"Sunken Place Sestina"
Ashley M. Jones
Here at the hipster food hall
that fills Birmingham with gentrified spice,
a gaggle of tipsy coworkers sip wine
and munch manchego cheese—one brother,
the only one at this table, looks beyond
his body through the sky,
through clouds spreading like soft cheese, sky
opening like a great blue chasm. My sister says this hall
is a thing to love and to hate—love because it lets us taste beyond
biscuits and sweet tea to something new, Ethiopian spice
and the poke of our Hawaiian dreams. What bothers
her is the way people drip in here with an effervescent whine,
a desire to fill a table, eat charcuterie and drink wine
in a part of town that used to be just another patch of unappreciated sky,
home of the historic theatre and the poorer brother,
the man with shitstains on his shirt, streets full of rocks to haul
over the mountain, to fill their clean streets. Now, we spice
our own city with the good stuff, but are we seasoning beyond
the tastes of those who lived here first? Beyond
the means of the ungentrifiable? Now, the coworkers clink their wine
glasses. One of them snorts about the manchego’s particular spice,
and the Black man shakes out an uneasy laugh. It’s risky,
being the one outside the joke. Another spits something about He Who Shall
Not Be Named. The Black man sighs relief—even a brother
can appreciate Harry Potter. But can a brother
always negotiate this, this familiar loneliness, this beyondtokenism,
our racism before it leaves our teeth? They keep drinking their wine,
but I know that this man, although he laughs, is still up in that sky,
still flying far far away from this table, its cruel hospice—
maybe we’re all just shucking and jiving until our time to die? We are auspicious
until proven black, until proven just another suspicious brother
without a right to fight, to live. Tonight, while we dine under an unfolding sky,
when the dusk makes way for the stars, for that light beyond
the sun, we feel heavy in our blackness. We drink barrels of wine.
We laugh, make masks of our own faces. We try to enthrall.
We add spice—call integration equality; call gentrification progress,
reduce our brothers to pixelated dust, turn heartache into wine,
sink further and further beyond a blindingly bright sky.
I wrote this poem at dinner with my sister at this very food hall. I had a cornbread waffle with pulled pork in front of me, and we saw this table of white coworkers with one black man in the middle. As we listened to their conversation, my sister talked about how there are two sides to this revitalization we’re seeing in our city. One one hand, the expansion of the arts has been so amazing for me and for so many other Birmingham artists. The nightlife and general “things to do” is a far cry from what we knew as children here. But the other side is that we could become a shell of what we once were, what we became because of white flight. When you see very expensive restaurants in low income neighborhoods or a total culture change in downtown Birmingham or lofts you can’t afford and you’re not sure who can, you wonder who will get left behind. Those folks at that table next to us illustrated it too perfectly not to start writing, and I did, at the table, on my phone.
Ashley M. Jones received an MFA in poetry from Florida International University, where she was a Knight Foundation Fellow. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, and her debut collection, Magic City Gospel (Hub City Press, 2017), won a silver medal in poetry in the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards. Her second collection, dark // thing, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry from Pleiades Press, and is forthcoming in 2019. Jones lives and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama.