Back to Issue Forty-Four



When my soul was hurted deep within,
And I’m warring to be free desperately
—Marley, “Give Thanks and Praises”

After “Cathedral” from Subterranea by Sally Gall

For years I have mapped the crowded forest
of my emotions, which is not even the word—
it is the quagmire of fears, of the texture
of my days. The note scribbled on a piece
of cheap tissue; rough with slivers
of unprocessed pulp—simply reads:
“You believe you are interesting—it is
a lie.” There is a truth that startles us—
the truth we uncover in the dark grotto
of a cathedral—the only word to name
the high walls, and the looming avenues.
Imagine a commissioned artist, building
contraptions and scaffolding to lift
the aching bones of the last great duty,
the art that will outlast generations;
imagine this as the first view of the task
ahead—an artist mapping the contours
of the uneven walls, composing a stomach,
a nipple, an eye socket, a blade of grass,
a pool of stagnant water, against the markings
of nature; the boulevards of stone, the rockface,
the way light falls to the ground, the perfect
moment calculated by priests and seers,
to fall on the deep scar in the earth.
Think of a healed wound, an open mouth,
a bowl for aromatic leaves and petals,
twigs and precious stones; the perfect
revelatory moment while praying
in this shadow hall, carved out by centuries
of flood waters. It occurs to me that there is no great
beauty in my expressed holiness, my glowing
face after the mountain top, that every whisper
of adoration is a cesspool of insecurity;
that people will carry a secret unto death,
that a good night’s sleep—empty
of dreams, is as clear a truth as there ever
will be. To face this understanding
is to know that nothing is assured.
I shout out, a gut-wrenching howl—the echo
continues for as long as I will listen.




Your faith like a canoe arriving in the evening,
is a gentle hand; the truest, the only shrine
the ritual of dawns deserves, even when
the season of dwindling light is already
upon us. How quickly the long-breathed
dusks of summer are wheezing, the rapid
softening of light, here in the August end.
I have arrived at the cave’s mouth, and dare
only to venture where the light from the sun
can reach, and this is far enough for me to see
the shrine that has been made by people
I don’t know and will never know.
Imagine the scent of winter months away
is already filling the air, and this alien knows
that he is growing familiar with this Nebraska.
And yet I don’t understand the language
of these lengthy pieces of stripped wood
laid out as a trellis might be before being propped
up, three strips tied together with thin barks
of native trees, and then set out as fragile
monuments of hope or petition, which is
the surety of hope, organized with the deliberate
care of ritual, as if to suggest some message
which, as I have said, I do not understand.
And despite my ignorance, I feel a desire
to fall to my knees, follow the ladder upwards
to the cave opening, and make my petitions
as one would imagine love unexpected,
as if such love is given upon request. How does
one say, “Please love me,” so as to be loved fully
without question, unworthily, despite this un-knowing?
Here, I hesitate, stay standing sinfully,
and say “I am not against your faith, yet,
I continue mine,” which is the immigrant’s
protest, as old as strangers arriving in a village,
as old as new believers praying in ancient temples.


Kwame Dawes is the author of numerous books of poetry and other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent collection, UnHistory, was cowritten with John Kinsella (Peepal Tree Press, UK 2022). Dawes is George W. Holmes University Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is series editor of the African Poetry Book Series, director of the African Poetry Book Fund, and artistic director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. A chancellor for the Academy of American Poets and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Dawes is the winner of the Windham/Campbell Award for poetry and was awarded the Order of Distinction Commander class by the Government of Jamaica in 2022.

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