The Air in Front of Him

August 13, 2020

When all else fails, fly.

POETRY FOR THE PANDEMIC

For the Mental Health Minute, I present poems that I hope will have special meaning for all of us as we cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

Why poetry? As former United States poet laureate Kay Ryan said, “It is the job of poetry to remain open to the whole catastrophe.”

Afaa Michael Weaver’s poem, “Losing the 440 Yard Dash” is a glorious coming-of-age poem that gives me a lift from COVID-19 anxiety every time I read his line, “wondering just what life had to give those of us who can fly.”

The poet was born Michael S. Weaver in Baltimore, in 1951. The son of working-class parents, he attended public schools and graduated as a National Merit finalist at the age of 16. But after 2 years at the University of Maryland, he took a factory job alongside his father and uncles and remained a factory worker for 15 years.

During this period, he wrote and published poetry, short fiction, and freelance journalism; he also founded a literary journal. He went on to earn many advanced degrees, and became an award-winning poet, playwright, and teacher. Weaver took the name Afaa in 1997, after the death of his first child; the name, given to him by a Nigerian playwright, means “oracle."

Losing the 440 Yard Dash

-By Afaa Michael Weaver

If he hits the curve before you do, all is lost
is all I remember when the coach yelled out
to start, to kick it down the short straightaway

into the curve, the curve a devil’s handiwork,
with Worsenski ahead of me, two hundred sixty
pounds, one hundred pounds more than me,

and all I could see were the Converse soles
of a boy I dusted in my dreams on the bus
out here to make the track team, letters

for my sweater, girls going goo-goo over me,
coaches from big-league schools with papers
to say I was headed for glory, my unkempt

disappointment in me now sealed by winged
feet beating me in the curve, Worsenski as big
as the USS Enterprise sliding through Pacific

waters, parting the air in front of him that
sucked back behind just to hold me in my grip
of deep shame until I wished I were not there.

I wanted more than being human, a warrior
of field and track would be bursting out now
ripping open my chest with masculinity

to make Jesse Owens proud or jealous,
or inspired or something other than me
the pulling-up caboose slower than mud

running like an old man really walking,
all the most valuable parts of me inside
my brain in wishes, in dreams, in things

not yet born into the world, in calculations
of beauty, in yearning for love, for the word
of love, for some adoration from Wanda,

the most beautiful girl in the whole block,
black like me and wondering just what
life had to give those of us who can fly.

Copyright © 2015 Afaa Michael Weaver. Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner.