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Kusserow, A. (2013). Refuge: Poems. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd.
Deng Majok sits inside his apartment,
heat cranked up to 80, curtains closed,
a pile of chicken boiling on the stove,
slides another Kung Fu movie into the VCR,
settles back into the smelly,
swaybacked couch, a Budweiser between his legs.
In half an hour he’ll ride his bike
to Walmart, round stray shopping carts
from the cracked grey lot,
crashing them back into their steel corrals.
At first they dropped by all the time,
the church ladies, the anthropologists,
the students, the local reporter.
They all left elated, having found something real,
like yoga and organic food.
The first Thanksgiving, three families booked him.
Leaning hungrily across
the long white table,
they nibbled at his stories,
his lean noble life.
Over and over he told them about lions,
crocodiles, eating mud and urine.
He remembers joining
a black river of boys,
their edges swelling and thinning
as they wound their way
over the tight lipped soil, sun stuck to their backs.
He remembers dust mushrooming up
around a sack of cornmeal as it thudded
and slumped over, like a fat woman crying in the sand.
And the Americans came alive, with a sad,
compassionate glow, a kind of sunset inside them.
When he got off the plane
the church ladies took him to a store,
bought him fresh sneakers
soft and white as wedding cake.
The next day he walked through whole aisles
of dog food.
Two years later, November again,
he’s dropped out of high school -
he can’t take
the kids staring, the tiny numbers and letters
he can’t keep straight,
the basketball team he didn’t make
despite his famous height.
All night he’ll clean the bedpans at the hospital
as silent tvs splash their images
over the still white bodies and sagging pink mouths.
Now he looks like a too tall gangster,
all gold-chained and baggy-trousered.
The church ladies give him hushed looks:
we regret to inform you, the path you’ve taken is not what we had hoped for.
He’s channel surfing,
listening to Bob Marley on his walkman,
his long legs awkwardly pushed out
to each side, the way giraffes
split their stilts
to drink water.
Africa’s moved inside him now,
all cramped and bored, sleeping a lot.
He cracks another beer
starts to float,
the reggae flooding the vast blue-black continent
of his body draped like a panther
over the sides of the sofa.
His cousin calls, she needs more money,
her son has malaria. She can’t afford school fees anymore.
His uncle gets on the phone to remind him to study hard,
come back and build a new Sudan.
Later he stumbles into the bathroom
to brush his teeth, inside him
groggy Africa flinches at the neon light,
paces, then settles in the corner
of its den, paws pushing into the walls
of his ribs with a dull pain.
The next morning he wakes,
stubborn Africa still shoved up against his ribs,
refusing to roll over, into the middle
of himself where he can’t feel it anymore,
into some open place
where he ends
and America finally begins.
(Anthropology and Humanism, Spring 2005)
SKULL TREES, South Sudan
Reprinted with permission from The Best American Poetry and The Kenyon Review
Arok, hiding from the Arabs in the branches of a tree,
two weeks surviving on leaves,
legs numb, mouth dry.
When the mosquitoes swarmed
and the bodies settled limp as petals under the trees,
he shinnied down, scooping out a mud pit with his hands
sliding into it like a snake,
his whole body covered except his mouth.
Perhaps others were near him,
lying in gloves of mud, sucking bits of air through the swamp holes,
mosquitoes biting their lips,
but he dared not look.
What did he know of the rest of South Sudan, pockmarked with bombs,
skull trees with their necklaces of bones,
packs of bony Lost Boys
roving like hyenas towards Ethiopia,
tongues, big as toads, swelling in their mouths.
the sky pouring its relentless bombs of fire. Of course they were
tempted to lie down for a moment,
under the lone tree, with its barely shade,
to rest just a little while before moving on,
the days passing slyly, hallucinations
floating like kites above them
until the blanched bones lay scattered in a ring around the tree,
tiny ribs, skulls, hip bones -- a tea set overturned,
as the hot winds whistled through them
as they would anything, really,
and the sky, finally exhausted,