A Portfolio of Poems by Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells’ six books are The Mud Actor, Soul Make a Path through Shouting, Beautiful Signor, More Than Peace and Cypresses,The Crossed-Out Swastika, and The Gospel according to Wild Indigo. His book of Catalan translations, Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas,is due from Stephen F. Austin State University Press in April 2019. He’s a recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, a William Carlos Williams Award, and a Lambda Literary Award. He lives in Austin and teaches at Texas State University.




Sing: a Taser is not an answer

A bullet is not a dream


There is no sunny god

In an Apollo Helmet


A livelong mercenary is not

A frisking meadow lamb


Lady Justice is no

Fearsome chimera


No lurking drone

No business-as-usual Cerberus


A callous Caesar is not

A far-seeing Christ—




Listen: a blazing Mississippi cross

Never presages a messiah


A daffodil in a “sundown town” never signals

The advent of spring—



So after two hawk-stern seasons,

I finally dared to inquire


If his father’s ousting

“Stand Your Ground” assassin


Was white, “lily-white,”

And naturally his response


In this volatile demesne

This gallery of averted eyes


And gimcrack defenders

Was yes


Dear God of course yes



Don’t interrupt the sorrow

A woman croons


But all I hear is the ack-ack-ack

Of ink-blotter redaction,


The X-rated sputter of a black site’s

Cuffed and Water-boarded man


Or a flailing cigarette seller

Tackled gasping for air


Jinxing arm and insignia

Marring his throat:


Is not


Is not


Is not


Is not—



in memory of Eric Garner, 1970-2014


                           * * *  







Sullying your blue hood and windshield

Or sprayed on your innocuous


Chapel door,

The full-frontal blast of the N word—


See, spirits of slave catchers are still

Hectoring, ensnaring:


Astute bloodhounds on the track . . .

At the strip mall boutique,


The library story hour,

Monitoring the posh, bean-shaped pool:


Where is your pass?

Brash, oh-so-intrepid hunters


Trailing your workaday step:

Savvy collaborators,


Quick-to-call Beckys,

Tattletale belles all too avid to sip


From Whites Only fountains once more—

Robust enforcers insisting dark bodies remain


Ghetto-bound, earthbound,

Cradle-still in velvet-lined,


Elm or alder wood coffins—

Sundown towns,they’re labeled,


Because you can’t be Black after dark

And expect to make it out alive—


Say it with me: dull and cavalier

as a Dixie train’s Jim Crow curtain,


The spirits of ill-wind patterollers are still

Walking among us,


The spirits of restless slave-catchers are still

Roaming esplanades and alleyways,


Hungering, unfaltering,

The spirits of slave catchers are still . . .


* * *





The pharaohs of rice and indigo, the conniving

Caesars of cotton,


what were we to them?

Profitable: able


bodies from Barbados

and the Windward Coast,


the Rice Coast,

our souls ramshackle,


less than a rooster’s

or a rock’s.


And yet, in painstaking fields,

in joyous praise houses,


our tenacious “Go Down, Moses,”

our stirring, rallying


“In the beauty of the lilies

Christ was born across the sea . . .”


might have served as proof

to those zealous Southern despots


that we possessed

some quilt scrap of God.


Go tell those greed-swayed

kings of sugar, those implacable


princes of tobacco,

how we garnered freedom


in our hardscrabble dreams,

sang it as sweat-drenched,


unshakable hallelujah,

whispered it as healing salve


to allay the defiling

stripes on our backs.


Unstinting overseer,

iron-eyed Caesar,


who better to define freedom

than a slave?



* * *





Not the white of hard-won cotton,

or of pitiless snow—


I’ve found a whiteness

that gives me its glory;


it blooms

in Master Bellemare’s garden,


and though it is, by all accounts,



quiet as it’s kept, I’ve carried it

into the shabbiest of cabins,


worn it as I witnessed

the slave-breaker,


the hanging tree;

in dream-snatches


it blesses me, and I become

more than a brand,


a pretty chess piece:

at the mistress’s bell,


always prudent and afraid,

wily and afraid—


And when the day comes,

my rescuing flower’s name


will become my daughter’s;

a freeborn woman,


I swear,

she will never be shoeless


in January snow.

Bold Iris,


she will never fear sale

or the bottom of the sea.


                                           * * * 






When my belittled village was eclipsed

by pillaging soldiers.


quick as a windblown kite,

my baking aunt coaxed me


into her privy’s acrid underworld.

Banished from the flour-dusted


blossoms of her apron,

I was too green to beseech God


or beautiful Queen Esther.

Unmoored, I fastened on the bookish


name of my slingshot—

Aramis, Aramis, Aramis—


as if in that shit-drenched dark,

I could summon, abracadabra,


the slingshot’s Y-shaped, trusty wood,

and from the musketeer mantra, I acquired


a little certainty, a little stamina, a little consolation,

like resplendent kings


come to a filthy manger.


* * *



THE GIVEAWAY TRAINS                                    



After the war, the best, the headiest charity,

Was riding on the far-reaching trains:


A Hiroshima boy

Orphaned by the pika, the flash,


A vagabond boy,

Was blessed with giveaway seats:


So a young, even jubilant Nobu

Journeyed in every direction:


North to snow-dusted, uppermost Honshu,

South to the sultry island of Kyushu,


Replenished by elating horseplay,

Chit-chat, comic books,


Windfall lunch scraps from the plates

Of generous fellow passengers—


Winsome trees, breeze-rocked reeds, towns

Hurrying behind him—


Sometimes he’d wake

In an unknown place,


Jolted from a too-vivid dream

Of Asa, his steadfast brother,


Cleaning his fetid wounds:

Day after harrowing day,


In the marred time

Following the blast,


This is the ministering love

That kept him alive—


While a train’s fleet windows

Cradle the greenest country,


A silver-haired Nobushige shares,

With frankness,


His boyhood indignities:

His mouth suffused with dust


Unsettled by the bomb;

His blackened body hauled


From home to intact home

Until he was upright.


If the raging world insists

His extensive burns,


The crushed city was meant

To save you—a barter,


Don’t accept it:

For drought-long decades


You’ve waited to glean

A once-despised enemy’s trust,


Waited for just this

Persuasive gaze,


This annealing testimony,

This plangent alloy


Of awe and truth-telling,

Because, in the fierce annals


Of less than and more than,

Everything human must be described.


* * *


Editor’s Note:

Several of the above poems have appeared in the following publications:

“Caesars and Dreamers” and “The White Iris Beautifies Me” are from The Gospel according to Wild Indigo (Southern Illinois University Press: 2018)

“Three Kings” appeared originally in The Crossed-Out Swastika(Copper Canyon Press: 2012)

“The Giveaway Trains” is an uncollected poem that appeared originally in the   Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art

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