Cheswayo Mphanza was born in Lusaka, Zambia and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a B.A. in English from Middlebury College. His work has been featured in, or is forthcoming from, New England Review, New Orleans Review, American Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, and RHINO. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Hurston/Wright Foundation, Callaloo, Cave Canem, and Columbia University. A recipient of the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers, he is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Rutgers-Newark.
I was born with a language seared on my tongue. My first
words were lacerations. I sipped from the same bottle
of pale ale as my father as he rocked me
to sleep in my crib. I hunted a rabbit with my uncle. When
he turned to take in the scene of the woods,
I let it go and we slept hungry that night.
I cried with my mother at a bus stop, before she slipped
from my arms to work overtime. I have starved
a mad dog until it could learn to kneel
to me by how I tipped the bowl of food
to the ground. I witnessed my brother hide behind a Laurel oak
tree, the gunman just feet away, inhaling the air
coming from the lakefront. I have taken a goat’s young
and skinned it for a mat— the mother’s eyes
invade my vision when I stare at children with bruises.
I once kissed a woman in an Apostolic church and was sure
I made the pastor, who caught us
in the stairway, jealous of how I crafted my own holiness.
I have held a chicken down before my grandmother
cleaved its neck clean. I ate its body whole, sometimes
chewing the bones. I have licked the blood from my wounds,
letting the sores fester into scabs. I peeled each one
off, reminding me that the body lives by shedding.
You’re nobody until somebody kills you
was the anthem peeling off my tongue.
Dreams of being a man who tastes night
with remains of sun tucked in his back
pockets. Thank God for the ghettos without
mirrors. Windows with anti-reflective glass—
damn me if I see my reflection. What man
will I see hiding behind his mother’s legs?
Death, I lust for you and the stardom
you bring. The lives crawling through spring’s mist
over your graveyards. What is more reliable
than your arrival? Your pull into phantom cars
and their closed curtains. God, if you accept
me, know heaven is vulnerable to the habits
of my past. I will clip the wings of angels
at night and loan them flightless bird feathers
in the day. I will cry with God and sell his
tears as holy water. I will blow into Gabriel’s trumpet
and resurrect those I lost in my youth. When
I land on a deathbed, make my funeral open casket.
My hands should adorn a cane with gems.
A suit tailored for the dead. Faux gold teeth
to rot with me in warm soil. A casket
with a sound system— there is a song I want
to mute when buried. When this life is finally
snatched into the afterlife, take it to hell’s pawn shop.
Our fingers dive, cross and hook,
sewing crooked alphabets mid air.
Chicago’s morning rust hidden
between our ridges. The heat
we steal from something
or someone warmer than us
to soothe the ash around
our hands. Our palmar sides
wrapping each other’s fingers,
tracing the scabs, callouses,
and craters in our knuckles.
How we test our strength
and memory of what lethal language
these hands have inherited. How we lock
and hold, waiting for the other
not to let go. Our offering is a language
of bruised tendons and ligaments. A prayer
we scribe through sky. Brother, I long
for your palms to graze mine,
pulling me closer into the vacancy
of your chest and easing my back
when you hold me, knowing
I am kept by the malice you reserve
for those who don’t share our embrace.