Five Feminist Poems for National Poetry Month: 3. “Invisibility Terror: a prose poem”


Feminist poets often take material for their poems from media headlines. Feminist poets often respond to and rewrite the news of the day in their poems.

Clarke’s 1986 collection of poems has been republished by Sinister Wisdom

In “Invisibility Terror: a prose poem,” Cheryl Clarke examines the world post-9/11, making linkages between “Arab and Muslim people” and her own experiences with police officers 35 years ago when a young African-American man dropped her off on campus. By juxtaposing the two moments, Clarke invites us to think about history—and the presence and absence of women. Clarke creates this dense, tense portrait of terror, invisibility and policy profiling by using language directly observed from the two incidents. In this poem, Clarke uses the tools of both prose and poetry with deft compression and lyricism.

Cheryl Clarke

Clarke is a poet, essayist, scholar and activist. Her most recent books are the critical study, After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement and The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke 1980-2005 . She is the recipient of the 2013 Kessler Award from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York. She lives and writes in Jersey City, NJ and Hobart, NY. She and her lover, Barbara Balliet, co-own a used and rare bookstore in Hobart, N.Y., the Book Village of the Catskills.


Invisibility Terror: a prose poem

The profile is different now. Jersey City has become a site of surveillance of Arab and Muslim peoples concentrated here. Since 9/11/01, cops all over drawing beads on young, bearded, kufi- or any headgear-wearing, Semitic-looking men, pulling them over while driving. The most I am able to do is slow down to check out what’s happening as a beer-bellied smokie waddles over to ask for license and registration. The cabdriver I hail in Washington Heights, unsure of how to get me to the Schomburg Center makes a U-turn. Cop outta nowhere:  ‘Where you think you goin’?’ I sits forward indignantly to say, ‘Just a minute, officer.  He’s just trying to–‘ when the driver cautions me, ‘Please, miss.’  Then beseeches the cop, ‘Please, sir, I make a wrong turn.’ Cop turns to go back to his Dunkin’ Donuts, tossing over his shoulder a menacing warning, “Get lost, Osama.” (My memory races back to a scene 35 years ago in another racist New Jersey town, a real light-skinned straight haired brother who read as white, except for a very urban Afro-American manner, pitch, tone, walk and talk, dropped me off on campus. We lingered to talk a minute about the vagaries of ‘the man,’ everybody’s conversation then, when ‘up jumped the devil,’ a campus cop. ‘You can’t park here.  Let’s go!’  I jumps into my challenge-the-man mode, ‘Just a minute.  I go to school here.  You can’t talk—.’ My friend turns to me resignedly, saying ever so softly, ‘Go on, baby, get on out now.’ We’d had our good rap but it wasn’t worth getting his head busted over. Campus cop, who was turning to go, does a double-take when he hears my friend’s voice, comes back to the driver’s side and inflates himself in an even more earnest insistence, ‘Boy, you bettah get outta here. You don’t belong.’). I am struck—both times—by how little what I mattered to either the cops or the brothers. From COINTELPRO to the Patriot Act, my terror is at once my own presence and invisibility.

“Invisibility Terror: a prose poem” Copyright Cheryl Clarke, reproduced with permission of the author.

Police photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Creative Commons 2.0

Photo of Cheryl Clarke courtesy of Ann E. Chapman


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Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She's currently the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Julie's research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern CulturesJournal of Lesbian StudiesAmerican PeriodicalsWSQFrontiers and other journals; she is the author of the poetry collections AvowedLilith’s DemonsSisterhood and Handmade Love and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.