Four poems by Michael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper has published more than ten books of poetry, most recently Selected Poems (2002). He has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award. He is University Professor and Professor of English at Brown University, where he has taught since 1970.


Saner in the 'golden moment'
“a capella”

the three idioms of song
scores coming at you  'fast'

one dying in refrain
a tyranny of magic making

only the chords
full tones as increment

'to live is to resist stillness'
except in the zone

the soloists salute a 'chant of saints'
while the aria moans

alone on assignment
'the making' continues to shine

'to make' is to live live (italics mine)
where force is made   chorus made out of nothing




“American Masters: PBS” (Ralph Ellison)

                                    “the hunt in books for quail”—

He wanted 'no dramatics' while alive
but you should start with the missing chapter

“Out of the Hospital, Under the Bar”
from  SOON, ONE MORNING, edited by Herbert Hill

We asked him should it be 'in' and he said 'yes'
which is the act of reading at William & Mary

Juneteenth” Bliss and Hickman on and off the bandstand
the Hillcrest Cemetery where “Ida” is buried without a gravestone

'can't find what you can't see, can you?'
Grinnell a shameful travesty against his honor as honorand

I could start with knowledge of Notre Dame in Indiana
(MLK Jr. right after the execution)

zealots and doctoral klan members threatening ginger colored 'Mose'
as he stood on the podium in South Bend

As a child he witnessed the aftermath of the Tulsa “riot” 
the cinders of “Greenwood” alive in his nostrils

took the train during Scottsboro 'trial' to Tuskegee
played his instrument studied eliotic modernism played his instrument

left,   in armed vision, while being pursued by a hands-on playful dean
took Wright to task in faerydom at Chehaw Station, the wizard's warning

explained 'equipment for living' when “Don't Explain” in a band wagonsful
knew his people had value   against truncated value   more than chattel: huckleberries




'Craft' Talk, Vermont Studio Center

I have brought forth books
to break the seal
as solomon broke seal
with the covenant;
is the great truth,
fidelity is the crime,
if you are to get to heaven
on earth;
craft is an inward journey;
all around you the names
of the saints
are chanted in idioms,
and you must record them,
not to memorize
but to fathom
as the Gihon River
points toward the source;

we are in Vermont
not far from the border
and French is on the radio;
you should translate
all borders
bringing the true compass
into discussion
as transits:
Sterling Brown's vestiges section;
Mr. Hayden's Paradise Valley
adapted ballade
with many persons
living in the margins;
let me take you through the Mecca
of Gwendolyn Brooks
who saved me from the pile
of contests
for I did not win;

Justice was best at syllabics
his conversation
intense as possum
and as southern;
the elegy is for you
in your teens
and after sixty
and you'll get there;

do not read aloud
near any piano
or the pitch
will get you;

(from then on
dark keys will resonate
in silence,
and you will have made space
for snow, and your umbrella):

from then on the cadences of film-noir
for your attention-span is ruined
all film in black & white & documentary
the end of structuring as in painting
the faint disclosures as in photography
your psychography of the dark room within




Pull-Ups at P.S. 25

for Elroy Clark

Where are you, king
of chins, who, on any
given day, could pull
your gibbon trunk,
your spindly legs
50 consecutive times
on the mastings of the flag
someone else raised, 
mornings and evenings
in military calm?

"Orang," the bicuspid blonde
with looping earrings
expelled, under her breath, 
and without the long reddish
hair, you could have leaped
into the arbor of trees
if the fire escape landing
had not broken your rhythm.

As the toughest thug
on the block, 
and in charge of the flag
squad, you once
walked the four floors, 
equivalent to the gymnasium, 
in handstand position; 
it was rumored, 
without any evidence needed, 
that you had fathered children
only an eighth-grader, 
of indeterminate age, 
but with lats and deltoids
like Sampson, 
if Delilah was near,
and bicuspid was nearer
and you were our myth
of an antsy class,
heavy in transition, 
before gang-fighting
took over; and I was 
on my own, after school, 
free on a pass from flagsquad
because you had arranged
your pull-ups, and my flight
off the campuses of the world
into the underground BMT, IRT
and a pass to the Staten Island Ferry
on every jewish holiday,
which we both took off,
for I was your deputy in crime and truancy,
doing your homework and math for nothing.

And this flag I raise to you, 
escape-artist, 50 colonies, (E.Pluribus Unum)
for saving my ass from the trees.