James Dulin

the man in the picture on my nightstand

i don’t remember anything my grandfather said
or the sound of him.

i remember praying over his picture at night,
back when i prayed.

i remember the night my parents called my brother and i
into their bedroom to tell us he died.

i don’t remember what words they used
only the taste stale air.

i remember going to the grocery store with him
to get donuts. he let me pick out a cupcake instead.

i remember loving the idea of a man i never really knew
outside my mother’s stories and a blurry image of him playing cards.

i remember the car ride home from nowhere important
when my mother confessed he committed suicide.

i never blamed the lie, nothing a seven year-old can do
with the shotgun hole in his grandfather’s chest.

i remember asking what gun he used
and where he shot himself.

i remember finding out he disowned my aunt
for marrying a black man.

i remember being told he took her back after todd
was born and how that was supposed to absolve him.

i remember crying
because it didn’t

he left me his neckties or that was something nice
my grandmother said to placate a curious child.

how do I reconcile his blood that is mine?
sift through his ashes and unearth the man in the picture on my nightstand.

parse out the space between who he was
and what he did and maybe there is no difference.

sometimes i think that it’s better he died,
me hoping to bury his racism in the same grave.

i’m named after him.
i need to know i am not my grandfather.

it scares me, when i picture him
he is still the quiet man standing by the river on my nightstand.

and if my grandfather was a river bank
shaped by the rushing water

i am the bank around the bend
awaiting the same. i don’t want to become him.

i don’t remember every racist thing i’ve said
or done. i never will.

i remember some of the ugly ones.
if i’m honest, i wish i didn’t.

i remember my mother reminiscing over her father.
she loved him and his worn hands.

i remember learning he built houses
and it killed him when the pain pills weren’t enough.

i remember assuming racism was simple.
it looked like a burning cross and blackface.

now it looks like my grandfather. a man who loved my mother,
taught her to ride a motorcycle.

i wonder what was he contemplating in that picture, staring over the river
i want to believe he changed before the shotgun emptied him.


James Dulin is a poet and educator from Grand Rapids, MI currently living in Boston, MA. He has been a member of the 2012 University of Michigan Slam Team and the 2015 Eclectic Truth Slam Team, winners of the 2015 Red Stick Regional Slam. His work can be found on the Write About Now poetry channel, as well as in FreezeRay Poetry, One Throne, and Drunk in a Midnight Choir.