This moving work from poet James Cagney appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Alta Journal.


My body has a legend,
he says mid-story,
and wipes his mouth.

Then, as to recite grace,
stands at the table to prove it.

Beneath the drape of his shirt
a savanna of skin ripples slightly

For a blink, I don’t understand
what’s missing:

He had no belly button.
His stomach paved mythologically clean.

We’d been so casual
playing catch with origin stories
after class
over crepes and pancakes.
Our roll call of scars.

We’d been speaking of doctors and mistakes
when his face shifted gears,
then he landed his fork like tapping a baton.

This is how boys are.
Show and prove
Tale of the tape

People are terrified by skin
not meeting their expectations

For years, white women were forbidden
from showing their navels on TV

the networks were alarmed
over what they symbolized
how they seemed to prove something
root us together

seeing the placenta as nebula
a star-field of skin
a chandelier from which
we’re all suspended

flaring out from the same light

if men can write shame laws over belly buttons
it’s no surprise the fumbling
of a Black child
steaming new and helpless
in a cage of fingers.

a rabbit midwifed by a hawk

I know this now.

yet, how I doubted him, Lord

my sticky, maple fingers
trembled in prayer all night

Oakland native James Cagney is the author of Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory, winner of the 2019 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award.
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