Avoiding the Spirits

Berniece: I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits.
They never be walking around in this house.
          —The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

When at sunset the congregation gathers
in the low light of St. Helena’s old gray
Baptist chapel; they guard their hearts
from the whisper of the low-bellied trees;
calling on the blood as they brush off
the dew on their coats by the burial ground.
When they sing, the sound has the flat
simplicity of prayer, a sound that brings
heat to your neck, tears to your eyes
because you can hear in the rugged
rafters, hewn from old-growth trees
at the water’s edge, the voices of all those
people who had nothing but lament
and Jesus to fill the gap of a stolen life.
The sisters can’t make a man cross
that threshold unless he has come
to lay someone to rest or to witness
a child’s blessing or a daughter’s
wedding, for a man can’t hear the flat
voices in the church and not feel
the droop of his shoulders
and the weight of his dangling
empty hands that have too often
hung helpless for prudence’s sake, for good
sense, making him not a man
but an empty shell, a creature
who laughs to stop the shame
of not being able to keep his family
together and safe. No, he will rather
sit in the dark cathedral of the juke
joint and let the blues of sardonic
regret and caustic distance
wash him, make him know that
he is alone on the road, and all

he’s got is his story. My people
long gave up on the ancestors
when they learned that those
stepping out of the woods
are the crippled gods, the beaten
gods, the blackened and burnt-out
tongueless gods, the broken
gods, the castrated gods, the shadow
gods with questions, asking
us if they will ever heal, asking
for a balm from the living. Who wants
to pour libation for the burdened
spirits? Silence is our salvation,
that and the reassurance of this earth,
this clear air, this forgetting.