Poetry by Bernard James

Anniversaire sur la rue de Chartres

I will pluck and tease a
smile from your special day.

Feed you Red Beans
and Po Boys and
candlelit Étouffée.

Crack jokes that tickle and
shake you to the bone.

Grip hands as we glide
over passages of
cobble and stone.

Dodge puddle strewn surfaces,
dew-damp slick from the rain.

Savor tongue-cum-chicory
lips, and try not
to go insane.

Claim our spot in the Quarter where
we huddle and cuddle and spoon.

Lay your head on my
chest, for soft Jazz
repose at noon.

Burn Sandalwood incense to
smoke out my residual pain.

Taste fingers made
sticky sweet,
from powdery Beignets.

Dream big dreams and reveal
my exquisite plans.

Stand guard while you
sleep, count each breath
and hold your hand.


relentless. tireless. dismissed
my non-committal platitudes as


rang my doorbell in the early morn.
staked out my job in the afternoon.


tracked my comings and my goings.
scanned the trash left at my curb.

sought and found

a way past my defenses. learned
sans equivocation what was truly

on my mind

backed me into a corner. end of the
road. trapped, I weighed my

limited options

nowhere to hide. forced to look inside.
i tamped down my fear, turned around

and studied love’s face

after all that happened, was surprised
to discover that i wasn’t more afraid.

a revelation

that i could chart a new course, burnish
in the fire and sprout fresh wings.

verily I say

to all who would listen…that I have
not touched the ground in weeks.


With Drums in the Congo
and solos by Satchmo

Bechet cast a shadow
that saw Basie Swing low

The Quarter sold good shows
to hear Diz’s BIG BLOW

Young Jazzers no cash flow
but Ella could Scat tho’.

The A Train’s not too slow
to see Duke’s Apollo

It’s Blue Trane on Alto
his Favorite Things fo’ sho’

With Free Jazz staccato
Ornette changed the tempo

And Miles tied a neat bow
with Sketches in Spain yo’.

Dem clubs in Chicago
had Mingus and Max Roach

The chords always said so
for T. Monk’s Piano

Now Parker and Byrd know
how Be Bop Hard Bop go

Colossus said no mo’
till Bridge his new intro!

Catch and Release

The Suit was old but his teeth were
clean. Every seat was taken, no
room in-between.

In the crush of the rush, the metal
beast punched deeper into Brooklyn’s
gut; while his terminus awaited,

without judgment…no matter what.

Slipped back into the wild with Metro-
Card and scuffed up shoes, no one

stood outside his cage with bogus
smiles or indifferent news.

So alone he sat and he rode…

Suitcase wedged between his legs
with tattered baggages in tow.

For after seasons of confinement,
the man had nowhere else to go.

Burn Away

As we bore witness on that eve of Southern
capitulation I held tight to my mamma’s
trembling hand, thick heat rising as fiery tears
watered our family’s land. Three generations
of cultivation, borne of the sweat and blood from
another continent. Until that moment the only
thing we ever had, but it would be years before
we owned any of it.

Nearly one hundred years would pass before
Baldwin’s brilliance gifted the nation with
his Fire. But those of us uprooted by the Great
Disaster desperately wished to see our next time
now – an inferno that blazed with unshackled
shouts of halleluiah as massa’s family slipped away
without a sound. Torn asunder from their power,
blending in with the town.

In the distance, a foreign rider drew closer and
when mamma saw him, she gripped my hand
even tighter. Our sweat soaked the scorched
and baking earth, that rumbled as man and beast
emerged through smoky veil. Like an apparition
backlit by retribution’s angry flames, the soldier
perched astride that horse was transplendent.
Black Boots. Blue Coat. Silver Sword. My Lord.

On this day, salvation wore a weathered beard
and melancholy face that hinted of numerous
stories to be told. As he stared at me and mamma
some kinda’ way, the trajectory of his thoughts was
unreadable. We failed to decipher the message
painted on his eyes, but the words that burned from
his lips were unmistakable. Turn around. Don’t
look back. You’re free to go.

The soul of Moses lives in Upcountry Carolina,
where cotton still blooms in all its complicated glory
and tobacco grows wild enough to pierce the sky. First
offenders have long since returned to dust, but the
sins that stained her sandy soil remain. Amidst muddy
stalks and fallow fields our spirits keep warm by the
remembered heat of prophetic flames. What blessed
calamity will bring an end to our enduring bondage?

Bernard James’ primary goal as a writer is to produce smart, expressive and culturally authentic content that captures the wide spectrum of aspirations and challenges encountered by persons of color. Themes involving expressions of love as well as the intersection of cultural/geographic boundaries are of particular interest – especially those which offer a broader and more diverse fictional interpretation of the Black diaspora. James’ work has appeared in sx salon, a Small Axe literary platform, as well as the Killens Review of Arts & Letters. He is a current Givens Writing Fellow and resides in the Minneapolis area.

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