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Invisible to Whom?: Poetic Responses to Invisible ManTrans Study: Invisible Man (2003)

Cameron Awkward-Rich

In celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Cave Canem commissioned three ekphrastic poems on the novel and Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison (2003). The commissioned poets include Cameron Awkward-Rich, Kadeem Gayle, and Lorelei Williams.  

In addition to these poems, on March 1, 2023, Ellison’s birthday, the public program “Invisible to Whom? A Dialogue in Verse" will feature the poets in discussion at the Schomburg Center.

Elizabeth Catlett, Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison, 2003

"To be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years,  

did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility."  

~Ralph Ellison 

At first, there is a general darkness.  

Then, after many hours, a shape 

In the darkness, a bright hole  

Through which the world is given.  

I am right now turning in the hole  

Against the general dark. I am  

Looking for a pattern I might later call  

My life, my moments strung like train cars  

Rattling the underground. Anything  

Could have happened—  

Damp air, rosy midnight  

Faces, whitened  

Grin, fluorescent-lit, boy  

Dark and curled as a comma  

In the spill from your fount 

of naming what you do  

And do not see—the boy, I, who is 

Pressing my face to the cold glass,  

Watching the shadows move, like him, 

Across the surface of the earth. 


Do I have to say it 

What I have been? Anything  

You roll your windows down  

To call me on a quiet night  

In a quiet town snow 

Drifting in the street- 

Light giving form to what  

Is otherwise a vague brushing  
On the skin, I have been 

The kindling of that dark a black  

Dog dyke-mute in the corner  

Monkey muse stud with a huge 

Fertile water dead weight to carry  

To the finish line I have been 

The finish line the threshold vestibule 

That marks the win that was not 

Mine but me the kill the trophy 

Boy in the looking glass boy 

In the wishing well gentle buck 

Et cetera 


Yes you named “my” 

And “I” became 

Inside I 

Saw the city move 

A shape in the water 

You said 

And I “was”  

A mirror darkly 


No substance is your first mistake. 

No form, the second. The common you assume 

No mind, but there is a mind turning like 

No machine, little cat patient in her den. 

No, the mind is the hole she carves into the solid  

World watch what passes through a hole is  

Not the absence of form it is where the forms begin— 



In daylight       branches        cut across  

Blue opening                  untamed sky I  

Am what         you cannot touch— 

Cameron Awkward-Rich Poetry Bio

Cameron Awkward-Rich

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two collections of poetry—Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019)—as well as The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment (Duke University Press, 2022). His writing has appeared, in various forms, in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Signs, and elsewhere, and has been supported by fellowships from Cave Canem, the Lannan Foundation, and the ACLS. Presently, he is an assistant professor in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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