Seventeen by Kwame Dawes


After a while the locks grow over-worn with use,
the screws get loose, and the gate flaps,
careless; the water flows, quick as change
filling up the low-bank gutter until the overspill
spreads into the valley, turning slopes
into heavy swamp; the gaping gate,
no gardening here; the wood is fat with
water swell—this is the dream she has
for ten nights: a flooded plain, a house
floating on a lake crowded with debris,
the remains of a sudden storm,
bats, trousers, a piano with a gaping
hole, a guitar covered in moss, an upright ornate
armchair, a listing wooden trunk
moving with dignity, nudging the flapping
gate before sliding in; an instrument
probing the loose thighs of a woman
who has learned not to argue with
prophecy but to praise the prophet
loud enough to distract him—perhaps
to drown his words. The mountains,
oh, the mountains—on Mount Zion
our prophets gathered to seek God’s
face. Seventeen rings, seventeen men,
have stayed long enough to believe
in the ownership of property, long
enough to stake claim—never uncertain
of their right to this woman with a mouth
so tender and ripe it can distract even 

the surest man from his journey. Seventeen
rings; they have come to Aunt Ester
in a dream, a way to understand how
this world will teach a woman to gather
to herself the things she has never had.
Seventeen rings, seventeen men, come
to plant their seed only to find a river
of bloated corpses, the sluggish twist
and turn of bodies floating down river
after a storm. Eventually a man will wake
and see in this dark skin, this impossibly
beautiful skin, the haunting of shipwrecks
in storms, the decay of barren soil,
the remnants of catastrophes in her vagina,
that fruit that can hold them
and drag from them everything they have
cherished. Seventeen rings, a simple
revelation. She smiles, declares she has
stopped counting now. It is hard
not to believe her, yet harder to trust her tongue.



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.