Three Poems by Tameka Cage Conley

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

history of a mouth

my barista is a white man with a shy, red beard,
his smile soft as the foam in the latte
he makes so crisp and perfect,
i wish for cognac. he loves frank ocean. i love
frank ocean. i tell him, we are vibing tonight.
i mouth, set the cheetahs on the loose.
if i could move like a cheetah, baby,
no one would catch me.
i would never take a seat,
not even in a black chair
designed with my brown hips in mind.
i do not tell him i am lonely
as i sit in the dark i know
is coming and all the coffee smells are gone.
out of the blue, out of the dark we know is coming,
my barista hits a high note, in public and only
a few steps from where i sit, the glow
from the laptop lighting the skin
of my face.
he has a good voice, and i have come
to the right place to fantasize
of mouths and the sounds they make,
sounds that drown the sounds i make
when I write a bad sentence, a bad poem or letter
i will never send.  
frank ocean’s “pyramids”
blasts from the wireless speakers,
and i am in egypt’s red and dry mouth.
i stand on one leg and everything
that has ever breathed
breathes on me,
louder than the ocean,
i am bluer than the sea.
when he is alone, does my white barista sing,
the way you say my name makes me feel like i’m that nigga,
his teeth white as ocean foam
as if he does not drink coffee
his smile cheerful as a boy’s?
yes yes yes —
he is in the shower,
his eyes shut tight
as if his woman is there and all
of him is in her.
he sees my face,
i am telling you
when he sings
the way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that nigga.
didn’t i tell him all the words
from his white mouth
are ok? when i said i like frank ocean
and he said he likes frank ocean?
didn’t that make us the same?
he wants me to say his name
but i do not remember.
i am fast as a cheetah and too cold
to remember his name,
but he does not care.
you cannot tell him
he is not frank ocean.
you cannot tell him
anything about whiteness
or how we make our dimes
or the way oceans swallow a man
or how egypt will crumble
like every other place on earth.
what words do i sing
when no one is there to hear?
i know so little about you
and what you like to do
with your mouth,
how you take your coffee,
how much of your lover’s skin
you have held between your teeth,
and if you use your dirty mouth
to call her a dirty name,
blue as dirt.
but I know black has always been
will always be cool
as sitting in a coffee house  
as passersby stare inside
and wish they could be like you
in your silver sequin shoes
that shine like a new name.
tonight, my barista is a sweet-singing angel
who let me stay after hours
to put some words down.
if you wanna sing baby, go on, sing to me.


O, Light (from Troy to All the Cities)

                                                   for Congressman John Lewis


Prophet man, my name
is John.
My touch.


Man, call be by my name.  
I am nobody’s boy.
I do God’s business.  
I’ll do it by myself, if I got to.
But who wants
to ever be alone?


Each hair on my head numbered,
my God calls me by name.
Early early early, his whisper
all over me, saying
Make way, make way,
like calling love.


I’m a young man.
I got grown man feelings.
How to stay pure, untouched,
this wicked world?


Outside, the chickens wait.
Holy, I hold my hand
to their open beaks.
I preach them into cackles.
My congregation,
they bow.  
All God’s creatures got a right
to live.
And love.


My voice, my voice is the prize.
Electric, words rush like water,
my mouth full
like Sunday
You ain’t got to love it.
I love it.
But you gone listen,
Listen here.


I want rectitude like a loose woman
wants a diamond ring.
I’ll do anything.

The end of that bridge,
cops put holes in my head.
Did you see light
pour out of me?
My blood?



                    after Bruce Springsteen

What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they? — Toni Morrison, Beloved


A horn tells us,
a brother has fallen, again & oh,
the falling again,
the marching again
tears again,
hands up
heads down.
A prayer:
    Mister, don't shoot.
    My body bleeds
    like bodies do,  
    protect & serve
    my life, too,
    my breath, muscle, & skin —

This American skin is human
skin, this human skin
is slipping, slipping, slipping
fast as a bullet
splits blue air
& we

Somewhere, a mother begs
her child alive,
his hands,
his body
his blood,
stream to his living
a miracle.

Somewhere, the mothers
of slain boys
are one prayer away
from losing
it all,
again, the way the womb loses
what it holds after nine waiting
months, but this time,
someone has stolen
her boy's air,
& he remains
as a middle name,
that will
not heal
& he is not
He will never

Oh, nation.
What are we?
Soiled badges,
bullets & failure
to indict?

Oh nation,
can we rise
like air?
Is there a place
to remember?

Photo of Tameka Cage Conley by Mario Epanya

Photo of Tameka Cage Conley by Mario Epanya

Tameka Cage Conley is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, and plays. She has received writing fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Conference and Workshops, the Vermont Studio Center, and the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture. Her poems are published in various journals, including Callaloo, African-American Review, Huizache and elsewhere.