How We Celebrated Tiny Flames

We didn’t think about squandering, then,
and it never once occurred to us to save.

Remember when we shot our breaths 
out of ourselves, laughing
at the last loud fart? We couldn’t stop

And we sprayed gasping iridescent drops 
into the air like water from the spray 
nozzle of a garden hose, just for dancing.

We played chase like being hunted was a game,
like capture was a cartoon scene, we fell down
laughing. Wait, we said, I need to catch ––
like it was slow feathers falling from the sky
to be cupped in our open hands

––And remember, how we painted with it, too?
We blew our canvasses across car windows, 
fingertips tracing: here a smile, now a cat,
heart.

And sometimes it was smacked from us, as when we
fell back off a ladder or a swing, but the trick
to waiting was knowing the metaphor and trusting 
that if the next breath could be knocked out

like a ball from a basket, it could also come 
swishing back at the next run up the court,
catching nothing but the nets of our wide-stretched
throats.

We didn’t think about squandering, then, 
and it never once occurred to us to save 
any of what we spent so freely, those fortunes 
that we took for our inheritance. We had no way 

of knowing, then, how easily they could go. Really,
it takes only a certain amount of pressure, 
applied across a certain length of time, 
but how could we have begun to measure 

what we had yet to grow the strength 
to apply?

We couldn’t, not when 
time was what we flew threw, 
roaring our laughs 
like lions 
until they ran out.

Action/Reaction

Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.

If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it
—or if none of the hearers can connect 
the substance of the scream to the face 
of the wounded, whether because 
these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable 
to perceive how a body nearby could be capable 
of keening like that, or because the hearers are not 
in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human sounds, when considering a  
particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight
against any witness— did it happen? 

Same question may be posed 
with other variants. If the cry was piercing 
and potentially recognizable but muffled 
by the presence of a sudden hand 
against an open mouth, does it count?  
If the moment of the cry coincides 
with the collapse of the known world 
and the known world in question 
was once synonymous with the depths 
of the forest, did a cry even happen, 
if the place that it would have 
poured into was suddenly gone? 

Now consider other variables. 
If access is granted, but no one is told, 
does the person at the gates no one was trying 
to approach after years of denial get to shrug, 
raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based 
on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . . 

Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets 
to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing 
force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case 
of protection of children. A body will persist until 
it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens 
for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, 
this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you 
shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door 
quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key 
and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?

Alma Thomas, Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Define: cry. Which sounds are included?
Define: pains. Which count?
Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, 
who is screaming––and who has stopped?

Where do these faces go when they leave us?
Here’s a better question: why do we keep 
insisting that they are ours?

If someone shuts their eyes against some 
never-ending light, can they be considered 
a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river 
of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name 
for the resulting body? And if someone removes 
a dam and the river moves again, now altered 
in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?

If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, 
do these vows have any bearing once obscured 
by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?

If breath denied fails to void the depth 
of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows?
The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of 
nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand 
grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original 
promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was 
discovered that the matter they contained was mostly 
open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, 
haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?

Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound 
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. 
Sing.

About the artistAlma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students.