“Gentrification” by Sherman Alexie

alexieorigSherman Alexie is known mostly for his movies – Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing, and 49? – set in Indian Country or just outside.

But he’s also got a new collection of poems out titled Face (Hanging Loose Press, 2009). Here’s one that captures the shifting tides of my own neighborhood of Columbia Heights in D.C.


by Sherman Alexie

Let us remember the wasps
That hibernated in the walls
Of the house next door. Its walls
Bulged with twenty pounds of wasps

And nest, twenty pounds of black
Knots and buzzing fists. We slept
Unaware that the wasps slept
So near us. We slept in black

Comfort, wrapped in our cocoons,
While death’s familiars swarmed
Unto themselves, but could have swarmed
Unto us. Do not trust cocoons.

That’s the lesson of this poem.
Or this: Luck is beautiful.
So let us praise our beautiful
White neighbor. Let us write poems

For she who found that wasp nest
While remodeling the wreck.
But let us remember that wreck
Was, for five decades, the nest

For a black man and his father.
Both men were sick and neglected,
So they knew how to neglect.
But kind death stopped for the father

And cruelly left behind the son,
Whose siblings quickly sold the house
Because it was only a house.
For months, that drunk and displaced son

Appeared on our street like a ghost.
Distraught, he sat in his car and wept
Because nobody else had wept
Enough for his father, whose ghost

Took the form of ten thousand wasps.
That’s the lesson of this poem:
Grief is as dangerous and unpredictable
As a twenty-pound nest of wasps.

Or this: Houses are not haunted
By the dead. So let us pray
For the living. Let us pray
For the wasps and sons who haunt us.

Sherman Alexie’s recent books are Flight (Grove/Atlantic, 2007) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his first young adult novel (Little, Brown, 2007). Radioactive Love Song is due out soon. “Gentrification” is reprinted from The American Poetry Review (March-April 2009).

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