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Poem: We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On

I think of Juvie, so named because he walked into prison with so few laps around the sun. Think of how so many of us have been named convict and number. I know his state number, but will keep it to myself. Now Juvie has died just months after freedom and Tracy K. Smith reminds me that, “being called all manner of things / from the dictionary of shame,” we do learn to become something mighty, with the memories of those fallen. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Credit…Illustration by R.O. Blechman

We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On

By Tracy K. Smith

Being called all manner of things
from the Dictionary of Shame —
not English, not words, not heard,
but worn, borne, carried, never spent —
we feel now a largeness coming on,
something passing into us. We know
not in what source it was begun, but
rapt, we watch it rise through our fallen,
our slain, our millions dragged, chained.
Like daylight setting leaves alight —
green to gold to blinding white.
Like a spirit caught. Flame-in-flesh.
I watched a woman try to shake it, once,
from her shoulders and hips. A wild
annihilating fright. Other women
formed a wall around her, holding back
what clamored to rise. God. Devil.
Ancestor. What Black bodies carry
through your schools, your cities.
Do you see how mighty you’ve made us,
all these generations running?
Every day steeling ourselves against it.
Every day coaxing it back into coils.
And all the while feeding it.
And all the while loving it.


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” explores the post-incarceration experience. His 2018 article in The New York Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to working lawyer won a National Magazine Award. He is a 2021 MacArthur fellow. Tracy K. Smith is a poet whose works include “Such Color” (Graywolf Press, 2021). She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection “Life on Mars” (Graywolf Press, 2011).

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