Born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, Sean Hill is the author of Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014), awarded the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008), named one of the Ten Books All Georgians Should Read in 2015 by the Georgia Center for the Book. He’s received numerous awards including fellowships from Cave Canem, the Region 2 Arts Council, the Bush Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, The Jerome Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the University of Wisconsin, and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. Most recently, he received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, The Oxford American, Poetry, Tin House, and numerous other journals, and in several anthologies including Black Nature and Villanelles. Hill is a consulting editor at Broadsided Press, a monthly broadside publisher. He’s an assistant professor in the Creative Writing Program at UA-Fairbanks.
for Arnold Rampersad
Shadows bluing the snow, the pines’ and mine,
bear the cast of a kestrel’s blue-grey crown
I note as I find my way about this town.
Blues here more likely the Nordic-eyes kind
than the blue-black of some Black folk back home.
Here so many lakes reflect the sky’s blue dome;
some summer days skimmed-milk blue tints windblown
whitecaps. Blue’s an adjective, verb, and noun,
and the color of the world when I pine
because she’s gone leaving too much wine and time.
Blue shadows on the snow, mine and the pines’.
For the tall man, his blue ox, and now me, home
is Bemidji, though the blues here around
more the cast of a kestrel’s blue-grey crown
than the blue-black of my cousins back home.
A Photograph Taken in Duluth
My grandmother says Beg Pardon when she hasn’t heard
what you’ve said or is certain
you can’t have meant what she heard like I think the moon must
have squinted at the dim light
of that gas lamppost and the three men that hung from it.
What I mean is three men, black,
in town with the circus, accused of the usual
lynch-law crime were chosen
from six and dragged from jail one by one by men who’d formed
a mob, propped up by thousands
of bystanders who didn’t join in with the hoisting
of these black men up the lamppost
for allegedly violating a white woman—of course—
but registered approval
with fists and feet while they made way for the black men
or didn’t stop the hand or foot
of the woman or man next to them, so three beaten
bodies violently shook,
shuddered, sputtered blood on those close by and came to rest.
My grandmother says Hush when
she’s heard what you’ve said and doesn’t want to believe it.
But I have a photograph—
proof of what happened in Duluth. For that I must say
Thank you kindly (that’s how
my grandmother always says it) to a photographer
from just across the bay in
Superior, Wisconsin, on hand with the thousands
of other souls crowding downtown
Duluth that June evening. I know he didn’t take it
for me. My grandmother says
Have mercy when she’s heard a burdensome truth
such as the photograph was soon
made into a postcard that sold quite well in local retail
outlets as a memento.
My grandmother didn’t know these men; she wasn’t born
yet, but doesn’t need to be shown
this photograph to know the crowd of white faces
staring into the searchlight.
Some lean forward and stretch their necks to make certain they’re
in the picture, one smiles while
Elias Clayton’s body lies face down at his feet
(hung so high they had to cut
him down to be in the shot) and Isaac McGhie
and Elmer Jackson hang with their
necks stretched, heads lolled to the side, faces turned as if they
should be the ones bearing
the shame or regret. This photo isn’t necessary
for my grandmother to know
that this happened, and can still happen. And that’s why
my grandmother sighs and says Hush.
Tonight you want to walk your mother
up the dune to see the stars and down
to the beach to meet the ocean; I wade
into your desire to warn you that the dark
of your mother’s night is darker than your dark
as your dark is darker than mine. Today the surf report
cautions, Don’t turn your back on the ocean. The dark:
an ocean for us all. Even in this small beach town,
at night, constant wave and traffic din vie for the field
of imagination adjacent to the cul-de-sac at the end
of the curve of my ear where in this election year
political speeches seek to build a home of promises.
Heroes and gods vied in the myths of dimmer times
over women, horses, trade routes, and crowns—sundry
trophies & bragging rights—the ageless pursuit
of happiness. I turn from words to you to find the dark
sounds in the world because to be frank as an ocean,
surface and secrets, or as candid as a sea (more than
any politician will ever be), we’ll all eventually meet
our due end. Yesterday I stood in your brother’s
hobby orchard and watched as he worked to repair
the irrigation system. Guessing where
the water pipes were, he laughed suggesting
we ask his neighbor with the divining rods
and reported talent for finding water
to trace what we needed to unearth,
and that reminded me of the young tourist couple,
surely from some flyover state, I saw years ago
at Ground Zero posing in front of the cross
(part of the rubble, scrap metal, salvaged
from what was taken away) briefly trying
to figure out the right expression for the camera
before diving into the smile we see at scenic overlooks,
monuments, and the beach.
Dangerous Goods (Milkweed Editions, 2014)
Blood Ties & Brown Liquor (UGA Press, 2008)
Winner, Minnesota Book Award in Poetry
Region 2 Arts Council
Minnesota State Arts Board
The Jerome Foundation
The MacDowell Colony
University of Wisconsin
Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University
National Endowment for the Arts