Quitman Marshall

Reading Invisible Man

She said, “You have a nice collection of music—
                  not bad for a white boy.”

Curled up on a box in the back
of the warehouse, I read the master’s book.
He took everything, or tried to,
and put it in. Around me
were stoves and televisions,
refrigerators and long stereos,
and under me a washing machine,
the unclean place I’d go to hide.
Sheathed in the beige cardboard,
labeled with numbers in red and blue,
these were things, once paid for,
that opened to the good life,
if it were only true. Just shy of 20
and the world around me, I kept the job,
loading and unloading tractor-trailer trucks
and railroad cars, filling orders
when the office called, fork lift
to the loading dock. He was sometimes
there, down from Farrow Road,
fedora on his head, like Ellison
in that photo on a street in Harlem.
He had a solemn air and a strong
young man with him in the truck,
a challenge to the core of the place
I worked, because he owned a store
and was a black man, too visible
and yet how like an iceberg,
his cool presence hiding much,
including me, emerged to fill
his order. Warehouse boy, I had loved
his daughter—he didn’t know—and cried
with her in ’68. Girls and boys
must face the hate as they mature
and know how much is built upon it.
I never said I knew her then
nor asked, “How is that lovely girl?”
I filled his orders and returned to read,
and killed our chances to be seen.


I’m out of touch, I know.
The years with children, late
in coming for me, have passed
most rapidly, like a stream downhill,
singing past the stones, happy
to be water. Now a flattening
and the stream must merge
with the wide, dirty river.

“I don’t think I will,”
as Howard Hughes once said.

And the alligator hasn’t moved
all afternoon. I’ve watched it
off and on this Saturday
as clouds have failed to hide
the sun for long. Roseate spoonbills
and cormorants have perched above it
for hours preening, being themselves.

I’m not myself, watching this majestic
form, this paragon of terror,
who smiles in the knowledge
of itself. How does it achieve
such size simply lying in the sun?

I’m out of touch with what’s been done,
with much that seems too much.
Alligators can live a hundred years,
and this one here, my friends,
could wake and devour everyone.

Quitman Marshall’s most recent book of poems, his fifth, You Were Born One Time, won the SC Poetry Archives Book Prize. A founding host of the Literary Series at Spoleto Festival USA, he won the Writers Exchange Award (Poets & Writers) in 1996. His roving manuscripts include Swampitude: Escapes with the Congaree (nonfiction), The Bloody Point (novel), and American Folklore (poems). He lived on West 15th St. in Manhattan from 1978 until 1990. Since 2001 he has lived in Beaufort, SC, with his wife and three children, and he teaches school—sometimes English, sometimes writing, sometimes French.