Omotara James’s poem, “Tripartite,” considers the violence of the now and the simultaneous flatness of sequestering oneself. It speaks to life in a sick nation indifferent to Black suffering, Black joy, and Black health. It is a snapshot in time in which the speaker holds on to moments of softness, holds out hope, and hopes for a national awakening in spite of everything we already know.
James writes, “In the poem, I attempt to strike a balance, as well as a reckoning between what is hard and what is soft. What is violence and what is suffering. I strive for transparency in demonstrating the speaker's struggle for a sense of safety, home and identity as the conflict (or war) occurs daily within her spirit, body, community and nation. The multiplicity is difficult to speak and to name, so I attempt to show it.”
Wishing us all a healthier state. —Erika Stevens, senior editor
I want to sing, America,
but my teeth fall back into my throat,
a darkness of flesh and hollow
the way a stolen song returns to the sea.
No, no, I cannot sing America,
my music rather die than bear your trouble,
is a thing larger than the form
it occupies, so you understand
that I have always been troubled
by this hunger
and my own tenderness, endless
plummet into untilled land.
I don’t know what day it is,
but it is 2:30 somewhere in America
and I call Sahar to say,
“I am a hot mess.” By now she knows
to ignore my Americanisms, her delight
undetectable on the phone, daughters
of foreign tongues, we queer joy
privately. The way she taught me to
pronounce her name, “Sahar, rhymes with hair.”
What is it about June? I think
if I die tomorrow, I want her
to speak for me. When she asks
how I am, she already knows, says,
“you are holding a lot.” Her mouth,
too full of a mother’s kindness. The kind
my mother was never allowed to know. Softness
is a sacrament, placed under the tongue.
The tangles, dread up inside me,
root indiscernible from shaft,
indiscernible from coil whispering
into my bed at night, “nobody loves you.”
Afrofuturist, because not in my lifetime.
I open myself at night and try to root
out the violence. This will take
time. Root, which implies ground,
which implies dig, which implies snout.
The root of all evil is want, as in the want
of a man with a sword and shield,
begetting a man with a gun and shield. The moan
in my mouth travels the route of my
bad tooth, which implies pull up by the—
or rootless, a sound so close to ruthless
between my gap. Tooth, a word that connotes
root, is imbedded in the body, in its
structure. The structural root of my
sorrow, of my blues, was born out
of Germanic etymology, or history,
which means violence, and not my
body. I am not a Black body, but
a being, which implies unencumbered
Sahar, I am completely suspect,
instead of doing any of the work
I should’ve done today: I ate Joloff
rice, two bowls, haven’t showered,
wrote a poem, Googled my ex,
Googled my ex’s wife and child. Have
done no housework. Watched reality
TV. Ignored texts from my mother.
Wrote a bad poem that is not really a poem.
Avoided emails. Googled myself. Found one
of my poems on a website for song
lyrics. My first love was song, though
I never looked the part. No
one chose me to front their band, so
I sang on my own, thinking of that
jazz singer, Blossom Dearie,
discovered long after her bloom.
Having bloomed early, having
missed it too, my eye, always
fixed on the gloam of August
and the fruit of late summer.
It is mid-June and my sisters are
disappearing. My brothers, brown
ivory, dangling by the root. And this country,
only meant to be an offshoot,
can’t carry a tune. We scroll the screens
of news together. Blood on every finger,
tip to root. Unlike nature, words carry half
-truths. I am holding off,
or staving infection. Never been able
to love a thing straight on, only from the side,
soft, damp rot of mess, hot beneath the skin.
Omotara James is the author of the chapbook Daughter Tongue, selected by the African Poetry Book Fund, in collaboration with Akashic Books, for the 2018 New-Generation African Poets Box Set. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Cave Canem Foundation. She was a recipient of 92Y's Discovery Poetry Prize in 2019. Her work was anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2020, and she was a 2019 finalist for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in POETRY, the Paris Review, the Academy of American Poets, the Believer, Literary Hub, Poetry Society of America, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University and lives in New York City.