They embraced, touching bodies, and slapping each other on the back three times, as if they belonged to an old fraternity of rituals and mystery. They let go of each other, and did it a second time, with their heads touching each other’s shoulders. It was Italian and it was African and it was this that joined them in their close friendship these past nine years. They saw each other every day, either at school or here in BJ’s room. (Austin Clarke)
BJ, it’s me, Marco, primed for closing day at Woodbine. I’ve got The Globe and Mail and Racing Forum. Let’s drink vodka and listen to A Love Supreme—scrutinize and add to our winnings.
BJ, come on man, answer the door. It’s cold and the longer I stand, the more I feel guilty about us skipping school and lying. Dai—my mother’s croonin’ in my head as she fills the kitchen with tomato sauce smells and the sizzle of veal cutlets crinkling in olive oil: Oggi? She asks—Today? How school was? Fai lu bravo—be a good boy—make your mamma proud. You know when you were born, you papà who work so hard laying bricks, his hands all rough, the skin all thick and cracked—you no gonna have hands like him–he look at you; you a bello bambino right from the start—born dolce come un angelo –a sweet angel. You papà he take you tiny hands that open like a newborn dream, ‘n smiley, he say–all serious in good Italian, like he blessing you with prophecy—“Felice, queste sono le mani di un dottore”—these are the hands of a doctor.
I remember the beatin’ you got the first time we cut class when we were just ten. After that, your mom got the landlord to keep an eye on you. He’s out there each morning, checking for your footsteps in the snow lining the lane out your apartment. It didn’t take you long though—to step out, coat over your PJ’s, then back in, planting each foot exactly into the dark ghosts your shoes pressed into that cold, white betrayal.
Your mom’s none wiser, headin’ out each morning early to her housekeeper job. So proud of your report cards, and how good you’re lookin’; still making you lunch at eighteen and clippin’ a five dollar bill to the bag; layin’ plans for you the way my pop lays bricks. Mixin’ her hard work with your future; maybe she saw a doctor in your hands too.
BJ smiled. He turned Coltrane up. The car was filled once more with the beauty of music, with the pulse of emotion, the feeling of the time: and they remained quiet in the waves of the melodious tune they both liked so much and argued about. BJ insisted, because of his new religion, that it was a religious chant, Marco, equally insistent, said it was a love song.
“A love supreme,” He began chanting. “A love supreme. Nineteen times the brother says a love supreme! Nineteen times, BJ!” He never lacked enthusiasm about this aspect of the song. (Austin Clarke)
But praise God, he doesn’t own a car. A car is the surest thing to make a police shoot a black man dead. (BJ’s mother)
BJ, you were something else. All those books, you were like a walking ‘cyclopedia, man. And also a genius at the track. Dragging on a Gaulois, all bohemian-intellectual, drinking vodka and OJ. That morning, I could see The Autobiography of Malcolm X where you’d been sitting reading, a strip of Kente cloth marking the page. All those shelves, lined with books; all that Black power.
Something in your voice though—when you said, Today’s the last day. We were smokin’, had our best year yet. We made thousands each plus our combined kitty and it was all your figuring: “Concentration and dedication,” you preached, “we are investors, don’t ever bet on longshots, longshots are for racetrack touts.”
You warned me that it wasn’t safe driving to the track—meaning it wasn’t safe for a Black guy and an Italian to be driving that kind of car. I can still hear you askin’ “Have you told your parents you own a white BMW, more correctly, a fifty-percent share in a late-model, white BMW? Because I insisted, “BJ, man, what’s the point of havin’ wheels if we’re stuck on the TTC?” And because you loved our classy car, loved speedin’ on the 401, our vanity plates yelling BLUE….
“Only because it’s the last day, Marco,” you agreed, “because it’s the last day. “
War Requiem for BJ
BJ’s unsettled spirit patrols Toronto’s
circled city. What was his crime? Breathing
while black; no rest where haunted cop-lights shine.
A shaky good-bye spoils each day’s
parting; grave our hearts, pounding out prayer:
whose night tears-up as sirens wail?
This day handcuffed to death:
licenced breach, Billy-clubs, bullets
–BJ’s broken, blood-soaked body.
No need to cover-up this end
foretold in newspapers over
and over on spattered screens.
Though Justice reels, conned, battered
we rise to weigh and render—We!
No rest ‘till there accounting be.
No rest this day when a scarlet night
eclipses its hunted sun; unshackle tongues,
sound BJ’s song–ring no passing bell.
—Instead let squad cars light
this shattered, shrouded, street,
let sirens be his passing bell.
What’s law if chance be branded in skin
what’s a Black life if force spins red
and cruisers rev to bleach the streets?
Suspended in his timeless cell
lone memory burned in BJ’s eyes
penned, he paced and paced until
Malcolm’s voice abolished walls,
his speech set free metallic fear.
Plain clothes walked him from reverie
to a blue, unmarked car–Iago’s white heat;
then under dispatched snow, night sticks
sundering stars, guns scripting shadow.
This story I have wrought primed by bodies
buried in margins–margins fleshed in words
so lines take-on blood and hold,
No rest—let no shade go untold.
Giovanna Riccio is a Toronto poet and scholar whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online publications. Her poetry and essays are included in a number of anthologies. She is the author of the chapbook, Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) and Strong Bread, (Quattro Books, 2011). Her poems have been translated into Italian, Spanish and Romanian and she regularly participates in local, national and international literary events. From 2009 to 2012, she co-organized the Not So Nice Italian Girls and Friends reading series and is presently a team member of the highly successful Sheb-e Sh’er poetry series.