Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Joshua Burton





Grace Division

I like repeating myself. That turn
of the glass to find your print.

                It is like being called to
in the same exact way every Sunday.

During my second stay at Cypress Creek Hospital,
I held my journal of poems
of white salvation as ammunition.

Reclaiming yourself is a skill

like warring is a skill. The hull and mull
of the white space

in my stomach held a religious
ache. I didn’t sleep for days.

                The meds
were a beating metronome, metamorphic
seasonings. To reclaim myself I promised this sinning
would save me.

I am war again.

Tried talking to a knife half-wanting
the husk to out-grow me. I won’t leave

things out. I would dream often
of turning a knife

into my brother, but he would carry on living
in my dreaming.

I only let N visit me.

He was always stronger than me.
On a drunken night, N taught me how to knife-fight

with a spoon in his living room.
My grandfather would carry with him
a razor in his boot

the size of his foot. When I pocketed N’s pistol
to his brother’s house,

I ended up hiding it in the back of his green truck

leaving the door unlocked. We drank so much of death
we passed the bread without crumbling.

             But those mistakes are not gods—

but shards upswept from the concrete.
The broken think division will add to themselves.

                The risk in the mining of diamonds.
The weight of his pistol
pulled me down like children begging. Finding family

in a psych ward
is like abuse feeding wounds.

Like switching places to better bare witness.
      The turning ends where it begins.

Two men turning god over like an apple
in their hands. A cold yolk

teasing breaking. A sharp mirror warring itself
into a witness.


Giving Laura Grace
            for Laura Nelson and her son L. D. Nelson

Like the time I mistook a bridge for a tree, I am
          waiting for the poem to correct
me. Where afraid and ashamed

And all the swear-blood in me brews
          in the fist of my stomach.

I wrote to you once before
and failed.

          So I won’t write about your lynched body anymore.
You are not my mother, so I have no moral
          contract with you.

If I did, I’d probably still
          only have stories for you.

Like in kindergarten when I punched a black
          boy in the chest.
He punched me too,

          and we cried together
as if this was our shared code for confession.

          Or the story where
I was in the midst of a dirt-fight with a black boy
          my size in a large open square

where a house would soon be built.
          Our hands threw the sand through the air—
moving like a clapper in a bell. Where some
          ended up in my throat and I choked on the little earths

lost in my mouth.
          And my mother took a hot face-
towel to my tongue.

          When I say earth, I mean God.

I’m sorry, but I think hurting something black
          became a habit.

Maybe it was a living root bridge
          is what I’d tell myself.
And maybe, black people are born with cedar seeds
          in us.

I used to only believe in death by
          habit. Yet, the sound
of a woman screaming still frightens me.

          Though I promise not to martyr you or mother you,
I promise the same for L.D. too.

          Next year, when I am older
and know better
          I will visit Okemah, Oklahoma

and dig.
          And I will plant my hands in the soil
and slide my blood back into my wrist like a stubborn vein
          and wait for your nothing.


A Confession
            for my grandfather Henry Pearl Stewart

           the poem is better than me    it breaks me in all my flesh-    world places

something black in me broke    felt like a crypt curse    unbellying
light-seeds from my generic memory    i speak to my grandfather
in the language of a breakdown

            Henry Pearl Stewart— a man so stubborn he would pull out his loose teeth
            with pliers    like ruined potatoes    rather than going to the dentist
            they’d call him Pistol P.    as though his magnum would accent his paragon

i’ve never been to Alabama    except but to go through it    the mapped south
stretches like a threshold    going in and out    an ouroboros
of heat-light    in the cesarian-cruel land shrapnel is unearthed    let’s go of our let go’s

            i’d like to think all the dead are reasonable    was his fear of snakes
            unreasonable    near his fear of being hung?—

Mattie Jones sings to the skull of Bull Connor    beneath Bermudagrass

             “and before I’ll be a slave, i’ll be buried in my grave”
            the best way to expose grace is through singing    and there’s a song
            in the curse    in the trees

Pearl’s lynched siblings    Lily Crenshaw    was drowned in Birmingham
Earl Stewart    learned death    from walking on the same side of the sidewalk
where a white woman was    in Birmingham
i heard there was more    but i don’t know their names    yet

            except Pearl said he left Birmingham because a woman    put a Hoodoo curse
            on him and not this    because death    is like this and like that.

as i try    not to carry names    as weapons    or myth them into meaning
i must still learn    myself alive    trauma, like the poem    must look both ways
to look at itself

            what can stretch from the dead to    living as an unbroken line break?—
            and else what can you learn about affinity    today?—

i love my grandfather’s hands    he held a figure 8 over our heads
like two Christ-crowns— shame

            on you Joshua for blowing yourself out of proportion    like this
            with your six-breakdown self    you are no single thing— shame
            let loose like a lynch in me

though i cannot live up to the expectation of black strength    in blackness    here i am
and thinking of this black insanity—

            i must be forgiven somewhere    for thinking blackness is the curse

i tied myself to Pearl    a thin rope that snapped    a branch bullied into submission
or like an 8    snaps    again    again—


Photograph of Joshua Burton by Raman Varma.

Joshua Burton is a poet and educator from Houston, TX who received his BA from the University of Houston and his MFA in poetry at Syracuse University. His work seeks to navigate the way historical, generational, and familial trauma crosses wires with mental and physical illness. He is a 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop Scholar, 2019 Juniper Summer Writing Institute scholarship winner, 2019 Center for African American Poetry and Poetics fellowship finalist, received the Honorable Mention for the 2018 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and was a 2020 Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing finalist. His work can be found in Figure1, BODY Literature, Mississippi Review, Gulf Coast, and la Tundra. More from this author →