Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He has received fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT and the Watering Hole and was the 2015 National College Slam (CUPSI) Best Poet. Julian is the curator of Winter Tangerine Review’s Lineage of Mirrors. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as New York Times Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and The Adroit Journal and in the anthologies Portrait in Blues, Nepantla, and New Poetry from the Midwest. He is a candidate for his MFA in Poetry at Ole Miss. His first book, Refuse, is the winner of the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry prize and will be published by University of Pittsburgh Press in Fall 2018.
The Academy of Acceptable Loss
I’m new here and all I know about Minnesota is weather reports and weather reports. To say there is snow here is also to note that there is nowhere that the sun is not in the sky; made impossibly weak by distance and little collections of water condensing it down to grey light. They say there is Winter and Construction and if I’m a season, a little tapestry of months made kin by heat, I’m definitely Construction. I’m fifteen after all, what else could I be but scaffold on a building perpetually on the eve of becoming? A loose tooth atop a better bone, blood is at the root of all advancement. All the food tastes like copper. Wisdom teeth itch into being at the back of my soft mouth, the path to normalcy is a well-practiced wound. Something stirs beneath flesh, gags at my touch and this is how I grow older, fingering what will rot in isolation.
Let me make the stakes clear, there are only four Black boys in the photo including my own perpetually blurry face. The little country I put in the mirror always fraying in the steam. Out of all these Black boys I’m always referred to as the smart one, Obama, Mr. President, Gorilla taxonomy of everything but my own damn name. I have what one might call a difficult name if they have the kind of tongue that considers a name by proximity to their own. I hate substitute teachers with a mythic passion, in each roll call pause, a me. I exist in a space between letters, without me the whole thing is illegible. And this is my service, the brief architecture that the class giggles inside of. Somedays I correct them, and somedays the name is a casualty I leave smaller lives to pick clean. It’s not that I don’t care, I just know that I was put here to beat rich white people at a game they made up centuries ago and chess is predicated on acceptable loss.
Me, Mike, Medaria and Sammy make up one lunch table out of 30 and we are a loud country. All of us a parade of bulls in a kingdom of glass. Nobody sits here unless we mean them to, a seat at the table finally our shit to hand out or retain. There’s a feast but it’s enough to think we are letting them starve of our company and not the other way around. We live inside a pedagogy of plenty, families that own boats and cabins which have names that echo deeper than our own. We debate our own bodies or who finna act up in front of these white folk who pay our tuition and then not invite us to shit. Medaria textin his girl, while Sammy sits quiet as landscape, Mike lyin bout some girl he smashed in Paris and I’m dreaming us all a bigger table, a little heaven where we are nobody’s silent. We all too young to be anything but a pastoral of finnas, quick shapes against the snow, teeth rattling in the cellar of a still young jaw. All the Black boys in this poem are still alive, one day you’ll read that and it will never be true again.
It’s February in Minnesota and ten thousand lakes give birth to ten thousand Narcissus. I mean the best thing you can be in Minnesota is a hockey player. I can’t skate. Never even been on ice that you could skate on. In Chicago, we have Lake Michigan and walking across that gaudy tundra is how you fuck around and drown. Still, there is something in how a blade kisses an incision into the ice that I can only think of as desire. I mean the best thing you can be in Minnesota is a hockey player. It’s so cold parts of me that are designed not to freeze, freeze anyway and it’s all I can do to keep the ash at a manageable level of visibility. But what about Narcissus? What about each of the lakes that they call The Lake? What must it be like to have every move accompanied by a howl? What must it be like to flay the lake into applause, into suffocating noise? What must it be like to look at a mirror, expect white girls, and not fear death?
The teeth of our boots punch small archipelagos into the snow, there is a cavity for everywhere I’ve been until winter does its work again. What you can map into something profound about erasure I can only pronounce as Tuesday. I have no date to the dance and what’s new about that really? I am neither rich nor white nor do I play hockey and so the white girls I’m lusting for think of me more as their favorite brick in a wall they lean against sometimes to gossip. I don’t want them so much as I want what they have to offer. Out at the cabins people have sex, often. I watched Joey tease a girl for losing her virginity and she went so red I remembered that she had blood, so red she was a siren rouging the whole sky, so red I could never not see her again. I would like to be seen, for that I’d trade my virginity, for that I’d trade anything on my body.
Leaning against the collapsible wall at the party whose purpose I can’t remember the other Black dude tells me he misses when it was cool to be Black. Late again to my own desire I sip my punch, nod, watch this little symphony unfold where I can watch people steal outside and just be grateful for the inescapable bass. Disturbia is playing in this culdesac and I think I’m thinking about football which I play now so that I can have a hoodie to give to a girl and a body beneath perpetually mid-flex, a little neighborhood of muscle with all the doors unlocked. I was kind of an asshole honestly. Anyway, other Black dude is still talking about some raw shit he got into last week with this girl from Wayzata who is now in the hallway making out with the white boy with the wet j from my school’s basketball team. I don’t really have a reason to be here, I don’t have a reason to be anywhere. I curse the moon, not its distance, but for its audacity to return at all. I don’t belong here, borrowing glimpses of a face under the colored glow, none of the light stays. The moon grows a fat white neon just beyond the window where a boy is now half clothed as if it is isn’t like, two degrees outside. The moon is a better codeswitcher than I am, this all makes me irrationally upset.
I spend the whole summer in the weight room tearing little holes in everything my momma gave me. I might get to start on the football team this season and nobody wants to wear a JV anything. I want this so bad I tear my arms, I tear my knees, my quads in the pursuit of newer flesh and I believe it is worth it. I was born out of a wound, I come from a wound again and again. I work out in the same spot as the hockey players and they’re dreaming of rings too. Locks spill out from the back of their scalps in a way the physics of my otherness can’t conceive. It’s a trend, the barely flood framing the neck, all around me golden tidal waves, all around me little ambitious disasters.
My favorite English teacher can’t stop saying nigger. With it a tide of fleeting nervous gazes keep washing up on the doorstep of my face. I mean we are reading Huck Finn and me and Medaria sit next to each other pretending to take notes and be offended when really we are emailing each other in a thread where we have rap battles. We’ve gotten very good at this, exchanging one expectation for another. I should probably be paying attention but this book has nothing to do with me outside being a receptacle. Every glance begs We are sorry, so sorry. Guilt is a currency I’m wealthy in and this thought is enough to make racism kind of funny, kind of survivable. Above the tiles are painted to look like Dante’s inferno and the whole room smells like tea. The room where nigger is said the most is also the place I feel most at home. The irony is not lost on me while I think that behind me there is a hall made up only of doors, some with locks, some knowing you wouldn’t dare.
I sprained my ankle on the opening play of the homecoming game and kept playing because it was the first time we won in three years and coach said nobody wants to kiss a loser. My foot has swollen to the point it barely fits in my dress shoe and the metaphor is obvious from there. The next week I will tear my groin and refuse to tell anybody because we’re playing DeLasalle and I hate them for thinking they’re Blacker than me. But tonight, Paper Planes sends gunshots into the dusty rafters that make up a sky, and it’s true, all I want to do is take your money. And I did. If my family has a trade, this is it: The sacrifice of the body, the swallowing of coins in order to enter what is sacred and make it briefly ours. The swelling of my foot presses its urgency against the scaffold of my Dad’s best shoes and this means I cannot dance without also writhing in agony. I lean against the wall where it is least soaked, play the radius, watch the crowd sway on the one and the three in this sweaty gym. Desire looks really ridiculous from this angle.
I become a stag, transfiguration worthy only of myths that actually explain nothing. Stag means the lonely beast, his lonelier crowns a rough velvet aspiring to rule like good forests do. Something near my face makes me intraversible. King of the hum between antlers, the breeze waltzes through my tangled scalp and is nobody’s bride. Vaseline buffed my palms to a dull shine. In that moment and ever since I loved that school as much as anything that has played a part in my dying. I don’t know if I found out I was an exile before or after most of us, I don’t what anomaly I belong to. I know that there is a distance from the sun where everything is a wick, I played the radius in a years long winter, and briefly, was warm.