Herbert Woodward Martin – Four Poems

On The Flyleaf of Steal The Bacon

In the forties
The houses in Birmingham were built of straw
The landlords were thin niggardly slats
The southern winters paid no attention
Those winds were the snarl of bare teeth
They could tear heart and self-respect apart

Those men who were willing to collect the money
And the interest from our fathers did not notice
The ramifications of what they took.
What could our fathers have done?

I know, now, that what I say is,
in part, the true history of
what happened. I know also that the
family lore is filled with work and alcohol.
Both stood to kill in those days.
Neither wife nor mother love
could stem the tide of such fatalities.

Lately, I have understood why my uncles
cried whiskey tears on Saturday nights,
and were too dizzy on Sunday mornings
to seek salvation. Their wives could
pray for that. That was their Sunday duty.
They were left to repair the work-week body
so they could be “ready to roll”
on Monday mornings,
and to do whatever was asked
of them by the boss man,
oblige his every requirement.
This is how we lived our lives
in the forties.

**

On The Flyleaf of Cold Comfort

Oh, Lord I just came from the fountain. Your name’s so sweet.
African American Spiritual
In Memory Bessie Thomas
Aged 112.

I know why my father and his father before him and his father and all the other fathers in this family never spoke to their sons about their southern rearing. All the way back to the first boat which landed our captured bodies, on these shores, with our sweet afflictions, we have suppressed the initial shock and pain determined to survive the irrational. I will never recall such horrors of my southern up bringing for my daughter either. Such struggles are unworthy inheritances. So quiet has crept upon the unspoken order of the past centuries which I was so unfortunately rattled into by the presence of my granddaughter to ask: Grandpa did you ever drink segregated water? The directness of such a question . I had to search for the miracle answer: Yes, Child. What makes you ask such a question? I retold this story to a mature white woman who remembered that she had had a similar experience. She had asked her father: Why can’t I drink from the colored fountains? Because, he said: Those fountains contain rainbow water. It is reserved for Negroes only. Well she recounted from that moment on curiosity raged in my blood. I was determined to drink some rainbow water or die. So, one day when no one was looking, I took a quick slow drink so that I could relish the taste of all the colors. To my utter surprise that water contained no miraculous colors. My disobedience confronted my father. He smiled and said: Let that be significant to you. Rainbow water is the same water we drink.

**

On The Flyleaf of Swan’s Island

You seem invincibly determined, like those planets set in their predetermined orbits, to revolve around each other. You graft me to the steel of your last breaths, to show me how it is to be done with small effective gestures. First, you forbid those wild iron tears black people used to shout with at Baptist funerals. You have guessed each time I made private inquiry into how long you would suffer? Still your physician would only answer me in vague terms: Nothing is accurate. Did he mean nothing as in: clocks, blenders, trash compactors, cars, lawn mowers, motor cycles, airplanes, the human heart? Perhaps, he was still trying to do no harm. So, when you are dead, I shall shed as many considerate tears as I want privately. There should be no one to direct me how I should mourn the cold resplendency of your life. Your death is a reasoned passing. You have taken care of all the final details. You have seen to it that I would be surrounded with friends who will recall the stories of your life. All the myths and legends will be placed side by side in an undistinguished war of true and false. There is only so much one can do in arranging final ends: watch a fire being extinguished, wait for a hurricane to subside, the debris from a tornado to settle, then move into the clear silence and wait for another spring.

**

On The Flyleaf of Transformations

The attendant said: “All Saturday long
Your mother called for you:
Hubbard Hubbard.”
When it was evening,
She didn’t call anymore.
She hasn’t spoken since.
She has made her peace.
I think she can die now.
“Was there no one who
gave a thought to call me?
I am her next of kin.”
She told a similar story
of how her step-mother
called and called,
but no one cared to tell her.
By the time she arrived,
she was dead.
Why does her story haunt me?
Silence is a Sunday face.
I know I am losing her.
I see her moving safely on.

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