Imagine Frank X Walker as a little boy in Kentucky, second oldest of 11 children, getting up early to read books when the household is still quiet. Now know the man, former athlete, scholar, professor, and author of the books others will wake up to read in the early light. His poems about Medgar Evers will teach more than any history book. His poems about York, slave to William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, tell how it all feels. We know what the explorers wrote—now we know more— the truth of the experience. Frank X Walker loves his students as much as he loves to write. These are the gifts Walker gives to the world. Not the least of which—he’s a leader among us. - Grace Cavalieri
Frank X Walker, former Kentucky Poet Laureate, is a professor in the department of English and the African American and Africana Studies program at the University of Kentucky as well as the founding editor of PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. A Cave Canem Fellow and co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets, he is the author of eight collections of poetry including the recent The Affrilachian Sonnets and Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers. Voted one of the most creative professors in the south, he is the originator of the word, Affrilachia, and is dedicated to deconstructing and forcing a new definition of what it means to be Appalachian. The Lannan Poetry Fellowship Award recipient has degrees from the University of Kentucky and Spalding University as well as four honorary doctorates from the University of KY, Spalding University, Centre College and Transylvania University.
Ink Stains & Watermarks
for Faith A. Smith
The color of ink squeezed from walnut hulls,
she was born too dark to be rocked to sleep at night.
Her spine was not really too firm to be cradled
and caressed. She was perfectly legible.
Her mother was just too hard to read.
The car her father was driving did not crash.
She did not fly through the windshield
before children could be perfect bound.
That was not a scar across her forehead.
It was her publisher's colophon.
It was an exclamation point dotted by her nose.
It was the beginning of the sign of the cross.
No ex-husbands, just a coffee stain and a slightly visible tear
where two pages formerly yoked had been ripped apart.
No miscarriage, just a chapter
she wrote in haste that her editor rejected.
She did not have a stroke while she carried me.
She was just teaching me how to be still,
to focus on each little sound,
to grow up crazy in love with words.
So she marked me,
and now every time I open a book, I see her smiling face.
-From Ink Stains & Watermarks (forthcoming)
Myrlie Evers speaks to Willie and Thelma De La Beckwith
My faith urges me to love you.
My stomach begs me to not.
All I know is that day
made us sisters, somehow. After long
nervous nights and trials on end
we are bound together
in this unholy sorority of misery.
I think about you every time I run
my hands across the echoes
in the hollows of my sheets.
They seem loudest just before I wake.
I open my eyes every morning
half expecting Medgar to be there,
then I think about you
and your eyes always snatch me back.
Your eyes won’t let me forget.
We are sorority sisters now
with a gut-wrenching country ballad
for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
and courtroom clothes for colors
and secrets we will take to our graves.
I was forced to sleep night after night
after night with a ghost.
You chose to sleep with a killer.
We all pledged our love,
crossed our hearts and swallowed oaths
before being initiated with a bullet.
-From Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (2013)
Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children. –Byron De La Beckwith
Like them, a man can conceive
an idea, an event, a moment so clearly
he can name it even before it breathes.
We both can carry a thing around inside
for only so long and no matter how small
it starts out, it can swell and get so heavy
our backs hurt and we can’t find comfort
enough to sleep at night. All we can think
about is the relief that waits, at the end.
When it was finally time, it was painless.
It was the most natural thing I’d ever done.
I just closed my eyes and squeezed
then opened them and there he was,
just laying there still covered with blood,
(laughs) but already trying to crawl.
I must admit, like any proud parent
I was afraid at first, afraid he’d live,
afraid he’d die too soon.
Funny how life ‘n death
is a whole lot of pushing and pulling,
holding and seeking breath;
a whole world turned upside down
until some body screams.
Sundays and Christmas
Because of York’s duties as Clark’s traveling full-time body servant and the fact that his wife was owned by another family in Louisville, they lived apart and saw each other infrequently.
I cares plenty for my wife
but I been told a slave can’t truly know love
being as Massa an white mens in general
have an take certain privileges with our women.
I suspect the deepest hurt in the world
be to risk being tied to a woman’s hearth
then standing on the front porch
while the massa part her thighs
knowing that any cry raised
is inviting death or worse.
But what else but love
make you hold that woman even tighter
try to rock her back to whole
long after the tears dry up
an the hurt
turn the ashes
back to flames.
-From Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004)
for James Still
once bloody ground
for native tongues
apologetically eliminating buffalo
not sport or profit
un common wealth
who discovered black lung
was as indiscriminate
you remain north & south
blessing yourself with
64 and I-75
you have derbied
and dribbled yourself
a place in a world
that will not let you forget
your cash crop causes cancer
& the run for the roses
is only two minutes long
i too am of these hills
have corn rowed
worshipped & whiskied
from Harlan to Maysville
old Dunbar to Central
our whitney youngs
and mae street kidds
cut their teeth
on bourbon balls
and though conspicuously absent
from millionaires row
we have isaac murphied
down the back stretch
our names in cement
we are the amen
in church hill downs
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
gave it color
some of the bluegrass
-From Affrilachia (2000)
© Frank X Walker, all rights reserved