Natalie J. Graham: Three Poems
Touching the Bird
A panicked boy calls me over to kneel with him. Grabbing the air in his fist,
twirling his fist in the air. Punch, punch, punch. Then, his mouth open, silent.
The question he asks me is a bloody tooth in a brown napkin.
This is the day’s first brightening, clouds swept off toward the river, the boy prickled with grit, our shadows thrown over the dead magic of a half-crushed hummingbird, wilted, silent.
A tuft of a straw wrapper stuck under its bird-head. Tuft fluttering. Feathers fluttering.
Its dead bird-eye wedged out by some skittering insect. Its dark insides open to the air.
Legs, crumbles of brown straw. The iridescent shimmer of its waving body scuffed murky blue.
I roll the cracked bird into the stiff curl of a magnolia leaf.
It flops into the miniature canoe like a stuffed toy.
You can’t pray for a dead bird to fly. You can’t even touch it with your fingers.
The boy knows how death oils itself into the skin, knows we are covered with holes,
minutes away from drowning or being smashed under a wheel.
He knows a boy can’t touch a dead thing without its soft little death touching him back.
His hands make a spire.
I teach the word steeple.
We dream at God.
I say, God, be close to us.
He says, if God can’t
make me a bird,
His heart, a ripe peach, his wild boy-song, jubilant fire.
When I say,
I can’t breathe,
I am afraid.
No window in this corner of night
no hopeful crows calling for the dawn,
no nesting with their babies under pine,
no nudging them into air.
See the dark yawn spread,
the gloom-blotched murk,
night, a giant lily’s bloom
unfurling a fan of shadows.
When I say matter, when I say lives, I mean,
marvel at the pinnacle
his brown hands make,
his brown face
draped in ginger lamplight.
Poem refers to “The Corner of Night and Morning” by Amy Lowell
Song for Cruella
It starts with the way they sticky and twist your name,
stuck taffy, toffee in their teeth, they grind out a warped call for you—
you a crude, pale thing. Before you were born, they practiced.
You were already too much for their clattering, toothy mouths,
yipping and gabbing ready to call you a cruel thing,
ready to carve a new path through what they think you are.
Look how they clamor to save a dog. Villains, all.
Look how their tawny faces yawn,
holding open the uh of the middle of muuuuust—
words haunted with gravel, inhuuuman beast—
they coo to their bald, shivering babies.
They trumpet in their attics and blam down on pianos.
Hands, skittering spiders, they find jazz for you, make hating you a song.
They are a flock of owls, and you are too white to be trusted,
the slip of your skin, a bloodless drape, too malleable.
Before you were born, they crushed words for savage
out of flower petals and toads and their miserable, silent children,
already slaughterings, already bones ground to paste and made sweet.
Who would want their wretched world of tufted couches, of vacation photos,
of withering armchairs and green cotton socks, of custard button-downs
with sleeves rolled up to a wrinkled elbow?
You wanted after just one more something, soft as foam, to silk over your body,
Cruella, Cruella, soft as forgetting, silk as slaughter, smooth as blood.
(Poems selected by Olga Garcia Echeverria)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natalie J. Graham, a native of Gainesville, Florida, earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Florida and Ph.D. in American Studies at Michigan State University as a University Distinguished Fellow. Since moving to Orange County in 2013, Natalie has coordinated art-centered community events, workshops, and readings for hundreds of participants. She is Production Director of KayJo Creatives (@KayJoCreatives), an artistic event planning company; Director of the Institute of Black Intellectual Innovation (@IBIICSUF) at Cal State Fullerton; and an award-winning author and performer who has toured nationally with her collection of poems, Begin with a Failed Body. In August 2021, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Orange County.