Butterfly shadow seen through leaf

Three Poems by Oak Morse

Terrain.org 12th Annual Contest in Poetry Finalist

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I, Black Man

I can’t love daintily, can’t chase dragonflies, I’m too busy dodging
vultures. I’m supposed to carry you to an island of bliss, but I’m busy

stilling jungles in my head, settling spiders in my gut-lining. So much
expectation on me—burdens handed on a platter. Too busy building

a barricade to protect the household I’m not projected to have with scraps
I never saw in my childhood of sour shortcomings. I can’t love daintily.

I’m too busy wrestling with truth, sketching myself with all the answers
because you look to me to be a fountain and a bridge and the tower you

want to reside in. I can’t blare out my burning to stand on top of the crest
as a father, supposed to pass glory onto my offspring but barely have enough

for my own flame; I have to swallow cinders grow tusks with my permanent
teeth. I have to shovel insecurity below the Earth’s mantle in order to be your

monsoon man at all times, nothing woven from the rainbows, only rocky
outcrops. I have to hold up my ego like an oracle, let it beam like a lighthouse

to keep your attention. I have to keep a canyon between me and your arms
that stretch to caress me to a dandelion. I have to wrap yellow tape around

the tumors of my heart, keep my pride in a gated chamber. I can’t love daintily;
I have to love you like a wound that needs staunching because there are too many

wars waiting on me, too many targets, too many white flags to be planted;
I can’t be a lilac bush, but have to be a headstone—hard, unafraid of death;

there’re too many corpses populating my race, too many punctures to the
underworld rigged on my path. I have to preserve my tongue when I face

white racists—nudging until they get a wildfire, instead, I have to cup butterflies,
have to bulletproof my zeal to make sure I can shimmer out of darkness that

runs rodents to suicide. There are those who want a chunk of my light. I,
black man have to stun the world like a meteor before I devote my life to love.



Galaxy of Daffodils

I am ten            and I am         a sunflower          caught in barbed wire

         a colossal gate            between             me and the sun

Mama I know you are doing the best you can do     …    but  it won’t do

            my aunt is                a nightly              whispered prayer

I am eleven                       and I am a            silent blues

            my aunt steps in          like a moonrise       teaches us

the art of sharing            nothing’s ever for one person

        keeps the room lit           until we understand          our homework

I am thirteen         my aunt makes a             father for me

            with her son’s father      he is     a rough breeze     on the back of my neck

        rooting me to the finish line       to become more than

bark on a tree              but the oak itself         his deep octave note

                young men need motivation and obedience to thrive

I am fourteen      my aunt teaches     how to love back

           and how to love others             as precious as a      black daisy rising

from a red rose bed          I am sixteen            standing

 in a pasture of pain       my aunt is a vibrant echo

there’s light for those who don’t fall under the hemisphere

            who keep what haunts them at bay

my aunt      is leading me        to light

        but doesn’t hold      my hand      tells me to let the past                   be the soil

let it harvest strength              I am thirty-two now

                 rolling        in a galaxy of         daffodils

more abundant than        I could imagine       stemming into

                           a story-teller       because of you

          who grow seeds    not your own           but like your own

  poems are not enough              for you      who are the gardener

                            take these marigolds       laid here across this page

                                                                 take this

as a temple      in your backyard      this marble courtyard          with mosaics of iris

      let it be yours         snow-white hot springs         steaming into

                                                    the words thank you

                         a horseback ride                        to unforgettable

I ask the wind to break its back      for you        to bear         a meadow of children

                         holding magnolias in your honor

                                                                I am a floating fountain

                                                                                                      in your landscape



The Sound of Butterflies

            I have visions of a hammer swinging

            into my face sideways through a car window

            and though strapped in a seatbelt, there I go


 there goes the first and last time Grandma said she loved me

            a deep rasp on the phone

there go the blueberries I pushed up my brother’s nose

            as if he knew at three how to blow them out

there goes my Jenga playdate with the shrink

            in the glossy building like an elevator into heaven

there go baby teeth, the tooth fairy never came back once

            after that first time


            and now teeth tumble down my chest, clog my throat


there goes creeping late to watch the grown-folks dance

            beers sparkling through their hands

there goes Mama, clang of sorcery in the kitchen

            barbecue chicken and fried okra

there goes thunder at my cousins’ like a beast breaking out of a cellar

there go birds on power lines, birds who spoke my language

there go canned goods I helped store at the shelter

            standing on a vanilla-colored stool to reach the counter


            and there goes my nose, another whack, until it craters


there goes the bedsheet Mama used for a curtain to block the early sun

            when we were sleeping on thin foam

there goes food the church congregation blessed us with

there go my belting melodies in the fan soon after a tail-whipping

there go those deep dial tones before our prank calls at the pay phone

there goes the snowball fight with my aunt when she broke her glasses

            in the tail of winter when school cancelled

there goes my canoe that drifted in the lake too far

            beyond where students were allowed to paddle, where the thrill was


            another strike, my cheek bones become gravel


there goes my aunt again crooning out crying sounds while washing dishes

            calling it soulful

there goes the hilly walk through the zoo where Mama had to sit on the bench

            near the flamingoes

there goes my first S-Curl texturizer dripping down the kitchen sink from my roots

there go the chocolate chip cookies I baked with a whole cup of salt

there goes my stroke of the black and white keys after Für Elise


            and blood flows into a thousand tributaries across my face


there go the barbers paying me Christmas Eve for being the best shop sweeper in Norcross

there goes Six Flags, where I rode the Free Fall with Mama

            the closest we ever sat since I was three

there goes A Song in the Front Yard, the Gwendolyn Brooks poem I ripped

            out of a library book

there goes my business teacher saying show your intelligence

            as if we had abandoned brilliance to fit in

there goes the pink baby shoe I found for a customer’s daughter

there goes my homie gulping down Panda Express, mumbling

            you can’t live for free


            this swing, now the head of the hammer hooks into my socket


there go the narrow dress shoes pimp-walked

            over my high school graduation stage

there goes my first game of spades college homies taught me

there goes the rope that tied me up in the fireplace on stage

            and paper-made ashes, playing a burglar

there goes my name in bold for Employee of the Month on McDonalds’ marquee

there go my footprints on Jimmy Carter’s peanut farm

there go the seagulls soaring near while I parasail

there go the stallions brown and black for miles and miles along Interstate 45

there go my voyages of return, home again like a tourist


            there goes my hand I pray that is not on the handle of that hammer

            and this swing, my screeching softens into the sounds of butterflies




Oak MorseOak Morse lives in Houston, Texas, where he teaches creative writing and theater and leads a youth poetry troop, the Phoenix Fire-Spitters. Currently a Warren Wilson MFA candidate, Oak’s work appears in Black Warrior Review, Tupelo, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Nimrod, Solstice, and Witness, among others. 

Header photo by robert_s, courtesy Shutterstock.

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