who ushered me to the back of the waiting room,
where if you stood long enough you could still hear
rebel yells filtering through windows that trembled
at each burst of the horn, offering to pay my return ticket.
“Sister, for your own protection, you best
get back on the train,” my driver advised
and a wave of chills wracked my body even more
than the story he whispered about a sister
who had been lynched the night before—
how her tongue wagged to the side of her mouth,
her breasts heaved, and then a stream of yellow
trickled down the back of her dress on to the green
below. I am not a “little Joan of Arc,” as George
McGuire likes to tease. I mounted the pulpit
like those venerable pastors from my boarding
school and preached a gospel of freedom:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.”
And when the voices from the Amen
Corner rose in a crescendo that spiraled up
the rafters into the belfry and over leaves of gumbo
limbos dozing in the moonlight beside the murky
waters of the bayou, and the sisters wailed,
“Tell it, sister, tell it,” I knew I wouldn’t have to use
my gun that night. For all they can do is kill me.
Better to live with that knowledge than in the fear
of what is to come, which I know will never
be worse than the battles we have survived.
To My Spanish-Irish Heiress, 1914
Perhaps in another life, we could have
married under a white canopy facing
the ocean, where sharks trailed slavers
laden with misery. There we’d build
a red brick mansion in Andalusia
where we would raise a brood of children
under a sky where the rain blesses
the just and the unjust. But in this life,
we could never be together. The war
between our ancestors could curse our bond.
We would have bred monsters.
Born under flags that would compete
like squabbling school children,
they would, like many “black-white”
elites choose poorly. In this life,
those who are destined to have their names
trampled by the unjust are ruled by leaders
who have never broken a shackle, or blinded
the eyes of those who kill with a stare.
No, my love, better to end what never
should have begun, so now we can look
back after many summers of being apart
at the disaster we avoided.
Geoffrey Philp is the author of two novels, Garvey’s Ghost and Benjamin, My Son, three children’s books, including Marcus and the Amazons, and two collections of short stories. He has also published five books of poetry. His forthcoming books include a graphic novel for children, titled My Name is Marcus, and a collection of poems, titled Archipelagos. His forthcoming poetry collection borrows from Kamau Brathwaite’s “Middle Passage” lecture, Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Sylvia Wynter’s “1492,” and Amitav Ghosh’s thesis in The Nutmeg’s Curse to explore the relationship between Christianity, colonialism, and genocide. He is currently working on a collection of poems, titled “Letter from Marcus Garvey.” He can be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/GeoffreyPhilp and on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/geoffreyphilp/