Jim Limber Burning Where No Fire Is

Shane McCrae


Such as I’ve been I am I never was

Bad or a good boy    ’cept as I was born

Bad like you know the badness in a glass

Of fresh milk if    you leave it in the sun

Will be exposed by the blazing inquiry

Bad like the sun won’t make it    fresher not

Bad like a white boy’s badness lights the sky

With a strange second sun that dies    unnat-

urally from the sky    that while it shines

Down on him makes the ground he walks a stage

And when it dies he is himself again

A living Negro never walked a stage

We are the ghosts of who comes    after us

And their memorial I    bet I was sent

To Limbo    ’cause whoever watches was-

n’t sure what good and bad things I had done

But saw the good and bad    things millions of

Negroes had done before me on my back

And couldn’t add the figures up    and thought

Limbo was good enough and not to dark-

en Heaven    darker than Heaven has to be

Or it might be a storm    of Negroes

in Heaven I bet whoever watches sees

A storm of Negroes piled high thrashing on

My back whoever watches sees a pile

Of Negroes thinks    they’re thrashing ’cause it’s so

Many in one place but the thrashing’s all

The rush of the eye from one black body to

The next and it’s no    thrashing in the bod-

ies but the wrong is in the eye    I bet

Whoever watches didn’t see I had

A storm of Negroes on my back but it

Was a black cloud like the black clouds I’ve seen

In the far Heaven I’ve seen from Limbo    like

The clouds I’ve seen    from which I’ve seen stars born

Such storms as are the glory of the dark

Shane McCrae’s most recent books are The Gilded Auction Block: Poems and Sometimes I Never Suffered. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Image: Horace Pippin, Cabin in the Cotton, c. 1931–1937. From the Art Institute of Chicago.