Long Lines by Michael S. Collins

The British Empire was built on my grandfather’s ass—
a constipated unstable foundation, so help me—
And that ruff you see in paintings
round Queen Elizabeth’s neck–
that’s my grandfather’s ass, stretched out!
Stretched backwards in time. That’s how it so fluffy!
That’s how I know every damn thing
about the smell of a queen.
The smell from a queen, believe me, is not like the smell from a girl you love,
not at all like the smell from a girl you love,
not at all like the smell from a sweet thing you love so hard
The curve of her foot when she walk by the sea
make you beg and bawl and salt the waves with tears.
Love! Like a spell
the skin of a girl casts. It come up from a thousand and one pores,
and from her mouth when she laugh and out from her blouse
when she put on her gold and silver chains.
Lord Jesus! The smell from a woman you love
make you realize why God make the nose.
Believe me, the smell from Queens of Empires is not like that.
The Queen of a empire smell like empires: like massacres.
I that come from a long line of coolies know that:
I who come from a long line of black man them know that.
God knows I come from long lines of all kinds—
Long lines of cantankerous bastards speaking every language
people ever used to tie up loose ends in them brains.

I come from lines like the lines you see in immigration offices—the sort of lines
them pay armed guards to frown at,
the sort of lines that lady clerks, de boil with them first week of menopause,
shout into straightness:
“Get back! Wait you turn! Keep behind that de red line!
Leave the line you lose your place, sah! Put your papers in order!

No bother me life with disordered papers!” And so on and so forth.
I come from long lines of all kinds of things—
Lines of people waiting for fresh water—people
breathing soft, soft—afraid of them own lungs for fear the lungs
is eggs a hurricane lay in them
when it tear up them towns.
I come from lines so long them reach down a the bottom a the sea,
lines with big sharks
swimming over them and the squid tribes swimming over them—
lines that reach all the way under the sea to Shanghai, believe me.
There is a Sung emperor in my bloodline, no question.
I come from the same Sungs that made a empire pretty as a Faberge egg
so you could hardly smell the death in it—a artist empire
that the Mongols came down and smash in an attack slower than honey
on a cold morning—an attack seventy years long
that come down from Mongolia
so slow the Sung soldiers’ babies grow up and die
before it broke through them lines!
—I come from long lines of builders
of empires and smashers of empires—
I and I sweat was brewed in battlefields, watch out.

I pass a policeman’s horse one time and the damn thing smell
the history in me, and throw him rider.
I come from long lines—let Malik talk ‘bout Egypt.
I and I lines reach round the world….
All the same, Malik and I is brothers.
Many times me and Malik chew up the world in we chit chat.
But parting of the ways had to come.
Now Malik is a prophet. And me?
A coolie raised up in a black man’s house!
Confusion, confusion. My name is confusion
from the day my parents burn up
in them shop throwing water on them merchandise
and on all that money that come from long lines of money
that reach back to the beginning of work—
money stained with the piss Adam took in front of Eden.
Them was throwing water on the saltfish and on red-hot cans
of bullybeef because by then there was no difference
between them merchandise and them life. At the last them was throwing
water on one another—too late: water wrinkling in the buckets
like understanding—too late. Water, believe me, from a long line of water,
water reaching back to the water Jesus used to wash death out of Lazarus’ eyes: Too late.

And I de bawl outside with the sun
Going down behind me, like someone set fire to it too.
And the firemen come up too late, too late—
And I bawling water all the while, while my parents de burn.
Who knows who set the fire? God himself, maybe—
maybe him take my parents’ white shop for a cloud
and lay a piece of lightning in it so the lightning could age good,
like a piece a bamboo for making flutes.
Or if God didn’t set it, maybe it was that one that we lay off that set it—

that one that lose him job when uncle Gao come from China
with not a cent left over after what him paid for fare.
Gao gone a America after the fire
and promise to send for me: soon come.
Him up there now in some tall house, I know it.
Him up there rich and fat, like a pig stuffed with diamonds.
Must be so–cause I no hear word the first
since him gone. That’s how I come up in Malik’s family—
Malik that used to put a price on every can in the shop.
Them say Malik seeing visions now,

screaming in the dark at angels, like Ise wasn’t angel
enough for him—Ise de move that ass that could raise the dead—
Ise de raise them eyes that make you ‘fraid you go catch on fire.
Ise break more than one heart, for true.
And all the long lines of me ancestors couldn’t half keep her
from breaking mine—Lord, she shoot a glance like a arrow
that fly through a crowd of one billion past and future people
and strike the poor man hiding in the center and brok’ him heart
like a old vase—and she do it without so much as noticing
or hearing your heart crack so loud it wake the devil in hell.

So: Me gone. Goodbye Malik and Ise. Goodbye Jamaica. I gone a America
Where the wheel of fortune tear you past off like a rind
and a Jamaican black man Chinese have a chance
to dry him soul—all made of tears—fi 75 cents in a Laundromat drier—
America, where a imported man can
swallow all the salt left over from him soul, and keep himself from passing out
in all the rush and noise the cities sleep in. America, where
him can walk down the street
like the beginning itself: Fresh!