Nkosi Nkululeko: How I Wrote “Between Beauty”

Between Beauty

We walk in a fable.
I don’t know when, but something began here;

once-upon-a-time… our feet abandoned the past
twigs, mud-water in our wake— neigh interruptions!

Horses… in dark clearings throng their glamour.
A dog yelps. Our eyes throb, weighed by their presences.

— And as if from everywhere, fireflies sprinkle night-braille.


from 42nd Street to Highway, to winding infinite to Open
lot to Flies’ roadkill monopoly to “this is a new place,”
no one from here is from here. Nothing’s native
if it’s not kneaded. The townspeople don’t need
visitations, they’ve a quaint history of occupation;
Banjo & Co., local shindigs in dugouts, maybe

a lynching. Is a road we forget when it’s behind us
called “good riddance?”

City’s far but in a break of leaves, a hiss… stand clear
of the closing doors… cattle with briefcases herding.
we’ve machinery, we’ve economy, we’ve colony.


I am an animal
who thinks little on being prey

yet, still scared for my life.

“Whose body is yours?”           I ask to mine.
His body does not answer.

Distant myself, hay bales dot the fields; rural ellipses.
In the pasture, life’s unsolved.

Everywhere we occur, questions dilate.

I am a man bridged by beasts
writing between beauty, wilderness
in horses, and still
neglecting to mention their cage.

“Whose body is yours?” I ask to mine.
Their bodies do not answer.


Stratus clouds thin from wet bereavement,

gestural shores of cotton
pool in fireworks’ periphery.

The holiday heaves its light work, shimmering

beads in an onlooker’s skull
reflecting aerial potpourri—

Beyond lies

another celebration; rain, woods wind and ground.
At dawn a fawn wanders
in its solace. O the holidays it’s missed, or its family
arguments, or its solemn jubilee orbiting

the hour’s dead,           our eyes

are mirrors…


“It’s like a novel,—” I exclaimed to R, observing families of horses,
pairs of lovers crossing pastures awaiting mornings longed.
Leaning silent beside a gate, absorbent, mosquitos halo our skin.
Horses plodded to our perch, as if summoned. Our hands kissed,
gliding, then, their bodies gilded.

We fed them what seemed years. Some of their heads loomed
over us just to be touched. Back home, folks say “there’s a war
outside,” but we are outside in at least one world left to itself.
The horses aren’t aware fire nears. It’s a secret we kept, perhaps
deluding ourselves with it. But maybe they could tell, maybe
they sensed withholding, deciding to leave us to our own lonely

their built figures fade into silhouettes,
colors once named now absolved of their duty to be witnessed.


Trodden roads narrow sedated night,

seeing further only as we further;

no more “civilization”
just purpled borders of weeds,… insect gossip,… and a gate.

Minutes procrastinate my stroll— they fill
like honey            in a throat.

It’s Ithaca-quiet                 beside air’s vestiges
psalming trees,                  and a barn’s wind chimes feigning.


The late sky blues amnesiac. Each night I remember, I forget.



In 2019, I was a Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts fellow in Ithaca, New York. There, I had plenty of inspiration from the incredible views and the deep woods beside us where deer passed through. I focused on short poems I started writing a few months before, titled “64 Dimensions.” I thought it’d help to read poets who’ve written book-length, or shorter, sequences alongside me; Donika Kelly, Terrance Hayes, Wanda Coleman, Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, T’ai Freedom Ford, to name a few. However, I started coming up empty. In order to be generative, I wrote in total opposition to the short poem. “Between Beauty” demonstrates how brevity still influenced the line despite its length.

“Chinese Poetic Writing” by Francois Cheng, the T’ang Dynasty Poets such as Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, and their translators Donald A. Riggs and Jerome P. Seaton, were central to my study of text with multiple meanings. I was eager to push the musical, rhythmic, and imagistic limits of words possessing at least two grammatical identities. Here’s an excerpt of “Spring Morning” by Wang Wei:

Everywhere, birdsong.
Night sounds, wind, and rain. 

Compare how I reflect his use of natural elements to establish a landscape. In my version, I played with words that can function as something other than nouns.

Beyond lies

another celebration; rain, woods wind and ground.

The word “lies” is both verb and noun (a gerund), but it’s broken from the following line, thus inserting silence or doubt in the “lie’s” literal intention. In the next line, “wind” is pronounced with a long ‘i.’ meaning it’s actually a verb(!) surrounded by “rain,” “wood,” “ground,” all the elements that actual wind, itself, surrounds. 

I was enraptured by Cheng’s chapter “The Passive Procedures” where he writes “…it can be seen that the [Chinese] poet seeks, through the process of reduction, not just to simplify the language to the extreme, but rather to multiply the nominal-verbal play, and to introduce to the language an implied dimension, that of the void.”

Throughout, I messed with my lines’ syntax to be read individually while also sustaining the entire poem’s collective grief. Here’s an example:

no one from here is from here. Nothing’s native
if it’s not kneaded. The townspeople don’t need
visitations, they’ve a quaint history of occupation;
Banjo & Co., local shindigs in dugouts, maybe

a lynching. Is a road we forget when it’s behind us
called “good riddance?”

A lynching is a road we forget when it’s behind us. I blurred whole sentences in this stanza to create duplicitous effects. One of my favorite and earlier lines I wrote toward “Between Beauty” was:

[Trodden roads [narrow] sedated night.]

I’m fascinated by the centralized tension in “narrow.” If you read only the first three words of the line, “narrow” is a verb, but if we isolate the last three, “narrow” is likened to an adjective. I’m in awe at how granular a level language can operate on.

Arranging the poem into sections supported the lyric and borderline-associative language even more— cohesive snapshots of memories, photographs of “negative capabilities.” 

I wrote this in 2019, and it still addresses current conflicts. It’s interesting that a term like “nominal verbal-play” can beautifully and disturbingly personify aspects of life itself.  

“Between Beauty” is a poem that haunts me, that critiques the world and my own understanding of place, complacency, fantasy, and the extent to which words, bundled in accuracy, can “lie.”


Nkosi Nkululeko

Nkosi Nkululeko, a 2017 Poets House and 2018 Saltonstall Foundation of the Arts Fellow, is the winner of Michigan Quarterly Review’s Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets 2018, and his poetry can be found in journals such as Callaloo, Tripwire #17, The Offing, and Ploughshares. Nkosi’s poem “Skin Deep,” formally published in The Adroit Journal, is anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2018. He is also anthologized in The Bettering American Vol. 3 and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry. Nkosi Nkululeko is a chess and music instructor from Harlem, New York.

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