By Dion O’Reilly
Feature image: Paul Gauguin. Mahna no Varua Ino (The Devil Speaks), 1894/1895. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
He sits in thinned Hanes, reading
The New Republic, one leg crossed over the other—
picking at a flaked green toenail,
some rot caught in the steaming air
during amphibious assault on Guadalcanal.
And on weekends under wraiths of blue smoke,
he visits with his buddies—
men in striped bell-bottoms and afros,
women with long noses and gypsy earrings,
French professors from the university—
organizing for the first farmworker for Congress,
the first black man for president, the next Kennedy.
At five, he rises like a machine and feeds the mastiffs,
leaves to teach high school, his civics students
invading the city council, printing T-shirts in the garage,
storming a precinct in Watsonville, registering voters
around the vinegar plant and the lined-up shanties
by the cabbage field.
He fortifies the teachers’ union with longshoremen
and brings in the NAACP to meet the environmentalists.
You gotta get ’em talking, he tells me.
Like Tip and the Gipper. Everyone lifted up.
Except my sister and me, when—
together with my mother—he sets upon us
with whip and belt. Their cheeks, as they beat us,
red as bruises, eyes glazed
like they’re having sex.
Until I turn nine, his fist suspended over me,
as I stand in front of the dead fireplace,
a piece of sharp kindling in my hand,
prepared to kill them both.
Doreen, he says, I’m not doing this shit anymore.
So she beats us herself
while he stays out till midnight
attending meetings with the League of Women Voters.
Dion O’Reilly’s debut book, Ghost Dogs, was published in February 2020 by Terrapin Books. Her poems appear in Cincinnati Review, Poetry Daily, Narrative, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Journal of American Poetry, Rattle, The Sun, and other literary journals and anthologies. She is a member of The Hive Poetry Collective, which produces podcasts and radio shows, and she leads online workshops with poets from all over the United States and Canada.