Really Breathing

By Tim Seibles

after Pablo Neruda

I am tortured by smoke
from cigarettes, by the stink
of industry and by certain
sparrows, their wary glances–
as if my crumbs were
a kind of tarot, as if in each
tiny crunch they could read my life.

It just so happens that I am sick
of being Black. And it also happens
that I stumble into gymnasiums
and shopping malls dying secretly
like a centipede in a teacup, like one
bullfrog harrumping his bass throb
for an audience of rubber ducks.

I see one man kiss another
and my pulse applauds
the cozy sombrero under which
they samba, but of course,
my country goes back
to the goose-step, scrapes the sun
from the sky — then the faces
are bloody and hatred licks
its bless’ed fists. Why even
mention it?

I am sick of being measured
by the nappiness of my head.
And sick of imagining myself
from other points of view. I am
sick of thoughts especially
thoughts about race. I think
maybe the world is also
unwell or it could be my
attitude: hostile, yet
compassionate with a pinch
of sincere disappointment.

Maybe the only thing I need
is a woman with crow-black hair
tangled between her legs. Ahhh, to be
made deaf by the blaze of her thighs
tied around my head, to be
so perfectly blind. What
holy music would find me then?

If I could I would speak only Xhosa
and sing songs with Mandela.
I would spin my brain
into a Spanish encyclopedia
and trade bluesy pentameters
with brother Pablo. I want
to turn my soul all the way up
and play Hendrix until the quiet
African nuns fling their habits
back to Europe and teach
the roseate labyrinth of their labia,
the foliage of the first theology.

It continues to be true that race
sickens me. I have not forgotten
where this started. Race wants
to make each of us a beetle
on a string — especially Whiteness
that insinuates itself as capital,
that imagines itself indispensable,
that spoons itself to everyone
as medicine for its own psychosis.

Still, it would be rather hip
to meet Annabella Sciorra, to invite her
delicious Afro-Italian lips over
for a little Caesar salad, to see her
smile at some lonely sandwich
I’ve kissed with paprika or maybe
she is obsessed with the friendly leaves
of cilantro or she and I could grab
some piccolos and blow Sun Ra
until we jangled into banjos. Hey,
just because The Monster has you
don’t believe everything isn’t
willing to happen. Everything is!

I believe it shall be
more than reasonable, in fact,
to roller-blade around the downtowns
brandishing a clumsy erection —
big as a plantain — to hurl it
like a boomerang at Phillip Morris
and Exxon and the others whose
long corporate fangs staple our necks,
to see them flipped onto their backs,
to make our world much too gooey
for Mr. and Mrs. Dow Jones.

Don’t get me wrong. I know
this is America, and I’m glad
to wake up in the womanly arms
of gravity, to feel the Earth still
unready to give me up, but
wouldn’t it be a lovely day, the day
when people bleeding in factories
went home for good with their lives
in their own good hands?

I just don’t want so many
broken bones in our bones. Am I
crazy? Who really wants an economy
based on suffering? That we go on
like this is merely proof that
evil wears some really sexy clothes.

I can’t go on being Mr. Middle Class.
I can’t keep staring at a menu
while somebody’s chewing
my face. You can’t assign me
a color without wondering
if I’m actually a man. Am I
a man? Is slavery
over? Look around. You
can’t set up this much
damage and not drop
a log of shit right
in the middle of your
own bright plate, right
between that other
white meat and the mashed

So, here we are: new stadiums,
beauty shops, the big-ass houses,
the gun-sucking cops, and always the fat
American cars and people who ask
nothing dangerous . . . How did
our tax money, for example, inspire
the endless bombing of Iraq
rather than prodigious groves
of cannabis tended lovingly
by the National Guard?

Fresh prisons and bottom lines
everywhere: terrible jobs, terrible
choices, terrible. Look at the flies
dead, so close to freedom —
the window smiling,
the glass sweet as a guillotine.
If you feel no kinship
with the flies well, maybe
you should think a little bit
about it, maybe you should
put down your bible and
try to pick up all the blood —
maybe you should just
go fuck yourself.

I am sick enough to walk
like the great feathered snake,
to ghost dance all over
my country, to throw up
a galaxy of better worlds.
That’s why when the Christians
see me coming the day tears
like a perineum amidst a titanic
birth and Jesus runs to every
cathedral and church screaming
No! No! No! with his dark
Palestinian eyes flared
like the barrels of a shotgun. Friday
I saw him
with a weed-eater
chasing the Reverend Jerry Falwell:
Zzssst— Zzssst— Zzssst on his sorry ass.

Jesus is sick of being black too.
And of the notion of sin and
of so many gazillions hanging
onto his wounds. He told me
two times, “Tim, HEAVEN
is HERE! You gutless
termite,” but twice I
forgave him, despite my
chronic rage. He wore his skin
like a favorite shirt, like a roaming
storm. Of course, to varying degrees,
I am undone by American history.

I am. Truly.
That’s why when I
speak up — my heart like a
switchblade, my buffalo head
bristling with English — I feel
my lungs start to keel over
right down to my knees, and even
the everywhere animal of air
turns its back on me. But, but,
but who’s
really breathing anyway?

Picture of Tim Seibles

Tim Seibles is the author of several collections of poetry, including Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), and Fast Animal (2012), which was nominated for a 2012 National Book Award. His work has also been featured in the anthologies In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African American Poetry (1994, edited by E. Ethelbert Miller and Terrance Cummings), Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009, edited by Camille Dungy), and Best American Poetry (2010, edited by Amy Gerstler).
Seibles’ honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, as well as an Open Voice Award from the National Writers Voice Project. He has taught at Old Dominion University, the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and at Cave Canem. Seibles lives in Norfolk, Virginia.