by Jeffrey Harrison
Feature image: Charles Émile Jacque. Seated Boy, n.d. The Art Institute of Chicago.
If I call my son by my daughter’s name
or vice versa; or if I call one of them
by the dog’s name, or the other way around—
all of which I have been known to do—
it’s funny, and only means I’m spaced out.
But when, while talking on my cell phone,
I walked past my new African-American colleague
and distractedly said hi, using the name
of another black colleague, it was stupendously
unfunny. It felt like I’d been punched
in the stomach, which is probably what
I deserved, even if he shrugged it off,
as he seemed to do when I caught up with him
and apologized too fervently,
my assumption that I’d caused him pain
itself a kind of racism, no doubt. It’s so
complicated!—though it doesn’t seem to be
for my teenage son and daughter,
and I’m glad of that, and admire their ease.
As for me and my colleague that day,
he absolved me with offhand grace,
doing his best to nudge me away
from my floundering shame, then
gently steered the conversation elsewhere
the way one does to protect a child.
Jeffrey Harrison is the author of six full-length books of poetry, including, most recently, Between Lakes, which was published by Four Way Books in 2020, and Into Daylight, which won the Dorset Prize and was published by Tupelo Press in 2014. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other honors. His poems have appeared widely in magazines and journals, as well as in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize volumes, and other anthologies.