Self-Portrait as a Chicken Dinner

                               Half-dark, extra mild.

I pass these words to the cashier
standing behind the bulletproof glass.

She returns those words to me with
a tone change, eyeing my buttoned shirt
ironed as crisply as my speech free of twang.

Shot through the microphone it feels
forceful, like an indictment saying,

                               my brother, you are what you eat.

What a peculiar feeling to be looked at
suspiciously and not be considered a threat.

I have frequented these joints for years,
peppered around the South and West Sides
like soup kitchens meant to feed
the poor: Harold’s Chicken Shacks.

Pieces of my parents that never
left the hood, so they handed it to me.
A tradition. A taste of the city
cooked in the grease of its politics.

++++++++++++++++iA side coleslaw paired with two
++++++++++++++++ilegs, two thighs, two slices of
++++++++++++++++iwhite bread and french fries, coated
++++++++++++++++iby mild sauce with sweet accent.

Needless for that cashier to say,
I was a mild-mannered kid. Soft-spoken.
No knuckle on either hand. Most of my
friends, girls, according to recipe,
enjoying them for what they would become.

I was sensitive. Fragile. My classmate’s
thesaurus. A transplant, a heart
in a home it was not born to.

Suburban in South Chicago, in
Hyde Park, in the Hundreds, humming,
praying, paying no tax on the tithe.

Blackness surrounding me in a small
circle, and not the square of a block.
The brightest shade of black:
the ink used to endorse a check.

And after service, we would
go pick up chicken for dinner.
Humble our egos back in time to
the cotton fibers of our clothes.

I ate dark meat because I needed
to feel the way I looked.

I quoted Malcolm X whenever possible.
Hip-hop became gospel music. My body,
skinny for the threads I wore.

If a person can love and hate themselves
simultaneously, then surely I could
be two definitions of the same word.

But my tongue was never quite
comfortable in a sling. Never had
a fight I couldn’t walk away from.
Didn’t learn all my colors. Friend’s
funerals few in the story behind me.

Behind me, fires of my own design,
choices of bridges to take and make ash,
like a choice between locations of the
franchise, since my chicken came burnt.

My parents taught me not to take
wheels for granted, but I mistook skin
for verb, the reverb of punched bone.
Became who we all love to diss.

Cortney Charleston HeadshotCortney Lamar Charleston is a young poet residing in Jersey City, NJ. An alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and its Excelano Project performance poetry collective, his verse explores the hallways in his mind walked least often and, occasionally, his sexy. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Bird’s Thumb, Kinfolks Quarterly, and Specter Magazine.