Poem of the Week | December 16, 2019

This week’s Poem of the Week is “What You Never Had” by A.T. McWilliams!

A.T. McWilliams is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and essayist living Brooklyn, NY. His poems have appeared in Southern Humanities Review,
Prelude Magazine, Main Street Mag, Radius Literary Magazine, Rogue Agent Journal Storyscape Journal, Blunderbuss Magazine
and elsewhere. His essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere. You can find more of his work at atmcwilliams.com.


What You Never Had

after Genesis 1:2

rolling as if to bounce on all six
sides, the brooklyn blackouts
tumbled down atlantic avenue
and made crown heights remember
genesis. the streetlights, tired and
tongue-tied, shut their eyes and quit
their hum and the earth was without
form and void.
an old man without
a country lived there against his will.
he was sweatless in his charcoal skin,
which glowed red from the nineteen
seventy seven heat. then the sun fell,
and darkness was upon the face of
the deep
— the face of the old man,
furrowed in pain from the irony of lost
power. ‘you can’t lose what you never
had,’ he said to his son, then mounted
his stoop like a throne and stared at all
that he made. the black boy looked blue
beneath the midnight moon. more blue
than cold fronts or coltrane. more blue
than rockaway beach. the old man said
it was more boardwalk than baptismal
font these days, but when the blackouts
rolled, and the Spirit of God moved upon
the face of the waters,
the old man danced
to the sandy edge and dipped his toe into
the blue. some say the darkness swallowed
him whole. some say he saw the light.
some say he drowned for the chance to


Author’s Note

I wrote “What You Never Had” after moving to Brooklyn in 2012. Shortly after my roommates and I found our cramped 5-bedroom apartment, perched beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, Hurricane Sandy blustered through the northeast. It toppled trees and shattered windows and flooded streets, carrying the East River to the top of our stoop. As soon as the rain stopped pounding against our windows, we laced our boots and waded through Sandy’s water. We marched across the bridge above our home, and looked out to find two Manhattans: one-half bright and thriving, with skyscraper lights intact and un-flickered, and the other half shrouded in darkness. That image left me obsessed with blackouts, which often become historic New York moments because of their resultant panic and turmoil. 35 years before I moved to Brooklyn, a malfunctioning power plant in Queens caused rolling blackouts through the borough. Much like the two Manhattans we saw across the bridge, the blackouts affected high-poverty and low-poverty areas differently. A mile east of where I lived, the blackouts left entire blocks without access to food or resources. And as fires blazed and food became scarce, rampant thefts began, and residents found themselves fighting for their lives — some taking refuge in churches in hopes that God could protect them. I wrote this poem about how losing light, and losing power, can return people to God — the same God who gave us light in one of his first great acts. And I wanted readers to feel the religious effect of losing power — both literally and figuratively —especially for black and brown people, who are rarely afforded the power they deserve in this country.