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When Your Word Is a Match

By Joseph Ross

for Willie Louis 1937-2013, who testified
against two men who killed Emmett Till,
1955, Money, Mississippi


When you walk past Klans-
men, smiling at you

on your way into the court
house, wondering how

you will ever live here
after this airless day.

When you tell the story
of a pick-up truck,

a barn, a boy, a threat.
When you point at two

men in the courtroom
and everyone gasps at

what they have never seen
before, but know is true.

When your word is a match-
head, hissing into flame,

testifying aloud but blown
out as soon as you speak.

When all the air
in the courtroom shakes

its white head.
When the smiling men brag

about killing the boy
in the barn. When they

joke about a river, about
what cannot float. When

you flee to the mother’s
city, to breathe air that isn’t

a gasp. When you hide
the name your parents gave

you for fear the men from
that barn will come

smiling for you too.
When you speak to your wife

years later, after a lifetime
of breathing beside her.

When this air thick as lead
presses your chest to breaking.

When the match’s flame
consumes all the air, revealing

a coffin, a boy, a mother,
and you, burning still.

Added: Thursday, April 13, 2017  /  From "Ache" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017).
Joseph Ross
Photo by Ted Schroll.

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Ache (2017), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poems appear in many places including, The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Drumvoices Revue. He has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and won the 2012 Pratt Library / Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Howard County, Maryland. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at his website. Ross appeared on the panel Gay and Lesbian Poetry in the 40th Year Since Stonewall: History, Craft, Equality during Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2010.

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