NEA Literature Fellowships

Malachi Black

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Malachi Black

Photo by Carmen Radley

(2019 - Poetry)

"De Clementia:  Prayer of the Last Prizefighter"                       

Small god of the sea
glass, imp of riverbanks and everyweather,

give back to the sand this knuckle-shrapnel
and the hand that rattles like a snake’s tail                                          

with its loose shards of bone. Let the star
whose dead light leans against me be my last

enemy; may my opposition be
as phantom as the shaft of its cold beam,

collapsible as ash is to the touch.
Surrender me to shallows and the salt

gallop of a rising surf, to the dark
burrow of the mole crab and the snail shell’s
supple purple curve: scatter to the gulls
these teeth chipped by the lifting surge

of uppercut, these eyes lost in their own
whites, this tongue still swollen with the pulp

of its old blood. Little lost god, hidden
dizzy in the driftwood, I leave to you

this lip split by the language of half-luck:
though I was formed of two parts water, one

part dust, I was born before the first
light of the sun. I know that death

is man’s divinity. Come, soft god, come—
if I have planted ache into the hard

earth of a man’s skull, it’s only that
I soothed him with the leather of my gloves.

Malachi Black is the author of Storm Toward Morning (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award and a selection for the PSA’s New American Poets Series (chosen by Ilya Kaminsky). The recipient of a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Black has since received fellowships and awards from the Amy Clampitt House, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Emory University, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Yaddo. Black’s poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies and have been featured in exhibitions both in the U.S. and abroad, including several musical settings and translations into French, Dutch, Croatian, and Lithuanian. Black is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of San Diego and lives in California.

“The cost of a thing,” as Henry David Thoreau observed, “is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” Poetry, by this calculus, is an unusually costly vocation, as it depends on a dual exchange: firstly, of life into the variable currency of poetic possibility, and, secondly, of that possibility into the minted currency of the page. In each case, of course, the medium of exchange is time—to live (aren’t we, after all, daydreaming prisoners of experience?) and, then, to get the words wrong until blessedly getting them right. I’ve never quite believed that time is money, but—like Thoreau, like all workers, like all writers—I know that money can be converted into time. In this respect, a fellowship from the NEA is not only life-affirming, but life-giving, since time—to live, to write—is what the generosity of the NEA affords. With the NEA’s crucial sponsorship, I will be able to complete my second poetry collection, Indirect Light, and initiate the work that will propel me toward a third. In the modern era, the NEA constitutes an utterly irreplaceable source of benefaction, and I am honored to count myself among the many artists whose vocations have been enabled by its recognition and support.