National Poetry Month Day 17: Tiana Clark


Tiana Clark is currently the 2017-2018 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. Her first full-length collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming fall 2018), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She is also the author of Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. She is the winner of the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, 2016 Academy of American Poets University Prize, and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New Yorker, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2015, BOAAT, Crab Orchard Review, The Journal, and elsewhere. Tiana has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Frost Place Poetry Seminar. You can find her online at


Ways to Be Saved

  1. You are six and approached by a lady named Mabel. You think her name is maple syrup, as your skin and her skin are the color of pure sap. She leans down and grabs your cheeks with long, wetly glazed red apple acrylic fingernails. She asks—as if she herself is maple syrup being poured—Do you love Jesus? in a way that you will remember precisely for the rest of your life. You answer Yes because you’ll give this sweet lady whatever she wants, but the question hovers, hummingbird flapping: the question, the name—Jesus, all of it, her full-bodied cinnamon-slick black hair drenched in Jheri curls dangling dew over your face, how she smelled like expensive bourbonbefore you had the taste for dark liquor.
  1. You are still a child when you walk down the altar and ask God to enter your little heart. You do not know what this means yet. An older man touches the top of your head. His white hand feels like a brick. You repeat after him. You repeat with all the other children chanting. You ask to be washed. You ask to be whiter than snow.
  1. For the first time, you think about hell—a red devil poking fire at your feet until you dance—because you are ten years old and the children’s pastor prays for you to receive the gift of tongues. The wet taste buds in your hands lift toward the metal faucet of heaven. Your fingers reach for a trickle of divine utterance, but there is no water for you. So you mimic: how they sway, close their eyes, wring their faces with a sweeter pain. You wonder why there is no angel on your shoulder whispering stretched out syllables on a loop. You wonder why your voice is not spun through a fan, reverberating.
  1. You are in the backseat of a moving car. You are twelve. You want a kiss on the mouth, but he pushes your head down and makes you suck. You are thankful for the potholes on Old Hickory Boulevard that make the grill of your braces scrape the shaft of his penis. You get the taste for blood too early.
  1. Solange.
  1. Sixteen. A boy you are dating says he will give you your first orgasm. He moves his tongue the way you moved your tongue to speak to God as a child, except you still feel nothing. NOTHING. You pretend to give him what he wants. God.
  1. Last year you wept/Listening to “Ultra Lightbeam” by Kanye West/You love Kanye West/You think Kanye crazy/You think Kanye loves himself/Too much/You think Kanye thinks he’s God/Or a god/Or maybe loving a black man/Or a self/Looks hard and divine enough/And it looks like this/Unhinged/Or maybe you think you have a little Kanye inside/Of you too/Tweeting ferociously inside of your chest/Humming/What looks like nonsense/What looks like he a baby/What looks like madness/To most/But you see/You see the evidence of what faith looks like/Like/Outta the mouths of babes/Like Kanye loving himself/Like dying/like dyeing his hair blonde/Or Blonde by Frank Ocean/Or  Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man/You want the courage to love God like that—
  1. A friend asks if you still go to church. You answer no, but…. You say this as a way to say yes, and…. Same as when you did improv—you be whatever your partner says you are. You become the thing and say: yes, and…. You follow the action by letting the scene develop through affirmation. You say this as a way to be saved.
  1. You are a child again. You are waiting for your mom to come home. You are always waiting for your mom to come home. You are in a puddle of fake vomit made from Ranch and Thousand Island dressing. You have Band-Aids all over your body. You want to look like you are dead or dying. You are As I Lay Dying. But your mother is not a fish. You are the fish waiting to be eaten. Crucified. You practice at pain. You do this every day. Pretend. You make it look like you are hurt.
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Original poetry published by The Rumpus. More from this author →