Essex Hemphill: “We keep treasure any king would count as dear”: Poems of lust, poems of tenderness

ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.ZP_portrait by Rotimi Fani-Kayode_Dennis Carney and Essex Hemphill in Brixton, London, 1988.  Hemphill is holding Carney and kissing the back of his neck.


Essex Hemphill (1957-1995)

From: Ceremonies (1992)

Rights and Permissions”


Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

very close

to my parched lips

and whisper

“I’m sorry,”

before I turn my head

over the toilet

and listen to the seed

splash into the water.


I rinse what remains

down the drain,

dry my hands –

they return

to their tasks

as if nothing

out of place

has occurred.


I go on being,

wearing my shirts

and trousers,

voting, praying,

paying rent,

pissing in public,

cussing cabs,

fussing with utilities.


What I learn

as age advances,

relentless pillager,

is that we shrink

inside our shirts

and trousers,

or we spread

beyond the seams.

The hair we cherished



Sometimes I hold

my warm seed

up to my mouth

and kiss it.

.     .     .

Object Lessons”


If I am comfortable

on the pedestal

you are looking at,

if I am indolent and content

to lay here on my stomach,

my determinations

indulged and glistening

in baby oil and sweat,

if I want to be here, a pet,

to be touched, a toy,

if I choose

to be liked in this way,

if I desire to be object,

to be sexualized

in this object way,

by one or two at a time,

for a night or a thousand days,

for money or power,

for the awesome orgasms

to be had, to be coveted,

or for my own selfish wantonness,

for the feeling of being

pleasure, being touched.

The pedestal was here,

so I climbed up.

I located myself.

I appropriated this context.

It was my fantasy,

my desire to do so

and lie here

on my stomach.

Why are you looking?

What do you wanna

do about it?

.     .     .

Invitations All Around”


If he is your lover,

never mind.

Perhaps, if we ask,

he will join us.

.     .     .

From: Earth Life (1985)


Black Beans”


Times are lean,

Pretty Baby,

the beans are burnt

to the bottom

of the battered pot.

Let’s make fierce love

on the overstuffed

hand-me-down sofa.

We can burn it up, too.

Our hungers

will evaporate like – money.

I smell your lust,

not the pot burnt black

with tonight’s meager meal.

So we can’t buy flowers for our table.

Our kisses are petals,

our tongues caress the bloom.

Who dares to tell us

we are poor and powerless?

We keep treasure

any king would count as dear.

Come on, Pretty Baby.

Our souls can’t be crushed

like cats crossing streets too soon.

Let the beans burn all night long.

Our chipped water glasses are filled

with wine from our loving.

And the burnt black beans –


.     .     .

Better Days”


In daytime hours,

guided by instincts

that never sleep,

the faintest signals

come to me

over vast spaces

of etiquette

and restraint.

Sometimes I give in

to the pressing

call of instince,

knowing the code of my kind

better than I know

the National Anthem

or “The Lord’s Prayer”.

I am so driven by my senses

to abandon restraint,

to seek pure pleasure

through every pore.

I want to smell the air

around me thickly scented

with a playboy’s freedom.

I want impractical relationships.

I want buddies and partners,

names I will forget by sunrise.

I only want to feel good.

I only want to freak sometimes.

There are no other considerations.

A false safety compels me

to think I will never need kindness,

so I don’t recognize

that need in someone else.


But it concerns me,

going off to sleep

and waking

throbbing with wants,

that I am being

consumed by want.

And I wonder

where stamina comes from

to search all night

until my footsteps ring

awake the sparrows,

and I go home, ghost walking,

driven indoors to rest

my hunter’s guise,

to love myself as fiercely

as I have in better days.

.     .     .

From: Conditions (1986)


Isn’t It Funny”


I don’t want to hear you beg.

I’m sick of beggars.

If you a man

take what you want from me

or what you can.

Even if you have me

like some woman across town

you think you love.


Look at me

standing here with my dick

as straight as yours.

What do you think this is?

The weathercock on a rooftop?


We sneak all over town

like two damn thieves,

whiskey on our breath,

no streetlights on the back roads,

just the stars above us

as ordinary as they should be.


We always have to work it out,

walk it through, talk it over,

drink and smoke our way into sodomy.

I could take you in my room

but you’re afraid the landlady

will recognize you.


I feel thankful I don’t love you.

I won’t have to suffer you later on.


But for now I say, Johnnie Walker,

have you had enough, Johnnie Walker?


Against the fogged car glass

do I look like your crosstown lover?

Do I look like Shirley?


When you reach to kiss her lips

they’re thick like mine.

Her hair is cut close, too,

like mine –

isn’t it?

.     .     .

Between Pathos and Seduction”

(For Larry)


Love potions

solve no mysteries,

provide no comment

on the unspoken.

Our lives tremble

between pathos and seduction.

Our inhibitions

force us to be equal.

We swallow hard

black love potions

from a golden glass.

New language beckons us.

Its dialect present.


Through my eyes

focused as pure, naked light,

fixed on you like magic,

clarity. I see risks.

Regrets? There will be none.

Let some wonder,

some worry, some accuse.

Let you and I know

the tenderness

only we can bear.

.     .     .

American Wedding”


In america,

I place my ring

on your cock

where it belongs.

No horsemen

bearing terror,

no soldiers of doom

will swoop in

and sweep us apart.

They’re too busy

looting the land

to watch us.

They don’t know

we need each other


They expect us to call in sick,

watch television all night,

die by our own hands.

They don’t know

we are becoming powerful.

Every time we kiss

we confirm the new world coming.


What the rose whispers

before blooming

I vow to you.

I give you my heart,

a safe house.

I give you promises other than

milk, honey, liberty.

I assume you will always

be a free man with a dream.

In america,

place your ring

on my cock

where it belongs.

Long may we live

to free this dream.

.     .     .

Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995) was a poet and activist, as frank and raw – and as radical – as one can get.  Hemphill’s compañero (and hero) in activism was Joseph Fairchild Beam (1954 – 1988), writer, editor, Black-Gay civil-rights agitator for positive change.  In a 1984 essay Beam declared:  “The bottom line is this:  We are Black men who are proudly gay.  What we offer is our lives, our love, our visions.  We are rising to the love we all need.  We are coming home with our heads held up high.”

When Hemphill wrote “In america, place your ring on my cock where it belongs”  he was probably – though one cannot be sure – not talking about the symbolic ring of the traditional marriage rite as we all know it.   And yet…his fervent desire was for Black, Gay Americans to be meaningfully re-connected to their own communities, communities to which they felt a powerful yearning to belong – having never left them, deep down in their hearts.  We feature the following photographs because we feel that Hemphill – even though he called his black, gay world “this tribe of warriors and outlaws” – would get it.  To paraphrase the final line of his poem American WeddingLong may you live to free your dream.


ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City.ZP_Two women celebrate with friends and relatives after their outdoor marriage in Washington Square Park , New York City, 2011.

ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.ZP_After 33 years together these two handsome septuagenarian New Yorkers married legally in 2011. Dignity and great pride are evident on their faces.

ZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men's Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean MorissetZP_2008 poster directed toward the fathers of young, black, gay men_Gay Men’s Health Center, NYC_© photographer Ocean Morisset_Essex Hemphill, were he alive today, would’ve been heartened by such an initiative, knowing full well that the blood, sweat and tears of many ordinary people – who are also activists who love their communities – made such progress possible.

.     .     .     .     .

Audrey Lorde and Essex Hemphill: Mothers and Fathers


Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill

Two Black-American poets: one a New Yorker from Harlem with family roots in Grenada and Barbados, the other growing up in Washington D.C. with roots in Columbia, South Carolina; one a passionately political Lesbian with children, the other a passionately political Gay man who would die of complications from AIDS.  Both of these writers, in poems and essays combining clear thinking with deep feeling – and in the facts of their lived lives – sought to widen what later came to be known as “identity politics”.  Their work goes far beyond it, establishing a universality of truth.  In the poems below Lorde and Hemphill reflect upon the meaning of relationship (and sometimes the lack thereof) with their mothers and fathers. These are poems of great intimacy and intelligence with head and heart in thrilling unison.


Audre Lorde in Berlin_1984_photograph © Dagmar Schultz


Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)

Legacy – Hers”


When love leaps from my mouth

cadenced in that Grenada wisdom

upon which I first made holy war

then I must reassess

all my mother’s words

or every path I cherish.


Like everything else I learned from Linda*

this message hurtles across still uncalm air

silent tumultuous freed water

descending an imperfect drain.


I learn how to die from your many examples

cracking the code of your living

heroisms collusions invisibilities

constructing my own

book of your last hours

how we tried to connect

in that bland spotless room

one bright Black woman

to another bred for endurance

for battle


island women make good wives

whatever happens they’ve seen worse…


your last word to me was wonderful

and I am still seeking the rest

of that terrible acrostic


(from Lorde’s collection The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, 1993)

*Linda was the name of Lorde’s mother.

.     .     .

Audre Lorde

Father Son and Holy Ghost”


I have not ever seen my father’s grave.


Not that his judgement eyes have been


nor his great hands’ print

on our evening doorknobs

one half turn each night

and he would come

drabbled with the world’s business

massive and silent as the whole day’s wish

ready to redefine each of our shapes –

but that now the evening doorknobs wait

and do not recognize us as we pass.


Each week a different woman –

regular as his one quick glass each evening –

pulls up the grass his stillness grows

calling it week. Each week

A different woman has my mother’s face

and he, who time has,


must be amazed

who knew and loved but one.


My father died in silence, loving creation

and well-defined response.

He lived

still judgements on familiar things

and died

knowing a January 15th that year me.


Lest I go into dust

I have not ever seen my father’s grave.


(1968, revised 1976)

.     .     .

Audre Lorde

Inheritance – His”




My face resembles your face

less and less each day. When I was young

no one mistook whose child I was.

Features build colouring

alone among my creamy fine-boned sisters

marked me *Byron’s daughter.


No sun set when you died, but a door

opened onto my mother. After you left

she grieved her crumpled world aloft

an iron fist sweated with business symbols

a printed blotter. dwell in a house of Lord’s

your hollow voice chanting down a hospital corridor

yea, though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death

I will fear no evil.




I rummage through the deaths you lived

swaying on a bridge of question.

At seven in Barbados

dropped into your unknown father’s life

your courage vault from his tailor’s table

back to the sea

Did the Grenada treeferns sing

your 15th summer as you jumped ship

to seek your mother

finding her too late

surrounded with new sons?


Who did you bury to become enforcer of the law

the handsome legend

before whose raised arm even trees wept

a man of deep and wordless passion

who wanted sons and got five girls?

You left the first two scratching in a treefern’s shade

the youngest is a renegade poet

searching for your answer in my blood.


My mother’s Grenville tales

spin through early summer evenings.

But you refused to speak of home

of stepping proud Black and penniless

into this land where only white men

ruled by money. How you laboured

in the docks of the Hotel Astor

your bright wife a chambermaid upstairs

welded love and survival to ambition

as the land of promise withered

crashed the hotel closed

and you peddle dawn-bought apples

from a pushcart on Broadway.

Does an image of return

wealthy and triumphant

warm your chilblained fingers

as you count coins in the Manhattan snow

or is it only Linda

who dreams of home?


When my mother’s first-born cries for milk

in the brutal city winter

do the faces of your other daughters dim

like the image of the treeferned yard

where a dark girl first cooked for you

and her ash heap still smells curry?




Did the secret of my sisters steal your tongue

like I stole money from your midnight pockets

stubborn and quaking

as you threaten to shoot me if I am the one?

the naked lightbulbs in our kitchen ceiling

glint off your service revolver

as you load whispering.


Did two little dark girls in Grenada

dart like flying fish

between your averred eyes

and my pajama-less body

our last adolescent summer

eavesdropped orations

to your shaving mirror

our most intense conversations

were you practising how to tell me

of my twin sisters abandoned

as you had been abandoned

by another Black woman seeking

her fortune Grenada Barbados

Panama Grenada.

New York City.




You bought old books at auction

for my unlanguaged world

gave me your idols Marcus Garvey Citizen Kane

and morsels from your dinner place

when I was seven.

I owe you my Dahomeyan jaw

the free high school for gifted girls

no one else thought I should attend

and the darkness that we share.

Our deepest bonds remain

the mirror and the gun.




An elderly Black judge

known for his way with women

visits this island where I live

shakes my hand, smiling

I knew your father,” he says

quite a man!”  Smiles again.

I flinch at his raised eyebrow.

A long-gone woman’s voice

lashes out at me in parting

You will never be satisfied

until you have the whole world

in your bed!”


Now I am older than you were when you died

overwork and silence exploding in your brain.

You are gradually receding from my face.

Who were you outside the 23rd Psalm?

Knowing so little

how did I become so much

like you?


Your hunger for rectitude

blossoms into rage

the hot tears of mourning

never shed for you before

your twisted measurements

the agony of denial

the power of unshared secrets.


(Written January – September 1992.  From Lorde’s The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance)

*Byron was the name of Lorde’s father.

.     .     .     .     .

Essex Hemphill in 1991


Essex Hemphill (1957 – 1995)

The Father, Son, and Unholy Ghosts”


We are not always
the bravest sons
our fathers dream.
Nor do they always
dream of us.
We don’t always
recognize him
if we have never
seen his face.
We are suspicious
of strangers.
is he the one?


I stand waist deep
in the decadence of forgetting.
The vain act of looking the other way.
Insisting there can be peace
and fecundity without confrontation.
The nagging question of blood hounds me.
How do I honour it?


I don’t understand
our choice of angers,
your domestic violence,
my flaring temper.
I wanted tenderness
to belong to us
more than food or money.
The ghost of my wants
is many things:
lover, guardian angel,
key to our secrets,
the dogs we let sleep.
The rhythm of silence
we do not disturb.


I circle questions of blood.
I give a fierce fire dance.
The flames call me.
It is safe. I leap
unprepared to be brave. I surrender
more frightened of being alone.
I have to do this
to stay alive.
To be acknowledged.
Fire calls. I slither
to the flames
to become birth.


A black hole, gaseous,
blisters around its edge,
swallows our estranged years.
They will never return
except as frightening remembrances
when we are locked in closets
and cannot breathe or scream.

I want to be free, daddy,
of the black hole between us.
The typical black hole.
If we let it be
it will widen enough
to swallow us.
Won’t it?


In my loneliest gestures
learning to live
with less is less.
I forestalled my destiny.
I never wanted
to be your son.
You never
made the choice
to be my father.
What we have learned
from no text book:
is how to live without
one another.
How to evade the stainless truth.
Drug pain bleary-eyed.
Store our waste in tombs
beneath the heart,
knowing at any moment
it could leak out.
And do we expect to survive?
What are we prepared for?
Trenched off.
Communications down.
Angry in alien tongues.
We use extreme weapons
to ward off one another.
Some nights, our opposing reports
are heard as we dream.
Silence is the deadliest weapon.
We both use it.
Precisely. Often.






.     .     .


In the Life”


Mother, do you know

I roam alone at night?

I wear colognes,

tight pants, and

chains of gold,

as I search

for men willing

to come back

to candlelight.


I’m not scared of these men

though some are killers

of sons like me. I learned

there is no tender mercy

for men of colour,

for sons who love men

like me.


Do not feel shame for how I live.

I chose this tribe

of warriors and outlaws.

Do not feel you failed

some test of motherhood.

My life has borne fruit

no woman could have given me



If one of these thick-lipped,

wet, black nights

while I’m out walking,

I find freedom in this village.

If I can take it with my tribe

I’ll bring you here.

And you will never notice

the absence of rice

and bridesmaids.






.     .     .

Audre Lorde poems © The Audre Lorde Estate

Essex Hemphill poems © Cleiss Press

.     .     .     .     .