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Cortney Lamar Charleston

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. In 2017, he was a recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also been awarded fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared in POETRY, New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, River Styx and elsewhere.

The Melanin

I walk into a room full of ghosts, their translucent intentions packed from wall to wall. I avoid speaking. There’s a human piñata— a mob victim—hanging in the back of my mouth I don’t want them to see or smell. Every night I dream about him and every night

he has a different name, one with an urban suffix or an apostrophe. Death has a color that’s often described as slimming; I’m not actually as thin as I appear. The wind can’t blow me away and call it change. It tries to beat me down over decades like a rock.

A paper airplane rides it through the air, lands in my kinked hair and catches, to their amazement. As we study electrical charges, my head becomes the choice conductor and sometimes the voltage is more than they bargained for. They haven’t

learned how much water I’m made of, how many slave ships I’ve swallowed down the hatch. My brain buoys the memory of them above the blood. At times, they whisper about revenge but I keep my teeth confined. I act fitting for a petting zoo,

though it is only because I’m still young. The parents worry that, eventually, their girls will see my gun and that I’ll secure a second. Their eyes hawk me closely, so I play a pocketknife: mind my manners and retract the threat. I try not to spook the ghosts.

I’m Not a Racist 

I’m a realist: if I see a pack of hoods approaching, loitering, acting a littering of public sidewalks, I simply

move to the other

side of the street, play it safe. I keep it on me at all times, for safety purposes.

In the event of open fire

you’d be a hazard I told them when I, regrettably, couldn’t allow the lot of them into the party.

We’re part of the same

political party, according to all the numbers I’ve seen. When I shut the schools down, I was just

doing what must be done

to balance a city budget out of wack. When I put what I found in his trunk on balance,

it was enough to tip the scale

towards a felony. I used to be a waiter, and they never tipped very well in my experience.

While we were placing bets,

I noticed him tip his hand ever so slightly and there was a race face card in it. He didn’t seem

like much of a bluffer, so I stood

my ground. On the grounds of merit—that’s how I got into Yale. I’m just not that into black

girls, personally. I mean, personally,

I don’t SEE color. I’m so sorry, I really didn’t see you there. There they go, using that word again:

if they can say it, then why can’t I?

I can’t understand why everybody is so sensitive these days. I admit, what I said sounded a little bit

insensitive, but believe me, I’m not

a racist. I’m a realist: if I see a pack of hoods approaching, loitering, acting a littering of public sidewalks,

I simply move to the other side.

I keep it on me at all times, for purposes: in the event of a hazard, open fire I told them, regrettably,

looking at the body splayed before me.