Selections from 'Owed'

Joshua Bennett is the author of 'The Sobbing School' (Penguin Books, 2016), as well as an Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth and a Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. We're honored to offer you this preview of his next book, 'Owed', forthcoming from Penguin.

Owed to Ankle Weights

Far as we could tell, Mark dreamt
of weightlessness & little else,
an entire career built upon

leapfrogging elephants
& lesser men. Though he
never deployed this exact

imagery in a public speech
or more casual tete-a-tete
over hot fries & Powerade,

the dream was well- known
throughout the jailhouse
beige middle school hallways

we bolted through.
Mark wears ankle weights
every day because that

is what ballers do
when they are serious,
& Mark is very serious

when it comes to
the business of giving
out buckets as a kind

of spiritual practice, ascension
under control, an outlet
pass flying language-like

across the length
of the court, Mark
catching the so-worn

sphere in his dominant
palm, switching

to the left without what most
would call thought, soaring
like an invocation

to the cylinder & the crowd
leaps right along with him.
Hands aloft in awe

of the boy who must have
some falcon in his blood
-line somewhere, the sheer

eloquence of his movement
enough to make them forget
whatever heaviness like a second

skeleton held them flush to the ground
that day, whatever slight or malice
born in silence by necessity

simply melts, falls like a man
made of flowers to the floor.
When we closed our eyes

that year we all saw the same
fecund emptiness staring
back, imagined all we could

hammer our bodies into by way
of pure repetition: sprinting
to the bodega for Peanut Chews

before the cheese bus could leave
us behind, toting little
brothers all the way up

past the third flight
with no break for breath,
jumping rope with the girls by

the hydrant by the hardware
store at least once a week,
two-pound silver bricks

strapped to each leg,
tucked as if contraband
or some secret knowledge

into the lips of our lucky
socks, all that kept us
from drowning.

You Are So Articulate With Your Hands

she says & it’s the first time
the word doesn’t hurt. I respond
by citing something age-inappropriate
from Aristotle, drawing mostly
from his idea that hands are what make us
human, every gesture the embodiment
of our desire for invention or care & I’m not
sure about that last part but it seemed
like a polite response at the time
& I’m not accustomed to not needing
to fight. If my hands speak with conviction
then blame my stupid mouth for its lack
of weaponry or sweetness. I clap when I’m angry
because it’s the best way to get the heat out.
Pop says that my words are bigger
than my mouth but these hands
can block a punch, build a bookcase,
feed a child & when’s the last time
you saw a song do that?

Owed to the Durag

Which I spell that way because that’s the way it was spelled
on all the clear plastic packets I grew up buying for no more
than two dollars, two fifty max, unless I was at Duane Reade
or some likewise corporatized venue but who buys
the majority of their durags at Duane Reade anyway,
who would actually wage war on the durag’s good name
by spelling it d-e-w hyphen r-a-g, as I recently read
some sad lost souls do in an article in The Guardian,
this isn’t botany. This isn’t a device one might use
to attend to the suburban garden & its unremarkable
flora, drying freshly damp wisteria with black silk
or the much more common nylon-rayon-cotton blend.
I could see d-o hyphen r-a-g. That works for me.
One could argue this version makes more sense
even than the spelling I am accustomed to,
reflective as it is of nothing other than itself.
I have never heard the term ‘do used in a sentence
by anyone other than a long-lost colleague
at Princeton who once reached wide-eyed
for my high top fade before a swift rebuke,
marked by my striking his wrist as if some large
though distinctly non-lethal mosquito, surely a top six
proudest moment of anti-colonial choreography
I have dared call mine in this odd, improbable
life I hold to my chest like a weapon. I know.
I know. This wasn’t supposed to be about them.
You make me inordinately beautiful. Let’s talk
about that. Or how I’m 12 years old & the cape
of a white durag billows from beneath my Marlins cap
like a sham poltergeist, flight & failure contained
within a single body, worthy core of any early
2000’s era New York rapper’s coat of arms.
I was lying before. Once, while we sat, quiet
as mourners on the front porch, my father spat
that’s a nice ‘do you have there, eyeing the soft mess
of cork-screwed darkness atop his second youngest
son’s aging face, no sign of the good hair he praised
for years to family & co-workers alike. Alas, old friend,
you somehow make me even more opaque, make
me mystery, criminal, dope boy by the corner
of Broadway & 127th compelling respectable
women to reach for smart-phones, call for backup,
smooth, adjustable shadow, like policy
or fire, you blacken everything you touch.

Metal Poem

is how Baraka described John Tchicai’s deploying the horn
like a kind of war machine before either man’s lungs were left empty
as a shipwreck, bodies still, stoic as stone & buried deep. Mainstream pop
had not yet given John his proper shine,
& so I sometimes like to think of the phrase as a chamber
with no flash or flame to kill the dim, so black it’s blank, the lead

-off to some broader claim about what touch compels, or unmakes. Any leader
-less man will cut holes in the world if you let him breathe, I think. Every horn
holds a history of violence. Animals slain for the sake of sound. Chamber
music born of plundered bone. My entire block is metal poem. Endless empty
school desks mourned by shoes hung from telephone wire, so high they catch the shine
of dawn before anything living. And the beat goes on. Staccato pop

of steel a call to pray. Blood-stained denouement. Pop
hears the family car backfire & dreams of Vietnam, lead
spray autographing his left side from boot to hip. Sundays, he loved to shine
our shoes & skin until both glowed like opal. Sharp as a horn
-bill’s kiss, my daddy was, before the weight of an empty
ledger winnowed him, left his chest hollow as the chamber

of a gun in the hands of a man six bodies deep into his rage, every chamber
of his tome-thick heart falling slack. The day it all went dark, Pop
barely spoke for more than a few clicks of the clock’s one good hand. Empty
quiet, where once was laughter so full, we felt when it fell to the floor. Who will lead
or love us now, the people thought, when Moses melted that metal god from horn
to hoof, made them drink. For weeks, their insides shine

with the light of the fallen. Little novae. Little faiths aflame. O, how I wished to shine
the way Pop did when it came time for penance; my mother’s stare, a chamber
of horrors, pulling names from him till they lie like fresh kill on our kitchen table, hornets
filling corpses with chatter. Every morning, the same perverse pop
quiz: where have you been? He responds as any weapon might. Leaden
expression to quell her pursuit. Either hand empty

apart from the car keys he will use to open the air between us again, empty
out our unearned dreams. His love for the idea of us never fails to shine
through. But for how long can you ask a man to lead
a life he never yearned for? Silence each chamber
clicking inside of him, coaxing both feet forward, demanding he pop
his son in the mouth for calling him phantom when he means to say my heart is a horn

in a hole in the earth is an empty cell cleansed of sunshine is a dead man’s chamber

nothing worth dying for inside of it is a lead balloon is a prop
gun in a time of war is a single splintered thorn