Poem of the Week | March 19, 2018

This week, we are excited to offer a new poem by Cortney Lamar Charleston. Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he is also the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, River Styx, and elsewhere. He currently serves as Poetry Editor at The Rumpus.
Charleston was a finalist for the Missouri Review‘s 2017 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.

No Weapon Formed Against Me Shall Prosper

unless planted after the fact. I’m talking a loaded pistol
with the serial number filed off. I’m talking powder, pills
and paraphernalia. I’m talking any and everything criminal
that can be stashed in an evidence locker until a suspect
moment in the suspect’s eyes: a locker that may be made
of malleable metal, or even a combination of collagen and
calcium compounds, you know, just like skull bone is.
Yes, I know exactly what I’m saying, ma’am. I know what
the knock against black students in this school is, overheard it:
all of us knuckleheads, always on some ole knuck and buck,
knuck and buck, knuck and buck, very few in folk but just
enough around to burn posh ‘burbs to the ground, for blinking
red-dotted eyes to remain peeled, thrown on hallway walls,
in corners and crannies waiting for slip-ups over small shit or
suspicious sleight of hand; there are no blind spots here, no.
              And here I thought it was the exam that made me so
jittery–junior year, ACT, Ivy League on the line–
              but how could I be certain in these circumstances?
I’ll admit it: when you kicked me out of the exam for even
looking in K. Chen’s direction, I appreciate that you did so
quietly for the sake of my rep as the smartest kid in that room
and the next one over, college brochure material; I don’t know
if you appreciate how quietly I went, first to tutor after class,
then to register, again, secure my 99th-percentile triumph just
one month later, sitting in the front row of a foreign classroom,
staring at the drab wall like I was already living in a jail cell.
There is nothing that can be said about all of this because this
is something polite people don’t talk about. I can’t say you
were right, but I won’t say you were wrong, either. Maybe
there really was a dime bag in my backpack that only you
could see; I don’t have but the faintest idea how it got there.

Author’s Note:

In retrospect, as the poem guided me to admit, the embarrassment was not my own. Yes, a teacher who I didn’t know had accused me of cheating during what I felt was the single most important exam I’d ever take, removed me from the room, voided the entire prosperous life I had ahead of me (at least, that’s how it felt in the moment), but it wasn’t my embarrassment. I could not then and cannot even now own responsibility for the ways I’m suspect, for the manner my young, Black, masculine body is policed even in the most polite spaces, why my nervous behavior was dissected with such scrutiny to a degree I didn’t know was even happening (but should have anticipated given what I am), every antsy glance up at the clock, every look around me already ascribed the worst of possible explanations to.
It’s really par for the course, I guess. Whereas my peers went to school every day, a very nice one I should add, I went to prison, and this episode was to be a reminder of that for the remainder of my days, that just because one cannot see the bars or barbed wire doesn’t mean they’re not there functionally. But ultimately, as the poem’s title playfully testifies, I have faith I’m (we’re) going to break free, that somehow things will break my (our) way. Behind even the powerless is a power on their side; just because you don’t always see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.