Ever since the bear passed
over the steep and
its sedgy path
searching this new emptiness
for the grassy blades
that claim us, each bent
to cut open
the soft cages of our feet.
your body remembers
the clean sting of truth
and knows with
each step, relief
will carry you
until you too have been polished
its riverbed feet
to hold a new story
as if a stone —
its fit rough, and warm —
into the folded pool
of your palm.
Memory is a powerful and mysterious thing.
I have appreciated Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work for years. His books, articles, and conversations challenge me to redefine what I’ve been taught about American history, to re-remember it so that it includes a centered Black perspective. I think of him as a poetic journalist who works with the medium of memory.
I’ve been listening to the audio version of his latest book and first novel, The Water Dancer, in which Coates takes memory and gives it a superhero cape. It is history and magic, blended, without a single softened edge. The effect is to sharpen rather than blur the tough, pre-civil war history it portrays.
This stays with me in unexpected ways. While I was listening to the narrator spin a scene set on dark river, our dogs began barking and racing about. I peered out the window and saw three black bears, snuffling at the base of a hill.
Too surprised to pause the book or pull off my headphones, I let its images continue to take shape in my mind while I watched the bears. To me, unstressed bears move like water — steady, fluid, rarely pausing — so as the book’s main character stepped out into a cold, swift river at night, I watched these other dark waters flowing, making their way on thickly padded feet up the grassy slope and into the woods.
Ever since, the book has been populated by bears. And not just by any bears — these bears. They find trails between scenes that lead to a poignant, cutting phrase, showing me that the way forward takes tough feet. I now think of them, and Coates’s work, every time I pass a window. The bears haunt these stories as surely as these stories now haunt me.
I think Coates would be okay with this. I heard him explain once in an interview (link below) that he intends to leave the reader feeling haunted… not just by the information he lays out, but in the feelings he conveys through image and line. “You should feel it in your bones,” he said. “You should be disturbed, the way I was disturbed.”
This makes sense to me, being a poet myself and a proponent of empathy-building as a way of positive activism. I know that when I glimpse the world through another person’s view, even if for a moment, I’m changed by it. I can’t go back to the way I saw the world before. I remember (again) that I’m never really alone here. Look: There are bears on the hill.
I’m grateful to Coates and to other writers who identify as Black and are willing to share their perspectives with me. I find that though my feet are new to the trails they have walked, there is a relief in being pointed toward a more-encompassing, tougher, and truer telling of our collective story.
To learn more about and find the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, google him or go to:
The interview mentioned above is at: