Poems » george elliott clarke » watercolour for negro expatriates in france


          What are calendars to you?
And, indeed, what are atlases?
          Time is cool jazz in Bretagne,
you, hidden in berets or eccentric scarves,
somewhere over the rainbow –
where you are tin-men requiring hearts,
lion-men demanding courage,
scarecrow-men needing minds all your own
after DuBois made blackness respectable.
          Geography is brown girls in Paris
in the spring by the restless Seine
flowing like blood in chic, African colonies;
Josephine Baker on your bebop phonographs
in the lonely, brave, old rented rooms;
Gallic wines shocking you out of yourselves,
leaving you as abandoned
as obsolete locomotives whimpering Leadbelly blues
in lonesome Shantytown, U.SA.

          What are borders/frontiers to you?
In actual seven-league sandals,
you ride Monet's shimmering waterlilies --
in your street-artist imaginations –
across the sky darkened,
here and there, by Nazi shadows,
Krupp thunderclouds,
and, in other places, by Americans
who remind you
that you are niggers,
even if you have read Victor Hugo.
          Night is winged Ethiopia in the distance,
rising on zeta beams of radio free Europe,
bringing you in for touchdown at Orleans;
or, it is strange, strychnine streetwalkers,
fleecing you for an authentic Negro poem
or rhythm and blues salutation.
This is your life –
lounging with Richard Wright in Matisse-green
parks, facing nightmares of contorted
lynchers every night. Every night.

          Scatalogical ragtime reggae haunts the caverns
of le métro. You pick up English language
newspapers and TIME magazines,
learn that this one was arrested,
that one assassinated;
fear waking –  like Gregor Samsa –
in the hands of a mob;
lust for a black Constance Chatterley,
not even knowing that
all Black people not residing in Africa
are kidnap victims.
          After all, how can you be an expatriate
of a country that was
never yours?

          Pastel paintings on Paris pavement,
wall-posters Beardsley-styled:
you pause and admire them all;
and France entrances you
with its kaleidoscope cafés,
chain-smoking intelligentsia,
absinthe and pernod poets....
          Have you ever seen postcards
of Alabama or Auschwitz,
Mussolini or Mississippi?
          It is unsafe to wallow in Ulyssean dreams,
genetic theories, vignettes of Gertrude Stein,
Hemingway, other maudlin moderns,
while the godless globe
detonates its war heart, loosing
goose stepping geniuses
and dark, secret labs.

          Perhaps I suffer aphasia.
I know not how to talk to you.
I send you greetings from Afrique
and spirituals of catholic Negritude.
          Meanwhile, roses burst like red stars,
a flower explodes for a special sister.
You do not accept gravity in France
where everything floats on the premise
that the earth will rise to meet it
the next day;
where the Eiffel Tower bends over backwards
to insult the Statue of Liberty;
and a woman in the flesh of the moment
sprouts rainbow butterfly wings
and kisses a schizoid sculptor
lightly on his full, ruby lips;
and an argument is dropped over cocoa
by manic mulatto musicians
who hear whispers of Eliot –
or Ellington –
in common prayers.

          You have heard Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith.
You need no passports.
Your ticket is an all-night room
facing the ivory, voodoo moon,
full of Henri Rousseau lions and natives;
and your senses, inexplicably
homing in on gorgeous Ethiopia,
while Roman rumours of war
fly you home.