Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Cortney Lamar Charleston





I Regret to Inform You That America Isn’t Real and Neither Are You

A mere figment, I was thought up at some point,
a seedy plot in personhood. I was thought into this
imaginary country called the United States of America,
which is defined by imaginary lines drawn across land
and water and even air. I was brought up by my imaginary
mother and my imaginary father alongside my imaginary
brother and my imaginary sisters. All of us lived together
inside an imaginary house built with imaginary bricks and
bestowed with an imaginary value by an imaginary market.
That imaginary house was paid for with imaginary money,
which my mother earned from her imaginary job, and with
imaginary blood, which poured from my father’s imaginary
body after being hit by an imaginary car. And all this took
place in an imaginary neighborhood in an imaginary town
near an imaginary city in the imaginary heartland. My whole
imaginary life I went to imaginary schools with imaginary
schoolmates, few, you could say, who were imaginary friends.
In these imaginary schools, after years of studying imaginary
history from imaginary books, there came a point when I was
taught about imaginary numbers, the first real thing that I feel
I ever learned. All the imaginary people I knew always started
their imaginary stories saying “I,” which always exposed them
as fools. Because i, certainly, is the square root of negative one,
hence there’s a curse attached to the front of your individuality
and mine; the more one multiplies, the smaller and more severely
imaginary they get, which is how this imaginary nation comprised
of its imaginary citizens begins to disappear into a ghostliness. But
not gone with it?—the imaginary schisms that aren’t imaginary at all,
that continue to exist by rule: a negative multiplied by a negative is,
an entity precisely how you believed you were, but you were so wrong.


Mourning While, Ironically, Awaiting
______after Las Vegas, 10/2/17

And once again we swiftly send prayers out into the crowd
______of mourners and nobody asks if it may all be a bit too close

______to home for some, triggering, if that word is remotely tasteful
to use for trauma inflicted by the employment of a gun in

its life’s calling. Worshippers at the altar of the Second
______Amendment, we know the call and response routine, praise

______the first good guys on the scene and strain not to seep politics
into this mourning while, ironically, awaiting the sitting

president to speak to us from their opulent office or their
______garden full of funeral flowers, to comfort and condemn so we

______can carry on with our very singular American dreams, sleep-
walking to our own violent ends as it may be, shoe soles

slickened by what but a puddle of blood so ordinary we
______believed it fallen from rain clouds. I don’t even want to watch

______the news anymore and yet I must, my eyes open wide as a legacy
network’s logo, not wanting to be another person who’s

moved to the far out suburbs of their feelings―sorrow, yes,
______and grief, yes, and shame, yes, yes, so much of it, yes. I know the

______truth: these people died in quiet places―under tongues, between
muscles―before they ever died at that festival, not the first

and certainly not the last to come into the waiting room of
______our consciousness before becoming, I don’t know, some soda cans?

______Plastic bags blowing in the wind? These, the only ghosts I believe
we continue to see here in the States, that is, until we sweep

them away, too: watch our taxes work while we sit back and
______be nothing useful, blank bullets as compared to the real, brutal things,

ones that don’t kill people because people do, apparently alone.


I’m Woke Even When I’m Sleeping

______after Jameson Fitzpatrick

I had been, this whole time you were asleep. I know I’m
a political poet because my entire personhood is political
because imagination itself is political enough to make even
little ole me tall and muscular and menace. Growing up,
I never imagined I could be a poet―and that was political.
How difficult my life is or isn’t is political, how it makes me
feel about myself is political. I call my niggas my niggas like
they call me my nigga and that’s political as much as it’s love,
and love―who, what, how, when, whyis absolutely political.
Someone who doesn’t love me called me a nigger and that was
definitely political. That my parents owed more money than
they’ve ever earned or had was political. Nobody read stories
to me at bedtime coming up and that was political. I had to
learn how to dribble the ball with both hands and the need to
learn that was political. I was just a kid then: political. Black:
political. Boy: political. I felt helpless then, feel helpless now,
and that’s political, of course. Copies of me keep getting deleted
from the face of the Earth and that’s political. Every part of me
is drawn in antithesis to someone else and that’s political. That
I grieve so much and so many people is political. That nobody
may grieve me is political. I keep my hair trimmed to the height of
a hum and that’s political. My mother wouldn’t let me go without
a haircut every two weeks and that was political. My grandfather,
the barber, cut my hair for most of my life and that was political.
My hair, simply a protein like yours, is political like it is black. I’m
not as attracted to blondes and that’s political. I went to school with
tons of blondes and that was political. Who I went to school with
in general was political. Who I was supposed to go to school with
was political. The tobacco I turned down from my classmates was
political. The alcohol I turned down was political. The drugs they
swore I could get them were expensive: read political. How attractive
I was, why: that was political; how they’d look at me and me away
and toward my own, who I believed were beautiful, which was true
and also entirely political. My glasses made my vision hyper-political.
My Sean John jeans were baggy, and political. The Nikes on my feet,
the Motorola RAZR in my pocket, the designer T-shirt on my torso―
all political. I’d take showers in the morning, and being able to do so
was political. The brief time I couldn’t was political. Every morning
I’d wake up and have two pieces of jelly toast and English tea, and that
breakfast was political. I’d wake up with my eyes open, like how I went
to sleep the night before, and that condition was political, and it still is.


Photograph of Cortney Lamar Charleston by Jeremy Michael Clark.

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he is also the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, River Styx, and elsewhere. Cortney is a Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →