The Actual Music Behind the Poems in My Book

There are a number of poems in my book (Any Psalm You Want) in which I reference certain pieces of music. I thought it would be helpful to share them with you to accompany what was written in the book. It may add some context and color, though it may be better to read the poems before hearing the songs. Either way, here goes:

Poem: How to Make It Gospel. Link: Jerry Lawson, “House of the Rising Sun”

Poem: Charles Riley. Link: Lil Buck’s version of the ballet solo from “The Swan”

Poem: George Gershwin Writes Janis Joplin… Link: Joplin singing “Summertime”

Poem: Leadbelly to Kurt Cobain. Links: Leadbelly singing and Nirvana singing

Poem: Ada, or 23 Letters… Link: Excerpt from the film “The Piano”

Poem: Esperanza Spalding… Link: The video that inspired the poem

Poem: Paid in Full… Link: Coldcut’s remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”


15/15 poem


Once I was six, or seven, and accepted a dare
from my uncle to crawl into the dryer. I later
got a beating for it, not because I had gone in
but because I had broken the dryer door upon
climbing out, in fear that my uncle would have
actually turned on the dryer and left me tumbling
in flame. Even now, when I think of you, I knew
nothing of the depth to which a child could feel
alone in the dark, though I was the same age as
all of you when you died, despite that even then
I had already learned how little your loved ones
can guard you from even the faintest imitations
of a devil. If he had actually left me in there, turned
the knob, pressed the button, listened to me tumble
and scream, maybe then I would understand the music
that followed you to the floor, in your classroom,
your teachers loyal guardians already gone. If I could
have bartered with God before that morning, had He
promised that a deal was eternal with pricked thumb
and trading of blood, I would have rewound myself
beyond every night when my chest leapt in some
séance of joy, before I’d ever found myself worth
lifting, sewing up and forgiving, I’d have rewound
to a quiet night in the dryer, the last hour of my life,
listened to my uncle’s footsteps fade, my vocal cords
unwilling, unable to betray a sound.

14/15 poem


My dad, once every several years, finds himself
reminiscing on the days when my adolescent
self was obsessed with death, asking over and over
for him to take me to the cemetery until he finally
did and my body became a walking pillar of ice,
and during this telling I wonder if he remembers
the time when I was five and he was struggling
to fix something in the car engine and I pointed
to something he can’t now recall, telling him,
there, there. To this day neither of us knows how
I knew, nor who may have whispered to me from
somewhere I’d one day learn to fear, and fear, until
I didn’t, and don’t, and now whisper back to whenever
strapping myself into a rising plane, eyes fixed through
the window, waiting for the white blindness, the swarm
of clouds cloaking us all in its throat.

13/15 poem

Broomhilda, part one

You didn’t know at the time, but the first
time Django saw you, since the separation,
was when they pulled you out of the hot box,
screaming from the water they hurled onto
your nude body to wake you up, screaming
as they carried you into the house. At some
point, while you are lying together in bed,
married, free, he will summon the will to
ask what had been done to you. His throat
will swell as if downing a full grown apple.
His fingers will reflexively wrap around a gun
that is not there, not in bed, but sitting in its holster
with the pants on the floor. He will ask you
of this out of love for you, in honor of your
story, for somehow you had survived as steeled
as him. He will ask how long you were forced to lay in the
laps and arms of evil men, how many times
your skin was forced to heal by growing
on top of itself, in lines of lash.
When you look at him, finally, deciding what snippet
of hell to offer as an answer, I imagine you will
tell him about a moment when you’d smiled
in the box, when the dark and hot had molded itself
into a body, had wrapped around her as if trying
to speak her skin correctly for the very first time.

12/15 poem

Django, part three

How many times did your tongue
warp around itself before correctly
uttering her name?  Broomhilda.
Broomhilda. Broomhilda. Baby.
Sweetness. Trouble maker. Pearl.
Did she teach you how to press out
the r as if exhaling a snort of poppies?
Did she teach you how the h cradles
the il as a deaf infant while running
for shelter in a rainstorm? Broomhilda.
Broomhilda. Broomhil—shh…it’s okay
baby. You good. You smell me just fine.

11/15 poem

Eternal Sunshine

You’re holding the newspaper in your hand as if you plan to strangle it.
Why do they tell you these stories of black boys dying if no one
plans to actually do something about it? Why must they storm
your mornings with this? Are they sick?

The last time a white woman clutched her purse in your presence
you nearly punched her. You nearly told her how that shit stomps
your heart. You did nothing. Black fist paralysis.

You remember what your friend said the other day,
about the service, the new gift of manufactured amnesia,
the intravenous deliverance of eternal sunshine,
how they give you pills, you’re out cold and they sneak into your house to hook up a computer to your brain and erase whatever you wish. Two weeks later you saw him prove it, as you both watched your favorite movie and he burst out laughing at the punch lines
both of you had for a decade known by heart.

You know there was an age at which you knew nothing
of the ramifications of brown skin. You don’t remember what
age it was, but you want it to be now. Now. Now.

The pills they gave you are in your hand. Your lights are off.
Your watch blinks. They’ll be here in an hour.

How many days has it been? You don’t know for sure but you
haven’t picked up a newspaper in three weeks. The headlines
are confusing; they seem like a foreign language.

It’s July 4th, and you don’t know why everyone picked today
to light fireworks, but you’re falling in love with the sky.

It feels like you smile too much. No one smiles back at you honestly.
They’re warding you off. You don’t know what they’re ashamed of.

Your cousin is staring at you incredulously, after you’ve calmly told
him you don’t know Malcolm X’s birthday. His hands bite your shoulders
as they ask where is your pride?!

You get a phone call about your cousin being beaten by cops. Your first question is did he have a weapon? Was he assaulting someone?
Was he on drugs and out of his mind? You never ask if his skin
was too dark that day for somebody’s mood, you never ask if he’d
been pulled over for being too safe of a driver. It never occurs to you
to ask anything like this. All you feel is pain, for one man being
harmed by another man. There is no history to complicate the
impulse of compassion.

You’re at the nursing home, seeing Grandma. Her caretaker kindly
tells you that you and she share the same smile. Like something
in your heart has lifted up. As if this is no longer the world where
your lungs belong.

10/15 poem

Django, part two

When old man Stephen first laid
his eyes on you, his frown laying
roses on the path to his scowl, it
wasn’t because of your youth, or
some half-wrought indignant
where’d you buy that beautiful horse?,
but rather because 78 years of prostration
had suddenly returned to singe his face.
How surely, how confidently you rode
your magnificent beast, as if through
servitude and escape it had always belonged
to you.

9/15 poem

Django, part one

They say it is unrealistic
how quickly and easily
you learned how to wield
a gun, but do they know
how long you have waited
for that cold metal to meet
your hands, how many fore-
heads your eyes bore holes
into, how your trigger finger
twitched in your pocket until
branding a welt into your own

8/15 poem

A Serial Killer Writes a Motivational Letter to An Activist

I’m writing this in the basement of an undisclosed apartment
in fill-in-the-blank-city, Georgia. It’s 11:17 pm. In the morning,
the envelope will be delivered to a mailbox on the other end
of town while my hands are covered in latex gloves. Before
leaving, I’ll have showered for forty minutes, removing every
traceable scent from my body.

From the outside, one may argue that when choosing
your next victim, it shouldn’t matter where they are, that you’re
still a human killing another human but that’s why that person
is a professor. Or a mail man.
That person may believe there is no difference whether you kill someone
in the North or the Southwest, that tears in the eyes are always
made of salt, that there is no subtle shift in the flavor of blood.
But you get it. You know the distinct taste of a community’s DNA.
Would you really enter Boston with the same smile as San Jose?

You may wonder why I care about you. I don’t.
But I fuckin love seals.

Hey. I’ve been watching you, and it hurts. I have seen your eyes
on the television screen, wilting under the light of the news camera.
That sign you carried was starting to sink down. You gave someone
else the megaphone. I’m writing this to tell you: I know.
There is a point where the killing loses its spark. It stops lifting
your body out of bed. All you’ve been doing is eliminating everything
and everyone that drove your parents to their graves. With every House
bill you’ve petitioned into dust, with every wrongfully convicted
soul for whom you’ve wedged open the bars, you realize you’ve
barely changed a thing. It’s like this planet doesn’t breathe unless
something’s starving to death.

I told you I’m writing you this letter in the basement of an undisclosed
apartment in Georgia. This is true except
that this apartment doesn’t have a basement and it’s not in Georgia.
What I’m saying is that I haven’t gotten so tired that
I’ve started getting sloppy. You’re screwing up. You’re forgetting crucial
volunteer phone calls. You’re misspelling protest signs, and not
in an ironic fashion.  Your email keeps getting hacked because
your password is a combination of your birthday
and your prom date’s middle name. How uncreative can you be?
You didn’t wipe away your tears before they cuffed your wrists.
You dropped your sunglasses before they sprayed
your eyes.

You’re fading. You’re betraying your scent to the
wolves. When you make them this hungry, friend, what did you
think they would do?

I’m writing you this letter about two blocks from your parents’
house. Stop hogging your mom’s lasagna.

My point is, keep them guessing. My point is, don’t let yourself give up.
I’m watching you, killer.
This hunger is all we’ve got.

7/15 poem

Welcome to Taco Bell, how are you?
I LOVE you!
What would you like?
For you to know how brilliant and beautiful you are, you gifted and precious human being!
Is there something on the menu you would like to order?
I’d like a burrito supreme flavored with your most recent tears of joy!
A burrito supreme, anything else with that?
I’d also like the cantina steak bowl held by a pair of hands that have given themselves to such holy work as greeting a thousand strangers a day, loving their souls through a microphone while they stare at a menu as if they could want anything more than to know that you were blessed enough to wake up this morning, good God you are beautiful, and very soon I will know it when I pull around to pay at your window.
A burrito supreme, a cantina steak bowl, and anything else?
Bless your midnight.
Any sauce?
May your dreams be kissed by God.
That’ll be $7.96 at the window.  Please pull ahead.
Thank you, my heart is speeding, this basket of stones, my dark breaking heart—