Revised from Jan 2021.
I’m not sorry to use the word
as it’s the only way I can describe it
that also explains in fetid detail how it works:
it is an odor that strangles sometimes,
merely distracts at others, but always sets
my teeth to grinding.
Walk into a discussion where it flavors the air;
soon enough, I’m choking so much the others
couldn’t understand me if they had been able to try.
I turn to art for solace and it rises from between
pages, stings my eyes till paintings blur;
even the music reeks. That job interview
stank with it; this online forum — how is this
even possible? I cannot see words on a screen
through the miasma.
The halls of Congress,
the trading floor of Wall Street, every tower
where a titan of industry schemes: all
are thick with it; they might as well be tombs —
one whiff of the air in there recalls
dead generations piled upon dead generations.
Now and then I pick it up on a breeze
through a forest that must have passed
over a mass grave, a lynching tree, a pipeline.
Sometimes I can smell it on a friend’s breath
or loved one’s skin. I step back
and never close in all the way again.
Sometimes, too often, I can tell it is coming
directly from me — mouth,
clothes, being. Half of me wants
to flee myself; the other half
holds my breath, pinches off my nose,
resists the urge to let myself drown.
When I’m at my best it makes me duck,
get close to the ground, look into myself
for better air.