The Race Bone

The Race Bone

That old man proclaims, “I don’t have a racist bone
in my body.”
But where in the body does the race bone lie?

Can we find it on an X-ray?
Is it locked inside the spine?
Does it make its home among the vertebral bones?

Or is it hidden in the femur?
In the ball-and-socket joints of the hip?

Is it in the orbit of bones that surround
the eye?

Does it reside in the ribcage
embedded like a bullet?

Does it lie in wait
beneath the flat bones of the skull?

Where and when does the race bone begin?
Can we trace its origins
in the embryonic skeleton
lighter than a honeybee?
Can we see it in an ultrasound;
or does it begin before fetus, before zygote,
when being is composed of only
the dust of soul?

If we follow our lineage like a creek
to the earliest headstream
could we sweep away the sand and clay
uncover it in the marrow of our history?
Here in our ancestral burying grounds
nothing remains but a mosaic of rain-washed bones
strewn among the stones where once walls stood.
The broken cranium—
                                         what memories were cradled there?
                                         What songs?

Is it here
in the spiral of the ear
where the child first discerns
how the word kindred contains the whisper of skin;
how in the word brother
is buried the word other?

Here it begins
in the smallest bones of the human body
the stirrup, the anvil, the hammer
where a word vibrates inward
into the labyrinth of the inner ear.

We listen to the world first as children
hear it all singing,
before the razor-wire of speech
slices a distance between us—
where I stand on one side;
                                                   you on the other.

Ansel Elkins is the author of Blue Yodel, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Her poems have appeared in The American Scholar, The Believer, Oxford American, Parnassus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, the American Antiquarian Society, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as well as a “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize. She is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Berea College.

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