I had the great privilege of hearing James Cherry read at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend and meeting him afterwards. Though we were surrounded by a crowd of ardent book lovers and a medley of city sounds, I was deeply moved by how comfortably he shared the workings and introspections of his mind. As he read of a death in the family, new neighbors, and judgement in his everyday 21st century life– it was as if an old friend was simply unfolding those kinds of incidents that we’re all trying learn from. Cherry and his wife Tammy reside in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is the creator of The Griot Collective of West Tennessee, a non-profit that promotes poetry and the spoken word. He has written four books (Bending the Blues, a poetry chapbook; Honoring the Ancestors, a full collection of poems; Shadow of Light, a novel; and Still A Man and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction), and this week’s poem can be found in his newest book of poems, Loose Change.
Space Between Us
Death that has brought home my niece,
her cousin, lost in twisted metal, broken glass
on an interstate highway. The house is hushed
with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.
She hops onto the counter, her shoulders hunched
inside a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.
I anticipate a change in college majors, a new job
or even life in another city, but I’m still not hearing
what she has said, her words
crystalizing in the space between us,
shatter into syllables around my feet.
“I’m going to have a baby.”
She is twenty and in her smile remains
Christmas, bright early, sparkling with surprise,
summers in Tennessee swelter
satiated on Bar-B-Que and ice cream,
living room skits performed with baby brother Niles,
replete with costumes, props and improvisation.
She explains her plans to resume school
after the baby is born, that it’s a girl,
that the father is close to my age, mid-forties.
“Is this what you want, Lauren?”
Her answer echoes down the hall
to my bedroom long after
we have said goodnight.
I undress the moonlight, measure the pulse
of my wife’s breathing and lay beside her,
ponder the shape of shadows on the wall
and the wants of loved ones that rarely fit
desires we have designed for them.
I can’t help but hear Cherry’s steady, gentle voice every time I read and re-read this poem. His writing voice, much like his physical one, is strong and rich, as he describes this encounter with his niece. I am struck by how vividly I can see the scene Cherry’s described–“The house is hushed/ with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.” Perhaps there’s a grandfather clock ticking like the house’s heartbeat and the linoleum in the kitchen is cool on their feet, but it’s the “space between us,” that’s so tangible to me. Much like Lauren’s “crystallized” words, Cherry has frozen this particular night with all of its conflicting emotions: shock, naive understanding, happiness, confusion, and loving concern. This has quickly become one of my favorite poems as it is straightforward in its form, tone, and language, but quietly leaves the reader mulling over the question of how to respond when one’s desires for someone they love do not align with the actual choices that are made.
To read more on James Cherry, visit his personal website for a list of books, interviews, reviews, etc. Use the following links for the AALBC’s feature on Cherry and Project HBW’s blog feature on Cherry’s book, Loose Change, which I highly encourage readers to purchase on Amazon.