The kind of image
that would not let me hold us
accountable was

lurking. Was a sign
bloomed underside of a tooth
to be uprooted.

Was something about
the natural world, with which
I never had much

communion—I was
too mortal to suffer it,
too busy dying

to learn the tree’s name.
A white gaze was an image
I could not see through

in the same language
I used to make myths I meant
at least to live through.

That I felt proud to
abuse a clause’s end with
a preposition

signified to me
a sort of trauma that had
compromised my art.



I had fantasized
they would kill me first. There were
rumors. I had dreams

of being trampled 
in mud. Among them there were
those whom I loved. Those

whom I did not: how
would I know me without them?
I was contrary.

There were arguments
for more specificity,
for more poetry

in my grievances:
No, I could not implicate
all of them, said some

who were on my side
the way it was possible
only in the long death

of John Brown to be
on my side. Tribalism,
they said, won’t save you.

I said, Just how long
have you known what will save me?
They knew me so well.


I took the high ground
higher until the air thinned.
Until it didn't matter

I was a creature
that required breath. I choked
to death politely.

I tried, anyway.
Tried nonviolence, meaning let
vileness try to know

itself better. Bet
on tenderness I didn’t
have time to undress.

The oceans too took
higher ground. The ground spared me
less and lesser sleep.

Did I deserve sleep?
I smelled like America.
Wounded, frightened, and

agape to be fucked found.
I grew tired of being
tired, poor, massive.

I prayed. I fastened
fairness to my feet and tracked
blood across the streets.


Kudzu was the kind
of late colonial fact
I preferred, in that

it was obvious—
Weary with waiting to be
organized, I crawled

overnight, I crawled
over night itself, was here
with them all along.

I had not evolved
beyond remorse, and therefore
seemed quite evolved but

by then I wasn’t
interested in being a
safe or sorry thing,

would have to escape
the dense root-welted black of
we aint gone tell y’all

again we aint gone
tell y’all again we aint gone
tell y’all again we

not not not not not
gone say not again we
knot knot knot knot knot

Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of A History of Flamboyance (YesYes Books, 2016). His first full-length book of poetry, Indecency, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2018. His work appears—or soon will—in Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, PEN American, and elsewhere. He received his MFA at Washington University in St. Louis.