Elegy with Teeth

by William Fargason

William Fargason

in high school I never opened my mouth
but was voted somehow best smile
my senior year I had my mother’s teeth
and my father’s teeth I saw them in the mirror
my father’s mouth a fuse my mother’s mouth

a garden I watched his mouth I watched
his mouth a lot at dinner I kept silent
as my father told me Black people learned
to cheat the government for handouts
his hand was clenched around a fork

we had just prayed over our dinner
thanked God for our blessings my father
always ate in an angry way as if the meatloaf
had done something to him he would say
a Black man didn’t say hello back to him

at the lumberyard the man didn’t smile
the man didn’t not smile either my father
smiled after saying the way I see it before
saying he felt discriminated against I was
taught so much by my father I would

later unlearn I was taught in high school
the history of our fathers all the forefathers
but not their sins I was taught
George Washington’s teeth were wood
and I imagined the pines outside

the classroom window but not the history
of the bodies that hung from them
Ray Porter August 1891 charge
not given Two unnamed men September
John Brown October charged with

testifying against whites Sam Wright
October Two unnamed men February
charged with incendiarism April
April April April I can imagine
my great-grandfather there beneath

the branches his smile lit like a torch
not even dressed in his white robes this time
this violence was a social occasion for him
at night before he’d wake up and go to work
at Fannin County High School I survived

staying silent which I later learned was
selfish like old George the bastard
his teeth were never made of wood
they were made of slaves’ teeth dead or
alive still I wasn’t sure and once in a museum

many years later I saw those teeth next to
a tuft of hair elements of the body
devoid of a body the teeth set curved
in a lead jaw with springs that helped them
open that held the teeth in place

against the gums and from the other side
of the glass the teeth looked like they were
trying to open but were still
after hundreds of years held shut by
those who forced them to smile

Last updated July 26, 2022