19th century African American


Poetry in the Mainstream

Volume 18
Number 11

December, 1997

Designed, Edited and Published
by Richard Spiegel and Barbara Fisher
Thomas Perry, Assistant


Will Inman M.M. Nichols Joan Payne Kincaid
R. Yurman Fredrick Zydek Ronald MacKinnon Thompson
Ida Fasel Terry Thomas Albert Huffstickler

Waterways is published 11 times a year.
©1997 Ten Penny Players, Inc.
2000 Themes         November '97 issue

will inman

How We Give Birth to Self, How We Give Birth to Each Other

(Now, one by one, we choose who we are together)


The youth strips naked, he
pulls by his own gravity out of
the mother-skin of his tribe.
His only weapon is what he knows
and wants and wills. Now he must learn
what it means to give birth to himself.

He must take from his forest brothers, from
desert sisters, to cover himself
from scald, from chill, from hunger, he
must grow a new skin, he must grow new
              He turns his nakedness
toward faces of four winds. He prays for
vision where to go and for wisdom how to be.

He falls and cuts his ankle on a sharp rock.
In the deep dark of night, he wakens: a deer
is licking his wound. She returns for four nights
until his wound is healing.

                                          A rattlesnake
warns him with sounding, then moves from him
with the curve and bend of a river. The youth
follows the river to an open lake. All the trees
sister and brother him: to what open lake
will his river flow? He dives into the cold water
and all the currents embrace him. He swims
full of sky, and earth wakens wise in his feet.

When his moons alone have created his choice, he
will return to his tribe: he has proven he can
survive alone, he has chosen to become
within that brothersister               who he really is.


The youth shakes off his father's fist-hold,
peels away his mother's clinging. He hasn't even
a horse. He walks dirt roads till an old wagon
pulls up alongside: he rides, proud and much talking,
to the next small town.
                            He works for a smithy
whose ingot tongue and bear-strong hands
carry a force like his father's. In time he
walks away, hitches a ride in another wagon.
And another wagon, and another. He
walks till his shoes wear raw. In a bar, someone
announces a great copper mine
in mountains to the south.
                                          He does chores for a man
he meets in the bar for a used pair of shoes. He
walks. He walks south. When he reaches the mine,
supervisors look at him and hide their grins. He'll
do. He's strong. He's hungry. They'll put him
to digging the Pit. They'll plant a pit in him.
puts in hours and days climbing dust, years change
his skin, a decade changes what's behind his eyes.
hears of a Great Lady in a harbor back East. She's
covered with a copper skin, same as the ore he's
digging. Her name is Liberty. He feels her name
enter his heartbeat like a repeated whisper. He
              He goes to his favorite whorehouse and stands
singing an old hymn next to the honkytonk piano his
woman plays. The whores laugh at his ways and marvel
at his strength.
                            After his bedromp with a live-flesh
woman whose name is not Liberty, he goes to a bar
and tries to fill himself. That deep Pit in the desert
has grown to a deeper Pit in his soul.
                                                        A fellow worker
mutters to him about a union; the brothers are called
Wobblies, Industrial Workers of the World. These
copper-diggers want to dig more than metal, they want
to dig Liberty. Copper on her skin has cast liberty blue
and green in their flesh, their bodies are blent copper
and Liberty. This youth no longer so young, sheds his
lone ways. His pride reaches strong arms around shoulders
of his brothers. He tells his favorite whore about Liberty
- she does not laugh, she tells him, "I'll be your woman,
but, like her, I'm your sister, too! I have no copper skin,
but my heart beats turquoise of earth and sky."

The mine bosses want to kill the union. They want
their miners hungry, as empty as the Pit. They
hire a train, and sheriffs and soldiers : they arrest
scores of union members, load them on the train,
and deport them, haul them to a desert and dump them
without food or water.
                                  But Liberty still raises her torch
in the harbor. The youth's early flame to shed his father's
power and his mother's lostness - will not burn out.
                                                                          But now,
his independent fire has joined a great spiral of stars: his
brothers and sisters. The miner bosses cannot kill their
          What wild burst of light charges the sky, how stars now
open their spiral arms: that aimless freedom joins a commune
of interworking suns: independent risk becomes arms-around cosmos.
        Real freedom will not be tamed. True union must remain
a free choice of sisters and brothers. We who are lost from
each other will learn to dance deep orbits of abrazos. Any
rage we waste begets a rogue. Even Time can brother our
bruises. From our common center, hurt and whole we sound our
joy. This moment - this now - wakes invincible in our throats

17 September 1997 -- Tucson

the proper container

He seemed self-decaffeinated. He moved
like doughnuts only never so jolly. His eyes
were like curtains that nearly always seemed pulled to.
The few times you witnessed him looking out,
you felt naked looking in. You sensed he was not
meant to be seen into, not meant to be known
or understood or even cared about. He clearly
didn't like to appear vulnerable. You felt he
didn't much like to appear, period. His sly
was lazy. He ran on half empty. You might've
been tempted to call him 'the decaf kid.'
Except that he was no kid. Unless hidden down
inside was a hurt kid trying to stay out of sight.
When you were around him, you might've felt
he needed more wood in the stove. Not that he
was ever on fire. Needed more wood, yes, but
first needed to be lit. Ugh-ugh. Not him.
He would have put out any fire at the first
scratch of a match. No kindling handy.
Too little air. He was brewed, I say it again,
instant decaffeinated. He'd put you to sleep
just watching him. You'd shut your eyes,
numbed by the notion you might catch him
staring out at you all of the sudden. As if
a spider had crawled up his pants leg
and bit him, and he held you responsible. You'd
rather go to sleep than see him woke up stung.
You thought he might bite you or something
if you caught him being humiliated. You
wouldn't want to catch him at anything. Too
great a risk. What if, seen or seen through, he
turned into somebody else? the real thing,
no more decaf than you or me? Somehow you
wanted to keep him in the proper container.
Not everything brown, hot and wet has a natural kick.

30 April 1996 - Tucson
first printed in
White Crow, December 1996

R. Yurman

Wealthy Supporter of Radical Causes Murdered

Missing Man Found in Tropical Hideaway

Was it the bullets or the blow to the head
that did him in - a hardworking man
fascinated by Trotsky in Mexico
madness and exile and the knowledge
of being right all along waiting
in that righteousness for the ice-pick

or was it a different notion
that got him in trouble a man
without pretensions therefore
dangerous in all his dealings
he loved many women did drugs
manipulated money others' and
his own in ways that made it
grow politics notwithstanding
even in dreams we have to eat
Marx taught him theory the market
he detested made him rich
and a target

(oh by the way that sealed box
you thought neatly stored in the attic
someone's been at it torn it open
with quick expectant fingers scattered
the notebooks and loose papers
looking for something darned if it's
possible to tell whether they found it
most of the mess dumped back into the box
any-which-way so of course
it didn't all fit the top folded
together careless and sort of open
the leftover stapled clumps of pages
tossed into a corner)

He tried to make a film once
about injustice interviewed a lot
of lawyers and activists people
who'd gone to jail for not answering questions
and subpoenas they talked and talked
so happy to be set loose in front of
a camera that he ended up
with miles of footage and nothing
to control it except split-reels
and an editing table - 16mm in knots
and a headache but no
clear vision

(you aren't going to believe this
but even your trash is fair game
torn up bits and pieces can be reconstructed
food stains lifted from old messages
what you thought was yours alone
and private can be read and shared
and analyzed it's not a question of paranoia
even what the flames have eaten still
exists in the smoke they've collected and
stored in canisters with your name
taped on them)

His body wasn't warm when they found it
- unrequited lover unpaid
dealer well-paid government
informer hit-man abandoned political
prisoner - who knows

all the film cans were empty
there was rust and corrosion everywhere
blooms of fungus from the heat
shoes with the tops curled up the leather
cracked and floor boards that weaved
under their feet a house in fact
in a state of near collapse

was it the bullets or the blow to the head
does it make any difference

Ida Fasel

Song of Myself

Whitman, you pause to wait for me, busy me,
getting out from under British Quarterlies,
searching influences and sources,
sorting footnotes, talking back.
Your eyes are loopy with laughter.
Old friend, try reading me again.

I struggle with your unlettered freewheeling.
You have no ear, but your voice on the page
scatters my precious accumulations
like a fresh breeze surprising dusty digs.

I watch your apprentice boys wrestling:
    The coats vest and caps thrown down...
    The embrace of love and resistance
    The upperhold and under hold - the hair
    prumpled over and blinding the eyes.
And I think of Jacob at Peniel,
tenacious till the angel left him
blessed, lame and aloft.

You revel in yourself, proclaiming
in love of the least love of all.
Repugnant, irresistible you, embrace me.
I stagnate in self-contradiction.

M. M. Nichols

In Man Canyon

I spin out of the salt mine smoking.
I leave behind 44 storeys
of low-ceilinged supercooled cells,
watchwords and bulletin boards,

upzoom   whoa    click    downzoom    whoosh    and
the whispered parting of smooth doors
springs you vibrating to clatter
into newly marbled hallways.

In the lobby, a good old soul sells
chews, news, and the rolled smoke I drag out
to pow the street-air with       and blow up
a narrow concrete path lacking in geraniums.

YOU happen along the trail of my pastel
tailoring and smokepuff, my matchstick
legs on spike heels jabbing the hell out of
this pavement. You know the way back

to cottages and thatch, then shanties by caved
coal galleries where the occasional canary
had a job and wondered what it was about-
test piloting-how a singer

going into the dark could save their life, and they
then go on dogged in the same vein,
salt of the earth, generations digging in,
dying out or coming up for air and learning

to swallow their fire
by burning through lips leaves from the same earth.
I love what they gave me: the nerve
to walk out shaking the sky between my teeth.


Decembering in North Carolina

The walls are papered with seed catalogs.
Inside the two-room cabin, setting down
a tumbler of gin by the roaring purr of a small
gray tiger, she bundles in quilts to dream

of hollyhocks, velvet red, and of blue-winged
larkspur, and saucy yellow coreopsis
rife above dense leaf-stem; of sunful
marigolds and the bold surprise of zinnias;

rosebushes remembered-crimson
Mister Lincoln, yellow Peace so pale
it tries to be pink, beside real candy-pink of
Carefree Wonder; and in their sweet time

morning glories-full awake, unfurling
for September's lucky bees, and then
oh, what reds and purples! gold-
buttoned into asters.

She wallows in perfect blossoming.
A wrap and whirl of snow around the cabin
cannot dislodge these colors, or delay
all that will come to her.

Fredrick Zydek

Going the Distance

The night is old and wise.
It knows every memory
the mind has tried to hide.

The white moon has a mind
of its own, moves among
the trees as though invited.

The night has no shadows
of its own, only the moon
flinting from tree to tree.

The moon is full-bellied,
waits in the long distance
bare as a buffalo skull.

Such things leave the leaves
swooning, giddy, and looking
very much like mirrors.

The night calls such images
from the sky, rumbles
among them as though feeding.

The moon ripples at the lips
of cold waters, doesn't know
it's caught us all off guard.

Terry Thomas


Don't know if I really want
to give up hemoglobin. Been
in the "vamp me" mood,
sired a brood of illegitimate
thoughts, bought a crucifix
for tooth picks, then crossed it
off my to-do list.
Feel many kisses on my throat,
gloat over empty mirrors
and sense silver trickling through
my veins. Chest pains are now
only wooden response - genuflect
to fly-specked dogma, sacrifice
childish dreams to the demogoblin
and hobble toward a hill with
three dead trees.

Joan Payne Kincaid


Negative space
alone with a bale
of cotton
a man appears
strong and used...
carved in wood
for public view
seems to challenge
fate in full-
sleeved jacket
artist- projected
in informal
uniform, straw
hat in right
hand; his life
loves, acceptances,
are blank
as a white page
where he poses;
waits, a fiction
in a cross-hatched
world we cannot

Ronald MacKinnon Thompson

Ragged Boyhood to Millionaire Dandy

Don't need to add salt
    to your soup;
your tears are near enough.

You try to walk with
    a strut,
    ignore a
shirt-tail hanging out.

Heels run over;
holes in socks.

    pants and shirt,
    patched, but almost clean.

Soup-bowl style, a homemade

Ragged hairs protrude from
    ears and nostrils.

Yet hidden laughter inhabits

And the future may disclose a
    man of the world.
    Full-fledged dandy.

Albert Huffstickler

The Legionaires

In my dream, the library where I worked for over 15 years was the Foreign Legion.
You enlisted as a clerk-typist, the lowest of the low,
and served till you died-of boredom or madness.
It reminds me of something Loretta said one day,
quite matter-of-factly, without any attempt at irony,
"Let's face it. If we knew where we were going, we wouldn't be here,"
which seems to me a far-reaching comment on the human condition.
If you want to understand how bored, how near madness the average person is,
just look at daytime TV. That's considered entertainment.
"Isn't that sad?" Wanda would say.
Sad but true.
That terrible sense of exile that hovered like a pall over our desks, cubicles.
In the Legion, there was at least the chance of being killed.
And the years went by, went by with parties, paydays and a few goodbyes
and one day I wasn't there anymore.
I was retired, mustered out.
I miss it somedays because, you see, there was something else going on,
subtle, hard to define, a linking that carried us forward through our days.
We took care of the sick ones, covered up for the lame and lazy, and soldiered on.
The face of the human condition is seldom glamorous.
Glamor is ephemeral, evanescent.
We were determined to last-though we weren't sure why and did.
We were plain, utilitarian, enduring and, in short, what it's all about:
mankind or unkind stumbling along, the most foreign of God's legions,
not certain where he's going but carrying on, serving out his time,
here and here to stay.

Aug. 1, 1991; from Purple, Park Hill MO, No. 2., 1997


Louis Armstrong sings
Blueberry Hill,
that big black man
so gentle,
so delicate in
his phrasing,
so sad, so kind,
so at one with
what's utterly human
in us,
what makes us,
from time to time,
better than
we ever hoped to be.

first published in Rattle

Ten Penny Players