Keeping Upright

by Avery Echols

last edited on Tue. October 31 2023

Inspired by Missoura (2001) by Whitfield Lovell.

Before the gray grip tape guarding the drumsticks (one
leaning on the other), I
     lean on my right leg and watch as the planks
          lean on the wall and the finely dressed men
               lean on their canes.

The more I look, the more weight I need for my lean.

Staring straight back at me, I feel like I’m due for a lecture,
as Mister Man fixes his mouth to read a passage, I’m thinking;
How hot it must be in all those clothes!
     Is that why y’all lean?
          Because it’s too hot out today for a three-piece suit?

Or something else getting you down,
that only a wooden cane and a stern sermon
can keep you from a pitiful plummet?

I shouldn’t ask smart questions like that,
especially if I can’t stand the answer,
especially to grown folks with mortgages in their back pocket,
especially to strangers.

but I think I see kin.
It’s brushed on in the perpetual pursed lips of someone hiding a smile,
in the dented foreheads who knows you know better than that,
in the cracking knee bearing the brunt of a lengthy lean.

But would I even know my kin if they stared me in the face?

I only had one great.
A great granny who was too old when I was too young.
The women in my family seemed to pop out of their mother’s heads,
Godly—eyes widened with the world.

I paid the shoe boxes under Mama’s bed the dust they already accumulated,
full of developed film from disposable cameras.
She’d hold onto the smiling faces sitting on (now) antique patterned couches
and recite the ancient text with every turn of the scrapbook page:
             “You know who that is, right?”

In stifled giggles, Sister and I would ask Mama what Granny’s real name was again
—like we didn’t know.
Earnest Marrion Jones
was named after her father
—who wanted a boy.
To be Earnest when you’re 5 years old,
and breaths taken in the cracks of an impromptu history lesson
are a syncopated rhythm that make undivided attentions dance.

As they fold pocket squares
and iron undershirts,
they imagine the future,
of front-row seats to listen to
the pitter-patter of a new day marching in.

While I imagine the past,
a boiling stupor crystallized.
Pressure and heat turn into a gleam
that I can’t quite cash in at the pawn shop.

Visions—so real in your mind.
Touch them and they fade into the air like mist
—like ghosts.

Play the music real loud!
Let it jog my memory of people I never experienced
but are every bit of me that I am of myself.

And when I can’t bear to lean anymore,
I know I can learn to lie on a cool floor,
and we both rest our bones.

A low view of a charcoal drawing on wood boards leaning against a gallery wall
Whitfield Lovell, Missoura, 2001, Charcoal on wood, found objects. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Joel and Carole Bernstein, 2022.14. Photo by the author.

A detail of a charcoal drawing on wood of two men in old-fashioned suits

A photo of an old photograph
The Earnest(s), Picture of my grandmother and her father, both named Earnest. Courtesy of Yolanda Robertson.

An antique drum and drum sticks rest on the floor in front of a charcoal drawing on boards

Avery Echols is a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, majoring in English and Cinema & Media Studies. They are interested in all types of written work, from screenplays to memoirs to poetry. Most of the time, one can find Avery in the Smart Museum gallery, as an attendant, jotting down notes about their favorite piece. Inspired by their recent position as a social media intern and research assistant for the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, Avery includes Black history and experiences in their ekphrastic poetry. They aspire to write stories that include accurate representations of underserved minorities and address issues of the day.