“Empath” by Marcus Amaker: Reading Release Party

Thursday February 22nd Poets, teachers, students, artists, and family gathered in the exhibition hall at the Halsey Institute to hear Charleston’s first poet laureate, Marcus Amaker, read from his new collection, Empath.

Amaker opened the night with a meditation on the art that surrounded the crowd in the exhibition hall: artwork from Roberto Diago, a Cuban artist whose pieces dwell on the topic of racism through an abstract lens. Like Diago, Amaker focuses on the subject of racism. The two poetry and paintings existed happily in the shared space that night.

Amaker then introduced three high school students that were a part of their school’s poetry club at Burke High School. Each came up to the microphone to share resilient stories of racial injustices and trials they experience every day. The students were greeted by massive applause and a standing ovation when they finished.

In Empath, Amaker writes the south in a beautiful yet tragic way. He takes the beauty of Charleston’s trees, century old streets, and dingy bars and places them up against the grimy, the ugly, and the unignorable race relations that creep silently through the city.

He opened his set with his poem, “Empath (Bones)” about what the Angel Oak tree would say if it could talk. Here’s a particularly haunting section:

 She’d tell you
About the relentless
Weight of bones
On branches.

 Empath is broken up into six sections: “Habit Creature”, “Earthly Ghosts”, “Holy City”, “Thumb Prints”, “Plug In”, and “Write On”. Some poems have accompanying pictures while others were simply hand-written with doodles and all. Some were commissioned for events around Charleston while others were written and inspired by local places.

In the third row sat Amakers parents and wife: another source of writing material and inspiration for Amaker. Amongst some of his shorter works comes this piece about his wife:

My wife knows me.
Like she knows our garden.
All green thumbs.
A nurturer of soil
And soul.
I am now full of growth,
Leaning toward her light.

Amaker read many of his poems from his family section during the release reading. In the physical book, each poem is accompanied by a black and white photo of the family member he invokes in that piece.

Amaker talked a lot about the inspirations he had for the book.One, the path of hurricanes in the Atlantic and how they resemble the path of slave ships. Another, the way thumbprints look like tree rings.

As with many of his individual poems, his inspirations lie within and around the natural world and the idea of connectedness: how every root and every tree is connected to every other piece of nature, every person to every other, every piece of life to every other.

Reading each poem is like reading a piece of history whether that be the history of Charleston, the South as a whole, or of Amaker’s personal life. Empath paints a full picture of what it means to be a piece of the whole.

I’m thankful to Marcus Amaker for his work and engagement with the poetry community and the Charleston community and finding a place for both of those to sit together.


With the collection there is a complementing jazz album that can be found here in digital download and as a CD or on Vinyl: https://marcusamakerstore.com/


Fallen at Charleston

— featuring: Martín Espada, Terrance Hayes, Shauna Morgan Kirlew, Brenda Marie Osbey, Safiya Sinclair, Frank X Walker, Afaa Michael Weaver, and more.

Fallen at Charleston
by Brenda Marie Osbey


1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike, courtesy of the Waring Historical Library

Within minutes of having been stopped by a policeman for driving with a broken brakelight in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Lamar Scott lay dead, face down in a grassy lot near the intersection of Remount Road and Craig Street.

Video footage shows clearly that Michael Slager twice used his Taser and then, from a distance of at least fifteen feet, fired eight rounds, striking Scott in the back, buttocks, ear and heart as the man fled on foot. Slager calls in the incident, stating simply, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” He then approaches the fallen man, instructs him to put his hands behind his back, and, receiving no response, handcuffs him and walks away. After another officer arrives and requests a medical kit, Slager reaches down, places his Taser beside Scott’s body, and only then does he check the man’s pulse. Paramedics arrive and pronounce Scott dead on the scene. Videotaped by a passerby, start to finish, the event times out at under five minutes. Slager and his attorney, David Aylor, will at first claim that the officer feared for his life. Immediately upon release of the video, Aylor will resign as counsel.

Two months later, Dylann Roof will enter Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston proper and join the congregants gathered there for Wednesday night prayer service, before opening fire and killing nine people. Upon arrest, he will confess that he had hoped to instigate a “race war” because African Americans are “taking over the world.”

Emanuel AME, “Mother Emanuel,” is the home church of Telemaque (eventually known as “Denmark”) Vesey, famed for having organized the 1822 slave rebellion popularly known as the Charleston Rising. Suppressed on Sunday 16 June, the planned insurrection ended with trial by the newly formed Committee of Vigilance and Safety made up of members of the city council and wealthy landowners. Four officers of the city guard were formed into a special police force assigned with locating participants and potential informants. Twenty-four hours later, no fewer than ten were in custody. Continue reading

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way by Martín Espada

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
                                                                            Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell 
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister’s heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the back seat of the squad car; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede barehanded into the bullets drilling his forehead.
Continue reading

Notes on the State of Virginia, III by Safiya Sinclair

                        – After W. E. B. Du Bois

Wild irises purpling my mouth each dawning—
                                                                 trauma souring the quiet street.
Its whole dark field roots me down and down. The mock-sun a blank obscuring. Fire whips
white-shock of lightning, bright Molotov angel, what ash marks assume a coon cemetery.

And all the names scratched out.
                                                                 What burns this house burns apishly.
                                                                 The mouth the church this immaculate body
such untouchable sounds we have made of ourselves. A blues archeology. Thus like a snake I writhe upward,
mottling and spine-thick, where heavy nouns flay through my tubercular,

                                                                 their heavens coil a twisted rope. Your veiled suffocation.
                                                                 Unknown asphyxiate. The mourning-dove which scales
                                                                 its double gaze in tongues knows this: the broken world
                                                                 was always broken.
Continue reading

What a Fellowship by Afaa Michael Weaver

 for Mother Emanuel A.M.E.

In these clasped hands we see the seeds
of what has come to be, the tiny black faces
of children chained into ships headed to sea,

not an invitation to a better life, not a vote
for the human, but the deadened greed, a wish
against what life means to the living, a cruelty

above the requirements of evil, our ambition
to live, to survive, to grow beyond chains now
our only hope in row after row of bloody pews.

Continue reading

Black 101 by Frank X Walker

“How are you afraid of a man
  running away from you?”
                                     -Toni Morrison

Fear is a magnetizer.
It changes the polarity of black bodies.
Makes them highly attractive to
bullets, police batons, tasers,
white rage, white guilt,
and blue-eyed blondes.

Fear is a multiplier.
It turns children into men,
men and women into monsters,
and non-compliant teens
into dangerous gangs
and threatening mobs. Continue reading

Blackbird* by Terrance Hayes

for Charleston


Say hello to the little boy
Whose poor head is filled with noise
For I’m the bird he’s fixed to kill
For singing this song in the field

Blue Blackbirds, Blue blackbirds
Hear what is done to the singing birds

His hands around my wondrous wings
Plucked feathers my mother once stroked
I held the song within my throat
I sang after my body broke

Black bluebird, Black bluebird
Hear what is done to a singing bird

And now to make my music still
He took a stone up from the field
I sang to the stone like a lover though
For none could not my crush my trembling throat

Continue reading

Live Oak and Riposte XIV by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

Live Oak

My roots run deep,
down into this soil
watered by the salt-spray borne
by my foremothers,
on whose limbs little white boys
climbed and hung their swings.

These heavy boughs,
thick and ligneous, spreading wide
and low enough for a man
to lean, rest his back
and hide behind the curtain
of Spanish moss soft enough
for the wind to murmur,
tell truths that come quietly
sometimes in wispy hushes.

His heritage runs deep too,
bloody tap-root, a bourbon barrel
ablaze, a beam in a dark cabin,
a boy-child without a likeness,
a resurrection fern,
fronds wrapped and waiting.


Riposte XIV: The [new] administration of justice and description of the laws
          after Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia

I do not smile, behave, show fear, or shake.
I do not keep my hands on the wheel or look straight ahead.
I let them wait              for       my       answer.
             Do you know how fast you were going?
I put my arm on the door, cock my elbow and point it in their direction.
They will kill me anyway.
I set my gaze to theirs, one pale face at a time.
I wait.

If any free person commit an offence against the commonwealth,
if it be below the degree of felony,
he is bound by a justice to appear before their court,
to answer it on indictment or information.

They will kill us anyway.
We are not free.

I do not conjure up tears.
I do not loosen the top buttons on my blouse.
I do not stay in my seat,
or call them sir or ma’am.
I do not explain.
My wallet is in the trunk.
I do not get back in the car.
I do not submit to their bullshit request.
Let’s see what else you have in the trunk?
I stand with arms folded.
I let them wait for my answer.
They will kill me anyway.

If the criminal be a slave
the trial by [the county court any armed, near-white person]
is final.

I do not move. I do not unfold my arms.
I do not look away.
I do not change my answer.
I do not let my pounding heart move me to a tremble.
I do not cry.
I do not look in the direction of two new flashing lights.
Which one will be the killer today?

We are not free.
We are not safe.
They will kill us anyway.



Shauna Morgan Kirlew‘s poems have been published in Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & CultureAnthology of Appalachian Writers Volume VIInterviewing the CaribbeanThe Pierian, and elsewhere. She lives in Virginia and teaches Literature of the African Diaspora at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

This is part 7 in the series Fallen at Charleston, guest-edited by Brenda Marie Osbey.

Fallen at Charleston

How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada

Notes on the State of Virginia, III” by Safiya Sinclair

What a Fellowship” by Afaa Michael Weaver

Black 101” by Frank X Walker

“Black Bird” by Terrance Hayes

“Live Oak” and “Riposte XIV” by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

Fallen at Charleston” by Brenda Marie Osbey