When I think of Nebraska poems, I mostly think of Ted Kooser and “So This Is Nebraska,” which celebrates the slow vastness of the state with an assertive universal and personal “you.” This poem by Kwame Dawes, however, aptly describes the way an outsider beyond Kooser’s all-encompassing “you” might feel in a state with a preserved culture of restraint and decorum unfamiliar to the speaker. Dawes’s speaker feels invisible and asynchronous: “they cannot see/the despair in my eyes.” By the end, the speaker has loosened decorum and commands someone, anyone, to “Look/at my eyes. Pay attention,” as if ordering the speaker himself to remember he is alive, visible and real in an infinite and unfamiliar land. Selected by Victoria Chang
Credit…Illustration by R. O. Blechman
By Kwame Dawes
Christmas falls on a Friday — the long week
of labor and waiting is gray with dull light,
and gradually the gloom fills my bones —
I have declared myself a fat man once too often.
Here in Nebraska I have learned the art
of restraint — hoarding lamentations and complaints;
how to hold my tongue until it is clear
that those around me have unlearned
the rituals of compassion; they cannot see
the despair in my eyes. Remember when
we knew that simply speaking out, our bile
would release it from our bodies,
that leeching chemistry of confession or hoping?
Not here. Here the body creates a membrane
of such leathery resilience that it may
keep in all the wounds we have collected.
And here in the slow march to Christmas,
I grow bloated with decency; and I have
decided to grow my beard again — the uniform
of a man pioneering the wilderness. At church,
the choir did not sing a Christmas song —
it is as if someone forgot the season —
but the pastors and elders all wore suits
and ties; while we clapped our hands
to the radio songs — good, clean Jesus
of Chick-fil-A and Texas charm. Look
at my eyes. Pay attention. Clouds, slow moving,
across the prairie sky — so slow it is as if
nothing is moving across the bigness of things.
Victoria Chang is a poet whose new book of poems is “The Trees Witness Everything” (Copper Canyon Press, 2022). Her fifth book of poems, “Obit” (2020), was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Antioch University’s M.F.A. program. Kwame Dawes is the author of several books, including “Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius” (Bobcat Books, 2007), “A Far Cry From Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative” (Peepal Tree Press, 2007), the poetry collections “Wisteria: Twilight Poems From the Swamp Country” (Red Hen Press, 2006), “Duppy Conqueror” (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and “Nebraska” (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), in which this poem appears. He is a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and editor in chief of Prairie Schooner magazine.