Mass in Harlem | Stelios Mormoris
I heard the news in a taxi cab
so I went straight to mass
in Harlem, where you were born,
Margarita Zitis, before the war.
By 116th Street, I knew you were
dead, but could see you shopping
across the median on Broadway,
a figment covered in rhinestones,
shaking your thin gold bracelets,
preening your black onyx ring
while I processed neon flatlines
in the cold silver tray of winter sky.
I prayed to God to not blackout,
attached a white rose to my lapel
while the chaplain explained black
power in an even tone worthy of
the erudite-to-illiterate equal
in this assembly, each loud word
shirring the sheen on the slack silk
of the black immaculate robes,
matte on satin, each ivory lace
collar fettered with starch,
tight around the raging throats,
a parody of pretty. I was a white
man drowning in sartorial finery,
down a sluice of pure evasion
so I tried to find the striations
of pain in the lo hymns of earnest
voices singing black is a color.
I let the sermons wash me, tried
on guilt’s tight vest, remembered
you’d refer to negroes in code
as the passing light of moons.
I listened to kids’ mulled chatter
outside about old bitches on crack
in the flicker of windows.
The day Aretha broke the static
on our AM radio you reminded me
roses are in fact not black but
that black skin absorbs the sin
of derision—that our negro mailman,
Arthur, could be fierce enemy
or dear friend so be kind. In the same
pew a black woman’s slight hand
squeezed mine on the word ‘Lord’
as she channeled me through prayer
as if navigating a dark hallway,
finding calm in Leviticus’ brooding
long passages, smelling your racist
homilies like loaves of warm bread.
I paid homage to a theatre of votives.
I felt guilty I didn’t feel guilty.
I bathed in the amethyst blue glass
of the high apse pooling sunlight
and relaxed, rode the adagios’ swell
as the worshipers rose and praised
the Lord, as I put the white rose
in my pocket to leave on your grave—
the congregation a happy medley
of gold fillings, pearl hairpins, and
white proud teeth, you dancing
among them, scrolls of gold leaf
unraveling off the candlesticks,
this one heaving, reverberate body
of souls all exalting me in unison
because everyone knew I was trying.
About the Author:
Native of Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, MA., Stelios Mormoris is the CEO of SCENT BEAUTY, Inc. Citizen of Greece and the U.S., Stelios was raised in New York and spent most of his adult life living in Paris. He received his undergraduate degree in architecture from Princeton, and M.B.A. from INSEAD [Institut d’Européen d’Administration et des Affaires] in Fontainebleau, France.
His work has been published in High Shelf Press, Humana Obscura, Midwest Poetry Review, Nassau Literary Review, SouthRoad, Spillway, Sugar House Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and other literary journals. His debut book of poetry titled “The Oculus” is forthcoming by Tupelo Press in September 2022.