Wednesday Poem

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

When Your Word is a Match

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.

by Joseph Ross
from Ache
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017