Geoffrey Philp: 3 Poems

(Poems from the manuscript titled Letter from Marcus Garvey)

PROLOGUE

“No matter where you come from
as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African.” ~ Peter Tosh

“Brown man, wha de I a defend?”
greeted me in the afternoons while I unlaced
my cleats after a game of scrimmage–skins
versus shirts—when that wizened Wailer
beardsman, locksman, Rastaman, Seeco, sweat
dripping from hands that had taught Bob
percussion, schooled me in the teachings
of Marcus. Those were hard lessons
when with all the drills I had practiced
with my coaches, those years of privileged
innocence, I still couldn’t touch the ball
when Seeco shielded it with his spindly legs
that had trod through the hills of Babylon,
and scampered down the streets of Trench Town.

But he was patient with me, night after night
when moonlight dripped from tamarind
leaves on our crowns. Like the night at a dance
in August Town, when an old mother held my face
between her palms and interrogated me. Her hands
felt like Verna’s, my childhood maid, who wiped
nose naught from my cheeks when I was a yute
and defended me from a bully trying to capture
the bicycle my mother had given me for passing
the Common Entrance to Jamaica College.
“I will cut you, you know, you renk out of order,
piss-in-tail dutty bwai,” Verna screamed and pulled
a knife she’d buried under her blouse. Then, she smiled
as he scurried home to complain to his mother.

“What a quality young man, like you, doing
down here in the dungle?” the crone asked
as she ran her fingers through my “good”
hair. And my only answer was the music
that had drawn me to zinc fences and dusty
lanes—that had quenched my yearning
for an answer to the riddle that confounded
our lives: could this earth that my grandfather,
who tilled blades of cane while the other
planted a tree on his back,
be reclaimed with sankeys of redemption
for that old African aborisha, my brother.

*

AFTER DUBOIS CALLS HIS OWN RACE “BLACK AND UGLY”

Crouched over the ledger where I balanced
the accounts of my beloved uncle, who rewarded
my diligence with a few shillings that I dropped
into the collection plate to impress the girls,
and who drew me to his side after I stood
nose-to-nose with this one brown boy
in the church, who like the strutting rooster,
Du Bois, could trace his bloodlines to the French,
Dutch and English—every race except the African
that stared at me in the shade of his skin
he would later lighten after falling prey
to the promises in newspaper advertisements,
“Amazing bleach works wonders overnight
so that you can be in society.” Back then,
his words stung me to tears that Uncle Ba
noticed and recalled the wisdom of our ancestors
wrapped in a proverb, “A peacock hides his feet
when people start talking about his tail,”
and dried the wetness from my chin
so that I could fold my black hands in prayer
and thank God for the African blood in my veins.

*

FROM AMY JACQUES GARVEY, CIRCA 1925

The mangroves blurred before my eyes.
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,
and offered to pay for my return ticket.

“Sister, for your own protection, you best
get back on the train,” my driver advised
and a wave of chills wracked by 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, but 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 of the sisters
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, “Tell it, sister, tell it!
Halleujah!” I knew I wouldn’t have to use my gun that night.

***

Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp has published two novels, five volumes of poetry, two short-story collections, and three children’s books. His work is represented in nearly every anthology of Caribbean literature, and he is one of the few writers whose work has been published in theOxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. He is currently working on a collection of poems, Letter from Marcus Garvey. A graduate of the University of Miami, where he earned an MA in English, Philp teaches English at the InterAmerican Campus of Miami Dade College. Philp’s latest novel is Garvey’s Ghost (Carlong Publishers), in which Jasmine, the teenaged daughter of a single Jamaican woman living in Miami, disappears. The mother’s search for her daughter takes her to her Jasmin’s college, where she and her daughter’s professor join forces to find Jasmine before it is too late.

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