Black Poet, White Critic
A critic advises
not to write on controversial subjects
like freedom or murder,
but to treat universal themes
and timeless symbols
like the white unicorn.
A white unicorn?
When I was a child desiring the title of grown-up
And toiling to earn it
In the inferno of the foundry knockout
I watched and admired you working by my side’
As, goggled, with mask on your mouth and shoulders bright
. with sweat,
You mastered the monstrous, lumpish cylinder blocks,
And when they clotted the line and plunged to the floor
With force enough to tear your foot in two,
You calmly stepped aside.
One day when the line broke down and the blocks clogged up
Groaning, grinding, and mounted like an ocean wave
And then rushed thundering down like an avalanche,
And we frantically dodged, then placed our heads together
To form an arch to lift and stack them,
You gave me your highest accolade:
You said, ‘You’re not afraid of sweat. You’re strong as a mule.’
Now, here, in the hospital,
In a ward where old men wait to die,
You sit, and watch time go by.
You cannot read the books I bring, not even
Those that are only picture books,
As you sit among the senile wrecks,
The psychopaths, the incontinent.
One day when you fell from your chair and stared at the air
With the look of fright which sight of death inspires,
I lifted you like a cylinder block, and said,
‘Don’t be afraid
Of a little fall, for you’ll be here
A long time yet, because you’re strong as a mule.’
From: Contemporary American Poetry edited by Donald Hall
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