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SIOBHAN JEAN-CHARLES

Siobhan Jean-Charles graduated with her Bachelor's from Salisbury University and is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. She is the blog editor for The Shore Poetry and her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Tusculum Review, Furrow, Atlanta Review, Broadkill Review, and elsewhere.



1983, IN THIS CASE

after Jean-Michel Basiquat


the cranium is angular, with constellation gears

churning and a hungry mouth full of green teeth.

 

Cobalt seeps past Baron Samedi’s skull

smile. This is not memento mori,

 

it dates back one hundred and eighty years ago.

He restitches with Catherine Flon’s

 

blue for the Black and red for the mulatto. Charcoal

black brushstrokes of ancestors that glow

 

dark against the Caribbean sea, under the warmth of captured halos.

 



VISITING THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART'S AFRO-ATLANTIC SLAVERY EXHIBIT


I walk in, hands clasped as if a rosary weaves between my knuckles.           

In the hallways next to 19th century French paintings,

I know better than to expect a museum to fill

 

the holes of history. Still, I pause by the man’s photo as if his frame           

were an altar–to walk past would be sacrilege. His spine curves                  

to the camera, skin thorned open, scars trellis shaped.

 

When the man in the The Scourged Back was enslaved,           

he was called Gordan. When his portrait reached                        

white northerners, they began to call him Peter.


He was twice branded by a name that wasn’t his own,

  baptized with a saint’s name. What do I call him?                       

Around the corner, Toussaint Louverture’s slant

 

in his saddle, his horse a cloud soaring away from grass

that leaps to its tail like a flame. When Haitians ended

slavery, the French didn’t want the freed to have

 

their last names, so we turned endings to beginnings:

Baptiste, Charles, Pierre, each syllable searing

into a new shape. Victoria Santa Cruz cries

 

¡yo soy NEGRA! Her voice ricochets off

the walls. A painting flashes into the corner

            of my eye, a marketplace sprawl—


their balanced baskets, sandcastle skin and mustard walls           

the same fastened to my aunt’s living room, or my childhood                 

home. A Vodou tapestry ignites with sequins—

 

Erzulie stands, cinnamon-skinned and crowned with a moon.

When she takes a baby in her arms, she looks

like the Virgin Mary—except


the snake curls around her ankles, instead of crushed under her feet.



AUGUST 12, 1988

“I don’t remember.”

—Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1985 Interview


Because a millionaire is left

in taxi cab exhaust fog, because he sits

paint-splattered, locked and cross

-legged and told you he was refused

and you say, we can’t boycott everything.

Because his tongue aches for griot

when he eats caviar. Because he runs

a line through Hank Aaron—your eyes

crawl beneath and you wonder why

AA is scrawled over, because you can’t

stand the idea that he hides

a name from you. Because you ask if

he’s angry, because you even ask. 

Because he Renaissanced himself

and learned with an anatomy

book, because he did not stare and made art

galleries and museums his schools,

because you call a poet a graffiti artist.



ARTICULATION


I study the anatomy of a cliche,

pick it apart and hear it hum

 

in my hand—so I can give 

you a poem you haven’t

 

seen before. I read my favorite

journal over the phone, each line

 

could be in French because

you only want to hear my voice,

 

let the shape of each vowel

caress you to sleep. I’m going

 

to say them first, the three words hung

on my tongue like a Baroque painting.

 

I want to tell you without moving

my mouth, even if you don’t know

 

what a pantoum is, that I pick

couplets for you like tulips.


TO EARTH


Bring your ocean across

these sheets, feel the rhythm


of our orbits roaming

into one. I could be your moon


and pull your tide, sip water

between your thighs.


I’ll earn each ascent

and fall of your breath,


learn your body. I know

your desire because it’s mine—


I know about the danger in being

known when I gleam against the night.

 

If you hold me at my peak, there is no

where for either of us to return. Look


at each bedrock crack and crater

in my face. See the cliffs?


See the whispers of water? Kiss

your shadow against my frozen lakes.



I VISIT MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER

after Richard Blanco’s “My Father in English”


before her birthday party. All I knew

about her was my sister was named after her,

 

partially, given the middle name Ursula 

while the rest of us had Anne. And so

 

I pictured her as an octopus. We never drove up

except for those few summers she approached

 

one hundred, a pilgrimage to rain

golden confetti and sail shining balloons


with every passing year, to hold

our breaths on her inhale over lit candles.

 

DaVinci’s The Last Supper

hung in her kitchen and she sat,

 

hair sea-foam white and thin

against her scalp among plastic

 

furniture that clung to the back

of my thighs. Instead of a sea creature,

 

she sat small and brittle as driftwood.

I couldn’t understand living


for a century, how her mind

could hold so much history.

 

Most people don’t have a great-

grandmother. Most people don’t

 

have a well of memory. I imagined

her past as black and white negatives,

 

moments I could only look at in a book.

She closed her hand over mine,

 

only spoke in Kreyol. I tried to listen,

to slip into every syllable,

 

wade in the current

of her voice. Her cadence,


the sounds humming against

her teeth and deep in her throat


were ones that I could only mimic

in my mouth with the handful


of phrases I knew. On the wall,

Jesus spread his hand palm up,


the way the priest does but

this gesture isn’t in the Bible. 


My grandma stood behind me 

and no one translated the final


words my great-grandmother spoke

to me, as her thumb moved 


across my knuckles,

water over stones,


her fingers grasping

my wrist that was


as narrow as hers.

I nodded, punctuated


every few sentences

with okay, as if I understood.






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