Get Lit Anthology

Stanzas of America - 2023

Filter By

How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This

dear reader, with our heels digging into the good

mud at a swamp’s edge, you might tell me something

about the dandelion & how it is not a flower itself

but a plant made up of several small flowers at its crown

& lord knows I have been called by what I look like

more than I have been called by what I actually am &

I wish to return the favor for the purpose of this

exercise. which, too, is an attempt at fashioning

something pretty out of seeds refusing to make anything

worthwhile of their burial. size me up & skip whatever semantics arrive

to the tongue first. say: that boy he look like a hollowed-out grandfather

clock. he look like a million-dollar god with a two-cent

heaven. like all it takes is one kiss & before morning,

you could scatter his whole mind across a field.

 

 

The Prestige

the poem begins not where the knife enters

but where the blade twists.

Some wounds cannot be hushed

no matter the way one writes of blood

& what reflection arrives in its pooling.

The poem begins with pain as a mirror

inside of which I adjust a tie the way my father taught me

before my first funeral & so the poem begins

with old grief again at my neck. On the radio,

a singer born in a place where children watch the sky

for bombs is trying to sell me on love

as something akin to war.

I have no lie to offer as treacherous as this one.

I was most like the bullet when I viewed the body as a door.

I’m past that now. No one will bury their kin

when desire becomes a fugitive

between us. There will be no folded flag

at the doorstep. A person only gets to be called a widow once,

and then they are simply lonely. The bluest period.

Gratitude, not for love itself, but for the way it can end

without a house on fire.

This is how I plan to leave next.

Unceremonious as birth in a country overrun

by the ungrateful living. The poem begins with a chain

of well-meaning liars walking one by one

off the earth’s edge. That’s who died

and made me king. Who died and made you.

ars poetica in which every pronoun is a Free Palestine

& so it is written: the settlers will steal God’s land & FREE PALESTINE

will curse the settlers with an inability to season FREE PALESTINE’s food, 

 

a sunburn the shape of the settler dictator’s face on everyone who will claim 

FREE PALESTINE’s earth but not FREE PALESTINE’s skin

 

soil-stained. there. FREE PALESTINE said it. no one really owns anything FREE

PALESTINE didn’t unwrite to make it so—FREE PALESTINE’s sea

 

israeli; FREE PALESTINE’s sky israeli but not FREE PALESTINE’s thunder—

the blame will always be FREE PALESTINE’s & so this will be called an accurate

 

history; the expense of FREE PALESTINE’s visibility, willed in bloodied cloth—

or paper—FREE PALESTINE’s longest suicide: FREE PALESTINE will die

 

in jail & become israeli—FREE PALESTINE will die in protest & become

kite on fire—FREE PALESTINE will call Hamas fable of every

 

HEADLINE: israeli falafel so dry FREE PALESTINE could start an intifada with it

HEADLINE: israeli falafel so dry FREE PALESTINE could free Palestine with it

 

no, FREE PALESTINE will never give FREE PALESTINE’s self a name 

not rooted in upheaval—FREE PALESTINE, hyphenated by settler flag:

 

FREE PALESTINE hyphenated by settler pronouns: FREE PALESTINE will not 

pledge allegiance to Arabic. or english. FREE PALESTINE will exist

 

in no language; FREE PALESTINE will write poems of olive tree & checkpoint 

with no free Palestine to be found; FREE PALESTINE will name the violence 

 

& never the resurrection, like FREE PALESTINE hasn’t survived impossible 

histories to get here. It is written: the blood will be on FREE PALESTINE’s 

 

hands—might as well paint FREE PALESTINE’s nails while FREE PALESTINE’s 

at it—what? is this not what FREE PALESTINE expected? did FREE 

 

PALESTINE not think FREE PALESTINE would have the last laugh all along?

Afro-Latina

Afro-Latina,

Camina conmigo.

Salsa swagger

anywhere she go

como

'¡la negra tiene tumbao!

¡Azúcar!'

Dance to the rhythm.

Beat the drums of my skin.

Afrodescendant,

the rhythms within.

The first language

I spoke was Spanish.

Learned from lullabies

whispered in my ear.

My parents’ tongue

was a gift

which I quickly forgot

after realizing

my peers did not understand it. 

They did not understand me.

So I rejected

habichuela y mangú,

much preferring Happy Meals

and Big Macs.

Straightening my hair

in imitation of Barbie.

I was embarrassed

by my grandmother’s

colorful skirts

and my mother’s

eh brokee inglee

which cracked my pride

when she spoke.

So, shit, I would poke fun

at her myself,

hoping to lessen

the humiliation.

Proud to call myself

American,

a citizen

of this nation,

I hated

Caramel-color skin.

Cursed God

I’d been born

the color of cinnamon.

How quickly we forget

where we come from.

So remind me,

remind me

that I come from

the Taínos of the río

the Aztec,

the Mayan,

Los Incas,

los Españoles

con sus fincas

buscando oro,

and the Yoruba Africanos

que con sus manos

built a mundo

nunca imaginado.

I know I come

from stolen gold.

From cocoa,

from sugarcane,

the children

of slaves

and slave masters.

A beautifully tragic mixture,

a sancocho

of a race history.

And my memory

can't seem to escape

the thought

of lost lives

and indigenous rape.

Of bittersweet bitterness,

of feeling innate,

the soul of a people,

past, present and fate,

our stories cannot

be checked into boxes.

They are in the forgotten.

The undocumented,

the passed-down spoonfuls

of arroz con dulce

a la abuela's knee.

They're the way our hips

skip

to the beat of cumbia,

merengue

y salsa.

They're in the bending

and blending

of backbones.

We are deformed

and reformed

beings.

It's in the sway

of our song,

the landscapes

of our skirts,

the azúcar

beneath our tongues.

We are

the unforeseen children.

We're not a cultural wedlock,

hair too kinky for Spain,

too wavy for dreadlocks.

So our palms

tell the cuentos

of many tierras.

Read our lifeline,

birth of intertwine,

moonbeams

and starshine.

We are every

ocean crossed.

North Star navigates

our waters.

Our bodies

have been bridges.

We are the sons

and daughters,

el destino de mi gente,

black

brown

beautiful.

Viviremos para siempre

Afro-Latinos

hasta la muerte.

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.

Poem to a Conqueror

a groundwind wishes away

the dandelion

peels

and quarters the citrus

like wind

you come panting and aimless

bringing your own lumber

to warp and termite yourself

when you touch my face

you believe it is perfectable

you say

this is perfectable

when you move

you move like a carousel of flames

see: a row of broken chairs

in the pinerot

see: a petal

pressed between needle and skin

if the whole body were an eye

where would the hearing be

when I dream I dream like an ox

broken plow after broken plow

patience is a virtue

and virtue is easy

I only need to fear

the parts of you I can see

Stationery

The moon did not become the sun.

It just fell on the desert

in great sheets, reams

of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,

the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

body without the "d"

the bo’y wakes up

the bo’y looks at itself

the bo’y notices something missing

there is both too much and not enough flesh on the bo’y

 

the bo’y is covered in hair

what a hairy bo’y

some makes it look more like a bo’y

some makes it look more like a monster

 

the bo’y did not learn to shave from its father

so it taught itself how to graze its skin and cut things off

the bo’y cuts itself by accident

the blood reminds the bo’y it is a bo’y

reminds the bo’y how a bo’y bleeds

reminds the bo’y that not every bo’y bleeds

 

the bo’y talks to a girl about bleeding

she explains how this bo’y works

this bo’y is different from hers

bo’y has too much and not enough flesh to be her

the biology of a bo’y is just

bo’y will only ever be a bo’y

 

the bo’y is Black

so the bo’y is and will only ever be a bo’y

the bo’y couldn’t be a man if it tried

the bo’y tried

 

the bo’y feels empty

the bo’y feels like it will only ever be empty

the bo’y feels that it will never hold the weight of another bo’y inside of it

no matter how many ds fit inside the bo’y

 

the bo’y is a hollow facade

it attempts a convincing veneer

bo’y dresses — what hips on the bo’y

bo’y paints its face — what lips on the bo’y

bo’y adorns itself with labels written for lovelier frames

what a beautiful bo’y

still a bo’y

but a fierce bo’y now

a royal bo’y now

a bo’y worthy of  being called queen

what a dazzling ruse

to turn a bo’y into a lie everyone loves to look at

 

the bo’y looks at itself

the bo’y sees all the gawking at its gloss

the bo’y hears all the masses asking for its missing

the bo’y offers all of its letters

— ‘ b ’ for the birth

— ‘ o ’ for the operation

— ‘ y ’ for the lack left in its genes

what this bo’y would abandon

for the risk of  being real

 

the bo’y is real

enough and too much

existing as its own erasure

— what an elusive d 

evading removal

avoiding recognition

leaving just a bo’y

 

that is never lost

but can’t be found

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

Phenomenally.

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

Phenomenally.

 

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

Phenomenally.

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

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

To Live in the Borderlands

To live in the borderlands means you

are neither hispana india negra espanola

ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed

caught in the crossfire between camps

while carrying all five races on your back

not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the Borderlands means knowing that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,

is no longer speaking to you,

the mexicanas call you rajetas, that denying the Anglo inside you

is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives en la frontera

people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,

you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,

forerunner of a new race,

half and half-both woman and man, neither-a new gender;

To live in the Borderlands means to

put chile in the borscht,

eat whole wheat tortillas,

speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;

be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to

resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,

the pull of the gun barrel,

the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the Borderlands

you are the battleground

where enemies are kin to each other;

you are at home, a stranger,

the border disputes have been settled

the volley of shots have scattered the truce

you are wounded, lost in action

dead, fighting back;

To live in the Borderlands means

the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off

your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart

pound you pinch you roll you out

smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the Borderlands

you must live sin fronteras

be a crossroads.

gathering words

                            para mami

One day I will write you a letter

after I have gathered enough words

I have heard

pop! pop! pop!

like little soap bubbles escaping

the animated mouths

of the women who share

pieces of gossip like bombones

in la lavandería every Sunday

 

One day I will write you a letter

after I have gathered enough words

that blossom without thorns

in painted mouths, in someone else’s countries…

In my corner, I listen to how voices ring

without the sting of bofetadas

and how they undulate above

gushing water and swirling clothes

in machines that vibrate in la lavandería

 

One day, I will write you a letter

after I have gathered enough words

and enough courage

to let them ring in my mute dreams

until they sing to me: Write us. Así.

In your childhood tongue. Recóbranos. Recover us.

At that time, I will be able to return without fear

to la lavandería with my bags of clothes

and enough words and surrender myself to the bubbles.

Ghareeb

Meaning: stranger, one without a home and thus, deserving of pity. Also: westerner.

 

on visits back your english sticks to everything.

your own auntie calls you ghareeb. stranger

 

in your family’s house, you: runaway dog turned wild.

like your little cousin who pops gum & wears bras now: a stranger.

 

black grass swaying in the field, glint of gold in her nose.

they say it so often, it must be your name now, stranger.

 

when’d the west set in your bones? you survive

each winter like you were made for snow, a stranger

 

to each ancestor who lights your past. your parents,

dead, never taught you their language—stranger

 

to everything that tries to bring you home. a silver sun

& blood-soaked leaves, everything a little strange

 

& a little the same—like the hump of a deer on the busy

road, headless, chest propped up as the cars fly by. strange

 

no one bats an eye. you should pray but you’re a bad muslim

everyone says. the Qur’an you memorized turns stranger

 

in your mouth, sand that quakes your throat. gag & ache

even your body wants nothing to do with you, stranger.

 

how many poems must you write to convince yourself

you have a family? everyone leaves & you end up the stranger.

 

Men Compliment Me

Men compliment me like I’m a distant planet

—only they have the good taste to admire its desolate beauty!

 

O to reach into the galaxy like it was filled just for you.

 

One man tells me I look sad and I think too much so

I think about that, too.

 

I think about his good intentions.

My freshly bloodied teeth.

 

The men who scare me most come not like wolves but like mice

and gnaw away at the floor beneath my feet.

 

I was twelve the first time I was called exotic.

Fourteen when I was deemed a terrorist.

 

Fifteen when I starved myself to rib

and yellowed skin. Thin as a tomato slice.

 

I mean a planet eventually plots its own extinction

 

as an aging empire waves its flag from the moon.

White men say the world is ending.

 

White men say the world is ending

and she's asking for it.

Cento Between the Ending and the End

Sometimes you don’t die

 

when you’re supposed to

 

& now I have a choice

 

repair a world or build

 

a new one inside my body

 

a white door opens

 

into a place queerly brimming

 

gold light so velvet-gold

 

it is like the world

 

hasn’t happened

 

when I call out

 

all my friends are there

 

everyone we love

 

is still alive gathered

 

at the lakeside

 

like constellations

 

my honeyed kin

 

honeyed light

 

beneath the sky

 

a garden blue stalks

 

white buds the moon’s

 

marble glow the fire

 

distant & flickering

 

the body whole bright-

 

winged brimming

 

with the hours

 

of the day beautiful

 

nameless planet. Oh

 

friends, my friends—

 

bloom how you must, wild

 

until we are free.

Love Poem

Dear Proofreader,

 

you’re right. It is warped.

My syntax, a sentence

 

on myself: third person

absent pronouns. I’m glad

 

you liked the article

about gender & interpretation.

 

Glad to grace your pages

wearing this ink

 

dress. Just what I wanted

I couldn’t tell you

 

all those Christmas nights

of family, trying

 

to decipher their mutant

kin. Yes, I’m certain

 

the fault is mine. I

a fault line, been falling

 

through the fissure

all my life.

 

At the bottom of the problem?

    [        ]

 

& at the bottom

of language, an animal

 

prayer & at the bottom of prayer

let me assure you

 

tangled fur, my proper name.

The Cure for What Ails You

is a good run, at least according to my mother,

which has seemed, all my life, like cruelty —

 

when I had a fever, for example, or a heart,

shipwrecked & taking on the flood. But now,

 

of course, this is what I tell my friend whose eye

has been twitching since last Tuesday, what I

 

tell my student who can’t seem to focus

her arguments, who believes, still,

 

that it’s possible to save the world

in 10-12 pages, double-spaced & without irony

 

I’m asking Have you tried going for a run?

You know, to clear your head? this mother-voice

 

drowning out what I once thought

to be my own. I’ll admit that when that man

 

became the president, before terrified I felt

relief — finally, here was the bald face

 

of the country & now everyone had to look

at it. Everyone had to see what my loves

 

for their lives, could not unsee. Cruelty

after all is made of distance —

 

sign here & the world ends

somewhere else. The world. The literal

 

world. I hold my face close to the blue

light of the screen until my head aches.

 

Until I’m sick & like a child I just want

someone to touch me with cool hands

 

& say yes, you’re right, something is wrong

stay here in bed until the pain stops & Oh

 

mother, remember the night

when, convinced that you were dying,

 

you raced to the hospital clutching

your heart & by the time you arrived

 

you were fine. You were sharp

as a blade. Five miles in & I can’t stop

 

thinking about that video. There’s a man

with his arms raised

 

in surrender. He was driving

his car. His own car & they’re charging him

 

bellowing like bulls I didn’t shoot you, motherfucker,

you should feel lucky for that. Yes. Ok.

 

Fine. My body too can be drawn

like any weapon.

I Am Offering This Poem

I am offering this poem to you,

since I have nothing else to give.

Keep it like a warm coat

when winter comes to cover you,

or like a pair of thick socks

the cold cannot bite through,

 

                      I love you,

 

I have nothing else to give you,

so it is a pot full of yellow corn

to warm your belly in winter,

it is a scarf for your head, to wear

over your hair, to tie up around your face,

 

                      I love you,

 

Keep it, treasure this as you would

if you were lost, needing direction,

in the wilderness life becomes when mature;

and in the corner of your drawer,

tucked away like a cabin or hogan

in dense trees, come knocking,

and I will answer, give you directions,

and let you warm yourself by this fire,

rest by this fire, and make you feel safe

 

                      I love you,

 

It’s all I have to give,

and all anyone needs to live,

and to go on living inside,

when the world outside

no longer cares if you live or die;

remember,

 

                      I love you.

Excerpt from Black Art

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly. Let Black people understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world

We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently

or LOUD

Owed to the Durag

Which I spell that way because that’s the way it was spelled

on all the clear plastic packets I grew up buying for no more

than two dollars, two fifty max, unless I was at Duane Reade

or some likewise corporatized venue but who buys

the majority of their durags at Duane Reade anyway,

who would actually wage war on the durag’s good name

by spelling it d-e-w hyphen r-a-g, as I recently read

some sad lost souls do in an article in The Guardian,

this isn’t botany. This isn’t a device one might use

to attend to the suburban garden & its unremarkable

flora, drying freshly damp wisteria with black silk

or the much more common nylon-rayon-cotton blend.

I could see d-o hyphen r-a-g. That works for me.

One could argue this version makes more sense

even than the spelling I am accustomed to,

reflective as it is of nothing other than itself.

I have never heard the term ’do used in a sentence

by anyone other than a long-lost colleague

at Princeton who once reached wide-eyed

for my high top fade before a swift rebuke,

marked by my striking his wrist as if some large

though distinctly non-lethal mosquito, surely a top six

proudest moment of anti-colonial choreography

I have dared call mine in this odd, improbable

life I hold to my chest like a weapon. I know.

I know. This wasn’t supposed to be about them.

You make me inordinately beautiful. Let’s talk

about that. Or how I’m 12 years old & the cape

of a white durag billows from beneath my Marlins cap

like a sham poltergeist, flight & failure contained

within a single body, worthy core of any early

2000’s era New York rapper’s coat of arms.

I was lying before. Once, while we sat, quiet

as mourners on the front porch, my father spat

that’s a nice ’do you have there, eyeing the soft mess

of cork-screwed darkness atop his second youngest

son’s aging face, no sign of the good hair he praised

for years to family & co-workers alike. Alas, old friend,

you somehow make me even more opaque, make

me mystery, criminal, dope boy by the corner

of Broadway & 127th compelling respectable

women to reach for smart-phones, call for backup,

smooth, adjustable shadow, like policy

or fire, you blacken everything you touch.

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.

Ars Poetica

1.     Go to the window with pink carnations in your hands

 

2.     Put on Al Green’s How Can You Mend a Broken Heart & listen to that

 

3.     Step over each flowerhead flattened on the sidewalk

 

4.     Whisper your mother’s name nine times

 

5.     Listen to the hole in that voice

 

6.     Listen to the hole in your mother's name

 

7.     Heart broken, listen to Al Green

 

8.     Mend the hole in her voice

 

9.     Lift each flattened flowerhead

 

10.   Open the window with her head in your hands

Traces of my Father

There isn’t one photo of my dad

in this house. In the garden, he builds

a trellis for purple perennials and leaves

a sifter heavy with dirt. He’ll tell you

how he plants his cherry tomatoes once

a year if you ask him about his life. He’ll

tell you that a father’s duty is provision

if you ask him why. Nothing he says to me,

lasts. My mother yells at him

for tracking dirt into our house. 

Men give love in provisional ways.

My grandpa, a butcher, only carved time

for throwing footballs in the street.

My dad, a math teacher, taught me

efficiency through division

problems in our living room.

The tomatoes die each fall.

I leave leftovers for my dad

in the microwave. I put his pajamas back

in his armoire. I watch the tomato skin wilt

on the vines. I sit on my knees and scrub

the carpet for hours, the tracks so deep.

I can’t tell if they are coming out.

To the Young Who Want to Die

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.

The gun will wait. The lake will wait.

The tall gall in the small seductive vial

will wait will wait:

will wait a week: will wait through April.

You do not have to die this certain day.

Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.

I assure you death will wait. Death has

a lot of time. Death can

attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is

just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;

can meet you any moment.

 

You need not die today.

Stay here--through pout or pain or peskyness.

Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

 

Graves grow no green that you can use.

Remember, green's your color. You are Spring.

truth

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.

We Real Cool

      The Pool Players.

        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

 

            We real cool. We   

            Left school. We

 

            Lurk late. We

            Strike straight. We

 

            Sing sin. We   

            Thin gin. We

 

            Jazz June. We   

            Die soon.

Duplex ["A poem is a gesture"]

A poem is a gesture toward home.

It makes dark demands I call my own.

 

            Memory makes demands darker than my own:

            My last love drove a burgundy car.

 

My first love drove a burgundy car.

He was fast and awful, tall as my father.

 

            Steadfast and awful, my tall father

                Hit hard as a hailstorm. He'd leave marks.

 

Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark

Like the sound of a mother weeping again.

 

            Like the sound of my mother weeping again,

            No sound beating ends where it began.

 

None of the beaten end up how we began.

A poem is a gesture toward home.

Duplex ["I begin with love"]

I begin with love, hoping to end there.

I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

 

              I don’t want to leave a messy corpse

              Full of medicines that turn in the sun.

 

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.

Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

 

              Those who need most, need hell to be good.

              What are the symptoms of your sickness?

 

Here is one symptom of my sickness:

Men who love me are men who miss me.

 

              Men who leave me are men who miss me

              In the dream where I am an island.

 

In the dream where I am an island,

I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.

working title

The name of this poem is: 

How to write a poem about Ferguson 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How a black man dies and no one makes a sound 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

Everywhere is Ferguson 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

When the moonrise sounds like gunshots 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to teach your babies to walk and not run, ever.

Or

The name of this poem is: 

How to teach your babies to carry a wallet 

the size of your smile 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to smile & not make yourself a target 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write a poem the same size of Emmett Till’s lungs 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write a poem about America’s thirst 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

Black blood’ll keep you thirsty 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

I’m still thirsty, An American Horror Story 

Or 

The name of this poem is:

How to write an escape route from a tornado 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write an escape route 

when the tornado’s name is Stop & Frisk 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How walk the streets without fearing 

someone will cut your neck open 

Or 

How to walk into a boardroom 

without fearing someone will cut your legacy open 

Or

How to walk without asking for it 

Or 

How to walk without asking for it 

Or 

How to determine what “asking for it” looks like 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How “asking for it” feel like a church bombing 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to not intimidate nobody in 3 small steps 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to use your science books as Teflon 

& how that still might not work 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write about the one time you held a gun 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

  How to write about the one time you had a gun pointed to your face 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write about the one time you had a gun pointed to your face 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write about the one time you had a gun pointed to your face 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write about the one time you had a gun pointed to your face 

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write a poem from the perspective of a cop’s gun 

a cop’s Taser

a cop’s baton

a cop’s boot

Or 

The name of this poem is: 

How to write poem without r e p e a t i n g yourself

Triple Sonnet for My Mother’s Full-On Soap Opera Fantasy

I grew up watching soap operas

with my mother: the full-on fantasy

of white women in low-cut tops

competing over who could go the lowest

before a nip slip in jewel tones

in the middle of daytime TV,

because these are your problems

when you’re a retired movie star cougar

relocated to the tall pine suburbs

of modeling agencies and magazines

that rival Vogue, and more power to you

for dating the young con man who pursued

your daughter five episodes ago,

but hey, you were going through a divorce,

 

and that’s now worlds away in your times

of evil twins and suburban scandals

and ex-husbands rising from the dead

and brain transplants for your long-lost sister,

and onto husband number eleven,

making me reminisce on simpler times

when Liz Taylor married the construction worker,

and oh, you’re just so glamorous

in your slip dresses and your furs

and your houses straight out of HGTV

catalogs and home renovation shows.

I grew up watching soap operas

with my mother, who grew up in Hong Kong,

wanting a dream house in America

 

my father ended up designing,

complete with the proper feng shui,

because when you’re Chinese, your house is on a hill,

the other properties bowing down:

protection against lighting attacking

your trees, protection against thieves—

What’s a bigger declaration of love

than building your beloved her dream house,

because she gave birth to your daughter

at the age of twenty-five, leaving her family

in Kowloon to join you in America.

I grew up watching my mom fill notebooks

of character dialogue, to learn English—

her fantasies of American life.

Excerpt from "Obit" [Blame]

Blame—wants to die but cannot. Its

hair is untidy but it’s always here. My

mother blamed my father. I blamed my

father’s dementia. My father blamed

my mother’s lack of exercise. My

father is the story, not the storyteller.

I eventually blamed my father because

the story kept on trying to become the 

storyteller. Blame has no face. I have

walked on its staircase around and

around, trying to slap its face but only

hitting my own cheeks. When some

people suffer, they want to tell everyone

about their suffering. When the brush

hits a knot, the child cries out loud,

makes a noise that is an expression of

pain but not the pain itself. I can’t feel

the child’s pain but some echo of her 

pain, based on my imagination. Blame

is just an echo of pain, a veil across

the face of the one you blame. I blame

God. I want to complain to the boss of

God about God. What if the boss of

God is rain and the only way to speak

to rain is to open your mouth to the sky

and drown?

My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death

She opened her mouth and a moose came out, a donkey, and an ox—out of her mouth, years of animal grief. I lead her to the bed. She held my hand and followed. She said, Chết rồi, and like that, the cord was cut, the thread snapped, and the cable that tied my mother to her mother broke. And now her eyes red as a market fish. And now, she dropped like laundry on the bed.

 

The furniture moved toward her, the kitchen knives and spoons, the vibrating spoons—they dragged the tablecloth, the corner tilting in, her mouth a sinkhole. She wanted all of it: the house and the car too, and the flowers she planted, narcissus and hoa mai, which cracked open each spring—the sky, she brought it low until the air was hot and wet and broke into a rain—

 

the torrents like iron ropes you could climb up, only I couldn’t. I was drowning in it. I was swirled in. I leapt into her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the remnants of my former life. I ate the food she ate and drank the milk she drank. I grew until I crowded the furnishings. I edged out her organs, her swollen heart. I grew up and out so large that I became a woman, wearing my mother’s skin.

Self-Portrait as a Wild Extrovert

I have 600 dear friends.

I hug each of them

daily. I never need a mint

but am always ready to offer one

or 600. I love & know a lot

about biking/baking. I love & know

a lot about Celine Dion,

thanks to my mom, who is, if I

absolutely had to pick one—but

who am I kidding, of course

she’s my best friend.

Once, every five years, I might

feel a smidge of sadness.

& when I do, I just

sit down, maintaining impeccable,

approachable posture, & breathe.

I breathe like the very well-

organized, very wall-less

ad agency I’ve run

since birth. I breathe

like breathing is my oldest

dear friend named Daphne

Daphne, whom I still call every night

before bed to say, You are

an incandescent multiverse—don’t you

forget it, & that never

fails to do the trick.

Catastrophe Is Next to Godliness

Lord, I confess I want the clarity of catastrophe but not the catastrophe.

Like everyone else, I want a storm I can dance in.

I want an excuse to change my life.

 

The day A. died, the sun was brighter than any sun.

I answered the phone, and a channel opened

between my stupid head and heaven, or what was left of it. The blankness

stared back; and I made sound after sound with my blood-wet gullet.

O unsayable—O tender and divine unsayable, I knew you then:

you line straight to the planet’s calamitous core; you moment moment moment;

you intimate abyss I called sister for a good reason.

 

When the Bad Thing happened, I saw every blade.

And every year I find out what they’ve done to us, I shed another skin.

I get closer to open air; true north.

 

Lord, if I say Bless the cold water you throw on my face,

does that make me a costume party. Am I greedy for comfort

if I ask you not to kill my friends; if I beg you to press

your heel against my throat—not enough to ruin me,

but just so—just so I can almost see your face—

Hangul Abecedarian

Genghis Khan, my father says, using a soft G,

Never saw our peninsula with his own eyes.

Don’t quote me on that—

Recall isn’t my strong suit. I’ve convinced myself

Memorizing dates, for example, is outmoded.

Better to learn the overall movements,

Social conventions rising and falling,

Empires and their changing mascots.

Genghis sired so many, they say, his children’s

Children’s children’s genes sowed an entire

Continent of grasslands. If  you press your ear

To my blood’s topography, you’ll hear hooves

Pounding, though I can’t remember when it started, or

Whose king it is coming in the distance.

My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work

I hustle

                upstream.

I grasp.

                I grind.

I control & panic. Poke

balloons in my chest,

always popping there,

always my thoughts thump,

thump. I snooze — wake & go

boom. All day, like this I short

my breath. I scroll & scroll.

I see what you wrote — I like.

I heart. My thumb, so tired.

My head bent down, but not

in prayer, heavy from the looking.

I see your face, your phone-lit

faces. I tap your food, two times

for more hearts. I retweet.

I email: yes & yes & yes.

Then I cry & need to say: no-no-no.

Why does it take so long to reply?

I FOMO & shout. I read. I never

enough. New book. New post.

New ping. A new tab, then another.

Papers on the floor, scattered & stacked.

So many journals, unbroken white spines,

waiting. Did you hear that new new?

I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget.

I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.

I truth when I lie. I throw a book

when a poem undoes me. I underline

Clifton: today we are possible. I start

from image. I begin with Phillis Wheatley.

I begin with Phillis Wheatley. I begin

with Phillis Wheatley reaching for coal.

I start with a napkin, receipt, or my hand.

I muscle memory. I stutter the page. I fail.

Hit delete — scratch out one more line. I sonnet,

then break form. I make tea, use two bags.

Rooibos again. I bathe now. Epsom salt.

No books or phone. Just water & the sound

of water filling, glory — be my buoyant body,

bowl of me. Yes, lavender, more bubbles

& bath bomb, of course some candles too.

All alone with Coltrane. My favorite, “Naima,”

for his wife, now for me, inside my own womb.

Again, I child back. I float. I sing. I simple

& humble. Eyes close. I low my voice,

was it a psalm? Don’t know. But I stopped.

blessing the boats

(at St. Mary’s) 

 

may the tide 

that is entering even now 

the lip of our understanding  

carry you out 

beyond the face of fear 

may you kiss 

the wind then turn from it 

certain that it will 

love your back may you 

open your eyes to water 

water waving forever 

and may you in your innocence 

sail through this to that.

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.

Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation

Angels don’t come to the reservation.

Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.

Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—

death. And death

eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel

fly through this valley ever.

Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—

he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical

Indian. Sure he had wings,

jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,

kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.

Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.

Maybe in a Christmas pageant or something—

Nazarene church holds one every December,

organized by Pastor John’s wife. It’s no wonder

Pastor John’s son is the angel—everyone knows angels are white.

Quit bothering with angels, I say. They’re no good for Indians.

Remember what happened last time

some white god came floating across the ocean?

Truth is, there may be angels, but if there are angels

up there, living on clouds or sitting on thrones across the sea wearing

velvet robes and golden rings, drinking whiskey from silver cups,

we’re better off if they stay rich and fat and ugly and

’xactly where they are—in their own distant heavens.

You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they’ll be marching you off to

Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.

Why I Hate Raisins

And is it only the mouth and belly which are

injured by hunger and thirst?

-Mencius

 

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.

Incantation of the First Order

Listen, no one signed up for this lullaby.

No bleeped sheep or rosebuds or twitching stars

will diminish the fear or save you from waking

 

into the same day you dreamed of leaving—

mockingbird on back order, morning bells

stuck on snooze—so you might as well 

 

get up and at it, pestilence be damned.

Peril and risk having become relative,

I’ll try to couch this in positive terms:

 

Never! is the word of last resorts,

Always! the fanatic’s rallying cry.

To those inclined toward kindness, I say

 

Come out of your houses drumming. All others,

beware: I have discarded my smile but not my teeth.

The Song of the Smoke

I am the Smoke King

I am black!

I am swinging in the sky,

I am wringing worlds awry;

I am the thought of the throbbing mills,

I am the soul of the soul-toil kills,

Wraith of the ripple of trading rills;

Up I’m curling from the sod,

I am whirling home to God;

I am the Smoke King

I am black.

 

I am the Smoke King,

I am black!

I am wreathing broken hearts,

I am sheathing love’s light darts;

Inspiration of iron times

Wedding the toil of toiling climes,

Shedding the blood of bloodless crimes—

Lurid lowering ’mid the blue,

Torrid towering toward the true,

I am the Smoke King,

I am black.

 

I am the Smoke King,

I am black!

I am darkening with song,

I am hearkening to wrong!

I will be black as blackness can—

The blacker the mantle, the mightier the man!

For blackness was ancient ere whiteness began.

I am daubing God in night,

I am swabbing Hell in white:

I am the Smoke King

I am black.

 

I am the Smoke King

I am black!

I am cursing ruddy morn,

I am hearsing hearts unborn:

Souls unto me are as stars in a night,

I whiten my black men—I blacken my white!

What’s the hue of a hide to a man in his might?

Hail! great, gritty, grimy hands—

Sweet Christ, pity toiling lands!

I am the Smoke King

I am black.

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

    We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

    We wear the mask!

how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles              books: english  love songs: arabic

my angers   my schooling my long repeating name    english english     arabic

 

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born    it shows in my short memory

my ahistoric glamour my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [   ] in arabic

 

i sleep      unbroken dark hours on airplanes home        & dream i’ve missed my

connecting flight  i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

 

i dream my alternate selves            each with a face borrowed from photographs of

the girl who became my grandmother   brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

 

but wake to the usual borderlands i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth

iris    crocus   inlet   heron         how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

 

& what even is translation    is immigration    without irony      safia

means pure        all my life it’s been true        even in my clouded arabic

Self-Portrait With No Flag

i pledge allegiance to my

homies      to my mother’s

small & cool palms     to 

the gap between my brother’s

two front teeth      & to 

my grandmother’s good brown

hands       good strong brown

hands gathering my bare feet

in her lap

 

i pledge allegiance    to the

group text      i pledge allegiance

to laughter & to all the boys 

i have a crush on      i pledge

allegiance to my spearmint plant

to my split ends      to my grandfather’s

brain & gray left eye

 

i come from two failed countries

& i give them back      i pledge

allegiance to no land    no border

cut by force to draw blood    i pledge

allegiance to no government    no 

collection of white men carving up

the map with their pens

 

i choose the table at the waffle house

with all my loved ones crowded

into the booth     i choose the shining

dark of our faces through a thin sheet

of smoke     glowing dark of our faces

slick under layers of sweat     i choose

the world we make with our living

refusing to be unmade by what surrounds

us      i choose us gathered at the lakeside

the light glinting off the water & our 

laughing teeth     & along the living

dark of our hair    & this is my only country

Rainmaker: You Could Be the Water

By the scent of the water alone,

the withered vine comes back to life,

and thus… wherever the land is dry and hard,

you could be the water;

or you could be the iron blade

disking the earth open;

or you could be the acequia,

the mother ditch, carrying the water

from the river to the fields

to grow the flowers for the farmers;

or you could be the honest engineer

mapping the dams that must be taken down,

and those dams which could remain to serve

the venerable all, instead of only the very few.

You could be the battered vessel

for carrying the water by hand;

or you could be the one

who stores the water.

You could be the one who

protects the water,

or the one who blesses it,

or the one who pours it.

Or you could be the tired ground

that receive it;

or you could be the scorched seed

that drinks it;

or you could be the vine,

green-growing overland,

in all your wild audacity…

I Turn the Volume Down Because Beyonce Says Fuck in the Car While I Drive My Daughter to School

the four-year-old                  gives her              first

 

            protest of the   morning                whether intentional

 

            or the default position of her mother's resolve

 

her fist is balled in              the way a boy would          grip her  hair

 

              in a   kindergarten class or                at any age that    boys

 

               put                         their        names  on things

 

she says, hey I   like       that song and Beyoncé has         already finished

 

              saying                  I'm gonna fuck me up a bitch                          so

 

               I turn the             volume back up                to five seconds                 ago

 

before a father                 once told a Black woman she was                too loud to         

 

            fill        his daughter's lungs      before the        tabernacle

 

            of mist filled the               car until all we   knew to               breathe  was

 

gunsmoke        and the ire of   men  interrupting  the choir     of crows

 

              that               ain't meant for                  their ears             and I        know

 

               it doesn't                             take much          to get this little                  girl's blood

 

​into      a spell  because it was once                       her              grandmother's

 

               blood                    which    means                                  there will             be

 

               a                   day when            someone             some man              tries to pull      it            

 

out of   her       and      she becomes a wound                  where the curses             her

 

           father hid         from  her come                 tumbling  out of                  the     

 

​            same

 

​tomb    where   she once buried a         woman with a too        quiet    face

For Donald Lewis Jones

Dad, every blade of grass wears your name,

on the wind, you laugh in great swaths of air.

Now, the days feel more like years because you’re gone,

only memories hold your voice

and the crack of your knees stretching in the night.

 

Listen, I want to tell you about a man who was deliberate,

delicate in his loving. Complete in his care.

Let me show you my skin, my blood which is his.

Even the sunrise I hold with his eyes,

Which are my eyes. My heart which is his.

 

In the quiet times, we wonder where you are.

Sometimes, feels like your truck will turn the corner

just in time for dinner. Your keys chiming up the stairs.

Out in the garden, your plants still grow.

Now, we will give them water and time,

every season, a harvest started by your hands,

showing your love, all-encompassing, forever.

Mercy

after Nikki Giovanni

 

She asked me to kill the spider

Instead, I get the most

peaceful weapons I can find.

 

I take a cup and a napkin.

I catch the spider, put it outside

and allow it to walk away.

 

If I am ever caught in the wrong place

at the wrong time, just being alive

and not bothering anyone,

 

I hope I am greeted

with the same kind

of mercy.

Urban Girl Writes another Poem About Her Dead Father

My father is dead.

I notice it most 

During things that haven’t happened 

yet.

 

My Father is dead 

at my wedding. 

He is a slow dance of bullets

an autopsy trying 

to make polite conversation with the guests.

My flower girl is me at every age 

he did not see me turn.

I am throwing things I haven’t seen in years

(My virginity, pig-tails, my diploma, joy and names of old lovers).

 

My father is dead 

at the birth of my first child 

The doctor asks where is the father

I say murdered out of habit.

The doctor does not specify so neither do I 

Instead we both stare 

at my child who is named after the chill in the room. 

 

My father is dead 

at my death bed. We play

Blackjack until the light comes.

 

When it does, he lifts me onto his shoulders

I get the piggy back ride promised to a child

who time had been waiting on.

Allowables

I killed a spider

Not a murderous brown recluse

Nor even a black widow

And if the truth were told this

Was only a small

Sort of papery spider

Who should have run

When I picked up the book

But she didn’t

And she scared me

And I smashed her

 

I don’t think

I’m allowed

 

To kill something

 

Because I am

 

Frightened

Choices

if i can't do

what i want to do

then my job is to not

do what i don't want

to do

 

it's not the same thing

but it's the best i can

do

 

if i can't have

what i want    then

my job is to want

what i've got

and be satisfied

that at least there

is something more

to want

 

since i can't go

where i need

to go    then i must    go

where the signs point

though always understanding

parallel movement

isn't lateral

 

when i can't express

what i really feel

i practice feeling

what i can express

and none of it is equal

i know

but that's why mankind

alone among the animals

learns to cry

Chicken-Hearted

“It’s time you learn to scrub a chicken.”

    Mama rarely cooked after working all day—her heart wasn’t in it.

But a daughter should know how to sterilize

 

that pink, ominous cavern before she flew

    away to salt her own kitchens: pry its legs apart

& reach inside to scoop as if the bird was pregnant.

 

When I moved out that winter, pregnant

    & fat like nobody’s business but still too chicken to tell

Mama, I took up with a boy who tore apart

 

our piss cold apartment looking for the piece of his heart he

    swore I’d eaten. He claimed it flew

into my belly & before I gave it back, I’d need to sterilize

 

it. So I ran around that damn flat with wipes to sterilize every

    counter & crevice. Not only was I pregnant &

compulsive, but news had spread that flu

 

had reached pandemic level—this time from swine not chickens.

    I’d read that pregnant women were more susceptible to heart failure.

I figured that also meant the tiny throbbing pink part

 

in my belly. I never studied anatomy, apart

    from an odd encounter with a college boy who tried to sterilize my body

with his tongue. It didn’t work but left heart-

 

shaped scars along my chest & thighs, each mark pregnant with

    blood, a strawberry patch or the red wattle of a chicken.

I’d begun to waddle around in baggy sweats a few

 

weeks since seeing Mama. She’d suspected the “more than a few

    pounds” I’d gained, flinging accusations, shredding me apart

for acting the slut I was. I’d heard it before—she’d squawk chicken

 

shrills until I broke down. She’d peck at me to sterilize

    my body like the kitchen, the chicken, my own pink pregnant belly

ache. She’d have had me scoop out my own heart

 

to make a point. I don’t think I could live without a heart.

    I’d lived without anyone but Mama since the summer we flew over

the Grand Canyon away from dad. Mama was pregnant

 

then. That didn’t last long. I was eleven when she clawed apart the

    bathroom, not the kitchen, scrubbing the tub to sterilize

it for a bath, I’d guessed. I’d have asked but was too chicken.

 

The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart to

    sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleansers or flu

or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.

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—

The Hill We Climb

When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We've braved the belly of the beast

We've learned that quiet isn't always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn't always just-ice

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we've weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn't broken

but simply unfinished

We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one

And yes we are far from polished

far from pristine

but that doesn't mean we are

striving to form a union that is perfect



We are striving to forge a union with purpose

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and

conditions of man

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us

but what stands before us

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another

We seek harm to none and harmony for all

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried

That we'll forever be tied together, victorious

Not because we will never again know defeat

but because we will never again sow division

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid

If we're to live up to our own time

Then victory won't lie in the blade

But in all the bridges we've made

That is the promise to glade

The hill we climb

If only we dare

It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

it's the past we step into

and how we repair it

We've seen a force that would shatter our nation

rather than share it

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy

And this effort very nearly succeeded

But while democracy can be periodically delayed

it can never be permanently defeated

In this truth

in this faith we trust

For while we have our eyes on the future

history has its eyes on us

This is the era of just redemption

We feared at its inception

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs

of such a terrifying hour

but within it we found the power

to author a new chapter

To offer hope and laughter to ourselves

So while once we asked,

how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?

Now we assert

How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was

but move to what shall be

A country that is bruised but whole,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation

Our blunders become their burdens

But one thing is certain:

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

then love becomes our legacy

and change our children's birthright

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,

we will rise from the windswept northeast

where our forefathers first realized revolution

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,

we will rise from the sunbaked south

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover

and every known nook of our nation and

every corner called our country,

our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,

battered and beautiful

When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we're brave enough to see it

If only we're brave enough to be it

Excerpt from "She Had Some Horses"

I. She Had Some Horses

 

She had some horses.

She had horses who were bodies of sand.

She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.

She had horses who were skins of ocean water.

She had horses who were the blue air of sky.

She had horses who were fur and teeth.

She had horses who were clay and would break.

She had horses who were splintered red cliff.

 

She had some horses.

 

She had horses with eyes of trains.

She had horses with full, brown thighs.

She had horses who laughed too much.

She had horses who threw rocks at glass houses.

She had horses who licked razor blades.

 

She had some horses.

 

She had horses who danced in their mothers' arms.

She had horses who thought they were the sun and their

bodies shone and burned like stars.

She had horses who waltzed nightly on the moon.

She had horses who were much too shy, and kept quiet

in stalls of their own making.

 

She had some horses.

 

She had horses who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.

She had horses who screamed out of fear of the silence, who

carried knives to protect themselves from ghosts.

She had horses who waited for destruction.

She had horses who waited for resurrection.

 

She had some horses.

 

She had some horses she loved.

She had some horses she hated.

 

These were the same horses.

Grace

For Darlene Wind and James Welch

 

I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn't stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.

 

Like Coyote, like Rabbit, we could not contain our terror and clowned our way through a season of false midnights. We had to swallow that town with laughter, so it would go down easy as honey. And one morning as the sun struggled to break ice, and our dreams had found us with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80, we found grace.

 

I could say grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.

 

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn't; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.

Songs for the People

Let me make the songs for the people,

   Songs for the old and young;

Songs to stir like a battle-cry

   Wherever they are sung.

 

Not for the clashing of sabres,

   For carnage nor for strife;

But songs to thrill the hearts of men

   With more abundant life.

 

Let me make the songs for the weary,

   Amid life’s fever and fret,

Till hearts shall relax their tension,

   And careworn brows forget.

 

Let me sing for little children,

   Before their footsteps stray,

Sweet anthems of love and duty,

   To float o’er life’s highway.

 

I would sing for the poor and aged,

   When shadows dim their sight;

Of the bright and restful mansions,

   Where there shall be no night.

 

Our world, so worn and weary,

   Needs music, pure and strong,

To hush the jangle and discords

   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

 

Music to soothe all its sorrow,

   Till war and crime shall cease; 

And the hearts of men grown tender

   Girdle the world with peace.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin [“I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison”]

 I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,

Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.

I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat

Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.

I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold

While your better selves watch from the bleachers.

I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow

You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night

In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow-

Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars

Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.

I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.

Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough

To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed.

America We Talk About It

Summer Journals — August 8, 2017

 

— every day of the week. It is not easy. First I had to learn. Over

decades — to take care of myself. Are you listening. I had to

learn. I had to gain, pebble by pebble, seashell by seashell, the

courage to listen to my self. My true inner self. For that I had to

push you aside. It was not easy I had pushed aside my mother

my father my self in that artificial stairway of becoming you to

be inside of you — after years I realized perhaps too late there

was no way I could bring them back I could not rewind the

clock. But I did — I could do one thing. I could care. Now we

— are here.

Five Directions to My House

1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance

2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds

3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor

4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets

5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now

6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six. 

Small Poems for Big

Twenty-four haiku, for each year he lived

 

when you die, i’m told

they only use given names

christopher wallace

 

no notorious

neither b.i.g. nor smalls

just voletta’s son

 

brooklyn resident

hustler for loose change, loosies

and a lil loose kim

 

let me tell you this

the west coast didn’t get you

illest flow or nah

 

had our loyalties

no need to discuss that now

that your weight is dust

 

that your tongue is air

and your mother is coping

as only she can

 

i will also say

that i have seen bed-stuy since

b.k. misses you

 

her walk has changed some

the rest of the borough flails

weak about itself

 

middle school students

not yet whispers in nine sev

know the lyrics rote

 

you: a manual

a mural, pressed rock, icon,

fightin word or curse

 

course of history

most often noted, quoted

deconstructed sung

 

hung by a bullet

prepped to die: gunsmoke gunsmoke

one hell of a hunch

 

here you lie a boy

twelve gauge to your brain you can’t

have what you want be

 

what you want you black

and ugly heartthrob ever

conflicted emcee

 

respected lately

premier king of the casket

pauper of first life

 

til puff blew you up

gave you a champagne diet

plus cheese eggs, welch’s

 

you laid the blueprint

gave us word for word for naught

can’t fault the hustle

 

knockoff messiah

slanged cracked commandments, saw no

honey, more problems

 

a still black borough

recoiled, mourned true genius slain

the ease of your laugh

 

the cut of your jib

unique command of the room

truthfully biggie

 

what about you’s small

no not legend not stature

real talk just lifespan

 

yo, who shot ya kid

n.y.p.d. stopped searching

shrugged off negro death

 

well, we scour the sky

we mourn tough, recite harder

chant you live again

 

of all the lyrics

the realest premonition

rings true: you’re dead. wrong

If-ing

If I had some small change

I’d buy me a mule,

Get on that mule and

Ride like a fool.

 

If I had some greenbacks

I’d buy me a Packard,

Fill it up with gas and

Drive that baby backward.

 

If I had a million

I’d get me a plane

And everybody in America’d

Think I was insane.

 

But I ain’t got a million,

Fact is, ain’t got a dime—

So just by if-ing

I have a good time!

Impasse

I could tell you

If I wanted to,

What makes me

What I am.

 

But I don't

Really want to –

And you don't

Give a damn.

Ode to my Uni-brow

Perhaps it is not pronounced enough to easily notice,

at least from a distance, but praise be to the hairs

populating the Bering Straight, or more accurately

 

crossing the Mediterranean — bridge like cedar planks

with black nails, bridge like the boat

my jido came here in, bridge to Dearborn,

 

Michigan. The hairs stand up like spines, like each

is a monument over the bridge

of my nose. Since high school I used to keep the middle

 

trimmed, used clippers to separate such striving

for togetherness, in the name of neatness, I told myself,

though how so many of us have tried to pass, and true —

 

that is a form of survival but this now also

a form of thriving, of what refuses to be cut down

any longer, so praise be to the hairiness my Lebanese

 

family shares, praise be to owning what may keep

the TSA’s eyes on us, though god-willing not their hands

(and fuck the TSA, while we’re at it), and praise be

 

to pride and to the Muslim man at the gas station

who asks if I am Muslim, too, and though I am not, praise

to being seen as a brother (and to the beard

 

and back and knuckle hair, while we’re at it) —

an oak with so many of its leaves

refusing to enter another shaven autumn,

 

a cedar holding tight to all its needles.

Wishes

I'm tired of pacing the petty round of the ring of the thing I know— 

I want to stand on the daylight's edge and see where the sunsets go.

 

I want to sail on a swallow's tail and peep through the sky's blue glass.

I want to see if the dreams in me shall perish or come to pass.

 

I want to look through the moon's pale crook and gaze on the moon-man's face.

I want to keep all the tears I weep and sail to some unknown place.

Art vs. Trade

Trade, Trade versus Art,

Brain, Brain versus Heart;

Oh, the earthiness of these hard-hearted times,   

When clinking dollars, and jingling dimes,   

Drown all the finer music of the soul.

 

Life as an Octopus with but this creed,

That all the world was made to serve his greed;

Trade has spread out his mighty myriad claw,

And drawn into his foul polluted maw,

The brightest and the best,   

Well nigh,

Has he drained dry,

The sacred fount of Truth;   

And if, forsooth,

He has left yet some struggling streams from it to go,

He has contaminated so their flow,

That Truth, scarce is it true.

 

Poor Art with struggling gasp,

Lies strangled, dying in his mighty grasp;

He locks his grimy fingers ’bout her snowy throat so tender.   

Is there no power to rescue her, protect, defend her?   

Shall Art be left to perish?

Shall all the images her shrines cherish

Be left to this iconoclast, to vulgar Trade?

 

Oh, that mankind had less of Brain and more of Heart,   

Oh, that the world had less of Trade and more of Art;   

Then would there be less grinding down the poor,   

Then would men learn to love each other more;   

For Trade stalks like a giant through the land,   

Bearing aloft the rich in his high hand,

While down beneath his mighty ponderous tread,   

He crushes those who cry for daily bread.

A Short Note to My Very Critical and Well-Beloved Friends and Comrades

First they said I was too light

Then they said I was too dark

Then they said I was too different

Then they said I was too much the same

Then they said I was too young

Then they said I was too old

Then they said I was too interracial

Then they said I was too much a nationalist

Then they said I was too silly

Then they said I was too angry

Then they said I was too idealistic

Then they said I was too confusing altogether:

Make up your mind! They said. Are you militant

or sweet? Are you vegetarian or meat? Are you straight

or are you gay?

 

And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind

On Time Tanka

I refuse to choose

between lynch rope and gang rape

the blues is the blues!

my skin and my sex: Deep dues

I have no wish to escape

 

I refuse to lose

the flame of my single space

this safety I choose

between your fist and my face

between my gender and race

 

All black and blue news

withers the heart of my hand

and leads to abuse

no one needs to understand:

suicide wipes out the clues

 

Big-Time-Juicy-Fruit!

Celebrity-Rich-Hero

Rollin out the Rolls!

Proud cheatin on your (Black) wife

Loud beatin on your (white) wife

 

Real slime open mouth

police officer-true-creep

evil-and-uncouth

fixin to burn black people

killin the song of our sleep

 

Neither one of you

gets any play in my day

I know what you do

your money your guns your say

so against my pepper spray

 

Okay! laugh away!

I hear you and I accuse

you both: I refuse

to choose: All black and blue news

means that I hurt and I lose. 

These Poems

These poems

they are things that I do

in the dark

reaching for you

whoever you are

and

are you ready?

 

These words

they are stones in the water

running away

 

These skeletal lines

they are desperate arms for my longing and love.

 

I am a stranger

learning to worship the strangers

around me

 

whoever you are

whoever I may become.

Terzanelle: Manzanar Riot

This is a poem with missing details,

of ground gouging each barrack's windowpane,

sand crystals falling with powder and shale,

 

where silence and shame make adults insane.

This is about a midnight of searchlights,

of ground gouging each barrack's windowpane,

 

of syrup on rice and a cook's big fight.

This is the night of Manzanar's riot.

This is about a midnight of searchlights,

 

a swift moon and a voice shouting, Quiet!

where the revolving searchlight is the moon.

This is the night of Manzanar's riot,

 

windstorm of people, rifle powder fumes,

children wiping their eyes clean of debris,

where the revolving searchlight is the moon,

 

and children line still to use the latrines.

This is a poem with missing details,

children wiping their eyes clean of debris—

sand crystals falling with powder and shale.

Elegy for Bruce Lee

Somewhere in the dark sky is a beautiful fight,

one-two, cha cha chá—all our knuckles rapping

 

against the stars’ edges for the dancing master,

for a flying sidekick to our bodies’ centers.

 

My father called you Little Dragon Lee, told me

how you swiveled your hips across the floor—

 

three-four, cha cha chá—then you both wrote

love poems for a girl in your English class.

 

I practiced throwing roundhouse kicks as a boy,

feet aimed at my reflection in store windows,

 

at street signs, at parked cars, everything I knew

I could break. Now, my feet cannot leave

 

the ground, and I write love poems for the dead.

The last time I watched Enter the Dragon,

 

I imagined it was my father emerging victorious

from the hall of mirrors, my father hustling

 

on the dance floor, because the last time

I saw my father, he had been waiting for me

 

the whole day in the morgue. Hold me,

he said, and I did until his body stopped

 

acting like it was alive. There is no fight

where there is no spark, no wretched cock crow

 

in the dark, just this cha cha chá—grief is a fist

and a promise to hurt someone. Just give it

 

an inch between knuckle and breastbone.

It will punch through everyone.

Pre-Top Surgery Pantoum

I was never taught to grieve unwanted attachments.

What do you do when your body becomes distant?

Therapists tell me it’s only a side-effect of trauma —

craving constriction & feeling every breath I take.

 

Love is not the same thing as becoming distant.

It is not a band-aid for fleshly problems. Surgeons

tell me I need a diagnosis for actions I take

to turn into someone I recognize in mirrors.

 

I lie my chance of sensation in the hands of a surgeon;

tell him the measurements of my lifelong problems.

Flesh lies to my face, even after I clean my mirror

& look at augmented-me for the last time.

 

To be alive is to be scarred & riddled with problems.

To be dead is to give up ideas for birth. Google says

that every cell in my body has a finite span of time

except the mind; I’ll always grieve unwanted attachments.

A Poem for 3rd World Brothers

So keep your bouncing walk, and

keep your hip and mellow talk.  yeah – and

keep your jackknife laughter that shakes the air.

cause white / America would have you move

like cubes.  stumbling.  without rhythm

or freedom.  white / america would design

your dance and your speech by computer –

would have you sit in stiff chairs

and squeeze your knees.

white / America would kill the cat in you.

 

or they will send their lackeys to kill for them.

and if those negroes fail

white / America will whip out her boss okie doke:

make miss ann lift the hem of her mystic skirt

and flash white thighs in your yes to blind you

to your own beauty and that of your sisters

who choke back the hurt and hide their love

behind blond wigs and red wine.

and if you ain’t dead

by the time white thighs wrap round your head

white / America will send the thrill of the pill

to kill you.

you digit – you digit?

to down the red devils is to deal in Blk / death

(makes you fuck over your brothers) cuts you off

from your people, makes you cop out

and roam single – thru this graveyard

of white / America. and your ears will be deaf

to the cries of Blk / children who look to you to

protect them from the white / ghosts.

 

So keep your bouncing walk. and.

keep your hip and mellow talk. yeah – and

keep your jackknife laughter that shakes the air.

white / america seeks to kill the cat in you

cause white / america knows that fire eyes glow

that Blk / muscles are strong

and that if brothers dance together

freedom won’t be long –

you digit? – you digit?

Facing It

My black face fades,   

hiding inside the black granite.   

I said I wouldn't  

dammit: No tears.   

I'm stone. I'm flesh.   

My clouded reflection eyes me   

like a bird of prey, the profile of night   

slanted against morning. I turn   

this way—the stone lets me go.   

I turn that way—I'm inside   

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

again, depending on the light   

to make a difference.   

I go down the 58,022 names,   

half-expecting to find   

my own in letters like smoke.   

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;   

I see the booby trap's white flash.   

Names shimmer on a woman's blouse   

but when she walks away   

the names stay on the wall.   

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's   

wings cutting across my stare.   

The sky. A plane in the sky.   

A white vet's image floats   

closer to me, then his pale eyes   

look through mine. I'm a window.   

He's lost his right arm   

inside the stone. In the black mirror   

a woman’s trying to erase names:   

No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Insha'Allah

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.

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk

down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs

to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”

when someone sneezes, a leftover

from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.

And sometimes, when you spill lemons

from your grocery bag, someone else will help you

pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile

at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress

to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,

and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.

We have so little of each other, now. So far

from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.

What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these

fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,

have my seat," "Go ahead — you first," "I like your hat."

Spanglish

pues estoy creando spanglish

bi-cultural systems

scientific lexicographical

inter-textual integrations

two expressions

existentially wired

two dominant languages

continentally abrazándose

en colloquial combate

en las aceras del soil

imperio spanglish emerges

control pandillaje

sobre territorio bi-lingual

las novelas mexicanas

mixing with radiorocknroll

condimented cocina lore

immigrant/migrant

nasal mispronouncements

baraja chismeteos social club

hip-hop prieto street salsa

corner soul enmixturando

spanish pop farándula

standard english classroom

with computer technicalities

spanglish is literally perfect

spanglish is ethnically snobbish

spanglish is cara-holy inteligencia

which u.s. slang do you speak?

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out

of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s

almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving

their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate

sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees

that really gets to me. When all the shock of white

and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave

the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,

the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin

growing over whatever winter did to us, a return

to the strange idea of continuous living despite

the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,

I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf

unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Obligations 2

        As we

 

                                           embrace          resist

 

                          the future       the present      the past

 

            we work          we struggle          we begin          we fail

to understand       to find        to unbraid        to accept        to question

 

              the grief          the grief           the grief          the grief

 

                          we shift         we wield           we bury​

 

                                     into light               as ash

 

                                               across our faces

T.S.A.

Off with the wristwatch, the Reeboks, the belt.

             My laptop's in a bin.

I dig out the keys from my jeans and do

             my best Midwestern grin.

At O'Hare, at Atlanta, at Dallas/Fort Worth,

             it happens every trip,

at LaGuardia, Logan, and Washington Dulles,

             the customary strip

is never enough for a young brown male

             whose name comes up at random.

Lest the randomness of it be doubted, observe

             how Myrtle's searched in tandem,

how Doris's six-pack of Boost has been seized

             and Ethel gets the wand.

How polite of the screeners to sham paranoia

             when what they really want

is to pick out the swarthiest, scruffiest of us

             and pat us top to toe,

my fellow Ahmeds and my alien Alis,

             Mohammed alias Mo—

my buddies from med school, my doubles partners,

             my dark unshaven brothers

whose names overlap with the crazies and God fiends,

             ourselves the goateed other.

September Elegies

in memory of Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi

 

There are those who suffer in plain sight,

there are those who suffer in private.

Nothing but secondhand details:

a last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak.

 

There are those who suffer in private.

The one in Tehachapi, aged 13.

A last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak:

he had had enough torment, so he hanged himself.

 

The one in Tehachapi, aged 13;

the one in Cooks Head, aged 15:

he had had enough torment, so he hanged himself.

He was found by his mother.

 

The one in Cooks Head, aged 15.

The one in Greensburg, aged 15:

he was found by his mother.

"I love my horses, my club lambs. They are the world to me,"

 

the one in Greensburg, aged 15,

posted on his profile.

"I love my horses, my club lambs. They are the world to me."

The words turn and turn on themselves.

 

Posted on his profile,

"Jumping off the gw bridge sorry":

the words turn, and turn on themselves,

like the one in New Brunswick, aged 18.

 

Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.

There are those who suffer in plain sight

like the one in New Brunswick, aged 18.

Nothing but secondhand details.

pantoum for aiyana & not a single hashtag

            look!

There go a Black gxrl 

body still tethered

to her head

 

There go a Black gxrl, shirt still dry

no river of marrow or tears

following her up the block

no bile from her head 

 

Can we call her into form? not a river of marrow & small tears

of sweaty fabric, but manna & honeysuckle

from her skull no bile, but beatniks

in bloom. Can we celebrate the child on this side of the grass?

 

her sweat fabric, honeyed & unmanned 

the gxrl young, a fresh world of gardenia

bloom-ing. Can’t we celebrate? The child’s on this side of the grass! 

Open the window & usher in a new god! A breeze

 

gardenia-young, the gxrl a world made fresh.

in her hands—piano keys, sticks of cinnamon gum, 

a window into the new. God, an usher opening

a psalm, free to be the thing she was truly made of:

 

piano keys. In her hands, cinnamon sticks like guns

in the wrong light—never mind that. Today she lives. 

A thing to be freed. Made of psalms, & truly

holy. The gxrl will turn flowers into wine. Spills herself no more

 

wrong. & today, she lives. Never mind the light

offering summer halo. it is a myth, that we die, anyway. We too

holy. No more spills, no more flowers. From wine, gxrl churns herself a will. 

Rises from the concrete, her arms full of clove. Her mother’s yard a throne.

 

Anyway, the myth is that we die. We too, summer offering. Halos 

like birds on our shoulders. The gxrl, gardenia, & we planted her

full of clove & her mother. She raises a throne from the concrete, a yard of arms.

The gxrl, a god king. The gxrl, a map of good. The gxrl, a thing worth trending, after all. Just

            look!

out south

… And they, since they

were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

 

—Robert Frost, “Out, Out”

 

 

In Chicago, kids are beaten. they crack

open. they're pavement. they don't fight, they die.

bodies bruised blue with wood. cameras catch

us killing, capture danger to broadcast

 

on Broadways. we Roseland stars, made players

for the press. apes caged from 1st grade until.

shake us. we make terrible tambourines.

packed into class, kids passed like kidney stones.

 

each street day is unanswered prayer for peace,

news gushes from Mom's mouth like schoolboy blood.

Ragtown crime don't stop, only waves—hello.

crime waves break no surface on news—goodbye.

 

every kid that's killed is one less free lunch,

a fiscal coup. welcome to where we from.

Man Matching Description

Because the silk scarf could have cradled

a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet,

but was instead used in last night’s strangling,

it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs.

 

Because I can imagine handcuffs,

pummeled by stones until shimmering,

the flashlight that sears my eyes

is too perfect to look away.

 

Because a flashlight has more power

on a southern roadside than my name and blood

combined and there is no power in the very human

frequency range of my voice and my name is dead

in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license

I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—

 

Because the baton is long against my window,

the gun somehow longer against my cheek, 

the vehicle cold against my abdomen

as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers

and my name is asked again—I want to

say, Swan! I am only a swan.

America

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,

Giving me strength erect against her hate,

Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.

Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,

I stand within her walls with not a shred

Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.

Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,

And see her might and granite wonders there,

Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,

Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Standing at The Mirror, The Author Writes A Poem for Himself in Which the Word Hate Is Replaced with The Word Forgive

& while I wait for my eyes to relearn open  I [forgive] myself      for the slow rise
the deep ache in the crane of my neck               from bowing down inside myself

I [forgive] the surrender the swollen knee the bruise on my rib  shape & shade
of an August sunrise    I [forgive] the fence I could swear was the horizon or at least

a way out     I [forgive] myself for imagining     a way out is a place I could visit
like a corner café   or ex-lover’s thigh I [forgive] myself for loving

those who have harmed me    for cooking them dinner & burning the rice    forgetting
to add pepper    or make myself a plate I [forgive] myself for staying I [forgive]

myself for staying      until I left my skin another blanket on the bed until the sound
of a door opening    turned each room into a reason to leave I counted each second

alone as a tiny victory      until I lost count   which is the only victory that matters
please let healing be not a season but the body that still belongs to me & every day

I remember to buy bread to hide the keys beneath the window succulent
or walk along the road dreaming of anything other than traffic      is a day I get closer

to a future made better by how I live through it I [forgive] myself for failing
today for falling back into bed & drawing the blinds give me time

I’ll get up I promise I know it doesn’t matter where I go every direction is forward
I just have to get there      I take a step & step naked into the shower the water

so cold I forget to breathe my body yearns to follow the pearls      falling through
the metal grate to become not quite a ghost but a shadow just out of frame I say no

I [forgive] I [forgive] myself      with my body right in front of me

Advice from La Llorona

—a found poem

 

Each grief has its unique side.

Choose the one that appeals to you.

Go gently.

Your body needs energy to repair the amputation.

Humor phantom pain.

Your brain cells are soaked with salt;

connections fail unexpectedly and often.

Ask for help.

Accept help.

 

Read your grief like the daily newspaper:

headlines may have information you need.

Scream. Drop-kick the garbage can across the street.

 

Don't feel guilty if you have a good time.

Don't act as if you haven't been hit by a Mack Truck.

Do things a little differently

but don't make a lot of changes.

Revel in contradiction.

 

Talk to the person who died.

Give her a piece of your mind.

 

Try to touch someone at least once a day.

Approach grief with determination.

Pretend the finish line doesn't keep receding.

Lean into the pain.

You can't outrun it.

Hon or We have both traveled from the other side of some hill, one side of which we may wish we could forget

Love me stupid.

Love me terrible.

And when I am no

mountain but rather

a monsoon of imperfect

thunder love me. When

I am blue in my face

from swallowing myself

yet wearing my best heart

even if my best heart

is a century of hunger

an angry mule breathing

hard or perhaps even

hopeful. A small sun.

Little & bright.

A Simile

What did we say to each other

that now we are as the deer

who walk in single file

with heads high

with ears forward

with eyes watchful

with hooves always placed on firm ground

in whose limbs there is latent flight

Mercy, Mercy Me

Crips, Bloods, and butterflies.

   A sunflower somehow planted

in the alley. Its broken neck.

   Maybe memory is all the home

you get. And rage, where you

   first learn how fragile the axis

upon which everything tilts.

   But to say you’ve come to terms

with a city that’s never loved you

   might be overstating things a bit.

All you know is there was once

   a walk-up where now sits a lot,

vacant, and rats in deep grass

   hide themselves from the day.

That one apartment fire

   set back in ’76—one the streets

called arson to collect a claim—

   could not do, ultimately, what

the city itself did, left to its own dank

   devices, some sixteen years later.

Rebellions, said some. Riots,

   said the rest. In any case, flames;

and the home you knew, ash.

   It’s not an actual memory, but

you remember it still: a rust-

   bottomed Datsun handed down,

then stolen. Stripped, recovered,

   and built back from bolts.

Driving away in May. 1992.

   What’s left of that life quivers

in the rearview—the world on fire,

   and half your head with it.

Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country

After Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s “Self Stones Country” photographs

 

Know what the almost-gone dandelion knows. Piece by piece

The body prayers home. Its whole head a veil, a wind-blown bride.

 

When all the mothers gone, frame the portraits. Wood spoon over

Boiling pot, test the milk on your own wrist. You soil, sand, and mud grown bride.

 

If you miss your stop. Or lose love. If even the medicine hurts too.

Even when your side-eye, your face stank, still, your heart moans bride.

 

Fuck the fog back off the mirror. Trust the road in your name. Ride

Your moon hide through the pitch black. Gotsta be your own bride.

 

Burn the honey. Write the letters. What address could hold you?

Nectar arms, nectar hands. Old tire sound against the gravel. Baritone bride.

 

Goodest grief is an orchard you know. But you have not been killed

Once. Angel, put that on everything. Self. Country. Stone. Bride.

Buffet Etiquette

My mother and I don’t have dinner table conversations

out of courtesy. We don’t want to remind each other

of our accents. Her voice, a Vietnamese lullaby

sung to an empty bed. The taste of her hometown

still kicking on the back of her teeth.

 

My voice is bleach. My voice has no history.

My voice is the ringing of an empty picture frame.

 

                            :::

 

I am forgetting how to say the simple things

to my mother. The words that linger in my periphery.

The words, a rear view mirror dangling from the wires.

I am only fluent in apologies.

 

                            :::

 

Sometimes when I watch home movies, I don't even understand

myself. My childhood is a foreign film. All of my memories

have been dubbed in English.

 

                            :::

 

My mother's favorite televisions shows are all 90s sitcoms.

The ones that have laugh tracks. The prerecorded emotion

to cue her when to smile.

 

                            :::

 

In the first grade I mastered my tongue. I cleaned

my speech, and during parent-teacher conferences

Mrs. Turner was surprised my mother was Asian.

She just assumed I was adopted. She assumed

that this voice was the same one I started with.

 

                            :::

 

As she holds a pair of chopsticks, a friend asks me

why I am using a fork. I tell her it's much easier.

With her voice the same octave as my grandmother’s,

she says “but this is so much cooler.”

 

                            :::

       

I am just the clip-art. The poster boy of whitewash. My skin

has been burning easier these days. My voice box is shrinking.

I have rinsed it out too many times.

 

                :::

 

My house is a silent film.

My house is infested with subtitles.

 

                            :::

 

That’s all.      That’s all.

I have nothing else to say.

Dang You Then a Dang

And trip me up

a startled robbed way

 

Dreamt a burnt stump

for a tongue

 

          Ash-haired girl

          Cowbell girl

 

The white American

Veteran said Children

 

like you played

in the garbage

 

(Leftovers)

 

She said “I left my ease here”

heavy trays trick knee

 

The trick of the model

minority     ( a favored

 

yet shitty condition )

We rung up the diction-tones

 

to be proud    we were

“I threw you away”

 

and old skins shed

as a Silver Snake (1941)

 

Sweet toddler on the

crook of her hip

How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?

When you quietly close

the door to a room

the room is not finished.

 

It is resting. Temporarily.

Glad to be without you

for a while.

 

Now it has time to gather

its balls of gray dust,

to pitch them from corner to corner.

 

Now it seeps back into itself,

unruffled and proud.

Outlines grow firmer.

 

When you return,

you might move the stack of books,

freshen the water for the roses.

 

I think you could keep doing this

forever. But the blue chair looks best

with the red pillow. So you might as well

 

leave it that way.

Interview

after Safia Elhillo

 

where is your home?

 

in my parents’ new house

there is a room for everyone

except me.

 

where is your home?

 

i went to México & no one recognized me.

 

where is your home?

 

i went to México & everyone was my cousin.

the radio played José José straight from

my mom’s mixtapes. where you from, my cousins ask,

& i point at the radio.

 

where is your home?

 

it took me three years to hang art

in my Bronx apartment. soon after,

i started getting tattoos. there, i said, 

i’m all moved in now.

 

where is your home?

 

riding down Lake Shore Drive

listening to GCI. 

all the songs i was given

slap through the car

like the lake slaps the shore.

 

where is your home?

 

it took me three days to take down my art

& move out of the Bronx. is leaving 

always easier than arriving?

 

where is your home?

 

the house i grew up in was foreclosed.

there is a small note taped to the door.

i still have the key, but the key opens nothing.

Letter to a Cockroach, Now Dead and Mixed Into a Bar of Chocolate

Regulations allow for, on average, sixty insect fragments

per hundred grams of chocolate

in America. You are pulverized.

The thorax, the head, the legs that no longer twitch.

Invisible and milk-smooth. 

Nothing harbors a secret like sweetness.

 

Centuries ago, on the open sea, the Sirens understood

this statute. Each sank their knowledge

inside a voice of chimes and kisses,

hiding the ocean’s stone teeth

in a mouth of mist and foam.

 

Yesterday, waves beat against a dock in Brazil.

The quick bodies of you and your buddies

quivered across the cargo of cacao beans.

You couldn't possibly comprehend: the beans

on their way to the grinder, just as those ancient sailors

couldn’t envision—beyond the Sirens' music—

the broken mast, the shattered hull. 

 

Today is Valentine's Day. I walk to the store

to buy a box of chocolates for my wife.

As I walk, I have no idea whose hands

made the shoes that hug my feet,

or why the produce at the super market

glows like numbers on the stock exchange. 

 

There is sweetness in this world,

but it has a price. You are the price.

The Kiss

on Gustav Klimt’s painting, 1907–1908

 

Do you really think if you bend

me, I will love you? You

crack my chin up, your hands

brown pigeons scheming reunion

 

at my cheek and temple, your jaw

cragged at the end of your thick neck

of longing. I claw onto you

as the only tree here, your

 

swing. I’m mad for gravity though

I’m bound, diagonally, to

you. Let me. Push from your trunk towards

the edge and my freedom. Leave me

 

to wither while moss weeps

in the corners, our halo liquid

as yolk, waving from our bodies’ heat,

our divinity melting. My dress

 

blossoms loudly. You are still

wrestling me closer. If only I could

release to you my mouth just this

once and you would leave me,

 

but the shadows of your robe are

so haphazard. I know you will try

to smother me again. The poppies scratch. My feet

reach beyond spring.

Make No Apologies For Yourself

Make no apologies for yourself

Because you are covered by a listening skin

Because every ache you feel is not your own

Because of your mother’s loss

and your father’s rage

Because of how many rivers they’ve crossed

Because you plummet even if you cannot swim

Because of the lynching tree

Because when you enter bookstores

books fall off shelves into your open palms

Because you ask questions of the universe

so the world opens before you like a page of text

Because of those clouds and that murder of crows

Because poets are your wounded idols

Because the truth, even if it hurts is to be cherished and held

Because when people die you believe that they walk with you daily

Because the river has a mouth that speaks their names

Because the river flows with stories

Because you sit on the shore and listen

Because alone is more comforting than together

Because your pen is oceanic

Because you are big-eyed and eyes wide

Because you suffer from what you see and hear

Because you have sinus arrhythmia

your heart is linked to your breath

and your breath is short,

Because asthma is only one of the monkeys on your back

Because your heart is the vehicle you choose to ride this go ’round

Because it can go forward and backwards in time

Because bookstores have always been oracles

Because poetry is your archeological tool

Because you dig and dive

and you trust the ride of journal and journey

even if you don’t always float

Because your heart beats to your breath

Because of this music, you dance raw and wild

Don't Go Into the Library

The library is dangerous—

Don’t go in. If you do

 

You know what will happen.

It’s like a pet store or a bakery—

 

Every single time you’ll come out of there

Holding something in your arms.

 

Those novels with their big eyes.

And those no-nonsense, all muscle

 

Greyhounds and Dobermans,

All non-fiction and business,

 

Cuddly when they’re young,

But then the first page is turned.

 

The doughnut scent of it all, knowledge,

The aroma of coffee being made

 

In all those books, something for everyone,

 

The deli offerings of civilization itself.

 

The library is the book of books,

Its concrete and wood and glass covers

 

Keeping within them the very big,

Very long story of everything.

 

The library is dangerous, full

Of answers. If you go inside,

 

You may not come out

The same person who went in.

Words

The thing is I wanted to be a writer

even before I knew what writing was about.

I wanted to carve out the words

that swim in the bloodstream,

to press a stunted pencil onto paper

so lines break free like birds in flight—

to fashion words with hair,

lengths and lengths of it,

washed with dawn’s rusting drizzle.

                                                          

I yearned for mortar-lined words,

speaking in their own boasting tongues,

not the diminished, frightened stammering of my childhood,

but to shape scorching syllables with midnight dust.

Words that stood up in bed,

danced merenques and cumbias,

that incinerated the belly like a shimmering habanera.

Words with a spoonful of tears, buckshot, traces of garlic,

cilantro, aerosol spray, and ocean froth.

Words that guffawed, tarnished smooth faces,

and wrung song out of silence.

                                                          

Words as languid as a woman’s stride,

as severe as a convict’s gaze,

herniated like a bad plan,

soaked as in a summer downpour.

                                                          

I aspired to walk inside these words,

to manipulate their internal organs,

surrounded by veins, gray matter, and caesuras;

to slam words down like the bones of a street domino game—

and to crack them in two like lovers’ hearts.

Despedida Ardiente

For Dale, Elizabeth, Stephen, J.D., Tori, and Cara

 

Dear feverless, dear poets, dear love-

sick ones, now cured, there are

bloodless battles

to be won. Stout your maw

with your finest curses. Yap

your demons to their proper graves. O,

meek weepers! Asymmetries! Be

kissed! Let the trash stack

in the kitchen. Keep your lover

a full day from work. O, sweet

neglect! O, nectarine! Those

bitter pits are meant

for more than nibbling. There is

a holy jump off. There is a funky

genesis. There is

a reason love and jive

kind of rhyme. You oblong fruit

not three days ripe, somewhere in you

lies the science of typhoons, a dream

of strings. O, dirty word! O, first murder!

(O, cocoa butter whiff

on a smoky bus!) There are theories

we’re made of mostly nothing

but motion. O,

gap-toothed guitar! O, sound hole!

You faraway drum. You slang-

mouthed blessing. You long

chime. You chamberless

sextet. Let me leave you

with a few last words: When

mad dogs break chains

to run at you, charge

back. Bare your very

teeth. No monster, I promise,

outruns you. Whack them on the ankle

with a stick. Chase the bastards

down. Listen—this vertigo, this

wreckage, this bad ballad

straining the thickest tendons of your legs—O,

darling sleepers, may you wake

in the middle of the night to strange

sounds. You champions

of laughter. All you have to do is speak

simply. Your business

is the truth. Your heart's 

catastrophe is just

a little of history’s 

twisted bulwark.

If there weren’t a sky

within your chest

worth breaking, believe

me, you

would have stopped

all this singing

by now.

This is Not a Small Voice

This is not a small voice

you hear               this is a large

voice coming out of these cities.

This is the voice of LaTanya.

Kadesha. Shaniqua. This

is the voice of Antoine.

Darryl. Shaquille.

Running over waters

navigating the hallways

of our schools spilling out

on the corners of our cities and

no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.

 

This is not a small love

you hear               this is a large

love, a passion for kissing learning

on its face.

This is a love that crowns the feet with hands

that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails

mends the children,

folds them inside our history where they

toast more than the flesh

where they suck the bones of the alphabet

and spit out closed vowels.

This is a love colored with iron and lace.

This is a love initialed Black Genius.

 

This is not a small voice

you hear.

Black History

I was wondering about our yesterdays,

and starting digging through the rubble

and to say, at least somebody went

through a hell of a lot of trouble

to make sure that when we looked things up

we wouldn't fair too well

and that we would come up with totally unreliable

portraits of ourselves.

But I compiled what few facts I could,

I mean, such as they are

to see if we could shed a little bit of light

and this is what I got so far:

First, white folks discovered Africa

and they claimed it fair and square.

Cecil Rhodes couldn't have been robbing nobody

'cause he said there was nobody there.

White folks brought all the civilization,

since there wasn't none around.

They said 'how could these folks be civilized

when you never see nobody writing nothing down?'

And just to prove all their suspicions,

it didn't take too long.

They found out there were whole groups of people

in plain sight

running around with no clothes on. That's right!

The women, the men, the young and old,

righteous white folks covered their eyes.

So no time was spent considering the environment.

Hell no! This here, this just wasn't civilized!

And another way they knew the folks was backwards,

or at least this how we were taught

is that 'unlike the very civilized people of Europe'

these Black groups actually fought!

And yes, there was some 'rather crude implements'

and yes, there was 'primitive art'

and yes they were masters of hunting and fishing

and courtesy came from the heart.

And yes there was medicine, love and religion,

inter-tribal communication by drum.

But no paper and pencils and other utensils

and hell, these folks never even heard of a gun.

So this is why the colonies came

to stabilize the land.

Because The Dark Continent had copper and gold

and the discovers had themselves a plan.

They would 'discover' all the places with promise.

You didn't need no titles or deeds.

You could just appoint people to make everything legal,

to sanction the trickery and greed.

And out in the bushes if the natives got restless

You could call that 'guerilla attack!'

and never have to describe that somebody finally got

wise

and decided they wanted their things back.

But still we are victims of word games,

semantics is always a bitch:

places once called under-developed and 'backwards'

are now called 'mineral rich.'

And still it seems the game goes on

with unity always just out of reach

Because Libya and Egypt used to be in Africa,

but they've been moved to the 'middle east'.

There are examples galore I assure you,

but if interpreting was left up to me

I'd be sure every time folks knew this version wasn't mine

which is why it is called 'His story'.

All the Time Blues

Hard to watch somebody lose their mind

Maybe everybody should just go get stoned

My father said it happens all the time

 

I knew a woman lost her to soul to wine

But who doesn’t live with their life on loan?

Shame to watch somebody lose their mind

 

Don’tchu gotta wonder when people say they’re fine?

Given what we’re given, I guess they actin grown

I think I used to say that  all the time

 

When my parents died, I coined a little shrine

And thought about all the stuff they used to own

Felt like I was gonna lose my mind

 

Used to have a friend who smiled all the time

Then he started sayin he could hear the devil moan

Hate to see a brotha lose his gotdam mind

 

Doesn’t matter how you pull, the hours break the line

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, how come nobody’s home?

Broke my soul for real, when my mother lost her mind

 

Tried to keep my head right, but sanity’s a climb

Been workin on the straight face—I guess my cover’s blown

My father tried to tell me all the time

 

Had one last question, baby, but maybe never mind

After’while, even springtime starts to drone

 

Hard to see somebody lose their mind

My pop said, “Boy, it happens all the time”

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.

 

Yours,

What They Did Yesterday Afternoon

they set my aunt's house on fire

i cried the way women on tv do

folding at the middle

like a five pound note.

i called the boy who use to love me

tried to ‘okay’ my voice

i said hello

he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

ode to my blackness

you are my shelter from the storm

and the storm

my anchor

and the troubled sea

 

nights casts you warm and glittering

upon my shoulders some would

say you give off no heat some folks

can’t see beyond the closest star

 

you are the tunnel john henry died

to carve

i see the light

at the end of you the beginning

 

i dig down deep and there you are at the root of my blues

you’re all thick and dark, enveloping the root of my blues

seem like it’s so hard to let you go when i got nothing to lose

 

without you, I would be just

a self of my former shadow

Giveaway

In gratitude for all of it—theft, small pox, relocation and denial. Wa-do

 

We need to be stubborn for this work

Stubborn and loving.

The most difficult of lessons for me

Sometimes.

Generous gifts

Are often given

By those who didn’t intend to give anything at all.

 

I call the slave master

Who lost track of my ancestor

A blanket for you

In gratitude.

 

I call the soldier

With a tired arm

Who didn’t cut deeply enough

Into my great great grandfather’s chest to kill clean.

I return your axehead

Cleaned and sharpened

May you wield it against others with equal skill.

 

Will the boarding school officer come up?

The one who didn’t take my Gram

Because of her crippled leg.

No use as a servant-such a shame with that face…

 

Finally the shopkeeper’s wife.

Who traded spoiled cans of fruit

For baskets that took a year each to make.

Thank you, Faith, for not poisoning

Quite all

Of my

Family.

 

Blankets for each of you,

And let no one say

That I am not

Grateful for your care. 

Riding in Cars With Black Girls or Pantoum for Police

Head nod magic trance

Ocean blue afro magic

Blow smoke signals back

Survival wasn’t optional: past.

 

Ocean blue Afro magic

Bounces to bass anthem

Survival wasn’t optional past

This moment of succulence.

 

Bounces to bass anthem

Speakers dictate hip wind

This moment of succulence.

Truth seeping out bone.

 

Speakers dictate hip wind

Survival wasn’t optional past

This moment of succulence.

Head nod magic trance.

alternate names for black boys

1.   smoke above the burning bush

2.   archnemesis of summer night

3.   first son of soil

4.   coal awaiting spark & wind

5.   guilty until proven dead

6.   oil heavy starlight

7.   monster until proven ghost

8.   gone

9.   phoenix who forgets to un-ash

10. going, going, gone

11. gods of shovels & black veils

12. what once passed for kindling

13. fireworks at dawn

14. brilliant, shadow hued coral

15. (I thought to leave this blank

       but who am I to name us nothing?)

16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint

17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

Black Boy Be

like ocean hid behind a grain of sand

 

        like a village ablaze & dreaming of spit

 

like ashy hands bathed in blue flame

 

like a pillar of bones sealed by honey

 

        like a mouthless prayer, a lost glory

 

        like a gold watch slowed by blood

 

 

like blood all over everything: the reeboks,

the tube socks, the air & the mother’s hands

 

like a nothing at all, & ain't that something?

 

        Aint that the world?

Excerpt From “notes”

dear suicide

 

how is the war? is it eating?

tell me of the girls charging

backwards into dumb tides

death’s wet mouth lapping

their ankles, knees, eyebrows.

tell me of the sissies like drunk

fireworks, rocketing into earth

afterimage burned into river

& cement memory.

how is the war? does it have

a wife? does she know how

the bodies got in her bed?

 

dear suicide

 

i know your real name.

i bind you from doing harm.

i enter the room like a germ.

i say your name, it is my name.

the walls cave around me like a good aunt.

the window hums. the door rocks me.

the dresser leaves to go make tea.

the room knows my name.

it binds us from doing harm.

 

dear suicide

 

where are you keeping my friends?

every cup i turn over holds only air.

i jimmy open a tulip expecting their faces

but find only the yellow heart.

what have you done with them?

yesterday i took my body off

beat it on the front steps with a broom

& not one of them

came giggling out my skin

yelling you found me!

not one of them i called for

was already in my hand.

 

dear suicide

 

you a mutual friend

a wedding guest, a kind

of mother, a kind of self

love, a kind of freedom.

i wish you were a myth

but mothers my color

have picked ocean

over boat, have sent

children to school

in rivers. i known niggas

who just needed

quiet. i seen you

dance, it made me hard.

i would not deny you

what others have found

in the sweet mildew

behind your ear. i know

what happens when you

ask for a kiss, it’s all

tongue, you don’t

unlatch, you suck

face until the body

is gone.

Excerpt from Motown Crown

The Temps, all swerve and pivot, conjured schemes

that had us skipping school, made us forget

how mamas schooled us hard against the threat

of five-part harmony and sharkskin seams.

We spent our schooldays balanced on the beams

of moon we wished upon, the needled jetblack

45s that spun and hadn’t yet

become the dizzy spinning of our dreams.

Sugar Pie, Honey Bun, oh you

loved our nappy hair and rusty knees.

Marvin Gaye slowed down while we gave chase

and then he was our smokin’ fine taboo.

We hungered for the anguished screech of Please

inside our chests—relentless, booming bass.

 

Inside our chests, relentless booming bass

softened to the turn of Smokey’s key.

His languid, liquid, luscious, aching plea

for bodies we didn’t have yet made a case

for lying to ourselves. He could erase

our bowlegs, raging pimples, we could see

his croon inside our clothes, his pedigree

of milky flawless skin. Oh, we’d replace

our daddies with his fine and lanky frame,

I did you wrong, my heart went out to play

he serenaded, filling up the space

that separated Smoke from certain flame.

We couldn’t see the drug of him—OK,

silk where his throat should be. He growled such grace.

What Betsy Has to Say

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy swept through the Bahamas and South Florida, then hit Louisiana coast, flooding New Orleans. During the four days of the storm, 75 people died.

 

No nuance. Got no whisper

in you, do you girl?

 

The idea was not

to stomp it flat, ‘trina,

all you had to do was kiss the land, 

brush your thunderous lips against it

and leave it stuttering, scared barren

at your very notion. Instead,

 

You roared through like

a goddamned man, all biceps and must, 

flinging your dreaded mane

and lifting souls up to feed your ravenous eye.

 

I thought I taught you better, girl. 

I showed you the right way to romance that city,

how to break its heart

and leave it pining for more of your slap.

 

So if this was your way of erasing me, 

turning me from rough lesson to raindrop,

you did it ugly, chile. Yeah, I truly enjoyed 

 

being God for that minute. But unlike you, 

rash gal, I left some of my signature standing. 

I only killed what got in my way.

At This Very Moment

At this very moment

as anti-Marxists

and anti-anarchists

and anti-revolutionary liberals

debate what's the matter with the places

they've never been to,

a very tall man

a very gaunt man

a very weary man

with greasy hair

and dirty hands

and a pressed cotton shirt

that is as clean

as it could be

has borrowed the ashtray

from my table,

returned it empty

and is proceeding to smoke

the butts.

 

He has straightened all the chairs,

bussed all the tables,

hoping to find

a scrap of dignity.

Now he's settled down to eat

a bowl of chowder

he believes the manager

has given him in payment.

He runs the clean white napkin

over his neck and face,

twice quickly in his ears

and over the seat of his chair.

 

A human being

approaching some stale clam chowder

with the reverence

of one kneeling at an altar;

A human being

sipping some lousy clam chowder

with the tenderness of a lover

in the belly of

the world's most envied abundance.

Galileo

I thought I could stop

time by taking apart

the clock. Minute hand. Hour hand.

 

Nothing can keep. Nothing

is kept. Only kept track of. I felt

 

passing seconds

accumulate like dead calves

in a thunderstorm

 

of the mind no longer a mind

but a page torn

from the dictionary with the definition of self

 

effaced. I couldn’t face it: the world moving

 

on as if nothing happened.

Everyone I knew got up. Got dressed.

Went to work. Went home.

 

There were parties. Ecstasy.

Hennessy. Dancing

around each other. Bluntness. Blunts

 

rolled to keep

thought after thought

from roiling

 

like wind across water—

coercing shapelessness into shape.

 

I put on my best face.

I was glamour. I was grammar.

 

Yet my best couldn’t best my beast.

 

I, too, had been taken apart.

I didn’t want to be

fixed. I wanted everything dismantled and useless

 

like me. Case. Wheel. Hands. Dial. Face.

Look at Us

Look at us

We are of earth and water

Look at them

It is the same

Look at us

We are suffering all these years

Look at them

They are connected

Look at us

We are in pain

Look at them

Surprised at our anger

Look at us

We are struggling to survive

Look at them

Expecting sorrow be benign

 

Look at us

We are the ones called pagan

Look at them

On their arrival

Look at us

We are called subversive

Look at them

Descending from name callers

Look at us

We wept sadly in the long dark

Look at them

Hiding in technologic light

Look at us

We buried the generations

Look at them

Inventing the body count

Look at us

We are older than America

Look at them

Chasing a fountain of youth

 

Look at us we are embracing earth

Look at them

Clutching today

Look at us

We are living in the generations

Look at them

Existing in jobs and debt

Look at us

We have escaped many times

Look at them

They cannot remember

Look at us

We are healing

Look at them

Their medicine is patented

Look at us

We are trying

Look at them

What are they doing

Look at us

We are children of earth

Look at them

Who are they

Aubade with Burning City

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.

 

            Milkflower petals on the street

                                                     like pieces of a girl’s dress.

 

May your days be merry and bright...

 

He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.

            Open, he says.

                                    She opens.

                                                      Outside, a soldier spits out

            his cigarette as footsteps

                        fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all

                                      your Christmases be white as the traffic guard

            unstraps his holster.

 

                                    His hand running the hem

of  her white dress.

                        His black eyes.

            Her black hair.

                        A single candle.

                                    Their shadows: two wicks.

 

A military truck speeds through the intersection, the sound of children

                                        shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled

            through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog

                        lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs

                                                                                crushed into the shine

                                                       of a white Christmas.

 

On the nightstand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard

                                                                      for the first time.

 

The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police

                            facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.

                                          A palm-sized photo of his father soaking

            beside his left ear.

 

The song moving through the city like a widow.

            A white...    A white...    I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow

 

                                                          falling from her shoulders.

 

Snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded

 

                                       with gunfire. Red sky.

                          Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.

A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.

 

            The city so white it is ready for ink.

 

                                                     The radio saying run run run.

Milkflower petals on a black dog

                        like pieces of a girl’s dress.

 

May your days be merry and bright. She is saying

            something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks

                    beneath them. The bed a field of ice

                                                                                 cracking.

 

Don’t worry, he says, as the first bomb brightens

                          their faces, my brothers have won the war

                                                                       and tomorrow...    

                                             The lights go out.

 

I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming...    

                                                            to hear sleigh bells in the snow...    

 

In the square below: a nun, on fire,

                                            runs silently toward her god— 

 

                        Open, he says.

                                                         She opens.

Toy Boat

For Tamir Rice

 

yellow plastic

black sea

 

eye-shaped shard

on a darkened map

 

no shores now

to arrive—or

depart

no wind but

this waiting which

moves you

 

as if  the seconds

could be entered

& never left

 

toy boat—oarless

each wave

a green lamp

outlasted

 

toy boat

toy leaf dropped

from a toy tree

waiting

 

waiting

as if the sp-

arrows

thinning above you

are not

already pierced

by their own names

How Poems Are Made / A Discredited View

Letting go

In order to hold one

I gradually understand

How poems are made.

 

There is a place the fear must go.

There is a place the choice must go.

There is a place the loss must go.

The leftover love.

The love that spills out

Of the too full cup

And runs and hides

Its too full self

In shame.

 

I gradually comprehend

How poems are made.

To the upbeat flight of memories.

The flagged beats of the running

Heart.

 

I understand how poems are made.

They are the tears

That season the smile.

The stiff-neck laughter

That crowds the throat.

The leftover love.

I know how poems are made.

 

There is a place the loss must go.

There is a place the gain must go.

The leftover love.

Homonyms

I. 태우다 ・(T’aeuda)

    1. To burn or singe by fire

    2. To carry, give a ride, pick up

 

I burned you. You grew up

burning, bundled on my back.

Petulant petal, jaundiced thing,

plucked from my amniotic rib.

I had you suck the milk

of dandelions to take the yellow

from your skin, sliced antlers

rendered to wretched tea

to temper your bloodied

coughing. I dislodged

your limbs in hopes

you’d grow to something

lithe and desired, the suggestion

of a girl. And you did

until your girlhood grew

dangerous as it does

for all girls. I’ve been sorry

ever since. You burned

on the coattails of our

immigration. Signed

your tongue on America

until no tongue was rightfully

yours, until you came home

disgraced having pissed yourself

instead of asking to go

to the restroom in English.

But I wasn’t ashamed. I burned

you gently in my arms, burned

you all the way home, away

from the laughter, burned you

against my breast to safety.

And daughter, you will not 

forget these aches you learned.

If you have a daughter,

you will burn her too.