Chain-Gang Ghazal

one man falls. oh long john, we sing, he long gone. then
a crack, and he’s up like lazarus rising from his back.

in the alabama august, we stand out along the railroad,
hammering till we feel the muscles crying in our backs.

the white men come with rifles, they walk behind us, they
scan the woods and say they’ll have us lying on our backs.

we’re all lonely voices quivering through the airless heat;
we don’t pray, but we know god’s been eyeing our backs.

we begin at dawn, sweat already spilling down our necks—
a hundred of us chained together, frying our backs.

we are men first, fathers second, husbands third, & inmates
last. we’ll be working till we’re out here dying on our backs.


Meredith Nnoka is a Smith College graduate with a degree in Africana Studies and English. Originally from outside of Washington, DC, she spent the last year teaching English in France and is currently a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poems have appeared in Mandala Journal, HEArt Journal, and Riding Light. Her first chapbook, A Hunger Called Music: A Verse History of Black Music, will be available from C&R Press later this year.