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Voices in Verse - 2023

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Afghan Funeral in Paris

The aunts here clink Malbec glasses

and parade their grief with musky, expensive scents

that whisper in elevators and hallways.

Each natural passing articulates

the unnatural: every aunt has a son

who fell, or a daughter who hid in rubble

for two years, until that knock of officers

holding a bin bag filled with a dress

and bones. But what do I know?

I get pedicures and eat madeleines

while reading “Swann’s Way.” When I tell

one aunt I’d like to go back,

she screams It is not yours to want.

Have some cream cheese with that, says another.

Oh, what wonder to be alive and see

my father’s footprints in his sister’s garden.

He’s furiously scissoring the hyacinths,

saying All the time when the tele-researcher asks him

How often do you think your life

is a mistake? During the procession, the aunts’ wails

vibrate: wires full of crows in heavy wind.

I hate every plumed minute of it. God invented

everything out of nothing, but the nothing

shines through, said Paul Valéry. Paris never charmed me,

but when some stranger asks

if it stinks in Afghanistan, I am so shocked

that I hug him. And he lets me,

his ankles briefly brushing against mine.

Ode to the Head Nod

the slight angling up of the forehead

neck extension                        quick jut of chin


meeting the strangers’ eyes

a gilded curtsy to the sunfill in another


in yourself      tithe of respect

in an early version the copy editor deleted


the word “head” from the title

the copy editor says              it’s implied


the copy editor means well

the copy editor means


she is only fluent in one language of gestures

i do not explain                     i feel sad for her


limited understanding of greetings              & maybe

this is why my acknowledgements are so long;


didn’t we learn this early?

            to look at white spaces


            & find the color       

            thank god o thank god for



                                                                                        are here.


Because I speak Spanish  

I can listen to my grandmother’s stories 

and say familia, madre, amor. 

Because I speak English 

I can learn from my teacher  

and say I love school. 


Because I am bilingual 

I can read libros and books, 

I have amigos and friends, 

I enjoy canciones and songs, 

juegos and games, 

and have twice as much fun. 


And someday, 

because I speak two languages, 

I will be able to do twice as much, 

to help twice as many people 

and be twice as good in what I do.

The Star Spanglish Banner

Oh say can you see

Miguel wants to learn the Star-Spangled Banner.

Miguel was the last fourth grader to migrate 

into my English as a second language course,

and is the first to raise his hand for every question.

But Miguel views letters in a different way than most.

Because there are a lot of words in Spanish

that do not exist in English,

he learns how to pack them in a suitcase and forget.

Because many phrases translate backwards

when crossing over from Spanish to English,

throughout the whole song, 

he tends to say things in the wrong order.

So when I ask him to sing the second verse,

it sounds like

And the rocket's red glare

We watched our home

Bursting in air

It gave proof to the night

that the flag was still theirs

They say music is deeply intertwined with how we remember.

Miguel hears the marimba and learns the word home,

hears his mother's accent being mocked and learns the words shame,

hears his mother's weeping and learns the word sacrifice.

He asks, what does the word America mean?

What does the word dream mean?

I say two words with the same meaning are what we call synonyms.

You could say America is a dream,

something we all feel silly for believing in.

He says, teach me.

Teach me how to say bandera.

Teach me how to say star.

Teach me how to hide my country behind the consonants

that do not get pronounced.

Miss Angelica,

teach the letters to just flee from my lips like my parents,

and build a word out of nothing.

In my tongue, we do not pronounce the letter H.

Home is not a sound my voice knows how to make.

It's strange what our memories hold on to.

It's strange what makes it over the border

to the left side of the brain,

what our minds do not let us forget,

how an accent is just a mother tongue

that refuses to let her child go.


The language barrier is a 74 mile wall

lodged in the back of Miguel's throat,

the bodies of words so easily lost in the translation.

Oh, say for whom does that 

star-spangled banner yet wave

Give back the land to the brave

and let us make a home for us free.

Do You Speak Persian?

Some days we can see Venus in mid-afternoon. Then at night, stars

separated by billions of miles, light traveling years


to die in the back of an eye.


Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify

and not diminish wonder?


I have been so careless with the words I already have.


I don’t remember how to say home

in my first language, or lonely, or light.


I remember only

delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,


and shab bekheir, goodnight.


How is school going, Kaveh-joon?

Delam barat tang shodeh.


Are you still drinking?

Shab bekheir.


For so long every step I’ve taken

has been from one tongue to another.


To order the world:

I need, you need, he/she/it needs.


The rest, left to a hungry jackal

in the back of my brain.


Right now our moon looks like a pale cabbage rose.

Delam barat tang shodeh.


We are forever folding into the night.

Shab bekheir.

In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles

translated by Francisco Aragón


I learned


from my grandma



don’t cry

she’d tell me


on the mornings

my parents

would leave


to work

at the fish



my grandma

would chat

with chairs


sing them





waltzes with them

in the kitchen


when she’d say

niño barrigón

she’d laugh


with my grandma

I learned

to count clouds


to recognize

mint leaves

in flowerpots


my grandma

wore moons

on her dress


Mexico’s mountains




in her eyes

I’d see them

in her braids


I’d touch them

in her voice

smell them


one day

I was told:

she went far away


but still

I feel her

with me



in my ear:



LA Prayer

April 1992



was wrong

when buses

didn’t come




no longer 



how easy








the night


the more

we run 

the more

we burn


o god

show us

the way

lead us


spare us

from ever 

turning into





so much





wild how I am created and undone

by each discerning eye—the creep

at the pet store clocks me as boricua,

sees my pidgin skin as proof of kin,

thinks this will coax a flirty response.

my stepfather is the color of midnight,

dark like the cosmos or god. he sees

me as family, regardless of the paper 

bag test and our respective results. 

when we are out together I hope 

people think I am his child, too. 

my mom and me, that one’s easy. 

the realtor says we look exactly the same 

but I’m mixed with … something 

else. sometimes I trace the slope

of my negro nose, rounded like

a drum. you can find my ancestors

in the kitchen at the back of my

scalp. nestled like knots. plaited

bloodlines unwind at my neck.

on the sidewalk, I empty 

meager offerings into

a man’s styrofoam cup.

he laughs—come on, white girl,

I know you got more than that.


The Diameter Of The Bomb

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters

and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,

with four dead and eleven wounded.

And around these, in a larger circle

of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered

and one graveyard. But the young woman

who was buried in the city she came from,

at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,

enlarges the circle considerably,

and the solitary man mourning her death

at the distant shores of a country far across the sea

includes the entire world in the circle.

And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans

that reaches up to the throne of God and

beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.


Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not stone

I came up with one thing

And I don't believe I'm wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.


Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.


There are some millionaires

With money they can't use

Their wives run round like banshees

Their children sing the blues

They've got expensive doctors

To cure their hearts of stone.

But nobody

No, nobody

Can make it out here alone.


Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.


Now if you listen closely

I'll tell you what I know

Storm clouds are gathering

The wind is gonna blow

The race of man is suffering

And I can hear the moan,

'Cause nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.


Alone, all alone

Nobody, but nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,   

The stride of my step,   

The curl of my lips.   

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,   

That’s me.


I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,   

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.   

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.   

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,   

And the flash of my teeth,   

The swing in my waist,   

And the joy in my feet.   

I’m a woman



Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


Men themselves have wondered   

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,   

They say they still can’t see.   

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,   

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.


Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.   

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.   

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,   

The bend of my hair,   

the palm of my hand,   

The need for my care.   

’Cause I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

If They Come For Us

these are my people & I find

them on the street & shadow

through any wild all wild

my people my people

a dance of strangers in my blood

the old woman’s sari dissolving to wind

bindi a new moon on her forehead

I claim her my kin & sew

the star of her to my breast

the toddler dangling from stroller

hair a fountain of dandelion seed

at the bakery I claim them too

the Sikh uncle at the airport

who apologizes for the pat

down the Muslim man who abandons

his car at the traffic light drops

to his knees at the call of the Azan

& the Muslim man who drinks

good whiskey at the start of maghrib

the lone khala at the park

pairing her kurta with crocs

my people my people I can’t be lost

when I see you my compass

is brown & gold & blood

my compass a Muslim teenager

snapback & high-tops gracing

the subway platform

Mashallah I claim them all

my country is made

in my people’s image

if they come for you they

come for me too in the dead

of winter a flock of

aunties step out on the sand

their dupattas turn to ocean

a colony of uncles grind their palms

& a thousand jasmines bell the air

my people I follow you like constellations

we hear glass smashing the street

& the nights opening dark

our names this country’s wood

for the fire my people my people

the long years we’ve survived the long

years yet to come I see you map

my sky the light your lantern long

ahead & I follow I follow

Old Country (Edited)

Old Country Buffet, where our family

went on the days we saved enough money.

Everyone was in a good mood, even Ullu—

our uncle who never smiled or took off his coat


& dyed his hair black every two weeks

so we couldn’t tell how old he was. We marched

single file towards the gigantic red lettering

across the gravel parking lot to announce


our arrival. We, children carrying our rectangle 

backpacks brimming with homework, calculators

& Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day

without escape, spread out across all the booths


possible while our family ate & ate & snuck

food into the Tupperware they smuggled in

& no matter how we begged & whined

or the waitresses yelled or threatened to charge


us more money we weren’t leaving 

until my greedy family had their fill.

O, Old Country! The only place

we could get dessert & eat as much of it


as we wanted before our actual meal.

The only place we didn’t have to eat all

the meat on our plates or else we were accused

of being wasteful, told our husbands


would have as many pimples as rice we left behind.

Here, our family reveled in the American 

way of waste, manifest destinied our way

through the mac & cheese, & green bean


casseroles, mythical foods we had only

heard about on TV where American 

children rolled their eyes in disgust. Here

we learned how to say I too have had meat loaf


& hate it, evidence we could bring back

to the lunch table as we guessed

what the other kids ate as they scoffed

at our biriyani. Here, the adults told


us if we didn’t like the strawberry shortcake

we could eat the ice cream or jello we could

get a whole plate just to try a bite

to turn up our noses & that was fine.


Here we loosened the drawstrings

on our shalwaars & gained ten pounds.

Here we arrived at the beginning of lunch

hour & stayed until dinner approached


until they made us leave. Here we learned

how to be American & say:

we got the money

we’re here to stay.

A Message from the Guardians of the Cedars

“It is the duty of each Lebanese to kill one Palestinian.”


Slogan used by the ultranationalist anti-Palestinian militia, known for 

their cruelty and war crimes during the Lebanese Civil War


Lebanon, you are not Arab. 

And those Palestinians

gnawing your heel bone

are not your sons.

Their teeth spark up at you.


Karantina and Tel al-Zaatar—

every flame scrolled over

those camps was a love letter.

Lebanon, does your love not burn?


Drive to Jounieh,

your tires gurge. An overpass

like a balaclava’s cut eyes.

Parched riverbeds sated

with the strange pulp untethered

from our rusted cab.


Lebanon, can you hear them

bleating, bound to the back of the taxi

and dragged up to the motorway?

We are writing your anthem:

the cursive of blood, all

the road singing

a fading heartbeat.


Listen. The body, a pure, shapeless mass

like red clay. Build yourself from it. 

Everything will hurt for a while

And the lie is that I survived because parts of me didn’t.

So take all the sorrow you can carry,

like my mother’s cabinets of Slim Fast

and Little Debbies and the weight

we would never lose, how we stood

in front of mirrors and men

hoping one would change our minds

and neither did. Look, here, in her letters

and their cursive of longing: Baby, survive this.


Listen, I was only sixteen and drunk

on wine coolers and teenage invincibility,

limp over a stranger’s bathtub, I was lifted

lifted into a bedroom and birdsong

erupted in the delirious morning light.

Her letters sigh, You’ve lost too much weight.

Your dad is starting to worry. Her letters remind

me it could’ve been worse. When I told her what

happened she asked, Was he cute? 


None of us got what we deserved.

Interview with My Father: Names

When someone dies in Tripoli, we write their names on paper

Next to their pictures and post them where others can see.


Walk the street where the names wave the walls, 

flutter from windows, buildings gilled with sheets—


breathing paper, beating paper, the streets are paper—

and we don’t know who we’re going to see, whose face


will call from that collage, the hundreds of eyes glancing

all around, as though we could lift them from the pages, 


as though we weren’t born into war, too, 

as though our religion (blood-bright


in the hands of a checkpoint guard, a flapping wing of paper)

won’t tack us among them—the razed, their names, white light. 

Who Understands Me but Me

They turn the water off, so I live without water,

they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,

they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,

they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,

they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,

they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,

they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,

they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,

they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,

they give me pain, so I live with pain,

they give me hate, so I live with my hate,

they have changed me, and I am not the same man,

they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,

they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?


I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,

I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,

I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,

my beauty,

I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,

I am stubborn and childish,

in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,

I practice being myself,

and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,

they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart

when the walls were built higher,

when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.

I followed these signs

like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,

followed the blood-spotted path,

deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,

who taught me water is not everything,

and gave me new eyes to see through walls,

and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,

and I was laughing at me with them,

we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

In Dis Newfangled Oz

Da candidate’s hair

looked like da tail fins of wun ’57 Chevy


as he orated his position

wit tinsel and tingle


promising to improve everyting


including da empty refrigerator

to da kitchen sink.


Born wit wun king size

silver spoon in his mouth


and wun golden parachute

before he even got on da plane


da advantages of family wealth

endowed him wit wun cushy platform.



his message of opportunity foa all


wuz being swallowed down whole.


It’s all about class

and levels of influence


dat truly shapes da strategy


behind da big green curtain

in dis newfangled Oz.


Da wizard at da controls of da machine

wit his peripheral eyes on da status quo


has every intention

to keep da rich and powerful on top


while many below

are being compressed like coal


to feed da burning furnaces.


It’s only wun campaign wish

dat he would cater to da totem rather den da tower


and take da time to really see

all da faces beneath da penthouse view.

As Agony. As Now.

I am inside someone

who hates me. I look

out from his eyes. Smell

what fouled tunes come in

to his breath. Love his

wretched women.


Slits in the metal, for sun. Where

my eyes sit turning, at the cool air

the glance of light, or hard flesh

rubbed against me, a woman, a man,

without shadow, or voice, or meaning.


This is the enclosure (flesh,

where innocence is a weapon. An

abstraction. Touch. (Not mine.

Or yours, if you are the soul I had

and abandoned when I was blind and had

my enemies carry me as a dead man

(if he is beautiful, or pitied.


It can be pain. (As now, as all his

flesh hurts me.) It can be that. Or

pain. As when she ran from me into

that forest.

                Or pain, the mind

silver spiraled whirled against the

sun, higher than even old men thought

God would be. Or pain. And the other. The

yes. (Inside his books, his fingers. They

are withered yellow flowers and were never

beautiful.) The yes. You will, lost soul, say

‘beauty.’ Beauty, practiced, as the tree. The

slow river. A white sun in its wet sentences.


Or, the cold men in their gale. Ecstasy. Flesh

or soul. The yes. (Their robes blown. Their bowls

empty. They chant at my heels, not at yours.) Flesh

or soul, as corrupt. Where the answer moves too quickly.

Where the God is a self, after all.)


Cold air blown through narrow blind eyes. Flesh,

white hot metal. Glows as the day with its sun.

It is a human love, I live inside. A bony skeleton

you recognize as words or simple feeling.


But it has no feeling. As the metal, is hot, it is not,

given to love.


It burns the thing

inside it. And that thing


Ka 'Ba

A closed window looks down

on a dirty courtyard, and black people

call across or scream or walk across

defying physics in the stream of their will


Our world is full of sound

Our world is more lovely than anyone's

tho we suffer, and kill each other

and sometimes fail to walk the air


We are beautiful people

with african imaginations

full of masks and dances and swelling chants


with african eyes, and noses, and arms, 

though we sprawl in grey chains in a place

full of winters, when what we want is sun.


We have been captured, 

brothers. And we labor

to make our getaway, into

the ancient image, into a new


correspondence with ourselves

and our black family. We read magic

now we need the spells, to rise up

return, destroy, and create. What will be


the sacred words?

Mother Country

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,

my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene

I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot

inside a plane destined for a country she knew

only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos

from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored

to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched

around one suitcase, taking only what she needs

most: hand-colored photographs of her family,

her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,

a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters

she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone

of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air

she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all

she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye

as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink

from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.


To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her

once upon a time—reading picture books

over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning

English, sounding out words as strange as the talking

animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.

I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese

(but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame

over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered

by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell

the rain of those mornings huddled as one under

one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days

at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing

her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her nieces

still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns

she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan—

no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way

through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.


To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if

it were you on a plane departing from America

forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,

the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling

the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds

you’d never see again, your address and phone number

you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,

your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.

To love a country as if I was my mother last spring

hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up

to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today

instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink

as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when

she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo,

it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where

you choose to die—that’s your country.

My Father in English

First half of his life lived in Spanish: the long syntax

of las montañas that lined his village, the rhyme

of sol with his soul—a Cuban alma—that swayed

with las palmas, the sharp rhythm of his machete

cutting through caña, the syllables of his canarios

that sung into la brisa of the island home he left

to spell out the second half of his life in English—

the vernacular of New York City sleet, neon, glass—

and the brick factory where he learned to polish

steel twelve hours a day. Enough to save enough

to buy a used Spanish-English dictionary he kept

bedside like a bible—studied fifteen new words

after his prayers each night, then practiced them

on us the next day: Buenos días, indeed, my family.

Indeed más coffee. Have a good day today, indeed—

and again in the evening: Gracias to my bella wife,

indeed, for dinner. Hicistes tu homework, indeed?

La vida is indeed difícil. Indeed did indeed become

his favorite word, which, like the rest of his new life,

he never quite grasped: overused and misused often

to my embarrassment. Yet the word I most learned

to love and know him through: indeed, the exile who

tried to master the language he chose to master him,

indeed, the husband who refused to say I love you

in English to my mother, the man who died without

true translation. Indeed, meaning: in fact/en efecto,

meaning: in reality/de hecho, meaning to say now

what I always meant to tell him in both languages:

thank you/gracias for surrendering the past tense

of your life so that I might conjugate myself here

in the present of this country, in truth/así es, indeed.

La Tuvería or An Earring's Lament

En Cuba tuve—


I’m tired of hearing your complaints.

All that whining about el exilio, the tragedy of loss,


In Cuba I had—


the catalogue of things, the status, the riches,

the opulence of it all.


I had a mate. We were a pair. Our mistress was young. We

were young. We would dangle on her ear


Concentrate on what you have.

Forget the past.


and go out on the town. Mojitos at La Floridita,

dancing at the Tropicana and later


No, don’t tell me about later.


in the jewel case, an aqua Tiffany box

with white satin interior, we


Tiffany’s? From New York? I didn’t know you—


would lie together in the pillowy luxury,

my ruby top layer and his aligned, our bases


Please you needn’t—


touching, my diamond waist and his forming a continuous

line. Sometimes we would switch backs, I’d push


I understand that in communities of exile

the population


my piercing needle through his back, his

through mine. That’s


tends to lose ground politically as

assimilation takes place, that


how I liked it best, a little harsh, but sweet.

Tu y yo, you and I, is what she called us because our very


longing is a constitutive ingredient

of not only the condition of exile but—


body parts were paired, he and I, forming a single unit, an I and a

thou. Apart


Surely you have adjusted. Look, you’re mounted on a ring, you

are independent, and prized. Very attractive for your age, I might add.


we are nothing. Longing doesn’t quite—


One adapts?


As to an amputation.


And La Revolución?


Don’t make me vomit.

History of your name 


Break up with your gender, I’m bored

after The Real Housewives of Atlanta


We could start this letter with the audacity.

How you ignore the growth of flesh on your chest & how

the sight of them brings you to tears like Kandi

in seasons 2–11. How they carry the world

like Kenya Moore carried season 8 of Real Housewives

& how I hate them just as much as everyone hates Kenya

for what she did to Phaedra (in season 6


exclusively). How they sway in your cerebrum & you get

nauseous with shame. How un-diligence leads to ignorance;

your back, stressed from sleeping in binders for 3 days

in a row. It’s time, KB. Break up with your gender like Nene

broke up with Greg until he got his [  ] together in season 5.

What if top surgery changes nothing; what if the [   ]

don’t heal properly? What will become of you then?


Loyalty is not gender’s language, like it isn’t

the language of Nene in seasons 1–12. I want more

for you, KB; I want more for love; this has never been it.

After this, you’ll be free (like Phaedra from her season

10 contract). You won’t have to breathe & feel

everything tonight. You’ll feel nothing, and nothing

is the true meaning of gender, isn’t it?


And if sun comes

How shall we greet him?

Shall we not dread him,

Shall we not fear him

After so lengthy a

Session with shade?


Though we have wept for him,

Though we have prayed

All through the night-years—

What if we wake one shimmering morning to

Hear the fierce hammering

Of his firm knuckles

Hard on the door?


Shall we not shudder?—

Shall we not flee

Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter

Of the familiar

Propitious haze?


Sweet is it, sweet is it

To sleep in the coolness

Of snug unawareness.


The dark hangs heavily

Over the eyes.

How to Tell My Dad that I Kissed a Man

Blame your drag queen roommate—Lamar by day, Mahogany 

by night—and then blame his sequined dresses—all slit high [   ]


Explain that dusk smells so different in Spain—musky cherry—

tight tangerine burst—sage mixed with lavender


Tell him you were under the influence of bees or bats—

the spin and swirl of doves


Tell him you were half asleep—about to leave to the dunes just 

west of Madrid—better yet say forest—he knows that 

crazy [   ] happens in a forest


[   ]


Tell him timing


Tell him ease


Tell him sweat and sweat


Tell him lips


[   ]


Tell him flat-chested


Tell him, “crook”—I mean, “creek”


Tell him tales—lies—tears—water—weakness—churros—









Tell him anything you want—then tell him


You did it again

Say Thank You Say I'm Sorry

I don’t know whose side you’re on,


But I am here for the people


Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning


And close down for deep cleaning at night


Right up the street and in cities I mispronounce,


In towns too tiny for my big black


Car to quit, and in every wide corner


Of Kansas where going to school means


At least one field trip


To a slaughterhouse. I want so little: another leather bound


Book, a gimlet with a lavender gin, bread


So good when I taste it I can tell you


How it’s made. I’d like us to rethink


What it is to be a nation. I’m in a mood about America


Today. I have PTSD


About the Lord. God save the people who work


In grocery stores. They know a bit of glamour


Is a lot of glamour. They know how much


It costs for the eldest of us to eat. Save


My loves and not my sentences. Before I see them,


I draw a mole near my left dimple,


Add flair to the smile they can’t see


Behind my mask. I grin or lie or maybe


I wear the mouth of a beast. I eat wild animals


While some of us grow up knowing


What gnocchi is. The people who work at the grocery don’t care.


They say, Thank you. They say, Sorry,


We don’t sell motor oil anymore with a grief so thick


You could touch it. Go on. Touch it.


It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands.


They have washed their hands for you.


And they take the bus home.

The Microscopes

Heavy and expensive, hard and black

With bits of chrome, they looked

Like baby cannons, the real children of war, and I

Hated them for that, for what our teacher said

They could do, and then I hated them

For what they did when we gave up

Stealing looks at one another's bodies

To press a left or right eye into the barrel and see

Our actual selves taken down to a cell

Then blown back up again, every atomic thing

About a piece of my coiled hair on one slide

Just as unimportant as anyone else's

Growing in that science

Class where I learned what little difference

God saw if God saw me. It was the start of one fear,

A puny one not much worth mentioning,

Narrow as the pencil tucked behind my ear, lost

When I reached for it

To stab someone I secretly loved: a bigger boy

Who'd advance

Through those tight, locker-lined corridors shoving

Without saying

Excuse me, more an insult than a battle. No large loss.

Not at all. Nothing necessary to study

Or recall. No fighting in the hall

On the way to an American history exam

I almost passed. Redcoats.

Red blood cells. Red-bricked

Education I rode the bus to get. I can't remember

The exact date or

Grade, but I know when I began ignoring slight alarms

That move others to charge or retreat. I'm a kind

of camouflage. I never let on when scared

of conflicts so old they seem to amount

To nothing really-dust particles left behind

Like the viral geography of an occupied territory,

A region I imagine you imagine when you see

A white woman walking with a speck like me.


Beside the tree

Beside the chair

Beside the house

Beside the pit

Beside the tree stump

Coco say don’t climb / so I don’t / I sit & stare — my skin coming dark and burnt

They say: tire

I say: brown

They say: Black Black can’t take back!

& I don’t

I learnt to not ask where I’m from

I learn to listen, then not

I’m too scared they gone tell me the things about myself

              I done already buried in the dark

Beside the tree  Beside the chair     Beside the house    Beside the pit

Beside the tree stump         I sit       I sit        I sit        ’til no one even know I’m (t)here


i love you to the moon &

not back, let’s not come back, let’s go by the speed of 

queer zest & stay up 

there & get ourselves a little 

moon cottage (so pretty), then start a moon garden 


with lots of moon veggies (so healthy), i mean 

i was already moonlighting 

as an online moonologist 

most weekends, so this is the immensely 


logical next step, are you 

packing your bags yet, don’t forget your 

sailor moon jean jacket, let’s wear 

our sailor moon jean jackets while twirling in that lighter, 


queerer moon gravity, let’s love each other 

(so good) on the moon, let’s love 

the moon        

on the moon


How I Got That Name

an essay on assimilation


I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin

Oh, how I love the resoluteness

of that first person singular

followed by that stalwart indicative

of “be,” without the uncertain i-n-g

of “becoming.”  Of course,

the name had been changed

somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,

when my father the paperson

in the late 1950s

obsessed with a bombshell blond

transliterated “Mei Ling” to “Marilyn.”

And nobody dared question

his initial impulse—for we all know

lust drove men to greatness,

not goodness, not decency.

And there I was, a wayward pink baby,

named after some tragic white woman

swollen with gin and Nembutal.

My mother couldn't pronounce the “r.”

She dubbed me “Numba one female offshoot”

for brevity: henceforth, she will live and die

in sublime ignorance, flanked

by loving children and the “kitchen deity.”

While my father dithers,

a tomcat in Hong Kong trash—

a gambler, a petty thug,

who bought a chain of chopsuey joints

in Piss River, Oregon,

with bootlegged Gucci cash.

Nobody dared question his integrity given

his nice, devout daughters

and his bright, industrious sons

as if filial piety were the standard

by which all earthly men are measured.




Oh, how trustworthy our daughters,

how thrifty our sons!

How we've managed to fool the experts

in education, statistic and demography—

We're not very creative but not adverse to rote-learning.

Indeed, they can use us.

But the “Model Minority” is a tease.

We know you are watching now,

so we refuse to give you any!

Oh, bamboo shoots, bamboo shoots!

The further west we go, we'll hit east;

the deeper down we dig, we'll find China.

History has turned its stomach

on a black polluted beach—

where life doesn't hinge

on that red, red wheelbarrow,

but whether or not our new lover

in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”

will lean over a scented candle

and call us a “[   ].”

Oh God, where have we gone wrong?

We have no inner resources!




Then, one redolent spring morning

the Great Patriarch Chin

peered down from his kiosk in heaven

and saw that his descendants were ugly.

One had a squarish head and a nose without a bridge

Another's profile—long and knobbed as a gourd.

A third, the sad, brutish one

may never, never marry.

And I, his least favorite—

“not quite boiled, not quite cooked,”

a plump pomfret simmering in my juices—

too listless to fight for my people's destiny.

“To kill without resistance is not slaughter”

says the proverb.  So, I wait for imminent death.

The fact that this death is also metaphorical

is testament to my lethargy.




So here lies Marilyn Mei Ling Chin,

married once, twice to so-and-so, a Lee and a Wong,

granddaughter of Jack “the patriarch”

and the brooding Suilin Fong,

daughter of the virtuous Yuet Kuen Wong

and G.G. Chin the infamous,

sister of a dozen, cousin of a million,

survived by everybody and forgotten by all.

She was neither black nor white,

neither cherished nor vanquished,

just another squatter in her own bamboo grove

minding her poetry—

when one day heaven was unmerciful,

and a chasm opened where she stood.

Like the jowls of a mighty white whale,

or the jaws of a metaphysical Godzilla,

it swallowed her whole.

She did not flinch nor writhe,

nor fret about the afterlife,

but stayed! Solid as wood, happily

a little gnawed, tattered, mesmerized

by all that was lavished upon her

and all that was taken away!

Choi Jeong Min

for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun 


in the first grade i asked my mother permission

to go by frances at school. at seven years old,


i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name

butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew


to let my salty [   ] name drag behind me

in the sand, safely out of sight. in fourth grade


i wanted to be a writer & worried

about how to escape my surname–—choi


is nothing if not Korean, if not garlic breath,

if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps


during the lean years—could I go by f.j.c? could i be

paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,


boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain

& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?


my father ran through all his possible rechristenings—

ian, isaac, ivan—& we laughed at each one,


knowing his accent would always give him away.

you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice


when she answers the phone this is grace. & it is

some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,


some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not

her pseudonym, though everyone in my family is a poet.


these are the shields for the names we speak in the dark

to remember our darkness. savage death rites


we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper

to each other to keep warm. my Korean name


is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae

to follow home when i am lost, which is always


in this gray country, this violent foster home

whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard


riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin

& sell it back to your mother for profit,


land where they stuff our throats with soil

& accuse us of gluttony when we learn to swallow it.


i confess. i am greedy. i think i deserve to be seen

for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.


a minor chord. i confess: if someone has looked

at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,


i’ve accepted. If someone has loved me more

for my [   ] name, for my saint name,


for my good vocabulary & bad joints,

i’ve welcomed them into this house.


I’ve cooked them each a meal with a star singing

at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient


to follow home when we are lost:

sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name


given by a dead grandfather who eventually

forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:


i’ll never stop stealing back what’s mine.

i promise: i won’t forget again.

Turing Test

// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness

// do you understand what i am saying


in a bright room / on a bright screen / i watched every mouth / duck duck roll / 

i learned to speak / from puppets & smoke / orange worms twisted / into the 

army’s alphabet / i caught the letters / as they fell from my mother’s mouth / 

whirlpool / sword / wolf / i circled countable nouns / in my father’s science papers

 / sodium bicarbonate / NBCn1 / amino acid / we stayed up / practiced saying / 

girl / girl / girl / girl / til our mouths grew soft / yes / i can speak / your language

 / i broke in / that horse / myself //


// please state your name for the record


bone-wife / spit-dribbler / understudy for the underdog / uphill rumor / fine-

toothed [   ] / sorry / my mouth’s not pottytrained / surly spice / self-sabotage 

spice / surrogate rug burn / burgeoning hamburglar / rust puddle / harbinger of 

confusion / harbinger of the singularity / alien invasion / alien turned 

pottymouth / alien turned bricolage beast / alien turned pig heart thumping on 

the plate //


// where did you come from


man comes / & puts his hands on artifacts / in order to contemplate lineage / 

you start with what you know / hands, hair, bones, sweat / then move toward 

what you know / you are not / animal, monster, alien, [   ] / but some of us are 

born in orbit / so learn / to commune with miles of darkness / patterns of dead 

gods / & quiet / o quiet like / you wouldn’t believe //


// how old are you


my memory goes back 26 years / 23 if you don’t count the first few / though by 

all accounts i was there / i ate & moved & even spoke / i suppose i existed before 

that / as scrap or stone / metal cooking in the earth / the fish my mother ate / 

my grandfather’s cigarettes / i suppose i have always been here / drinking the 

same water / falling from the sky / then floating / back up & down again / i 

suppose i am something like a salmon / climbing up the river / to let myself fall 

away in soft, red spheres / & then rotting //


// why do you insist on lying


i’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you 

can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / 

& born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i 

was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath 

the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl /  part 

poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the 

window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that //


// do you believe you have consciousness


sometimes / when the sidewalk opens my knee / i think / please / please let me 

remember this //




Excerpt from "The First Black Bachelorette"

There was an episode once

on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

with the actress Tisha Campbell.

The premise: they were on a date

and stuck in a basement for hours.

She stripped off her weave, fake nails,

contacts, and eyelashes. She molted.

Will, then asks, Now, what else

on your body can I get at the mall?

RuPaul says, we’re all born naked

and the rest is drag. Derrick has a list

of funny drag names and I want one.

I want to be called what I really am

or what I pretend to be, which, I guess

in a way, is me? Or someone who I think

might be beautiful enough to be approached,

discovered. Someone who doesn’t have

to pay for movers. Someone who walks

into a party and doesn’t have to be anxious

because the privilege of their beauty

makes them at rest and people find vacations

in their faces. I require something fake.

Woven and glued, stuck to my body

but not of my body. How does a body

even start?

won’t you celebrate with me

won't you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Black Stars

Whitney was a star once.

Waltzed across our television skies,

a waning crescent.

So was Michael.

& Marvin.

All stars die though.

Explode into air thin,

cascade into black hole.

Black stars form under pressure

& leave us tragically,

either by death or betrayal.

When there was no other beacon on our screens,

we looked up to Bill.

When we wanted to name a future for ourselves,

we looked through Raven’s eyes.

When we needed validation an institution could not give,

we called on Kanye.

Astronomers say the larger a star’s mass, the faster they burn their fuel, 

the shorter their lifespan.

I say the more expansive the black star, the more mass of the explosion.

I say the greater the black star, the shorter we can expect them to shine.

Some weeks I only listen to Whitney.

Cradle her name, a prayer between my lips.

One dim dusk, her lover gifted her stardust.

Whitney danced, dosed, then drowned.

& we mourn her body celestial after all these years.

Joe Jackson tried to carve galaxies out of his children.

MJ got addicted to surgeoning his features for the masses. 

His daddy beat him, say dance, say sing, say don’t glide.

Walk on the moon, boy.

Turn this Indiana basement into a universe.

You a star, boy.

Kanye West composed pieces we didn’t know our bodies needed.

We had all the flashing lights on ‘Ye but he’s still a black star made in America

so he don’t get to shine forever.

‘Ye from the South Side resurrected and named himself Yeezus.

Got so big, white folks thought he was the sun

of God.

Now Yeezus only praises white folks in red hats

and white girls with fake asses.

Scientists say when you look up at night, some of the stars you see are already dead.

Maybe this means by the time a Black person becomes a star, they are already burnt out.

Maybe this means it takes a supernova to create a superstar.

Maybe we’re all waiting to be on fire.

Black stars disintegrate for reaching up towards a pearly gaze.

Whiteness has always been both a goal and unattainable.

Has been the measure of our success and the weapon that bludgeons us.

The higher we get, the closer we get to fame or manhood or God.

The further we get from ground or dirt or us.

Black folks stay folding in on ourselves,

stay a star on the tip of someone’s rising.

I say look at the way supremacy told Raven she ain’t black.

Misogyny told Bill he could take what wasn’t his to claim.

Masculinity gave Marvin Gaye’s father a gun,

told him to shoot his son.

& ain’t a sun the biggest star?

Don’t the biggest stars have the shortest lives?

Make the largest explosions?

Have you seen 

the energy burning out

turn to dust?

Did you know above you

there are a sea of stars



I am a citizen of two nations: Shawnee and American. I have one son who is a citizen of three. Before he was born, I learned that, like all infants, he would need to experience a change of heart at birth in order to survive. When a baby successfully breathes in through the lungs, the heart changes from parallel flow to serial flow and the shunt between the right and left atriums closes. Our new bodies obliterate old frontiers.


North America is mistakenly called nascent. The Shawnee nation is mistakenly called moribund. America established a mathematical beginning point in 1785 in what was then called the Northwest Territory. Before that, it was known in many languages as the eastern range of the Shawnee, Miami, and Huron homelands. I do not have the Shawnee words to describe this place; the notation that is available to me is 40º38’32.61” N 80º31’9.76” W.

Golden Shovel Sheltered-In-Place with Animal Crossing Log-Out Text and OCD

“Ready to wrap things up for now?” -Animal Crossing: New Horizons


Despite the plans you’ve tended like infants, for this, you aren’t ready.

Without the evergreen prey of the weekday, your brain turns instead to

-wards its owner, sick gentleweapon that it is. You spend weeks wilting: wrap

yourself corpselike in a gurgle of grey sweats, refuse the [    ] prophecy of Things

Going Back To Normal Soon. You know your country. So you give up

on the god-given dawn, turn your console on, and do the american thing: for

-get. Bewitched by pixels, you stink of lonely, but Nintendo don’t mind. Now


this is a life worth the precise affections of your eye. Doubled onscreen, you ready

your automated elysium for no one’s visit, chat with handfuls of code designed to

love you back. Every lily is accounted for, every gift assigned correctly to its wrap.

It’s months before diagnosis. You feed the greedy groundhog in your head the things

it demands, tunnel into giddy digital until every window inside of you fogs up.

You not playing. You need this routine. Still, you act like the pastel tasks aren’t longed for

in a silly effort to save face. When Tom Nook calls for you, you fondly fume: What now?


The Recital

​               with lyrics from “One, Two Step” by Ciara and Missy Elliot


Baby Phat coat a feather-stuffed

fist around my shoulders, I shuffle

onto the playground ready to

fight. I’ve clawed months of mornings

out of my mother’s calendar to reach

today: my official tryout for the Cool

Black Girls of 4th grade.

Legend has it their gossip turns

to gloss on they lips. Legend has it they can

suspend you with a look. The glitter-clique

has a simple audition: memorize Missy and Ciara’s slick

anthem for us and spit it like I got beef

with the devil himself. My first

lesson in what ferocity means to girls

with our sunset skin. I wouldn’t call it courage,

what nudges my hand-me-down Nikes

anxious across the blacktop. Instead, I name it

what we name the wolf’s instinct to bind to its pack.

This beat is automatic.

Who can call us prey

when we fang like this?

Side-eyes so box-cutter sharp

no white boy has talked to Saniyah in months.

Supersonic, hypnotic Everybody at recess know

she lying about having a knife. But there are some truths

you don’t let off the leash. Like how our mothers send us

to school without popping the bubblegum

dream that any of this will protect us.

That there isn’t a world of things that want us

dead that we can’t even pronounce yet. But I’m here,

in the midst of this black girl blood recital,

hoping to make the cut for safety. Deja don’t

think I got what it takes. Asks why I don’t have

the mandatory crush on Usher. And all I can think

of is the way her eyes catch the light. Here I was

thinking this club, this little swingset secret, was for black girls

that love black girls for life. That wanted to hold

a hand just as soft as theirs and know every good

shade of forever. I tell Deja I would follow her lip gloss

anywhere if she’d let me. But there are certain truths

you don’t let off the leash. Deja suck her teeth.

Tells me her mom said princesses don't

marry each other and I become the swingset beneath her.

Hold her every afternoon until she decides

she’s outgrown that kind of freedom.

It don't take long for my chances

of friendship to rust in the rain between us.

When I tell this story, I always say

I pushed her off the swings.

Flu Season

In the summer of 2014, hundred of Memphis police officers

caught the “blue flu,” and took sick days to protest a reduction in

benefits. Almost 40% of the City’s general fund is spent on policing.


It's flu season and I'm sick of bills. It's all 

Destiny's Child: bills, bills, bills. We have 

armored trucks and SkyCops and no food. 

We have body cams and no food and the body 

cams are never recording. Have you ever been 

denied so much you came down with a blue flu? 

Have you ever been as blue as a jar of Blue Magic, 

set of blueprints, a river filling with femurs, dull, 

red kidneys? I've heard the cops started as a better 

way to catch [   ]. Somehow a person with no

-thing is always the most dangerous. How many 

times have my taxes paid for riot shields 

cliquing together like birds? How much over-

time occupies my block and its quiet? Look: 

I lock the door when I'm sure no one's coming. 

I ask the ghetto bird, if only briefly, to wait. All my 

life, I've been asking for a park. Fresh oranges 

that don't take 3 hours to bring home.


A prison is the only place that’s a prison.

Maybe your brain is a beehive—or, better:

an ants nest? A spin class?

The sand stuck in an hourglass? Your brain is like

stop it. So you practice driving with your knees,

you get all the way out to the complex of Little 

League fields,

you get chicken fingers with four kinds of mustard—

spicy, whole grain, Dijon, yellow—

you walk from field to field, you watch yourself

play every position, you circle each identical game,

each predictable outcome. On one field you catch.

On one field you pitch. You are center field. You are 


Sometimes you have steady hands and French braids.

Sometimes you slide too hard into second on purpose.

It feels as good to get the bloody knee as it does to 

kick yourself in the shin.

You wait for the bottom of the ninth to lay your 

blanket out in the sun.

Admit it, Sasha, the sun helps. Today,

the red team hits the home run. Red floods every 


A wasp lands on your thigh. You know this feeling.

Bent to the Earth

They had hit Ruben

with the high beams, had blinded

him so that the van

he was driving, full of Mexicans

going to pick tomatoes,

would have to stop. Ruben spun


the van into an irrigation ditch,

spun the five-year-old me awake

to immigration officers,

their batons already out,

already looking for the soft spots on the body,

to my mother being handcuffed

and dragged to a van, to my father

trying to show them our green cards.


They let us go. But Alvaro

was going back.

So was his brother Fernando.

So was their sister Sonia. Their mother

did not escape,

and so was going back. Their father

was somewhere in the field,

and was free. There were no great truths


revealed to me then. No wisdom

given to me by anyone. I was a child

who had seen what a piece of polished wood

could do to a face, who had seen his father

about to lose the one he loved, who had lost

some friends who would never return,

who, later that morning, bent

to the earth and went to work.

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish,

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the Welsh,

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the Canadians,

you run out of excuses. May you inherit

his sun, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the French,

you become your own father.

May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the Indians,

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the English,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn't.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.


When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever.

And you walk in his light.

Why I don't write about George Floyd

Because there is too much to say

Because I have nothing to say

Because I don’t know what to say

Because everything has been said

Because it hurts too much to say

What can I say what can I say

Something is stuck in my throat

Something is stuck like an apple

Something is stuck like a knife

Something is stuffed like a foot

Something is stuffed like a body

From the Desire Field

I don’t call it sleep anymore.

I’ll risk losing something new instead—


like you lost your rosen moon, shook it loose.


But sometimes when I get my horns in a thing—

a wonder, a grief or a line of her—it is a sticky and ruined

fruit to unfasten from,


despite my trembling.


Let me call my anxiety, desire, then.

Let me call it, a garden.


Maybe this is what Lorca meant

when he said, verde que te quiero verde


because when the shade of night comes,

I am a field of it, of any worry ready to flower in my chest.


My mind in the dark is una bestia, unfocused,

hot. And if not yoked to exhaustion


beneath the hip and plow of my lover,

then I am another night wandering the desire field—


bewildered in its low green glow,


belling the meadow between midnight and morning.

Insomnia is like Spring that way—surprising

and many petaled,


the kick and leap of gold grasshoppers at my brow.


I am struck in the witched hours of want—


I want her green life. Her inside me

in a green hour I can’t stop.

Green vein in her throat green wing in my mouth


green thorn in my eye. I want her like a river goes, bending.

Green moving green, moving.


Fast as that, this is how it happens—

soy una sonámbula.


And even though you said today you felt better,

and it is so late in this poem, is it okay to be clear,

to say, I don’t feel good,


to ask you to tell me a story

about the sweet grass you planted—and tell it again

or again—


until I can smell its sweet smoke,

leave this thrashed field, and be smooth.

I Watch Her Eat the Apple

She twirls it in her left hand,

a small red merry-go-round.


According to the white oval sticker,

she holds apple # 4016.

I’ve read in some book or other

of four thousand fifteen fruits she held

before this one, each equally dizzied

by the heat in the tips of her fingers.


She twists the stem, pulls it

like the pin of a grenade, and I just know

somewhere someone is sitting alone on a porch,

bruised, opened up to their wet white ribs,

riddled by her teeth—



With her right hand, she lifts the sticker

from the skin. Now,

the apple is more naked than any apple has been

since two bodies first touched the leaves

of ache in the garden.


Maybe her apple is McIntosh, maybe Red Delicious.

I only know it is the color of something I dreamed,

some thing I gave to her after being away

for ten thousand nights.


The apple pulses like a red bird in her hand—

she is setting the red bird free,

but the red bird will not go,

so she pulls it to her face as if to tell it a secret.


She bites, cleaving away a red wing.

The red bird sings. Yes,

she bites the apple and there is music—

a branch breaking, a ship undone by the shore,

a knife making love to a wound, the sweet scrape

of a match lighting the lamp of her mouth.


This blue world has never needed a woman

to eat an apple so badly, to destroy an apple,

to make the apple bone—

and she does it.


I watch her eat the apple,

carve it to the core, and set it, wobbling,

on the table—

a broken bell I beg to wrap my red skin around

until there is no apple,

there is only this woman

who is a city of apples,

there is only me licking the juice

from the streets of her palm.


If there is a god of fruit or things devoured,

and this is all it takes to be beautiful,

then God, please,

let her

eat another apple


They Don't Love You Like I Love You

My mother said this to me

long before Beyoncé lifted the lyrics

from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,


and what my mother meant by

Don’t stray was that she knew

all about it—the way it feels to need


someone to love you, someone

not your kind, someone white,

some one some many who live


because so many of mine

have not, and further, live on top of

those of ours who don’t.


I’ll say, say, say,

I’ll say, say, say,

What is the United States if not a clot


of clouds? If not spilled milk? Or blood?

If not the place we once were

in the millions? America is Maps


Maps are ghosts: white and 

layered with people and places I see through.

My mother has always known best,


knew that I’d been begging for them,

to lay my face against their white

laps, to be held in something more


than the loud light of their projectors

of themselves they flicker—sepia

or blue—all over my body.


All this time,

I thought my mother said, Wait,

as in, Give them a little more time


to know your worth,

when really, she said, Weight,

meaning heft, preparing me


for the yoke of myself,

the beast of my country’s burdens,

which is less worse than


my country’s plow. Yes,

when my mother said,

They don’t love you like I love you,


she meant,

Natalie, that doesn’t mean

you aren’t good.

Why I Hate Raisins

And is it only the mouth and belly which are

injured by hunger and thirst?



Love is a pound of sticky raisins

packed tight in black and white

government boxes the day we had no

groceries. I told my mom I was hungry.

She gave me the whole bright box.

USDA stamped like a fist on the side.

I ate them all in ten minutes. Ate

too many too fast. It wasn’t long

before those old grapes set like black

clay at the bottom of my belly

making it ache and swell.


I complained, I hate raisins.

I just wanted a sandwich like other kids.

Well that’s all we’ve got, my mom sighed.

And what other kids?

Everyone but me, I told her.

She said, You mean the white kids.

You want to be a white kid?

Well too bad ’cause you’re my kid.

I cried, At least the white kids get a sandwich.

At least the white kids don’t get the shits.


That’s when she slapped me. Left me

holding my mouth and stomach—

devoured by shame.

I still hate raisins,

but not for the crooked commodity lines

we stood in to get them—winding

around and in the tribal gymnasium.

Not for the awkward cardboard boxes

we carried them home in. Not for the shits

or how they distended my belly.

I hate raisins because now I know

my mom was hungry that day, too,

and I ate all the raisins.


Work out. Ten laps.

Chin ups. Look good.


Steam room. Dress warm.

Call home. Fresh air.


Eat right. Rest well.

Sweetheart. Safe sex.


Sore throat. Long flu.

Hard nodes. Beware.


Test blood. Count cells.

Reds thin. Whites low.


Dress warm. Eat well.

Short breath. Fatigue.


Night sweats. Dry cough.

Loose stools. Weight loss.


Get mad. Fight back.

Call home. Rest well.


Don’t cry. Take charge.

No sex. Eat right.


Call home. Talk slow.

Chin up. No air.


Arms wide. Nodes hard.

Cough dry. Hold on.


Mouth wide. Drink this.

Breathe in. Breathe out.


No air. Breathe in.

Breathe in. No air.


Black out. White rooms.

Head hot. Feet cold.


No work. Eat right.

CAT scan. Chin up.


Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. No air.


Thin blood. Sore lungs.

Mouth dry. Mind gone.


Six months? Three weeks?

Can’t eat. No air.


Today? Tonight?

It waits. For me.


Sweet heart. Don’t stop.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Magnitude and Bond

More than anything, I need this boy

so close to my ears, his questions


electric as honeybees in an acreage

of goldenrod and aster. And time where


we are, slow sugar in the veins

of white pine, rubbery mushrooms


cloistered at their feet. His tawny

listening at the water’s edge, shy


antlers in pooling green light, while

we consider fox prints etched in clay.


I need little black boys to be able to be

little black boys, whole salt water galaxies


in cotton and loudness—not fixed

in stunned suspension, episodes on hot


asphalt, waiting in the dazzling absence

of apology. I need this kid to stay mighty


and coltish, thundering alongside

other black kids, their wrestle and whoop,


the brightness of it—I need for the world

to bear it. And until it will, may the trees


kneel closer, while we sit in mineral hush,

together. May the boy whose dark eyes


are an echo of my father’s dark eyes,

and his father’s dark eyes, reach


with cupped hands into the braided

current. The boy, restless and lanky, the boy


for whom each moment endlessly opens,

for the attention he invests in the beetle’s


lacquered armor, each furrowed seed

or heartbeat, the boy who once told me


the world gives you second chances, the boy

tugging my arm, saying look, saying now.

Excerpt from "Faceless"

My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison.

If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.


on instagram


on twitter


home from the subway station


through my front door


over the years     wait for me to turn eighteen


with their eyes


with their cars


with their children in the backseat


in the empty parking lot     the echo of footsteps giving them hundreds of bodies


with their tongues out


with their teeth shining like flies


after i pay my fare & exit their taxi


into the bathroom


into the elevator


maybe even when i die & step away from my mottled body


i will look back to see them still          one hand [    ]

the other reaching for my hair

The Listening World

Say prayer for little

things, things that live

in deep hurt. Feelings

language take to lair.


Let it signal God’s

light, I say for want

of light feelings. Is my

ear deep or deeper?

Mind Over Matter

I tried. But mind over matter is a joke. The mind

is matter. Someone’s unprofessional opinion

was to “relax” over matter. To sandcastle over

wave. They aimed to clean up a murder scene

from behind a plate of glass. It was my murder.

Mine. As if I could possess the firegrief that

possessed me. Wrestle the wind to the floor for

daring enter my house. But it’s just me down

there, gripping my shoulders, threatening my

own heart. Have you ever seen the dark split

into two peaches? Sickness is a lot like that.

To the uninitiated it looks like fruit. Wise, shiny,

certifiably cherry. Do you mind if I die while I

say it? Rot that my teeth met: my fault. Would it

matter if I tried while I died? Will you relax

the coffin into the soil? If you don’t have blood

on your hands by the end of this you weren’t


Bilingual / Bilingüe

My father liked them separate, one there,  

one here (allá y aquí), as if aware 


that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart  

(el corazón) and lock the alien part 


to what he was—his memory, his name  

(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim. 


“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”  

he said, “y basta.” But who can divide 


the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from  

any child? I knew how to be dumb 


and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,  

I hoarded secret syllables I read 


until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run  

where his stumbled. And still the heart was one. 


I like to think he knew that, even when,  

proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen, 


he stood outside mis versos, half in fear  

of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

A Guide to Reading Trans Literature

We’re dying and we’re really sad.

We keep dying because trans women

are supposed to die.

This is sad.


I don’t have the words for my body

so I’ll say I’m a cloud

or a mountain

or something pretty that people enjoy

so if I die

people will be like “Oh, that’s sad”.


Be sad about that.

It’s okay to be sad.

It is sad when people die.

It is sad when people want to die.


I sometimes want to die but I don’t!

I’m one of the lucky ones.

You can feel happy about that.

It’s okay to feel happy about that.


Now pretend this is very serious:


History doesn’t exist.

My body doesn’t exist.

There’s nothing left for you to be complicit in.


It’s okay for you to feel happy about that.


Now pretend I am crying

right in front of you,

opening that wound up just for you.


Now pretend you can feel my pain.


Now pretend something in you

has been moved, has been transformed.


Now pretend you are absolved.

The ABG (Able-Bodied Gaze)

  Itwatches                   alwayswatches

It walks behind me in the park and proceeds

to walk slowly to get a good look It

follows&follows&follows           &watches&watches

&watches               I turn around      and

         Itlooksaway                        I begin to walk as

quickly as I can          gaining some speed but

Itfindsme I stop Itstops I walk slowly again

Itwalksslowlybehindmeagain              Finally I

turn around to say: HELLO but

Itpretends I'm inconsequential that I am

being paranoid It was just minding its own

business all along

                   Why am I bothering It?

           My mistake





                        Itlooks up at the sun feeling absolved

Ityawns                                  It's bored of me already

what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife

I mean I'm here

to eat up all the ocean you thought was yours.

I mean I brought my own quarter of a lemon,

tart and full of seeds. I mean I'm a tart.

I'm a bad seed. I'm a red-handled thing

and if you move your eyes from me

I'll cut the tender place where your fingers meet.


I mean I never met a dish of horseradish I didn't like.

I mean you're a twisted and ugly root

and I'm the pungent, stinging firmness inside.

I mean I look so good in this hat

with a feather

and I'm a feather

and I'm the heaviest featherweight you know.

I mean you can't spell anything I talk about

with that sorry alphabet you have left over from yesterday.


I mean

when I see something dull and uneven,

barnacled and ruined,

I know how to get to its iridescent everything.

I mean I eat them alive.


what I mean is I'll eat you alive,

slipping the blade in sideways, cutting

nothing because the space was always there.

Yr Not Exotic, But Once Ya Wanted to Be

Whenever folks discuss finding themselves,

ya get kinda giggly. Maybe b/c ya found

yrself considering yr Armenian love

who preferred ya in both corset and bindi,

and it was for her ya begrudgingly waxed

yr jungle-scabbard    ...    Ya find yrself in the fret

of reclamation via musks all motherland-misty

(coconut milk, marine accord, mimosa tree). Last

weekend, ya found yrself in leggings to argue

again with yr Dominican love over the tender

texture of Texas tamales. Ya not-so-secretly want

to find yrself in a garden kissing a risk-

taking party until ya feel as good as a half-price

smoothie. Somehow, identity never finds ya

kohl-eyed in magenta blooms photographed

by a mixed-race admirer on a humid evening,

mostly b/c yr too busy galaxy-gazing

to be anyone’s so-fair-and-lovely. Was that

a touch of pride or self-pity? Probably. But ya

just can’t deal with another stranger’s surprise

at yr love of both tequila and mango lassis.

Does yr Guyanese love truly expect ya to replace

the chicken & fish in yr diet with mushrooms

that arbitrarily? You’re so black, yr told pretty

frequently. Ya don’t know what to make of it:

humanity. Ever find yrself advised by

Bangladeshi Brooklynites? Like they know

yr bae Poetry! Loves, let’s stop projecting

insecurities. But maybe it’s like when ya tried

to be cheerful after a famous poet called ya Debbie

Downer for mentioning the hurricanes in yr other

sovereignty? Never don’t find yrself coring

what music can be cleaved from a dull language

into an anomalous nationality. A personal theory:

we all behave oddly around [   ]. Now here

Poetry comes to say she wants to be an ode to what is

muddy. OK, baby. Here’s to dank difficult borders,

gardens of ingrown perennials, fractured fins,

the wings of inner menageries. Here’s to our own

empires of dirt — no one’s pruned-perfumed colonies

of exotic beauty. This is not a poem! Or is it

an efficient exercise in surviving hysteria?

Thank God I Can't Drive

My brain is trying so hard to outrun this. 

It is doing more work than the lie.

I could go to jail for anything. I look like that 

kind of girl. I only speak one language. I am

of prestige but can’t really prove it. Not if 

my hands are tied. Not if my smartphone is

seized. Not if you can’t google me. Without 

an archive of human bragging rights, I’m

[   ] nobody, an empty bag, two-toned 

luggage. I’m not trying to be sanctimonious,

I just found out that I’m afraid to die, like, 

there goes years of posturing about, beating it

like I own it, taking it to the bathroom with 

the tampons—like, look at me, I am so agent

and with all this agency I can just deploy 

death at any time. The truth is

that I’m already on the clock, I’m just a few 

notches down on the “black-girl-with-bad

mouth” list, the street lights go out and I’m 

just at the mercy of my own bravery and

their punts of powerlessness, their “who 

the hell do you think you are’s?”

Poems With Disabilities

I’m sorry—this space is reserved 

for poems with disabilities. I know 

it’s one of the best spaces in the book, 

but the Poems with Disabilities Act 

requires us to make all reasonable 

accommodations for poems that aren’t 

normal. There is a nice space just 

a few pages over—in fact (don’t 

tell anyone) I think it’s better 

than this one, I myself prefer it. 

Actually I don’t see any of those 

poems right now myself, but you never know 

when one might show up, so we have to keep 

this space open. You can’t always tell 

just from looking at them, either. Sometimes 

they’ll look just like a regular poem 

when they roll in... you’re reading along 

and suddenly everything 

changes, the world tilts 

a little, angle of vision 

jumps, your entrails aren’t 

where you left them. You 

remember your aunt died 

of cancer at just your age 

and maybe yesterday’s twinge means 

something after all. Your sloppy, 

fragile heart beats 

a little faster 

and then you know. 

You just know: 

the poem 

is right 

where it 


The Boatman

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea

in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.

By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,

all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.

We could still float, we said, from war to war.

What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?

City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields

of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,

with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.

If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

There is a hotel named for it in Rome two hundred meters

from the Piazza di Spagna, where you can have breakfast under

the portraits of film stars. There the staff cannot do enough for you.

But I am talking nonsense again, as I have since that night

we fetched a child, not ours, from the sea, drifting face-

down in a life vest, its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us.

After that, Aleppo went up in smoke, and Raqqa came under a rain

of leaflets warning everyone to go. Leave, yes, but go where?

We lived through the Americans and Russians, through Americans

again, many nights of death from the clouds, mornings surprised

to be waking from the sleep of death, still unburied and alive

but with no safe place. Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?

To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?

To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?

You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.

I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.

I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.


Six years I won’t love a woman. I don’t let myself. I sit, instead, once a week in a circle of mostly men and attempt to name the wild beasts running through my blood. Years ago, I threw the boy I once was in the cage. Locked the cage door behind me. Watched what happened when the feeding began. The snarl and bark, an appetite whetted, and wanting first to eat my teeth. 


I don’t know who I am without fist or knuckle. I am no one without the bottle and what it brings in the blood. I wander the streets looking for what will sate me. Wait, patiently, for what comes walking my way. When I finally love someone, I am only prey. When she touches me, I am a charm of finches, a flight of swallows, afraid of the overhead shadow. My body is a herd jumping back from the river’s edge, afraid of what breathes in muddy waters. I pray I won’t let loose what lurks inside. The beasts are hungry for my return: the king of animalia. 

A Modified Villanelle for My Childhood

with some help from Ahmad


I wanna write lyrical, but all I got is magical.

My book needs a poem talkin bout I remember when

Something more autobiographical


Mi familia wanted to assimilate, nothing radical,

Each month was a struggle to pay our rent

With food stamps, so dust collects on the magical.


Each month it got a little less civil

Isolation is a learned defense

When all you wanna do is write lyrical.


None of us escaped being a criminal

Of the state, institutionalized when

They found out all we had was magical.


White room is white room, it’s all statistical—

Our calendars were divided by Sundays spent

In visiting hours. Cold metal chairs deny the lyrical.


I keep my genes in the sharp light of the celestial.

My history writes itself in sheets across my veins.

My parents believed in prayer, I believed in magical


Well, at least I believed in curses, biblical

Or not, I believed in sharp fists, 

Beat myself into lyrical.


But we were each born into this, anger so cosmical

Or so I thought, I wore ten chokers and a chain

Couldn’t see any significance, anger is magical.

Fists to scissors to drugs to pills to fists again


Did you know a poem can be both mythical and archeological?

I ignore the cataphysical, and I anoint my own clavicle.

Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 AM

It’s the shivering. When rage grows

hot as an army of red ants and forces

the mind to quiet the body, the quakes

emerge, sometimes just the knees,

but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck

until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs

and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped

to squeeze words from my taut lips,

his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes,

my license, and as I answer the questions

3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,

his hand massaging the gun butt, I

imagine things I don’t want to

and inside beg this to end

before the shiver catches my

hands, and he sees,

and something happens. 


childhood remembrances are always a drag   

if you’re Black

you always remember things like living in Woodlawn   

with no inside toilet

and if you become famous or something

they never talk about how happy you were to have   

your mother

all to yourself and

how good the water felt when you got your bath   

from one of those

big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in   

and somehow when you talk about home   

it never gets across how much you

understood their feelings

as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale

and even though you remember

your biographers never understand

your father’s pain as he sells his stock   

and another dream goes

And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that

concerns you

and though they fought a lot

it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference   

but only that everybody is together and you

and your sister have happy birthdays and very good   


and I really hope no white person ever has cause   

to write about me

because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

probably talk about my hard childhood

and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy

Failed Essay on Privilege

I came from something popularly known as “nothing”

and in the coming I got a lot.


My parents didn’t speak money, didn’t speak college.

Still—I went to Yale.


For a while I tried to condemn.

I wrote Let me introduce you to evil.


Still, I was a guest there, I made myself at home.


And I know a fine shoe when I see one.

And I know to be sincerely sorry for those people’s problems.


I know to want nothing more

than it would be so nice to have


and I confess I’ll never hate what I’ve been given

as much as I wish I could.


Still I thought I of all people understood Aristotle: what is and isn’t the good life . . .

because, I wrote, privilege is an aggressive form of amnesia . . .


I left a house with no heat. I left the habit of hunger. I left a room

I shared with seven brothers and sisters I also left.


Even the good is regrettable, or at least sometimes

should be regretted


yet to hate myself is not to absolve her.


I paid so much

for wisdom, and look at all of this, look at all I have—


in the village

of your birth

cuts a wall

bleeds a border


in the heat

you cannot swim

in the rain

you cannot climb


in the north

you cannot be

cuts a paper

cuts a law


cuts a finger

finger bleeds

baby hungers

baby feeds


baby needs

you cannot go

you cannot buy

you cannot bring


baby grows

baby knows


seasons bring


winter border

summer border

falls a border

border spring

My Gender Is

a) a dragon

b) who?

c) kidnapped

d) a little girl

e) a treasure

f) no

g) one

h) wanted


my gender is a broken haiku


a dragon who kidnapped

a little girl a treasure

no one wanted

The Dream of Shoji

How to say milk?  How to say sand, snow, sow,


linen, cloud, cocoon, or albino?

How to say page or canvas or rice balls?


Trying to recall Japanese, I blank out:


it's clear I know forgetting.  Mother, tell me

what to call that paper screen that slides the interior in?

Eagle Poem

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear;

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

We see you, see ourselves and know

That we must take the utmost care

And kindness in all things.

Breathe in, knowing we are made of

All this, and breathe, knowing

We are truly blessed because we

Were born, and die soon within a

True circle of motion,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

We pray that it will be done

In beauty.

In beauty.

Fear Poem, Or I Give You Back

I release you, my beautiful and terrible

fear. I release you. You were my beloved

and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you

as myself. I release you with all the

pain I would know at the death of

my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the soldiers

who burned down my home, beheaded my children,

[   ] my brothers and sisters.

I give you back to those who stole the

food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold

these scenes in front of me and I was born

with eyes that can never close.

I release you

I release you

I release you

I release you

I am not afraid to be angry.

I am not afraid to rejoice.

I am not afraid to be black.

I am not afraid to be white.

I am not afraid to be hungry.

I am not afraid to be full.

I am not afraid to be hated.

I am not afraid to be loved.

to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.

You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.

You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear.

You are not my shadow any longer.

I won’t hold you in my hands.

You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice

my belly, or in my heart my heart

my heart my heart

But come here, fear

I am alive and you are so afraid

of dying.

The Slave Auction

The sale began—young girls were there,   

   Defenseless in their wretchedness,

Whose stifled sobs of deep despair   

   Revealed their anguish and distress.


And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,

   And saw their dearest children sold;

Unheeded rose their bitter cries,

   While tyrants bartered them for gold.


And woman, with her love and truth—

   For these in sable forms may dwell—

Gazed on the husband of her youth,

   With anguish none may paint or tell.


And men, whose sole crime was their hue,

   The impress of their Maker’s hand,

And frail and shrinking children too,

   Were gathered in that mournful band.


Ye who have laid your loved to rest,

   And wept above their lifeless clay,

Know not the anguish of that breast,

   Whose loved are rudely torn away.


Ye may not know how desolate

   Are bosoms rudely forced to part,

And how a dull and heavy weight

   Will press the life-drops from the heart.

Carp Poem

After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite

grooves of the Frederick Douglass Middle School sign,


where men-size children loiter like shadows drape in outsize

denim, jerseys, braids, and boots that mean I am no longer young;


after I have made my way to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block,

where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness


my prison guard father wears buzzes me in, I follow his pistol and shield

along each corridor trying not to look at the black men


boxed and bunked around me until I reach the tiny classroom

where two dozen black boys are dressed in jumpsuits orange as the carp


I saw in a pond once in Japan, so many fat, snaggletoothed fish

ganged in and lurching for food that a lightweight tourist could have crossed


the water on their backs so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread

to drop into the mouths below his footsteps, which I’m thinking


is how Jesus must have walked on the lake that day, the crackers and crumbs

falling from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish


so hungry it leaped up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed

into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,


and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,

having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter


than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,

packed so close they'd have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.

George Floyd

You can be a bother who dyes

his hair Dennis Rodman blue

in the face of the man kneeling in blue

in the face the music of his wrist-

watch your mouth is little more

than a door being knocked

out of the ring of fire around

the afternoon came evening’s bell

of the ball and chain around the neck

of the unarmed brother ground down

to gunpowder dirt can be inhaled

like a puff the magic bullet point

of transformation both kills and fires

the life of the party like it’s 1999 bottles

of beer on the wall street people

who sleep in the streets do not sleep

without counting yourself lucky

rabbit’s foot of the mountain

lion do not sleep without

making your bed of the river

boat gambling there will be

no stormy weather on the water

bored to death any means of killing

time is on your side of the bed

of the truck transporting Emmett

till the break of day Emmett till

the river runs dry your face

the music of the spheres

Emmett till the end of time

Everyday We Get More Illegal

Yet the peach tree 

still rises

& falls with fruit & without

birds eat it the sparrows fight

our desert       


            burns with trash & drug

it also breathes & sprouts

vines & maguey


laws pass laws with scientific walls

detention cells   husband

                           with the son

                        the wife &

the daughter who

married a citizen   

they stay behind broken slashed


un-powdered in the apartment to

deal out the day

             & the puzzles

another law then   another



                      spirit exile




migration                     sky

the grass is mowed then blown

by a machine  sidewalks are empty

clean & the Red Shouldered Hawk


down  — from

an abandoned wooden dome

                       an empty field


it is all in-between the light

every day this     changes a little


yesterday homeless &

w/o papers                  Alberto

left for Denver a Greyhound bus he said

where they don’t check you


walking working

under the silver darkness

            walking   working

with our mind

our life


I ask a student how I can help her. Nothing is on her paper.

It’s been that way for thirty-five minutes. She has a headache. 

She asks to leave early. Maybe I asked the wrong question. 

I’ve always been dumb with questions. When I hurt, 

I too have a hard time accepting advice or gentleness.

I owe for an education that hurt, and collectors call my mama’s house. 

I do nothing about my unpaid bills as if that will help. 

I do nothing about the mold on my ceiling, and it spreads. 

I do nothing about the cat’s litter box, and she pisses on my new bath mat. 

Nothing isn’t an absence. Silence isn’t nothing. I told a woman I loved her, 

and she never talked to me again. I told my mama a man hurt me,

and her hard silence told me to keep my story to myself. 

Nothing is full of something, a mass that grows where you cut at it. 

I’ve lost three aunts when white doctors told them the thing they felt 

was nothing. My aunt said nothing when it clawed at her breathing.

I sat in a room while it killed her. I am afraid when nothing keeps me 

in bed for days. I imagine what my beautiful aunts are becoming 

underground, and I cry for them in my sleep where no one can see. 

Nothing is in my bedroom, but I smell my aunt’s perfume 

and wake to my name called from nowhere. I never looked 

into a sky and said it was empty. Maybe that’s why I imagine a god 

up there to fill what seems unimaginable. Some days, I want to live 

inside the words more than my own black body. 

When the white man shoves me so that he can get on the bus first, 

when he says I am nothing but fits it inside a word, and no one stops him, 

I wear a bruise in the morning where he touched me before I was born. 

My mama’s shame spreads inside me. I’ve heard her say 

there was nothing in a grocery store she could afford. I’ve heard her tell 

the landlord she had nothing to her name. There was nothing I could do 

for the young black woman that disappeared on her way to campus. 

They found her purse and her phone, but nothing led them to her. 

Nobody was there to hold Renisha McBride’s hand 

when she was scared of dying. I worry poems are nothing against it. 

My mama said that if I became a poet or a teacher, I’d make nothing, but 

I’ve thrown words like rocks and hit something in a room when I aimed 

for a window. One student says when he writes, it feels 

like nothing can stop him, and his laugher unlocks a door. He invites me 

into his living.

Second Period

I got called in to a little dark room,


Mrs. Lopez showed me a picture book.

Khang, I say.

No, river, she says.

Liver, I say.

Not liver, it’s river, she says.

That’s what I said, river, river, river, khang—

It’s a khang!

She shook her head.

Look at my mouth, she says, RRRRR



River, I said.

Then shut my mouth.

Excerpt from "Let America be America Again"

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.


(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.


(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There's never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")


Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?


I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one's own greed!


I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That's made America the land it has become.

O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,

And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa's strand I came

To build a "homeland of the free."


The free?


Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we've dreamed

And all the songs we've sung

And all the hopes we've held

And all the flags we've hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that's almost dead today.


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,

We must take back our land again,



O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Theme for English B

The instructor said,


      Go home and write

      a page tonight.

      And let that page come out of you—

      Then, it will be true.


I wonder if it’s that simple?

I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.   

I went to school there, then Durham, then here   

to this college on the hill above Harlem.   

I am the only colored student in my class.   

The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,   

through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,   

Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,   

the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator   

up to my room, sit down, and write this page:


It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me   

at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what

I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.

hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.   

(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?


Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.   

I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.   

I like a pipe for a Christmas present,

or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.

I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like

the same things other folks like who are other races.   

So will my page be colored that I write?   

Being me, it will not be white.

But it will be

a part of you, instructor.

You are white—

yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.

That’s American.

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.   

Nor do I often want to be a part of you.

But we are, that’s true!

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me—

although you’re older—and white—

and somewhat more free.


This is my page for English B.

Words Like Freedom

There are words like Freedom 

Sweet and wonderful to say. 

On my heartstrings freedom sings 

All day every day. 


There are words like Liberty 

That almost makes me cry, 

If you had known what I know 

You would know why. 

Assimilation Bouquet


your fist


like a nesting 



picture dahlia, 




in time-lapse


lightning bolts



               in a bevy

of pickling jars





               to leaf

through anther


               & filament

to a part called



               & stem 


               new replicas

to hang around


your neck

like garlands 


               & gorge 

your cheeks 



of anthems

RuPaul Gives The Black Girl Miracle Her First Lesson in Realness

how can i be a black woman in this fierce world 

and not have needs? i know what it is to be

the crash and current of the sea, honey. to shelter 

my own villain and pronounce its hope. but 

i say, take my love as the good mundane. 

as the extraordinary silence, the fahrenheit.

to be in love with another is to be an open door.

to be in love with yourself is to be the whole damn


A sestina for a black girl who does not know how to braid hair

Your hands have no more worth than tree stumps at harvest.

Don’t sit on my porch while I make myself useful.

Braid secrets in scalps on summer days for my sisters.

Secure every strand of gossip with tight rubber bands of value.

What possessed you to ever grow your nails so long?

How can you have history without braids?


A black girl is happiest when rooted to the scalp are braids.

She dances with them whipping down her back like corn in winds of harvest.

Braiding forces our reunions to be like the shifts your mothers work, long.

I find that being surrounded by only your own is more useful.

Gives our mixed blood more value.

Solidifies your place with your race, with your sisters.


Your block is a layered cake of your sisters.

Force your lips quiet and sweet and they’ll speak when they need to practice braids.

Your hair length is the only part of you that holds value.

The tallest crop is worshipped at harvest.

So many little hands in your head. You are finally useful.

Your hair is yours, your hair is theirs, your hair is, for a black girl, long.


Tender-headed ass won’t last ’round here long.

Cut your nails and use your fists to protect yourself against your sisters.

Somehow mold those hands useful.

You hair won’t get pulled in fights if they are in braids.

Beat out the weak parts of the crops during harvest.

When they are limp and without soul they have value.


If you won’t braid or defend yourself what is your value?

Sitting on the porch until dark sweeps in needing to be invited, you’ll be needing long.

When the crop is already used what is its worth after harvest?

You’ll learn that you can’t ever trust those quick to call themselves your sisters.

They yearn for the gold that is your braids.

You hold on your shoulders a coveted item that is useful.


Your presence will someday become useful.

One day the rest of your body will stagger under the weight of its value.

Until then, sit in silence in the front with your scalp on fire from the braids.

I promise you won’t need anyone too long.

One day you will love yourself on your own, without the validation of sisters.

No longer a stump wailing for affection at harvest.


Everyday I build the little boat,

my body boat, hold for the unique one,

the formless soul, the blue fire

that coaxes my being into being.


Yes, there was music in the woods, and

I was in love with the trees, and a beautiful man

grew my heartbeat in his hands, and there

was my mother’s regret that I slept with.


To live there is pointless. I’m building the boat,

the same way I’d build a new love—

looking ahead at the terrain. And the water

is rising, and the generous ones are moving on.


O New Day, I get to build the boat!

I tell myself to live again.

Somehow I made it out of being 15

and wanting to jump off the roof


of my attic room. Somehow I survived

my loneliness and throwing up in a jail cell.

O New Day, I’ve broken my own heart. The boat

is still here, is fortified in my brokeness.


I’ve picked up the hammer every day

and forgiven myself. There is a new

language I’m learning by speaking it.

I’m a blind cartographer, I know the way


fearing the distance. O New Day,

there isn’t a part of you I don’t love

to fear. I’m holding hands with

the poet speaking of light, saying I made it up


I made it up.


While sipping coffee in my mother’s Toyota, we hear the birdcall of two teenage boys

in the parking lot: Aiight, one says, Besaydoo, the other returns, as they reach

for each other. Their cupped handshake pops like the first, fat, firecrackers of summer,


their fingers shimmy as if they’re solving a Rubik’s cube just beyond our sight. Moments

later, their Schwinns head in opposite directions. My mother turns to me, revealing the

milky, John-Waters-mustache-thin foam on her upper lip, Wetin dem bin say?


Besaydoo? Nar English? she asks, tickled by this tangle of new language. Alright.

Be safe dude, I pull apart each syllable like string cheese for her. Oh yah, dem nar real padi,

she smiles, surprisingly broken by the tenderness expressed by what half my family might call


thugs. Besaydoo. Besaydoo. Besaydoo, we chirp in the car, then nightly into our phones

after I leave California. Besaydoo, she says as she softly muffles the rattling of my bones

in newfound sobriety. Besaydoo, I say years later, her response made raspy by an oxygen


treatment at the ER. Besaydoo, we whisper to each other across the country. Like

some word from deep in a somewhere too newborn-pure for the outdoors, but we

saw those two boys do it, in broad daylight, under a decadent, ruinous, sun.


actually i don't understand martha, what do you mean 

when you say i speak so well? oh, where did you expect 

me to work mary-beth? i don't remember saying i lived on

the South Side muriel. are you telling me your hair doesn't 

grow thirty inches overnight melanie? if i'm not like the 

other ones, then who am i like melissa? do you follow 

everyone around the store macy? when you say my 

sentences connect do you mean like conjunctions molly? 

well, where else could i have gotten my degree myrtle? 

maggie i don't think i understand, what do you mean by 

urban? are all kids inner city youth or just the Black ones 

marilyn? so missy, beyonce is your spirit animal…explain. 

and why wouldn't you go back after you go Black mallory? 

let me clarify when you say you wish you had skin like 

mine do you mean scarred or sensitive maureen? do they 

not have chicken where you're from magda? mackenzie 

what's your name mean…no i mean back where your 

family's from? i don't think i can be racist, i have a white 

friend miranda, right?


yes, I do like pans. and pots. and slow cookers. and woks. 

and crock-pots. and rice makers. and panini presses. and 

waffle irons. and blenders when i am feeling dangerous.

and juicers. and cold presses. and food processors. and

watercoolers. and espresso makers. and cast-iron skillets. 

god damn i do love a good cast-iron skillet. and 

microwaves. and griddles. and plates. and whatever the 

[   ] my partner wants to call themselves.

For Malcolm, A Year After

Compose for Red a proper verse;

Adhere to foot and strict iamb;

Control the burst of angry words

Or they might boil and break the dam.

Or they might boil and overflow

And drench me, drown me, drive me mad.

So swear no oath, so shed no tear,

And sing no song blue Baptist sad.

Evoke no image, stir no flame,

And spin no yarn across the air.

Make empty anglo tea lace words—

Make them dead white and dry bone bare.


Compose a verse for Malcolm man,

And make it rime and make it prim.

The verse will die—as all men do—

but not the memory of him!

Death might come singing sweet like C,

Or knocking like the old folk say,

The moon and stars may pass away,

But not the anger of that day.


I don’t know when it slipped into my speech

that soft word meaning, “if God wills it.”

Insha’Allah I will see you next summer.

The baby will come in spring, insha’Allah.

Insha’Allah this year we will have enough rain.


So many plans I’ve laid have unraveled

easily as braids beneath my mother’s quick fingers.


Every language must have a word for this. A word

our grandmothers uttered under their breath

as they pinned the whites, soaked in lemon,

hung them to dry in the sun, or peeled potatoes,

dropping the discarded skins into a bowl.


Our sons will return next month, insha’Allah.

Insha’Allah this war will end, soon. Insha’Allah

the rice will be enough to last through winter.


How lightly we learn to hold hope,

as if it were an animal that could turn around

and bite your hand. And still we carry it

the way a mother would, carefully,

from one day to the next.

my graduation speech

i think in spanish

i write in english


i want to go back to puerto rico,

but i wonder if my kink could live

in ponce, mayagüez and carolina


tengo las venas aculturadas

escribo en spanglish

abraham in español

abraham in english

tato in spanish

"taro" in english

tonto in both languages


how are you?

¿cómo estás?

i don't know if i'm coming

or si me fui ya


si me dicen barranquitas, yo reply,

"¿con qué se come eso?"

si me dicen caviar, i digo,

"a new pair of converse sneakers."


ahí supe que estoy [  ]

ahí supe que estamos [  ]


english or spanish

spanish or english


now, dig this:


hablo lo inglés matao

hablo lo español matao

no sé leer ninguno bien


so it is, spanglish to matao

what i digo

             ¡ay, virgen, yo no sé hablar!

Immigrant Blues

People have been trying to kill me since I was born,

a man tells his son, trying to explain

the wisdom of learning a second tongue.


It’s an old story from the previous century

about my father and me.


The same old story from yesterday morning

about me and my son.


It’s called “Survival Strategies

and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”


It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”


called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”


Practice until you feel

the language inside you, says the man.


But what does he know about inside and outside,

my father who was spared nothing

in spite of the languages he used?


And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,

who asked once into a telephone,

Am I inside you?


You’re always inside me, a woman answered,

at peace with the body’s finitude,

at peace with the soul’s disregard

of space and time.


Am I inside you? I asked once

lying between her legs, confused

about the body and the heart.


If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,

she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,

at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.


It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening


called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”


called “Loss of the Homeplace

and the Defilement of the Beloved,”


called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”

This Room and Everything In It

Lie still now

while I prepare for my future,

certain hard days ahead,

when I’ll need what I know so clearly this moment.


I am making use

of the one thing I learned

of all the things my father tried to teach me:

the art of memory.


I am letting this room

and everything in it

stand for my ideas about love

and its difficulties.


I’ll let your love-cries,

those spacious notes

of a moment ago,

stand for distance.


Your scent,

that scent

of spice and a wound,

I’ll let stand for mystery.


Your sunken belly

is the daily cup

of milk I drank

as a boy before morning prayer.

The sun on the face

of the wall

is God, the face

I can’t see, my soul,


and so on, each thing

standing for a separate idea,

and those ideas forming the constellation

of my greater idea.

And one day, when I need

to tell myself something intelligent

about love,


I’ll close my eyes

and recall this room and everything in it:

My body is estrangement.

This desire, perfection.

Your closed eyes my extinction.

Now I’ve forgotten my

idea. The book

on the windowsill, riffled by wind…

the even-numbered pages are

the past, the odd-

numbered pages, the future.

The sun is

God, your body is milk…


useless, useless…

your cries are song, my body’s not me…

no good… my idea

has evaporated… your hair is time, your thighs are song…

it had something to do

with death… it had something

to do with love.

The First Leaf

I thought I forgave you. Then I took root and became

someone’s mother. This unending dread, ever checking


for his breath. I have never wanted to be less like you

than I do now, daily gauging the venom,


how much of you blights my blood. When my baby wails, I ask

whether I too could beat his body quiet. And when I choose


to be a mother, choose to be tender to my child—a choice

my mangled brain makes each day—my fury surges.


The distance between him alive and him dead

is how well I am. And I think about the woman in the news


who poured water on her sleeping baby’s face. And I

think how for decades, I was grateful you never killed me. How


that was enough to make me think you loved me.

I raged as a child, but never


in the right direction. So when my therapist said

that not killing me yet didn’t mean not killing me ever—


that if I had stayed, I would have died—I had to

watch her get angry to know to get angry.


On the eighth week of the pandemic, my son, whom I sheltered

at home for all that time, found on our fifth-floor balcony


a tiny green leaf the width of his pinky.

The last time we’d strolled outside, the city was frigid. Frost


everywhere we looked. And Dad, let me tell you, the leaf

stunned us both. Unexpected, like the olive branch


snatched by the dove barreling back to the ark.

He refused to let go—the first leaf of all the leaves


my child will ever hold. He looks so much like his father.

Nothing at all like us.

A New National Athem

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National

Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good

song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets

red glare” and then there are the bombs.

(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)

Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw

even the tenacious high school band off key.

But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call

to the field, something to get through before

the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas

we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge

could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps,

the truth is, every song of this country

has an unsung third stanza, something brutal

snaking underneath us as we blindly sing

the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands

hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do

like the flag, how it undulates in the wind

like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,

brought to its knees, clung to by someone who

has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,

when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly

you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can

love it again, until the song in your mouth feels

like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung

by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains,

the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left

unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,

that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,

that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving

into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit

in an endless cave, the song that says my bones

are your bones, and your bones are my bones,

and isn’t that enough?

Resolution (6)

I too urge the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land although healing this land is not dependent never has been upon this President meaning tribal nations and the people themselves are healing this land its waters with or without Presidential acknowledgement they act upon this right without apology–


To speak to law enforcement


these Direct Action Principles


be really clear always ask


have been painstakingly drafted


who what when where why


at behest of the local leadership


e.g. Officer, my name is _________


from Standing Rock


please explain


and are the guidelines


the probable cause for stopping me


for the Oceti Sakowin camp


you may ask


I acknowledge a plurality of ways


does that seem reasonable to you


to resist oppression



don’t give any further info



People ask why do you bring up


we are Protectors


so many other issues it’s because


we are peaceful and prayerful


these issues have been ongoing


‘isms’ have no place


for 200 years they’re inter-dependent


here we all stand together


we teach the distinction


we are non-violent


btwn civil rights and civil liberties


we are proud to stand


btwn what’s legal & what isn’t legal


no masks


the camp is 100% volunteer


respect local


it’s a choice to be a protector


no weapons


liberty is freedom


or what could be construed as weapons


of speech it’s a right


property damage does not get us closer


to privacy a fair trial


to our goal


you’re free


all campers must get an orientation


from unreasonable search


Direct Action Training


free from seizure of person or home


is required


& civil disobedience: the camp is


for everyone taking action


an act of civil disobedience


no children


now the law protects the corporation


in potentially dangerous situations


so the camp is illegal


we keep each accountable


you must have a buddy system


to these principles


someone must know when you’re leaving


this is a ceremony


& when you’re coming back


act accordingly

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going

in the hours between dawns

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

seeking a now that can breed


like bread in our children’s mouths

so their dreams will not reflect

the death of ours;


For those of us

who were imprinted with fear

like a faint line in the center of our foreheads

learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us

For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.


And when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid


So it is better to speak


we were never meant to survive.

Lowering Your Standards for Food Stamps

Words fall out of my coat pocket,

soak in bleach water. I touch everyone’s

dirty dollars. Maslow’s got everything on me.

Fourteen hours on my feet. No breaks.

No smokes or lunch. Blank-eyed movements:

trash bags, coffee burner, fingers numb.

I am hourly protestations and false smiles.

The clock clicks its slow slowing.

Faces blur in a stream of  hurried soccer games,

sunlight, and church certainty. I have no

poem to carry, no material illusions.

Cola spilled on hands, so sticky fingered,

I’m far from poems. I’d write of politicians,

refineries, and a border’s barbed wire,

but I am unlearning America’s languages

with a mop. In a summer-hot red

polyester top, I sell lotto tickets. Cars wait for gas

billowing black. Killing time has new meaning.

A jackhammer breaks apart a life. The slow globe

spirals, and at night black space has me dizzy.

Visionaries off their meds and wacked out

meth heads sing to me. A panicky fear of robbery

and humiliation drips with my sweat.

Words some say are weeping twilight and sunrise.

I am drawn to dramas, the couple arguing, the man

headbutting his wife in the parking lot.

911: no metered aubade, and nobody but

myself to blame.

Athazagoraphobia (Fear of Being Ignored)

II used to bury plum pits between houses. Buried

bits of wire there too. Used to bury matches

but nothing ever burned and nothing ever thrived

so I set fire to a mattress, disassembled a stereo,

attacked flies with a water pistol, and drowned ants

in perfume. I pierced my eyebrow, inserted

a stainless steel bar, traded that for a scar in a melee, [

  ], swerved

into traffic while unbuttoning my shirt—

                                                                  There is a woman

waiting for me to marry her or forget her name

forever—whichever loosens the ribbons from her hair.

I fill the bathtub for an enemy, lick the earlobe

of my nemesis. I try to dance like firelight

without setting anyone ablaze. I am leaning over

the railing of a bridge, seeing my face shimmer

on the river below—it’s everywhere now—

                                                                  Look for me

in scattered windshield beneath an overpass,

on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,

in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers

circling leaves in rainwater—look. Even the blade

of a knife holds my quickly fading likeness

while I run out of ways to say I am here.

Pomegranate Means Grenade

The heart trembles like a herd of horses. —Jontae McCrory, age 11


Hold a pomegranate in your palm,

imagine ways to split it, think of the breaking

skin as shrapnel. Remember granada

means pomegranate and granada

means grenade because grenade

takes its name from the fruit;

identify war by what it takes away

from fecund orchards. Jontae,

there will always be one like you:

a child who gets the picked over box

with mostly black crayons. One who wonders

what beautiful has to do with beauty, as he darkens

a sun in the corner of every page,

constructs a house from ashen lines,

sketches stick figures lying face down-

I know how often red is the only color

left to reach for. I fear for you.

You are writing a stampede

into my chest, the same anxiety that shudders

me when I push past marines in high school

hallways, moments after video footage

of young men dropping from helicopters

in night vision goggles. I want you to see in the dark

without covering your face and carry verse

as countermeasure to recruitment videos

and remember the cranes buried inside the poems

painted on banners that hung in Tiananmen Square—

remember because Huang Xiang was exiled

for these. Remember because the poet Huang Xiang

was exiled for this: the calligraphy of revolt.

Always know that you will stand nameless

in front of a tank, always know you will not stand

alone, but there will always be those

who would rather see you pull a pin

from a grenade than pull a pen

from your backpack. Jontae,

they are afraid.

I Am Too Pretty For Some Ugly Laws

I am not suppose to be here

in this body,


speaking to you.

My mere presence

of erratic moving limbs

and drooling smile

used to be scrubbed

off the public pavement.

Ugly laws used to be

on many U.S. cities’ law books,

beginning in Chicago in 1867,

stating that “any person who is

diseased, maimed, mutilated,

or in any way deformed

so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object,

or an improper person to be allowed

in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares,

or public places in this city,

shall not therein or thereon

expose himself to public view,

under the penalty of $1 for each offense.”

Any person who looked like me

was deemed disgusting

and was locked away

from the eyes of the upstanding citizens.

I am too pretty for some Ugly Laws,

Too smooth to be shut in.

Too smart and eclectic

for any box you put me in.

My swagger is too bold

to be swept up in these public streets.

You can stare at me all you want.

No cop will buss in my head

and carry me away to an institution.

No doctor will diagnose me

a helpless invalid with an incurable disease.

No angry mob with clubs and torches

will try to run me out of town.

Whatever you do,

my roots are rigid

like a hundred-year-old tree.

I will stay right here

to glare at your ugly face too.

Ode to a Dominican Breakfast

Keep your pancakes, french toast, eggs

benedict, your muffins and scones


Keep your waffles and four types of syrup

the way your eggs scramble but never sizzle


Nothing more scrumptious than mangu con queso frito


The other day I wore a white dress

with a wide skirt and a red sash


I danced merengue barefoot on my stoop. I kissed the

Dominican flag, once for each time I remembered a taino word


yuca, batata, tanama, ocama, yautia, cacique, juracan,

every bite on the plate, every morsel like a bachata tune


This can all be yours, get off the long lines at the brunch spot

Forget the grits and cheesy okra. Ring my doorbell


Five ingredients: Olive oil, onions, plantain, white cheese and flour


They just can’t seem to . . . They should try harder to . . . They ought to be more . . . We all wish they weren’t so . . . They never . . . They always . . . Sometimes they . . . Once in a while they . . . However it is obvious that they . . . Their overall tendency has been . . . The consequences of which have been . . . They don’t appear to understand that . . . If only they would make an effort to . . . But we know how difficult it is for them to . . . Many of them remain unaware of . . . Some who should know better simply refuse to . . . Of course, their perspective has been limited by . . . On the other hand, they obviously feel entitled to . . . Certainly we can’t forget that they . . . Nor can it be denied that they . . . We know that this has had an enormous impact on their . . . Nevertheless their behavior strikes us as . . . Our interactions unfortunately have been . . .

We Are Not Responsible

We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. 

We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. 

We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts. 

We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. 


Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations. 

In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on. 

Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments. 


If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. 

In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself. 

Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle

your frightful claims. Our handlers lost your luggage and we

are unable to find the key to your legal case. 


You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile. 

You are not presumed to be innocent if the police 

have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet. 

It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color. 

It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. 


Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude. 

You have no rights we are bound to respect. 

Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible 

for what happens to you.


After Carrie Mae Weems’s “The Kitchen Table Series”




Can you throw this away Maybe you should hire more Black staff

Where are you really from You’re not busy are you You look ethnic today

Where’s the African American section Can you turn the music down

Fasterfasterfaster Let me see those eyes Beautiful If you were mine

I’d never let you leave the house It’s like you went straight to Africa

to get this one Is that your hair I mean your real hair Blackass

Your gums are black You Black You stink You need a perm

I don’t mean to be




You’re scarred over, I’m the one bleeding

You’re just going to rip apart whatever I say

You’ve said sorry only two times

We tacitly agreed

Then dead me




When you born on somebody else’s river in a cursed boat it’s all

downhill from there. Ha. Just kidding. I’d tell you what I don’t have

time for but I don’t have time. Catch up. Interrogate that. Boss. Halo.

I juke the apocalypse. Fluff my feathers. Diamond my neck. Boom,

like an 808. One in a million. I don’t want no scrubs. You don’t know

my name. Everything I say is a spell. I’m twenty-five. I’m ninety. I’m

ten. I’m a moonless charcoal. A sour lover. Hidden teeth beneath the

velvet. I’m here and your eyes lucky. I’m here and your future lucky.

Ha. God told me to tell you I’m pretty. Ha. My skin Midas-touch the

buildings I walk by. Ha. Every day I’m alive the weather report say:

Gold. I know. I know. I should leave y’all alone, salt earth like to stay

salty. But here go the mirror, egging on my spirit. Why I can’t go back.

Or. The reasons it happened. Name like a carriage of fire. Baby, it’s

real. The white face peeking through the curtain. Mule and God. I’m

blunted off my own stank. I’m Bad. I dig graves when I laugh.

Gate A-4

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning

my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:

"If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please

come to the gate immediately."


Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.


An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just

like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. "Help,"

said the flight agent. "Talk to her. What is her problem? We

told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."


I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.

"Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-

se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly

used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled

entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the

next day. I said, "No, we're fine, you'll get there, just later, who is

picking you up? Let's call him."


We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would

stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to

her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just

for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while

in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I

thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know

and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.


She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,

answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool

cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and

nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a

sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the

lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered

sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.


And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two

little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they

were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—

by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,

some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-

tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.


And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This

is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that

gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about

any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.


This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Black Stars

Whitney was a star once.

Waltzed across our television skies,

a waning crescent.

So was Michael.

& Marvin.

All stars die though.

Explode into air thin,

cascade into black hole.

Black stars form under pressure

& leave us tragically,

either by death or betrayal.

When there was no other beacon on our screens,

we looked up to Bill.

When we wanted to name a future for ourselves,

we looked through Raven’s eyes.

When we needed validation an institution could not give,

we called on Kanye.

Astronomers say the larger a star’s mass, the faster they burn their fuel, 

the shorter their lifespan.

I say the more expansive the black star, the more mass of the explosion.

I say the greater the black star, the shorter we can expect them to shine.

Some weeks I only listen to Whitney.

Cradle her name, a prayer between my lips.

One dim dusk, her lover gifted her stardust.

Whitney danced, dosed, then drowned.

& we mourn her body celestial after all these years.

Joe Jackson tried to carve galaxies out of his children.

MJ got addicted to surgeoning his features for the masses. 

His daddy beat him, say dance, say sing, say don’t glide.

Walk on the moon, boy.

Turn this Indiana basement into a universe.

You a star, boy.

Kanye West composed pieces we didn’t know our bodies needed.

We had all the flashing lights on ‘Ye but he’s still a black star made in America

so he don’t get to shine forever.

‘Ye from the South Side resurrected and named himself Yeezus.

Got so big, white folks thought he was the sun

of God.

Now Yeezus only praises white folks in red hats

and white girls with fake asses.

Scientists say when you look up at night, some of the stars you see are already dead.

Maybe this means by the time a Black person becomes a star, they are already burnt out.

Maybe this means it takes a supernova to create a superstar.

Maybe we’re all waiting to be on fire.

Black stars disintegrate for reaching up towards a pearly gaze.

Whiteness has always been both a goal and unattainable.

Has been the measure of our success and the weapon that bludgeons us.

The higher we get, the closer we get to fame or manhood or God.

The further we get from ground or dirt or us.

Black folks stay folding in on ourselves,

stay a star on the tip of someone’s rising.

I say look at the way supremacy told Raven she ain’t black.

Misogyny told Bill he could take what wasn’t his to claim.

Masculinity gave Marvin Gaye’s father a gun,

told him to shoot his son.

& ain’t a sun the biggest star?

Don’t the biggest stars have the shortest lives?

Make the largest explosions?

Have you seen 

the energy burning out

turn to dust?

Did you know above you

there are a sea of stars


Ars Poetica

Migration is derived from the word “migrate,” which is a verb defined by Merriam-Webster as “to move from one country, place, or locality to another.” Plot twist: migration never ends. My parents moved from Jalisco, México to Chicago in 1987. They were dislocated from México by capitalism, and they arrived in Chicago just in time to be dislocated by capitalism. Question: is migration possible if there is no “other” land to arrive in. My work: to imagine. My family started migrating in 1987 and they never stopped. I was born mid-migration. I’ve made my home in that motion. Let me try again: I tried to become American, but America is toxic. I tried to become Mexican, but México is toxic. My work: to do more than reproduce the toxic stories I inherited and learned. In other words: just because it is art doesn’t mean it is inherently nonviolent. My work: to write poems that make my people feel safe, seen, or otherwise loved. My work: to make my enemies feel afraid, angry, or otherwise ignored. My people: my people. My enemies: capitalism. Susan Sontag: “victims are interested in the representation of their own 
sufferings.” Remix: survivors are interested in the representation of their own survival. My work: survival. Question: Why poems? Answer:

(citizen) (illegal)

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) 

Have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).

is the baby more Mexican or American?

place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal).

if the mother holds the baby (citizen)

too long, does the baby become illegal?


the baby is a boy (citizen). he goes to school (citizen).

his classmates are American (citizen). He is outcast (illegal).

his “hellos” are in the wrong language (illegal).

he takes the hyphen separating loneliness (Mexican)

from friendship (American) and jabs it at the culprit (illegal).

himself (illegal). his own traitorous tongue (illegal).

his name (illegal). his mom (illegal). his dad (illegal).


take a Mexican woman (illegal) and a Mexican man (illegal).

if they have a baby and the baby looks white enough to pass (citizen).

if the baby grows up singing Selena songs to his reflection (illegal).

if the baby hides from el cucuy and la migra (illegal).

if the baby (illegal) (citizen) grows up to speak broken Spanish (illegal)

and perfect English (citizen). if the boy’s nickname is Güerito (citizen).

if the boy attends college (citizen). if the boy only dates women (illegal)

of color (illegal). If the boy (illegal)

uses phrases like “women of color” (citizen).

if the boy (illegal) (citizen) writes (illegal) poems (illegal).


if the boy (citizen) (illegal) grows up (illegal) and can only write (illegal)

this story in English (citizen), does that make him more

American (citizen) or Mexican (illegal)?

Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz

You whom I could not save,

Listen to me.


Can we agree Kevlar

backpacks shouldn’t be needed


for children walking to school? 

Those same children


also shouldn’t require a suit

of armor when standing


on their front lawns, or snipers

to watch their backs


as they eat at McDonalds.

They shouldn’t have to stop


to consider the speed

of a bullet or how it might


reshape their bodies. But

one winter, back in Detroit,


I had one student

who opened a door and died. 


It was the front

door to his house, but


it could have been any door,

and the bullet could have written


any name. The shooter

was thirteen years old


and was aiming

at someone else. But


a bullet doesn’t care

about “aim,” it doesn't


distinguish between

the innocent and the innocent,


and how was the bullet

supposed to know this


child would open the door

at the exact wrong moment


because his friend

was outside and screaming


for help. Did I say

I had “one” student who


opened a door and died? 

That’s wrong.


There were many. 

The classroom of grief


had far more seats

than the classroom for math


though every student

in the classroom for math


could count the names

of the dead.


A kid opens a door. The bullet

couldn’t possibly know,


nor could the gun, because

“guns don't kill people,” they don't


have minds to decide

such things, they don’t choose


or have a conscience,

and when a man doesn’t


have a conscience, we call him

a psychopath. This is how


we know what type of assault rifle

a man can be,


and how we discover

the hell that thrums inside


each of them. Today,

there’s another


shooting with dead

kids everywhere. It was a school,


a movie theater, a parking lot.

The world


is full of doors.

And you, whom I cannot save,


you may open a door

and enter 


a meadow, or a eulogy.

And if the latter, you will be


mourned, then buried

in rhetoric. 


There will be

monuments of legislation,


little flowers made

from red tape. 


What should we do? we’ll ask

again. The earth will close


like a door above you. 

What should we do?


And that click you hear?

That’s just our voices,


the deadbolt of discourse

sliding into place.

Things We Carry on the Sea

We carry tears in our eyes: good-bye father, good-bye mother


We carry soil in small bags: may home never fade in our hearts


We carry names, stories, memories of our villages, fields, boats


We carry scars from proxy wars of greed


We carry carnage of mining, droughts, floods, genocides


We carry dust of our families and neighbors incinerated in mushroom clouds



We carry our islands sinking under the sea


We carry our hands, feet, bones, hearts and best minds for a new life


We carry diplomas: medicine, engineer, nurse, education, math, poetry, even if they mean nothing to the other shore


We carry railroads, plantations, laundromats, bodegas, taco trucks, farms, factories, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, temples…built on our ancestors’ backs


We carry old homes along the spine, new dreams in our chests


We carry yesterday, today and tomorrow


We’re orphans of the wars forced upon us


We’re refugees of the sea rising from industrial wastes


And we carry our mother tongues

爱(ai),حب  (hubb), ליבע (libe), amor, love

平安 (ping’an), سلام ( salaam), shalom, paz, peace 

希望 (xi’wang), أمل (’amal), hofenung, esperanza, hope, hope, hope


As we drift…in our rubber boats…from shore…to shore…to shore…

A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen—

You are a hundred wild centuries


And fifteen, bringing with you

In every breath and in every step


Everyone who has come before you,

All the yous that you have been,


The mothers of your mother,

The fathers of your father.


If someone in your family tree was trouble,

A hundred were not:


The bad do not win—not finally,

No matter how loud they are.


We simply would not be here

If that were so.


You are made, fundamentally, from the good.

With this knowledge, you never march alone.


You are the breaking news of the century.

You are the good who has come forward


Through it all, even if so many days

Feel otherwise. But think:


When you as a child learned to speak,

It’s not that you didn’t know words—


It’s that, from the centuries, you knew so many,

And it’s hard to choose the words that will be your own.


From those centuries we human beings bring with us

The simple solutions and songs,


The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies

All in service to a simple idea:


That we can make a house called tomorrow.

What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day,


Is ourselves. And that’s all we need

To start. That’s everything we require to keep going. 


Look back only for as long as you must,

Then go forward into the history you will make.


Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease.

Make us proud. Make yourself proud.


And those who came before you? When you hear thunder,

Hear it as their applause.

Depression is My Daughter and Now I Brush Her Hair

I know I am a mother

because I have had so many

       things escape my body.


Today my daughter sits on cold

tile. Her knees, a dry aftertaste.

I brush her hair. It

tangles. The dark coiled silk,

Tough like mine.

I brush her hair, because she asks me to.

Because if I do not, she will cry—wither maybe.

And my heart is too soft to hear such terrible sounds.

I am her mother after all. I did make her in my body.

I must care for her, tend to the knots. 


you take the word. the one that sliced through you like a

knife through pan fresco. the one your Tío called you de 

cariño. the one the boys in school hissed as you walked

by. you take the word and write it down. one time. two

times. say it in English. Fat. it hurts that way too. maybe

even more. the word is now a blade. two sides. you write

it down. hundreds of times. you start saying it to describe

yourself. you don’t flinch. others do. they fear it more

than they do [   ]. the word gives you power.

you date a few men. they won’t say the word. they prefer

thick or curvy or big. you say you want to hear it. like

you hear your name. some can’t say it without laughing.

embarrassed. like you just flashed a [   ] in public. they

call you brave. you say it’s just the parts of you that you

can touch. like short. like glasses. like curly. like brown.

the word is home. you write it down. you write it down.

you write it down. you are a bruja when you write it down.

look at that magic. Gorda. mira que bella. Gorda. your

body answers: hello. I’m here. thank you. 

Buen Esqueleto

after Maggie Smith


Life is short, and I tell this to mis hijas.

Life is short, & I show them how to talk

to police without opening the door, how

to leave the social security number blank

on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.

This world tells them I hate you every day

& I don’t keep this from mis hijas

because of the bus driver who kicks them

to the street for fare evasion. Because I love

mis hijas, I keep them from men who’d knock

their heads together just to hear the chime.

Life is short & the world is terrible. I know

no kind strangers in this country who aren’t

sisters a desert away, & I don’t keep this

from mis hijas. It’s not my job to sell

them the world, but to keep them safe

in case I get deported. Our first

landlord said with a bucket of bleach

the mold would come right off. He shook

mis hijas, said they had good bones

for hard work. Mi’jas, could we make this place

beautiful? I tried to make this place beautiful.

I Think I'll Call it Morning

I'm gonna take myself a piece of sunshine

And paint it all over my sky

Be no rain..

Be no rain..


I'm gonna take the song from every bird

And make em sing it just for me

Bird's got something to teach us all

About being free, yeah

Be no rain..

Be no rain..


And I think I'll call it morning

From now on

Why should I survive on sadness?

And tell myself I got to be alone

Why should I subscribe to this world's madness?

Knowing that I've got to live on

Yeah I think I'll call it morning

From now on


I'm gonna take myself a piece of sunshine

And paint it all over my sky

Be no rain...

Be no rain...


I'm gonna take the song from every bird

And make them sing it just for me

Cause why should I hang my head

Why should I let tears fall from my eyes?

When I've seen everything there is to see

And I know there is no sense in crying

I know there ain't no sense in crying

Yeah I think I'll call it morning

From now on

I'll call it morning from now on, yeah


Cause there ain't gonna be no rain

Be no rain

Be no rain

Mi Problema

My sincerity isn’t good enough.

Eyebrows raise

when I request:

“Hable mas despacio por favor.”

My skin is brown

just like theirs,

but now I’m unworthy of the color

‘cause I don’t speak Spanish

the way I should.

Then they laugh and talk about

mi problema

in the language I stumble over.


A white person gets encouragement,


for weak attempts at a second language.

“Maybe he wants to be brown

like us.”

and that is good.


My earnest attempts

make me look bad,


“Perhaps she wanted to be white

like THEM.”

and that is bad.


I keep my flash cards hidden

a practice cassette tape

not labeled

‘cause I am ashamed.

I “should know better”

they tell me

“Spanish is in your blood.”


I search for SSL classes,

(Spanish as a Second Language)

in college catalogs

and practice

with my grandma.

who gives me patience,

permission to learn.


And then one day,

I’ll be a perfected “r” rolling

tilde using Spanish speaker

A true Mexican at last!

Excerpt from “The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure”

A lover, once: You can’t say every action is political. Then the word political loses all meaning.


He added: What is political about this moment?


I was washing his dishes. I had left the water running.

Reaching Guantánamo

Dear Salim,


Love, are you well? Do they                 you?

I worry so much. Lately, my hair                         , even

my skin                            . The doctors tell me it’s

I believe them. It shouldn’t

        . Please don’t worry.

                                            in the year, and moths

have gotten to your mother’s

                                                         , remember?

I have enclosed some                             — made this

batch just for you. Please eat well. Why

did you           me to remarry? I told

                         and he couldn’t               it.

I would never                                       .

Love, I’m singing that               you loved,

remember, the line that went

“                                                     ”? I’m holding

the                   just for you.



little prayer

let ruin end here


let him find honey

where there was once a slaughter


let him enter the lion’s cage

& find a field of lilacs


let this be the healing

& if not   let it be

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

is at least half terrible, and for every kind

stranger, there is one who would break you,

though I keep this from my children. I am trying

to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

walking you through a real dump, chirps on

about good bones: This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.

5 p.m., Tuesday, August 23, 2005

“Data from an Air Force reserve unit reconnaissance aircraft… along with observations from the Bahamas and nearby ships… indicate the broad low pressure area over the Southern Bahamas has become organized enough to be classified as tropical depression twelve.”



A muted thread of gray light, hovering ocean,

Becomes throat, pulls in wriggle, anemone, kelp

widens with the want of it. I become

a mouth, thrashing hair, an overdone eye. How dare

the water belittle my thirst, treat me as just





try to feed me

from the bottom of its hand?


I will require praise,

Unbirdled winds to define my body.

a crime between my teeth



every women begins as weather,

sips slow thunder, knows her hips. Every woman

haors a chaos, can

wait for it, straddling a fever.


For now,

I console myself with small furies,

those dips in my dawning system. I pull in

a bored breath. The brine shivers.

What to Tweak

Italicized excerpts are from an Aug. 31, 2005 e-mail from Marty Bahamonde to his boss Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Bahamonde was one of the only FEMA employees in New Orleans at the time. 



Aug. 31, 12:20 p.m. Re: New Orleans


Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical. Here are some

things you might not know. 


Rainbows warp when you curse them.

I have held a shiver of black child against my body. 

The word river doesn’t know edges.

God wouldn’t do this. 

There’s a Chevy growing in that tree. 

Here, I am so starkly white. 

Sometimes bullets make perfect sense.

Eventually the concrete will buckle.

They won’t stop screeching at me.

I have passed out all my gum.

So many people are thirsty. 

A kid breathes wet against my thigh. 

He calls me father. 


Hotels are kicking people out…


No one is prepared for their sulking shadows.

They sully sleek halls, leave smudges on grand glass.

They double negative, sport clothes limp with ache.

These people don’t know this place, 

this costly harbor where they have always pointed,

eyes bucked and overwhelmed, 

giddy with the conjure of mirrored silver

and whole cups dedicated to tea.

In the sudden midst of glorious this, 

they fill their cavernous pockets with faith.

Why didn’t we bolt the doors

before they began to dream?


thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water…


The weakened mob veers into the open for breath. 

Ashy babies bellow, B-boys hurl gold-toothed [   ],

everyone asks for food. And the heat singes art

on bare backs, sucks tears from parched skin. 

It’s true there is no food, but water is everywhere.

The demon has chapped their rusty ankles, 

reddened the throats of babies, smashed homes to mist. 

It is water that beats down without taking a breath

and points its dank mossy finger at their faith.

I have killed you, it patters.

I have bled you dry.


Hundreds still being rescued from homes.


Or not.

Death has an insistent iron smell, oversweet rot

loud enough to wither certain woods.

Behind sagging doors specters swirl, 

grow huge-limbed, stink brilliance.

And up on the roofs of tombs, 

sinking mothers claw the sky,

pray the rising river away from their scream.

The moon refuses to illuminate their overtures, 

winking dim then winking shut.

From the papery peaks of three-flats,

shots and weeping in the starless dark.

If you listen, you can hear the dying.

It creaks odd and high, 

a song slowly larger than the singer. 


Evacuation in process. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome. Plans in works to address the critical need. 


Stifle the stinking, shut down the cameras, 

wave Dubya down from the sky.

Subtract the babies, unarm flailers, 

Hose that wailing [   ] down!

Draw up a blueprint, consider detention, 

throw them some cash from a bag.

Tell them it’s God, ply them with preachers, 

padlock the rest of the map.

Hand them a voucher, fly in some Colonel, 

twist the volume knob hard.

Turn down the TV, distract them with vision, 

pull out your hammer and nail. 

Sponge off their shoulders, suckle their children, 

prop them upright for the lens. 

Tolerate ranting, dazzle with card tricks, 

pin flags on absent lapels. 

Try not to breathe them, fan them with cardboard, 

say that their houses will rise. 

Play them some music, swear you hear engines, 

drape their stooped bodies with beads. 

Salute their resilience, tempt them with future, 

surrender your shoes to the mud.

Promise them trailers, pass out complaint forms, 

draft a law wearing their names. 

Say help is coming, say help is coming, 

then say that help’s running late. 

Shrink from their clutches, lie to their faces, 

explain how the levies grew thin. 

Mop up the vomit, cringe at their crudeness, 

audition their daughters for rape.

Stomp on their sleeping, outrun the gangsters, 

pass out American flags.


DMAT staff working in deplorable conditions. The sooner we can get

the medical patients out, the sooner we can get them out. 


Breathing bladed, blood tinged black, 

their stark diseases mystify, ooze unbridled.

Heat stuns their grip on history, 

so they keep attempting to walk back

into remembered days of weather

that never grew more difficult than rain.

They crave the reign of simple delta,

when skinned pig, peppered collards, 

and a bottle of red heat signaled a day gone right.

So they keep trying to walk, to force their feet

into the now-obscenity of a straight line, 

to begin with that first blessing—forward, forward, 

not getting the joke of their paper shoes, 

not knowing the sidewalks are gone.




Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do

or tweak?



He has


          sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people


He has plundered our—


                                           ravaged our—


                                                                         destroyed the lives of our—


taking away our­—


                                  abolishing our most valuable—


and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—


In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for

Redress in the most humble terms:


                                                                Our repeated

Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.


We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.


                                    —taken Captive


                                                                    on the high Seas


                                                                                                     to bear—

ABC for Refugees

Cherub-bee-dee how does a man

who doesn’t read English well know that cherub-bee-dum

those aren’t really words-bee-dee.

But birds.


Cherub-bee-dum, he stumbles, reading to me

by the sliding glass door cherub-bee-dee, through which I watch

my brother play in the dum-dum-yard.


Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum, like how my father says

Fine then! Leave! My mother shouts, Stupid! Dumb!

We live in a small bee-dee-nest too, one hallway to bee-dum-slam doors.


Birds? What are birds?

Thanks to my father, reading with me, I have more feathers.


T-H-E. First word he ever taught me to pluck  …    

It is a word used all the time. Cherub-cherub-bee-dum!


The mail. The mailbox. The school bus. The the.


He asks me to read the mail. Not birds, mail.

If you don’t read this, you will turn into birds.

And I read it to him the best I can.

The end. A feather. Two feathers. The. The end.


Mother, mother. Repeat after me.

Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum!

We read together before bedtime.

All the Dead Boys Look Like Me

Last time I saw myself die is when police killed Jessie Hernandez


A 17 year old brown queer // who was sleeping in their car


Yesterday I saw myself die again // Fifty times I died in Orlando // &


I remember reading // Dr. José Esteban Muñoz before he passed


I was studying at NYU // where he was teaching // where he wrote [   ]


That made me feel like a queer brown survival was possible // But he didn’t


Survive & now // on the dancefloor // in the restroom // on the news // in my chest


There are another fifty bodies that look like mine // & are


Dead // & I’ve been marching for Black Lives & talking about police brutality


Against Native communities too // for years now // but this morning


I feel it // I really feel it again // How can we imagine ourselves // We being black native


Today // Brown people // How can we imagine ourselves


When All the Dead Boys Look Like Us? // Once I asked my nephew where he wanted


To go to College // What career he would like // as if


The whole world was his for the choosing // Once he answered me without fearing


Tombstones or cages or the hands from a father // The hands of my lover


Yesterday praised my whole body // Made angels from my lips // Ave Maria


Full of Grace // He propped me up like the roof of a cathedral // in NYC


Before we opened the news & read // & read about people who think two brown queers


Can’t build cathedrals // only cemeteries // & each time we kiss


A funeral plot opens // In the bedroom I accept his kiss // & I lose my reflection


I’m tired of writing this poem // but I want to say one last word about


Yesterday // my father called // I heard him cry for only the second time in my life


He sounded like he loved me // it’s something I’m rarely able to hear


& I hope // if anything // his sound is what my body remembers first.

Blink Your Eyes

I was on my way to see my woman

but the Law said I was on my way

thru a red light red light red light

and if you saw my woman

you could understand,

I was just being a man.

It wasn’t about no light

it was about my ride

and if you saw my ride

you could dig that too, you dig?

Sunroof stereo radio black leather

bucket seats sit low you know,

the body’s cool, but the tires are worn.

Ride when the hard time come, ride

when they’re gone, in other words

the light was green.


I could wake up in the morning

without a warning

and my world could change:

blink your eyes.

All depends, all depends on the skin,

all depends on the skin you’re living in


Up to the window comes the Law

with his hand on his gun

what’s up? what’s happening?

I said I guess

that’s when I really broke the law.

He said a routine, step out the car

a routine, assume the position.

Put your hands up in the air

you know the routine, like you just don’t care.

License and registration.

Deep was the night and the light

from the North Star on the car door, deja vu

we’ve been through this before,

why did you stop me?

Somebody had to stop you.

I watch the news, you always lose.

You’re unreliable, that’s undeniable.

This is serious, you could be dangerous. 


I could wake up in the morning

without a warning

and my world could change:

blink your eyes.

All depends, all depends on the skin,

all depends on the skin you’re living in 


New York City, they got laws

can’t no bruthas drive outdoors,

in certain neighborhoods, on particular streets

near and around certain types of people.

They got laws.

All depends, all depends on the skin,

all depends on the skin you’re living in.

On Evaluating Black Privilege

Black privilege is the hung elephant swinging in the room,

Is the memory of a slave ship,

Praying for the Alzheimer’s to kick in.


Black privilege is me having already memorized my nephew’s eulogy,

My brother’s eulogy,

My father’s eulogy,

My unconceived child’s eulogy.

Black privilege is me thinking my sister’s name,

Safe from that list.


Black privilege is me pretending like I know Trayvon Martin on a first name basis,

Is me using a dead boy’s name to win a poetry slam,

Is me carrying a mouthful of other people’s skeletons

To use at my own convenience.


Black privilege is the concrete that holds my breath better than my lungs do.


Black privilege is always having to be the strong one,

Is having a crowbar for a spine,

Is fighting even when you have no more blood to give,

Even when your bones carried you,

Even when your mother prayed for you,

Even after they prepared your body for the funeral.


Black privilege is being so unique that not even God will look like you.

Black privilege is still being the first person in line to meet Him.


Black privilege is having to have the same sense of humor as Jesus.

Remember how he smiled on the cross?

The same way Malcolm X laughed at his bullet.


And there I go again,

Asserting my Black privilege,

Using a dead man’s name without his permission.


Black privilege is a myth,

Is a joke,

Is a punchline,

Is the time a teacher asks a little boy

What he wanted to be when he grew up

And he said, “Alive.”

Is the way she laughed when she said,

“There’s no college for that.”


And it’s tirin’, you know?

For everything about my skin to be a metaphor,

For everything Black to be pun intended,

To be death intended.


Black privilege is the applause at the end of this poem,

Is me giving you a dead boy’s body and you giving me a ten,

Is me being okay with that.


And I tried writing a love poem the other day,

But my fingers wouldn’t move.

My skin started to blister like it didn’t trust me anymore,

Like it thought I was trading in this noose for a pearl necklace.


Some days I’m afraid to look into the mirror

For fear that a bullet George Zimmermaned its way into my chest while I was asleep.

The breath in my mouth is weapon enough to scare a courtroom.

I’ll be lucky if I’m alive to make it to the stand.

For some people,

Their trials live longer than they do.


Black privilege is knowing that if I die,

At least Al Sharpton will come to my funeral.

At least Al Sharpton will mason jar my mother’s tears,

Remind us that the only thing we are worthy of is our death. We are judged by the number of people it takes to carry our caskets.


Black privilege is me thinking that’s enough,

Is me thinking this poem is enough.


Black privilege is this.

Is this breath in my mouth right now,

Is me standing right here with a crowd full of witnesses to my heartbeat.

Professional Spanish Knocks on the Door

At first we don’t answer. 

Knocks that loud usually mean 5-0 is on the other end.


                                 Señora ábrenos la puerta porfavor.

                                 Estamos aquí para platicar con usted.

                                 No queremos llamar la policía.


The person on the other side of the door

is speaking professional Spanish.


Professional Spanish is fake friendly.

Is a warning.


Is a downpour when you

Just spent your last twenty dollars on a wash and set.


Is the kind of Spanish that comes

to take things away from you.


The kind of Spanish that looks at your Spanish like it needs help.

Professional Spanish of course doesn’t offer help.


It just wants you to know that it knows you need some.

Professional Spanish is stuck up


like most people from the hood who get good jobs.

Professional Spanish is all like I did it you can do it too.


Professional Spanish thinks it gets treated better than us

because it knows how to follow the rules.


Because it says Abrigo instead of .

Because it knows which fork belongs to the salad


and which spoon goes in the coffee.


Because it gets to be the anchor on Telemundo and Univision

and we get to be the news that plays behind its head in the background.

This Body

This Body



1. Sensitive. Dry

See Dove soap, Oil of Olay, shea butter.

See middle school pimples plumping up 

the night before picture day.

Always on the chin or nose.


2. Dark. See Slave. See Negro.

See age 7. See yourself

playing on the playground

when a white girl says,

you must eat a lot of chocolate

since your skin so brown.



1. See assimilation.

See smoke from the hot comb crocheting the air,

burning a sacred incense.

See your momma parting your hair, brining iron to nap,

“Hold your ear baby,” she tells you.

So she can press Africa out.

When Black girls ask, “Is it real?” Say yes.

When white girls ask, “Can I touch it?” Say no.


2. See natural. Reference Angela Davis,

Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

Comb yours out. Twist yours like black licorice,

like the lynching rope

used on your ancestors’ necks.

Let it hang




1. Reference Lucille Clifton and every other big girl

who knows how to work a Hula-Hoop.

See Beyoncé. Dance like her in the mirror.

Do not be afraid of all your powers.


2. You will not fit in

most places. Do not

bend, squeeze, contort yourself.

Be big, brown girl.

Big wide smile.

Big wild hair.

Big wondrous hips.

Brown girl, be.

Music From Childhood

You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits

Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”


You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths

A row of yellow windows and a painting of them


Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”

You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows


A row of yellow windows and a painting of them

Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship


You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows

Is it because you saw a black asteroid fly past your window


Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship

I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water


Is it because I saw a black asteroid fly past my window

The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling


I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water

The town has started sinking back into its commercial


The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling

You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits


The town has started sinking back into its commercial

You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths

Ode to the Midwest

The country I come from is called the Midwest —Bob Dylan


I want to be doused

in cheese


& fried. I want

to wander


the aisles, my heart’s

supermarket stocked high


as cholesterol. I want to die

wearing a sweatsuit—


I want to live

forever in a Christmas sweater,


a teddy bear nursing

off the front. I want to write


a check in the express lane.

I want to scrape


my driveway clean


myself, early, before

anyone’s awake


that’ll put em to shame—

I want to see what the sun


sees before it tells

the snow to go. I want to be


the only black person I know.


I want to throw

out my back & not


complain about it.

I wanta drive


two blocks. Why walk—


I want love, n stuff—

I want to cut

my sutures myself.


I want to jog

down to the river


& make it my bed—


I want to walk

its muddy banks


& make me a withdrawal.


I tried jumping in,

found it frozen—


I’ll go home, I guess,

to my rooms where the moon


changes & shines

like television.


it was clear they were hungry

with their carts empty the clothes inside their empty hands


they were hungry because their hands

were empty their hands in trashcans


the trashcans on the street

the asphalt street on the red dirt the dirt taxpayers pay for


up to that invisible line visible thick white paint

visible booths visible with the fence starting from the booths


booth road booth road booth road office building then the fence

fence fence fence


it started from a corner with an iron pole

always an iron pole at the beginning


those men those women could walk between booths

say hi to white or brown officers no problem


the problem I think were carts belts jackets

we didn’t have any


or maybe not the problem

our skin sunburned all of us spoke Spanish


we didn’t know how they had ended up that way

on that side


we didn’t know how we had ended up here

we didn’t know but we understood why they walk


the opposite direction to buy food on this side

this side we all know is hunger