- The 400-Meter Heat*
I'm most American when I reach for more ketchupas Shaunae Miller dives across the finish.
I'm blackest when Allyson Felix collapses on the track,knees up, concealing her last name
and the letters U.S.A. blistering her chest.I'm saddest whenever black women are competing,
because I never know who to root for,and I'm arrogant enough to believe my split loyalty
fails them (which makes me more American again).This is how it feels to be a problem:
hoping that, when a country's cameras aretrained on my back, and I offer the fruited plain
of my body, it's somehow enough to quenchthe parched land where all the brothers keep dying,
each ghost a breath-song trilling in my blood,and, perhaps, one day, grand mal convulsions:
petechiae like pomegranate seeds jeweling myface. Every race is a transubstantiation of flesh—
not to gold, nor bronze, nor mythical filigree,but to the fleeting, nameless moment when a foot
finds a chalk line drawn by someone else.Maybe #magic, or a single, unfortunate tremor
that means nothing until I'm dead. Who knows what metalsthe gods use to forge victory, which is neither sympathy [End Page 208]
nor love, nor more sacred than the foot-fall,its indiscernible blip magnified for millions
of eyes that never blink when we're winning;which you too probably missed, although later,
in the dashcam footage, you'll swear to me you saw it.
Destiny O. Birdsong is a Pushcart-prize nominated poet whose poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, At Length, Indiana Review, Rove, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review, and a co-authored chapter on Black Atlantic and Diaspora Literature (with Ifeoma C. K. Nwankwo) was published this year in the Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature (Cambridge UP). She is a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, and has received fellowships from Cave Canem and The Ragdale Foundation. She is currently a research coordinator at Vanderbilt University.
* The line, "This is how it feels to be a problem" is reminiscent of Du Bois' question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" from The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903). The mentions of petechiae and grand mal convulsions refer to the death of track and field athlete Florence Griffith Joyner (1959-1998). The lines "Who knows what metals/the gods use to forge victory, which is neither sympathy, nor love" are adapted from Kate Chopin's The Awakening (New York: Random House, 1899/2000). [End Page 209]