Détente by Kwame Dawes


Then one day you know you do not believe
your own threats; you know that the mystery
of your wisdom is a lie, and you feel
like a fool staring him down, telling
him he must do as you say; you know
he doesn’t have to, you know he will call
your bluff. A horse will die dumb,
that a leather strap dangling loosely
on the fence will hold him at bay,
keep him from drifting away; but not
this boy, he never stopped pulling
at it, and now you stand there looking
at him and you both know you have
nothing left, short of killing him.
And even then, he will fight back,
his body will take a blow and reshape
itself for more. All you have is bluster,
words, and your two long arms;
all you have is the guilt he must feel.
This is your son; this man,
this scowling fool who hates
you like you have never known
hate, who is thinking, you know,
of stepping on your chest, stomping
you down, like you did your own
father who cried like a baby,
crawling to the shelter of the live
oak, spitting blood, pleading
for mercy; and in that moment
he broke something in you, killed
that last abiding myth, the fence
around you. You tell yourself
he must never feel alone like that,
abandoned like that; no son of yours
must think of the world as bleak
as you did that night, walking
east like you was looking for Africa,
leaving behind the homestead,
the bed, the order of things, alone
now. You stand here now
waiting to tell a lie, waiting
to build a fence around you,
waiting like all fathers should.



Kwame Dawes is the author of eighteen collections of poetry, most recently Duppy Conqueror (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, numerous anthologies, and plays. He has won Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emmy and was the 2013 awardee of the Paul Engel Prize. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. Dawes is the Associate Poetry Editor at Peepal Tree Press, the Series editor of the University of South Carolina Poetry Series, and the Founding Director of the African Poetry Book Fund. Dawes teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is Director of the biennial Calabash International Literary Festival.