Icarus Asks Basquiat to Paint Him

October 11, 2021

Series editor’s note: The speaker in Nick Makoha’s poem is an unexpected one: Icarus, coming back to reclaim his narrative, approaching Basquiat with a simple request—to be painted, perhaps in a new light, in a new way. There is a childlike hesitation to the speaker, as if he knows already who he is talking to, both seemingly occupying the liminal spaces where they have been misrepresented, or worse, represented only in a particular way. But as playful as he is, this Icarus comes bearing heavy things; this disappearing has become my life, he says, pointing toward an invisibility Basquiat’s own musing can relate to. And the need to be seen is fervent; to be seen wholly, fully, for who he was trying to be, and not what the world makes him out to be. Though we never hear from the artist himself, already we feel his beating heart, our beating hearts, nodding in agreement; why yes, everyone should learn from blackness. – Mahtem Shiferraw


Icarus Asks Basquiat to Paint Him

Come closer? Your eyes tell me you are filled
with prescriptions. Is this who you have always
been? If I am honest, I was afraid of meeting you.

As I walked through the door, I saw you scribbling
a beating heart on the border of a textbook. We can
eat first if you’re hungry. The Cajun chicken sandwich

is five stars. Put that away. It’s on me. What I am bout
to tell you, I need you to commit to memory. In their
ignorance, they remember my flight and how with

my father, we gained lift. The flex of our wings created
the upwash. To preserve our energies, we inverted
wings into Vs and Js. But to them, I am a fallen angel

with the sea ready to catch me. This disappearing has
become my life as the sky slow turns. Their pigments
have me hung on a wall falling forever. Make sure

they see me as you see me now. Everyone can learn from
blackness. I did not desert this life, I was driven from it
like a god from his people. But to you, I need to be the

morning bird. When I was the morning bird, and you were
the light, I did not run. When I was the black astronaut,
and you were the sky, I did not run. OH! Here come our
orders. What do you want to drink? Could we have two cognacs?

Editorial note: Black Voices is a special series guest-edited by Mahtem Shiferraw and sponsored by the WLT Puterbaugh Endowment, which makes possible the Puterbaugh Lit Fest. The series will run on a weekly basis through October 2021.

Nick Makoha is the founder of the Obsidian Foundation and winner of the 2021 Ivan Juritz Prize. His 2017 debut collection, Kingdom of Gravity, was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and was one of the Guardian’s best books of the year. Nick is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow and the Complete Works alumnus. He won the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Prize for his pamphlet Resurrection Man. His poems have appeared in the Cambridge Review, New York Times, Poetry Review, The Rialto, Poetry London, TriQuarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri. He is a trustee for the Arvon Foundation and the Ministry of Stories, and a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen collective.