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Middle - 2023

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It's Just That I'm Not Really Into Politics

violence begets more / violence / or so I've been told / but all of this country's skyscrapers / are still standing / despite the blood / that builds a boat underneath the tongue / after speaking its name / violence begets / more photo opportunities / at the feet of a burning / temple / I show up to the resistance / and someone hands me a rose / the color of surrender / violence begets thirst / a new thing in need / of clean water / once / towards the black / and spotted sky / I raised a fist / inside of a glove / sewn in a country / torn apart by our bombs / I purchased the gloves in a store / after midnight / from a cashier who wore a picture / of her daughter on her chest / and looked as though she might have been crying / before I arrived / violence begets a hunger for warmth / at all costs / I sit in a running car / and count all of the things / yet to be swallowed / by the horned ghosts of empire / If you make your own prison / you can find your own map / to freedom / the smoke from all our engines / is beckoning the sun / close / the oceans are rising / to the height of a child / sitting on a mother's shoulders / pointing to the horizon with a single / trembling / finger

Excerpt from "America"

Day after day, I weep on the phone, saying  Even the classroom is a prison

          And still my father insists But it is good to become an American


And so I cement my semantics

I practice my pronunciations, I learn to say This country

         After saying I love


I rinse my aquiline face, wring my language for fear


I feared what had happened in your forest, the words that pursued the soft silk of spiders


The verbs were naturalize, charge, reside

The nouns were clematis, alien, hibiscus


America I arrived to inhabit the realm of  your language

         I came to worry your words


What you offered is a vintage apartment, an audience for poems

         Pills the color of dusk

         To swallow so as not to collapse when I read the poem about my uncle


The reading of  which I owe him, to everyone who antecedes me


America the scale says not thin enough


America my lawyer suggests to keep quiet about certain things

          About you and me


So I write in my notebook your name, I write Country of

Cowboys and Fame


America I have no cowboy

And I have no fame


All I gather is the scratching of ink against paper, the laugh of a skeptic


There are nights we hear something likened to fireworks lighting up the humid campus

And my students cheer, they laugh Welcome to America


Later in the empty corridor, the disembodied voice of my uncle


Saying        The classroom is not a prison

Saying        Go, go home now and so I go


Past vetiver and cedar, past eucalyptus declaring the shoreline


Until I shiver on the soft-stoned coast on which my father once lay

          And I proclaim what he did, I say This land is my  fate


America who am I becoming here with you

          If I wander the same as without you, barely visible amid your indigenous trees

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear

For Alicia M. Quesnel, MD




When you open my ear, touch it


My mother’s voice lingers somewhere inside.

Her voice is the echo that helps recover my equilibrium

when I feel dizzy during my attentiveness.


You may encounter songs in Arabic,

poems in English I recite to myself,

or a song I chant to the chirping birds in our backyard.


When you stitch the cut, don’t forget to put all these back in my ear.

Put them back in order as you would do with books on your shelf.




The drone’s buzzing sound,

the roar of an F-16,

the screams of bombs falling on houses,

on fields, and on bodies,

of rockets flying away—

rid my small ear canal of them all.


Spray the perfume of your smiles on the incision.

Inject the song of life into my veins to wake me up.

Gently beat the drum so my mind may dance with yours,

my doctor, day and night.

A Daughter Named After Nina

voice of incoming 2 express train

pray herself altar


contort mouth shotgun:

sawed off           a saw


soften tongue songbird

hands mosaicked mirrors


donning skin like battle gear

dawning skin like evening gown


this name pinned on her shoulders;

a heavy mantle. an incantation.

Truth is I would like to escape myself

Truth is I would like to escape myself.

                                     Detach my body from my skin,

peel it layer by layer to uncover

                                     beneath the surface of petals

and thorns piled up year after year,

                                     who I am and who I want to be.

I want to be the flower that grows

                                     in dirt, the feather that flies free between

the cracks of fences. A wise woman

                                     once told me, don’t worry about you,

worry about who you could be.

                                     I want to be the woman who sits

on a desk and writes pieces of oceans,

                                     rivers on a white space in a place

where imagination has no border.

If They Come For Us

these are my people & I find

them on the street & shadow

through any wild all wild

my people my people

a dance of strangers in my blood

the old woman’s sari dissolving to wind

bindi a new moon on her forehead

I claim her my kin & sew

the star of her to my breast

the toddler dangling from stroller

hair a fountain of dandelion seed

at the bakery I claim them too

the Sikh uncle at the airport

who apologizes for the pat

down the Muslim man who abandons

his car at the traffic light drops

to his knees at the call of the Azan

& the Muslim man who drinks

good whiskey at the start of maghrib

the lone khala at the park

pairing her kurta with crocs

my people my people I can’t be lost

when I see you my compass

is brown & gold & blood

my compass a Muslim teenager

snapback & high-tops gracing

the subway platform

Mashallah I claim them all

my country is made

in my people’s image

if they come for you they

come for me too in the dead

of winter a flock of

aunties step out on the sand

their dupattas turn to ocean

a colony of uncles grind their palms

& a thousand jasmines bell the air

my people I follow you like constellations

we hear glass smashing the street

& the nights opening dark

our names this country’s wood

for the fire my people my people

the long years we’ve survived the long

years yet to come I see you map

my sky the light your lantern long

ahead & I follow I follow

The World Has Need of You

everything here

seems to need us

Rainer Maria Rilke


I can hardly imagine it

as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient

prayer of my arms swinging

in counterpoint to my feet.

Here I am, suspended

between the sidewalk and twilight,

the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.

What if you felt the invisible

tug between you and everything?

A boy on a bicycle rides by,

his white shirt open, flaring

behind him like wings.

It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much

and too little. Does the breeze need us?

The cliffs? The gulls?

If you’ve managed to do one good thing,

the ocean doesn’t care.

But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,

the earth, ever so slightly, fell

toward the apple as well.

Como Tú / Like You / Like Me

{for the D.A.C.A DREAMers and all our nation's immigrants}


. . . my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life . . .


. . . mis venas no terminan en mí

sino en la sange unánime

de los que luchan por la vida . . .

—Roque Dalton, Como tú


Como tú, I question history’s blur in my eyes

each time I face a mirror. Like a mirror, I gaze

into my palm a wrinkled map I still can’t read,

my lifeline an unnamed road I can’t find, can’t

trace back to the fork in my parents’ trek

that cradled me here. Como tú, I woke up to

this dream of a country I didn’t choose, that

didn’t choose me—trapped in the nightmare

of its hateful glares. Como tú, I’m also from

the lakes and farms, waterfalls and prairies

of another country I can’t fully claim either.

Como tú, I am either a mirage living among

these faces and streets that raised me here,

or I’m nothing, a memory forgotten by all

I was taken from and can’t return to again.


Like memory, at times I wish I could erase

the music of my name in Spanish, at times

I cherish it, and despise my other syllables

clashing in English. Como tú, I want to speak

of myself in two languages at once. Despite

my tongues, no word defines me. Like words,

I read my footprints like my past, erased by

waves of circumstance, my future uncertain

as wind. Like the wind, como tú, I carry songs,

howls, whispers, thunder’s growl. Like thunder,

I’m a foreign-borne cloud that’s drifted here,

I’m lightning, and the balm of rain. Como tú,

our blood rains for the dirty thirst of this land.

Like thirst, like hunger, we ache with the need

to save ourselves, and our country from itself.

A Boy Can Wear a Dress

A boy can wear a dress

    by cliff or by

creek, by God or by

   dark in the caul of the devil.


A boy can wear a dress

    bought with a tin-

can full of cherries on the

    day of his daddy’s dying.


A boy can weep in his dress—

    by boat or by plane, he

can sleep in his dress,

    dance in his dress, make


eyes in his dress at the

    flame at the hotel bar.

[  ] it all to graceland,

    how stunning he looks


in his blue cotton dress,

    just stunning! Nothing can

keep him from

    losing our minds, sluicing


my heart in that way he does.

    Nothing can keep him.

On the walk to his daddy’s wake,

    persons of rank may


question his dress,

    raise their brows at his dress,

so he twirls and twirls

    till his dress is its own


    unaddressed question, un-

veiling the reasons he

    wakes every morning, like an

x-ray for colors beneath


    your colors, your

zygote soul, your naked twirl—

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell

I hold my honey and I store my bread

In little jars and cabinets of my will.

I label clearly, and each latch and lid

I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.

I am very hungry. I am incomplete.

And none can tell when I may dine again.

No man can give me any word but Wait,

The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;

Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt

Drag out to their last dregs and I resume

On such legs as are left me, in such heart

As I can manage, remember to go home,

My taste will not have turned insensitive

To honey and bread old purity could love.

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.

And Later . . .

I take my kaleidoscope off the shelf,

look through the little hole at the end

of the cardboard tube;


I turn       and turn       and turn       and turn,


letting the crystals shift into strange

and beautiful patterns, letting the pieces fall

wherever they will.

Love Song for Love Songs

A golden age of love songs and we still

can't get it right. Does your kiss really taste

like butter cream? To me, the moon's bright face

was neither like a pizza pie nor full;

the Beguine began, but my eyelid twitched.

"No more I love you's," someone else assured

us, pouring out her heart, in love (of course)—

what bothers me the most is that high-pitched,

undone whine of "Why am I so alone?"

Such rueful misery is closer to

the truth, but once you turn the lamp down low,

you must admit that he is still the one,

and baby, baby he makes you so dumb

you sing in the shower at the top of your lungs.

My Father. A Tree.

Today, longing for my father, 

I saw a solitary bleached owl skim 

the dark grasses. It swept so low 

to the ground it might have buried itself. 

I did not know my father so how could I 

be lonely for that guardian?


When I was a newborn, I didn’t let

my father hold me. I cried in his presence

till my mother came. My father would shrug, 

lean into his high backed chair, to read the paper,

to smoke his pipe while he heard his wife

sing to his only daughter. 


In the woods, I summon him

and my eyes fool me as a dark haired

jay shifts a twig, or a stone rolls 

into the creek. I think I hear his footsteps

on the path, but it is only the oak

hip twitching to the afternoon’s cold wind. 


When I was born, he must have felt

the rupture in his chest, dark matter funneling

through his veins, and he must have known 

he would not be here for the rest but he ushered 

me into that brightly lit room, the earth

with all its lumen.


Father, I know you are here, 

the only place you must be, 

where the heavy branches 

lean into bright air.


I put down my sack to eat everything

I have carried with me. When I am done, 

the ants come swarming in to take 

the last of it, to cleanse the earth 

of abundance and discard.


Walking in these woods, I believe

that tall shadows and shifts of light 

mean that something is at work beyond me. 


Midway home and the redwood

are letting go their furious scent,

where you are the tree left standing

and I am this frozen salt flat, 

hemisphere of crushed snow. 


You are the ice cream sandwich connoisseur of your generation.


Blessed are your floral shorteralls, your deeply pink fanny pack with travel-size lint roller just in case.


Level of splendiferous in your outfit: 200.


Types of invisible pain stemming from adolescent disasters in classrooms, locker rooms, & quite often Toyota Camrys: at least 10,000.


You are not a jigglypuff, not yet a wigglytuff.


Reporters & fathers call your generation “the worst.”


Which really means “queer kids who could go online & learn that queer doesn’t have to mean disaster.”


Or dead.


Instead, queer means, splendiferously, you.


& you means someone who knows that common flavors for ice cream sandwiches in Singapore include red bean, yam, & honeydew.


Your powers are great, are growing.


One day you will create an online personality quiz that also freshens the breath.


The next day you will tell your father, You were wrong to say that I had to change.


To make me promise I would. To make me promise.


& promise.

Choi Jeong Min

for my parents, Choi Inyeong & Nam Songeun 


in the first grade i asked my mother permission

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


i already knew the exhaustion of hearing my name

butchered by hammerhead tongues. already knew


to let my salty [   ] name drag behind me

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


i wanted to be a writer & worried

about how to escape my surname–—choi


is nothing if not Korean, if not garlic breath,

if not seaweed & sesame & food stamps


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

paper thin & raceless? dust jacket & coffee stain,


boneless rumor smoldering behind the curtain

& speaking through an ink-stained puppet?


my father ran through all his possible rechristenings—

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


knowing his accent would always give him away.

you can hear the pride in my mother’s voice


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

some kind of strange grace she’s spun herself,


some lightning made of chainmail. grace is not

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


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

to remember our darkness. savage death rites


we still practice in the new world. myths we whisper

to each other to keep warm. my Korean name


is the star my mother cooks into the jjigae

to follow home when i am lost, which is always


in this gray country, this violent foster home

whose streets are paved with shame, this factory yard


riddled with bullies ready to steal your skin

& sell it back to your mother for profit,


land where they stuff our throats with soil

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


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

for what i am: a boundless, burning wick.


a minor chord. i confess: if someone has looked

at my crooked spine and called it elmwood,


i’ve accepted. If someone has loved me more

for my [   ] name, for my saint name,


for my good vocabulary & bad joints,

i’ve welcomed them into this house.


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

at the bottom of the bowl, a secret ingredient


to follow home when we are lost:

sunflower oil, blood sausage, a name


given by a dead grandfather who eventually

forgot everything he’d touched. i promise:


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

i promise: i won’t forget again.

The Way Words Echo in Our Heads

I wish we could hear them just once,

instead of over and over.


One day, tired, I sat down on the couch

just to listen to the ringing in my ears.


My eyes are so deep-set in my head

it makes it hard to see


past the memory of lost glamour,

being born too late, living in the shadow


of a beautiful downtown turned into

a ghost town, a hollowed hulk,


and how that itself now turns into

a memory of treasures,


how when something taken for granted

is suddenly over, the pause when you take stock


and realize you’ll never have as much,

that change is always a lessening,


the wall effect, you can’t see what’s next

even though it’s supposedly obvious.


I don’t know what to say about that,

I mean, I’m just barely

poem in praise of menstruation

if there is a river

more beautiful than this

bright as the blood

red edge of the moon          if


there is a river

more faithful than this

returning each month

to the same delta          if there


is a river

braver than this

coming and coming in a surge

of passion, of pain          if there is


a river

more ancient than this

daughter of eve

mother of cain and of abel          if there is in


the universe such a river          if

there is some where water

more powerful than this wild


pray that it flows also

through animals

beautiful and faithful and ancient

and female and brave

Oil & Steel

My father lived in a dirty dish mausoleum,

watching a portable black-and-white television,

reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,

which he preferred to Modern Fiction.

One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,

except the one that guarded his corpse

found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.

"Dead is dead," he would say, an anti-preacher.

I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet

and some motor oil—my inheritance.

Once, I saw him weep in a courtroom—

neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed

me much affection but gave me a knack

for solitude, which has been mostly useful.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide


or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,


or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.


I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.


But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

A Body’s Universe of Big Bangs

A body must remind itself

to keep alive, continually,

throughout the day.


Even at night while sleeping,

proteins, either messenger, builder,

or destroyer, keeps busy


transforming itself or other substances.

Scientists call these reactions

—to change their innate structure,

dictated by DNA—cellular frustration,


a cotton-cloud nomenclature for crusade,

combat, warfare, aid, unification,

scaffold, or sustain.


Even while the body sleeps, a jaw slackened

into an open dream, inside is the drama

of the body’s own substances meeting


one another, stealing elements,

being changed elementally,

altered by a new story


called chemical reaction.

A building and demolishment,

creating or undoing,


the body can find movement,

functioning organs, resists illness—

or doesn’t. Look inside every living being


and find this narrative of resistance,

the live feed of being resisted.

The infant clasping her fist


or the 98-year-old releasing

hers. This is how it should be,

we think, a long story carried out


to a soft conclusion. In reality,

little deaths hover and nibble,

little births opening mouths

and bodies the site of stories


and the tales given to us, and retold, retold,

never altered, and the ones forgotten,

changed, unremembered


until this place is made of only

ourselves. Our own small dictators,

peacemakers, architects, artists.


A derelict cottage,

a monumental church

struck in gold, an artist’s studio


layered with paints and cut paper,

knives and large canvas—


the site the only place

containing our best holy song:


I will live. I will live. I will keep living.

I don't know what I want to say

I don't know what I want to say, but, to try to say something, I think I want to try to think. I want to try to see what I think. I think trying is a big part of it, I think thinking is a big part of it, and I think wanting is a big part of it, but saying it is difficult, and I find saying trying and nearly always wanting. I want what I want to say to go without saying.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)i am never without it(anywhere

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                                      i fear

no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want

no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you


here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart


i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)


You see me swagger to a stop

at the crosswalk, chin bobbing on

the currents of my playlist, and the Nike


Swoosh on my sleeveless says

I hold my shape after washing.

I look upstreet, presenting you


the question curving along my cheek.

What a nice man you’re thinking,

his Afro is nonthreatening


like a light bulb invented by Thomas Edison.

You’re having ideas, right? Weighing

myths and elongating for answers.


I’m walking your way, broad as day,

and you have to choose. Do

you relax your shoulders and step


into the street or clench your toes

and face your faith in the human

race: all men are created


sequals, every black

man is not a syllable.

Forever – is composed of Nows —

Forever – is composed of Nows –

‘Tis not a different time –

Except for Infiniteness –

And Latitude of Home –


From this – experienced Here –

Remove the Dates – to These –

Let Months dissolve in further Months –

And Years – exhale in Years –


Without Debate – or Pause –

Or Celebrated Days –

No different Our Years would be

From Anno Dominies –

Wild nights - Wild nights!

Wild nights - Wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!


Futile - the winds -

To a Heart in port -

Done with the Compass -

Done with the Chart!


Rowing in Eden -

Ah - the Sea!

Might I but moor - tonight -

In thee!

The Racist Bone

I know this is a real thing, because

When I was a kid, my big sister took me

To the Capitol Theater, in my hometown

Of Rochester, NY,


And there was a movie that afternoon,

The Tingler, which starred Vincent Price,

And what I remember best about the film

Was that it was about this extra, insect-like gland, that


We all appeared to have been born with,

But nobody but sci-fi movie scientists knew about.

If it wasn’t fed properly, it would crawl up

Your leg, and choke you to death with its claws!


Your only hope was if you saw it coming, and knew

What it was, you could scream—loud.

Which we did, when it crawled across the screen.

Then the lights blacked out, and Vincent Price


Shouted it had skittered off the screen, hungry—which it hadn’t;

The Capitol was the Black movie house—25 cents a seat,

The last drop of profit squeezed from the theatrical run.

No need to pull Mr. Castle’s hokey string and rubber model


Down the aisle for the likes of us.

In our heads The Tingler scurried, our darkest screams,

The horror we know, but won’t talk about,

From the mouth of the corpse


Like a weevil, looking for a home.

So many characters perished

In that movie—they never believed they had it in them

Until those pincers closed.


Two sets

of family stories,

one long and detailed,

about many centuries

of island ancestors, all living

on the same tropical farm...


The other side of the family tells stories

that are brief and vague, about violence

in the Ukraine, which Dad's parents

had to flee forever, leaving all their

loved ones



They don't even know if anyone



When Mami tells her flowery tales of Cuba,

she fills the twining words with relatives.

But when I ask my

Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma

about her childhood in a village

near snowy Kiev,

all she reveals is a single


of ice-skating

on a frozen pond.


Apparently, the length

of a grown-up's

growing-up story

is determined

by the difference

between immigration

and escape.

Excerpt from “Somewhere Real”

Get in, George Eliot. I packed PB&Js. I’m bringing

that rainbow parachute we held hands under

as eight year olds. Get in, right beside Autumn, beside

every manic pixie dream girl screenplay written by

a man, beside “bad weather,” beside Allegra’s pomegranate

split into five uneven offerings, beside Allegra herself,

she’s a mother now, as I write this. Get in, television

and all the extinct hardware of the nineties. Montel,

Jerry, Ricki, get in. I’m driving. Get in, exes. Tell me

about life without me, pick the music, thread a threat

through my dumb brown hair, something like you were

always so then let the rain finish your sentence. Get in

rain, but don’t hog the air. I’m running away. I’m tired

of not being a monk. Get in, “You’re So Vain,” and five o’clock

shadows and how hard it is to not talk to my brother.

We went a whole year and a half. Get in, year and a half.

Get in, therapist with the good haircut and bad advice.

You too, Michael Jackson. I’m so sorry you had to be

Michael Jackson. The kind of snow that only fell

when I was young, get in. Or maybe it’s just how

I saw it, get in. Turquoise, get in.

The locker they shoved Gabby into and I didn’t do it, but I didn’t

stop them, get in. Get in, world,

death, time. I swear I’ll turn this car around if you don’t

hot box us vapid. The day the stars come down and start

walking around like they own the place, God said, I’m quitting,

get in. The game is I spy, the game is who can be quiet the longest,

the game is hold your breath there’s a cemetery. Order me fries.

Order me lungs. Order me around. Order my manuscript.

Here’s a handful of pennies, of ketchup packets, of sky.

I know you’re exhausted, get in, I’m driving you home. Roll down

your window, the forecast is alive. The dog’s kicking in his sleep

which means a brain the size of a lemon can squeeze a whole

dream. Poor poet, get in, you never could say goodbye with grace.

Lucille, get in. Dead family, get in. I want to show you something:

I had no map when I started and now here I am, somewhere real

called loving you, get in.

The Best Part Of Anything

I am riding my bike when I see them. The breeze slides

my dress strap off my shoulder and I am thinking of Richard

and the babysitter and what I will make for dinner.

There are two of them. Lesbians, that is. They are enormous.

They go into the diner so I follow. I slouch in my booth

and watch them in theirs. It is another planet, inhabited only

by them and their laughter. My feet are moving and I am

walking up to them. “Pardon,” I say. I even look one in the eye.

The other looks me up and down. This is how lesbians size up

other women to see if they are like them or not. I know this

and much more because I read Woman to Woman Magazine.

Next I ask if I can photograph them. I am not a photographer

but it is what comes out. I get to their apartment the next morning

and they are just coming up the stairs from being out all night.

When we get inside, they look at me as if for directions.

Watching them undress is like watching a set from a play get struck down.

This is the best part of anything that will happen, I think. I follow them

into the bathroom where, in silence, we run the water. We sit

until their fingers become pruny, and even then, we sit some more.

“What are you?” One of them asks me. “Cancer,” I say. “Leos,” they say

in unison. One of them pulls off her fake eyelashes. “So,” I say, “I guess

I should take your picture.” They get up, careful not to drip on the tiles.

Still in their towels, they agree on the stairwell. I lean against the hallway

wall and stare through the viewfinder. Their bodies are blurred. I click.

“How terrific,” I hear myself say, like a photographer might.

Weighing In

What the scale tells you is how much the earth

has missed you, body, how it wants you back

again after you leave it to go forth


into the light. Do you remember how

earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock

you in their arms, warm in the flow


that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began

to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick

at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,


and finally to stoke you, body, drumming

intimate coded messages through music

you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming


and your poems and your obedient blood.

Body, how useful you became, how lucky,

heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,


sometimes, imagining that greedy zero

you must have been, that promising empty sack

of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.


But look at you now, body, soft old shoe

that love wears when it’s stirring, look down, look

how earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.

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

I mean I'm here

to eat up all the ocean you thought was yours.

I mean I brought my own quarter of a lemon,

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

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

and if you move your eyes from me

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


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

I mean you're a twisted and ugly root

and I'm the pungent, stinging firmness inside.

I mean I look so good in this hat

with a feather

and I'm a feather

and I'm the heaviest featherweight you know.

I mean you can't spell anything I talk about

with that sorry alphabet you have left over from yesterday.


I mean

when I see something dull and uneven,

barnacled and ruined,

I know how to get to its iridescent everything.

I mean I eat them alive.


what I mean is I'll eat you alive,

slipping the blade in sideways, cutting

nothing because the space was always there.

A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.


childhood remembrances are always a drag   

if you’re Black

you always remember things like living in Woodlawn   

with no inside toilet

and if you become famous or something

they never talk about how happy you were to have   

your mother

all to yourself and

how good the water felt when you got your bath   

from one of those

big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in   

and somehow when you talk about home   

it never gets across how much you

understood their feelings

as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale

and even though you remember

your biographers never understand

your father’s pain as he sells his stock   

and another dream goes

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

concerns you

and though they fought a lot

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

but only that everybody is together and you

and your sister have happy birthdays and very good   


and I really hope no white person ever has cause   

to write about me

because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

probably talk about my hard childhood

and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy

The Poetry of Bad Weather

Someone had propped a skateboard

by the door of the classroom,

to make quick his escape, come the bell.


For it was February in Florida,

the air of instruction thick with tanning butter.

Why, my students wondered,


did the great dead poets all live north of us?

Was there nothing to do all winter there

but pine for better weather?


Had we a window, the class could keep an eye

on the clock and yet watch the wild plum

nod with the absent grace of the young.


We could study the showy scatter of petals.

We could, for want of a better word, call it “snowy.”

The room filled with stillness, flake by flake.


Only the dull roar of air forced to spend its life indoors

could be heard. Not even the songbird

of a cell phone chirped. Go home,


I wanted to tell the horse on the page.

You know the way, even in snow

gone blue with cold. 


I am hardly ever able

to sort through my memories

and come away whole

or untroubled.

It is difficult

to sift through the stones,

the weighty moments and know

which is rare gem,

which raw coal,

which worthless shale or slate.

So, one by one,

I drag them across the page

and when one cuts into the white,

leaves a trail of blood,

no matter how narrow the stream,

then I know

I’ve found the real thing,

the diamond,

one of the priceless gems

my pain produced.

“There! There,” I say,

“is a memory worth keeping.”

Reckless Sonnet No. 8

My father, as a boy in Milwaukee, thought

the cicada's cry was the whir from a live wire--

not from muscles on the sides of an insect

vibrating against an outer membrane. Strange though

that, because they have no ears, no one knows why

the males cry so doggedly into the gray air.

Not strange that the young live underground sucking sap from tree roots

for seventeen years. A long, charmed childhood

not unlike one in a Great Lake town where at dusk

you'd pack up swimsuit, shake sand off your towel

and head back to the lights in the two-family houses

lining the streets. Where the family sat around the radio.

And the parents argued over their son and daughter

until each left for good. To cry in the air

Love Letter

I’d like to be a shrine, so I can learn from peoples’ prayers the story of hearts. I’d like to be a scarf so I can place it over my hair and understand other worlds. I’d like to be the voice of a soprano singer so I can move through all borders and see them vanish with every spell-­binding note. I’d like to be light so I illuminate the dark. I’d like to be water to fill bodies so we can gently float together indefinitely. I’d like to be a lemon, to be zest all the time, or an olive tree to shimmer silver on the earth. Most of all, I’d like to be a poem, to reach your heart and stay.

Praise the Rain

Praise the rain; the seagull dive

The curl of plant, the raven talk—

Praise the hurt, the house slack

The stand of trees, the dignity—

Praise the dark, the moon cradle

The sky fall, the bear sleep—

Praise the mist, the warrior name

The earth eclipse, the fired leap—

Praise the backwards, upward sky

The baby cry, the spirit food—

Praise canoe, the fish rush

The hole for frog, the upside-down—

Praise the day, the cloud cup

The mind flat, forget it all—


Praise crazy. Praise sad.

Praise the path on which we're led.

Praise the roads on earth and water.

Praise the eater and the eaten.

Praise beginnings; praise the end.

Praise the song and praise the singer.


Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

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.

The Friend

For Nate Pritts


The friend lives half in the grass

and half in the chocolate cake,

walks over to your house in the bashful light

of November, or the forceful light of summer.

You put your hand on her shoulder,

or you put your hand on his shoulder.

The friend is indefinite. You are both

so tired, no one ever notices the sleeping bags

inside you and under your eyes when you’re talking

together about the glue of this life, the sticky

saturation of bodies into darkness. The friend’s crisis

of faith about faith is unnerving in its power

to influence belief, not in or toward some other

higher power, but away from all power in the grass

or the lake with your hand on her shoulder, your hand

on his shoulder. You tell the friend the best things

you can imagine, and every single one of them has

already happened, so you recount them

of great necessity with nostalgic, atomic ferocity,

and one by one by one until many. The eggbirds whistle

the gargantuan trees. The noiserocks fall twisted

into each other’s dreams, their colorful paratrooping,

their skinny dark jeans, little black walnuts

to the surface of this earth. You and the friend

remain twisted together, thinking your simultaneous

and inarticulate thoughts in physical lawlessness,

in chemical awkwardness. It is too much

to be so many different things at once. The friend

brings black hole candy to your lips, and jumping

off the rooftops of your city, the experience.

So much confusion — the several layers of exhaustion,

and being a friend with your hands in your pockets,

and the friend’s hands in your pockets.

O bitter black walnuts of this parachuted earth!

O gongbirds and appleflocks! The friend

puts her hand on your shoulder. The friend

puts his hand on your shoulder. You find

a higher power when you look.

a safe space

My favorite game is

Zelda: Ocarina of Time. 

I would start when i was feeling bad, 

finished when I was fine. 


I could tell my mom was sad. 

She’s in the kitchen crying, 

I made promises, told her

I would fix it with my rhymes. 


Hey mama. You wouldn’t 

let me play it, right? Not until

I got my grades up, I studied

day and night. 


Finally, when the day came, 

I only played it twice

spoiled, wanted newer games

but couldn’t even pay the lights. 


She told me keep my goals in sight, 

told me keep my vision tight. 

She must have seen me on that mic,

on that night I came alive—


13 years old and gave that open mic some life, 

my daddy said don’t

rot my brain, but I did it anyway. 

My California

Here, an olive votive keeps the sunset lit,

the Korean twenty-somethings talk about hyphens,


graduate school and good pot. A group of four at a window

table in Carpinteria discuss the quality of wines in Napa Valley versus Lodi.


Here, in my California, the streets remember the Chicano

poet whose songs still bank off Fresno's beer soaked gutters


and almond trees in partial blossom. Here, in my California

we fish out long noodles from the pho with such accuracy


you'd know we'd done this before. In Fresno, the bullets

tire of themselves and begin to pray five times a day.


In Fresno, we hope for less of the police state and more of a state of grace.

In my California, you can watch the sun go down


like in your California, on the ledge of the pregnant

twenty-second century, the one with a bounty of peaches and grapes,


red onions and the good salsa, wine and chapchae.

Here, in my California, paperbacks are free,


farmer's markets are twenty four hours a day and

always packed, the trees and water have no nails in them,


the priests eat well, the homeless eat well.

Here, in my California, everywhere is Chinatown,


everywhere is K-Town, everywhere is Armeniatown,

everywhere a Little Italy. Less confederacy.


No internment in the Valley.

Better history texts for the juniors.


In my California, free sounds and free touch.

      Free questions, free answers.

Free songs from parents and poets, those hopeful bodies of light.

Taking One for the Team

We practiced together,

sweat and stained.

We pummeled each other

and laughed off pain.

Teams may disagree,

may tease,

may blame.

Teams may bicker and whine,

but get down for the game.


You had my back.

We fought the fight.

And though our score

was less last night,

we're walking tall.

Our team came through

and stuck together like Crazy Glue.

I'm proud to say

I lost with you.

Excerpt from “Did It Ever Occur to You That Maybe You’re Falling in Love?”

We buried the problem.

We planted a tree over the problem.

We regretted our actions toward the problem.

We declined to comment on the problem.

We carved a memorial to the problem, dedicated it. Forgot our handkerchief.

We removed all “unnatural” ingredients, handcrafted a locally-grown tincture for the problem. But nobody bought it.

We freshly-laundered, bleached, deodorized the problem.

We built a wall around the problem, tagged it with pictures of children, birds in trees.

We renamed the problem, and denounced those who used the old name.

We wrote a law for the problem, but it died in committee.

We drove the problem out with loud noises from homemade instruments.

We marched, leafleted, sang hymns, linked arms with the problem, got dragged to jail, got spat on by the problem and let out.

We elected an official who Finally Gets the problem.

We raised an army to corral and question the problem. They went door to door but could never ID.

We made so You Can Find Out About the problem, and so You Can Help.

We created 1-800-Problem, so you could Report On the problem, and 1-900-Problem so you could Be the Only Daddy That Really Turns That problem On.

We drove the wheels offa that problem.

We rocked the [  ] out of that problem.

We amplified the problem, turned it on up, and blew it out.

We drank to forget the problem.

We inhaled the problem, exhaled the problem, crushed its ember under our shoe.

We put a title on the problem, took out all the articles, conjunctions, and verbs. Called it “Exprmntl Prblm.”

We shot the problem, and put it out of its misery.

We swallowed daily pills for the problem, followed a problem fast, drank problem tea.

We read daily problem horoscopes. Had our problem palms read by a seer.

We had dreams of the problem. In which we could no longer recognize ourselves.

We reformed. We transformed. Turned over a new leaf. Turned a corner, found ourselves near a scent that somehow reminded us of the problem,

In ways we could never

Put into words. That

Little I-can’t-explain-it

That makes it hard to think. That

Rings like a siren inside.

Before the Beauty .Or. How Could U Forget?

locate the closest overlooked neighborhood — 

      at its core extract all humans living underneath

life’s bootheel. replace with millennials cradling


postcolonial guilt, but not. ignore the woman’s

      cardboard [help] sign tattered, stained & broken

like her: imagine being long-ago unseen, erased


in between the throng, an existing non-entity. ask,

      too, if gun be an instrument what refrain whizzed

soundless amid crestfallen shadows lingering


a decade. go from “a to z” to list the dead — too many

      to name, but try: antoine, byrd, carlos, delante ...    

no deader now than then. still a memory real,


cold steel, shots fired — death, what did we know

      of dying? don’t forget love, a love strangling addicts

caught in a docetic whirlwind with no blue sail.


before the corner becomes distorted remember:

      one more time inhale deep. inhale memory to include

the bad & terrible beauty just beneath the living.

SELMA, 1965

Amid the ghosts of civil rights marchers

in Selma

in the summer so hot,

the children sang in the paths

of the afternoon showers,

"Before I'd be a slave,

I'd be buried in my grave. ..."

From the freedom school window

We watched them come

across the lawns of the housing projects

down the rain-rutted dirt roads,

through the puddles waiting cool for bare feet.

(Touch the dripping bush, break a leaf and smell

the pungency of green.)

They were tattered angels of hope,

plaits caught at odd angles

and standing indignantly,

a ripped hem hanging like a train,

grey knees poking through denim frames.

Dancing the whole trip,

they performed their historic drama

against the set of their

wet brick project homes.


Hold fast to dreams 

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.


Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.


What happens to a dream deferred?


      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?


      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.


      Or does it explode?

For My Daughter

When I die choose a star

and name it after me

that you may know

I have not abandoned

or forgotten you.

You were such a star to me,

following you through birth

and childhood, my hand

in your hand.


When I die

choose a star and name it

after me so that I may shine

down on you, until you join

me in darkness and silence



Master of human destinies am I;

Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.

Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate

Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by

Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,

I knock unbidden once at every gate.


If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before

I turn away. It is the hour of fate,

And they who follow me reach every state

Mortals desire, and conquer every foe

Save death; but those who hesitate

Condemned to failure, penury and woe,

Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.

I answer not, and I return no more.

anthem for my belly after eating too much

i look in the mirror, and all the chips i’ve eaten

this month have accumulated

like schoolwork at the bottom of my tummy,

my belly—a country i’m trying to love.

my mouth is a lover devoted to you, my belly, my belly

the birds will string a song together

with wind for you and your army

of solids, militia of grease.

americans love excess, but we also love jeans,

and refuse to make excess comfortable in them.

i step into a fashionable prison,

my middle managed and fastened into

suffering. my gracious gut,

dutiful dome, i will wear a house for you

that you can live in, promise walls

that embrace your growing flesh,

and watch you reach toward everything possible.

My Little Dreams

I’m folding up my little dreams

   Within my heart tonight,

And praying I may soon forget

   The torture of their sight.


For time’s deft fingers scroll my brow

   With fell relentless art—

I’m folding up my little dreams

   Tonight, within my heart. 

I stand at the front of the room and speak

At the front of the room I look out at the faces

The light is fluorescent, the faces are lit

The windows in the back of the room are dark

My mouth makes sounds like “ughh” and “thh” and “and”

My tongue shapes to the inside of my mouth and I am aware of it

At the front of the room I’m taller

I stand while others are seated

They look at me while I open my mouth, expectant, as if I will show them something

They ask a question:

The darkness comes in from outside

It seeps though the crack in the door

They ask a question

What it is about:

Behind me the white board feels uncertain, I can cover or uncover

Mosiac, I spell, “mosaic,” they say

I do not erase and replace

My mouth gets hot and makes a sound like “mo,” like “say,” like “this is where you might

second-guess yourself”

We all can hear metal being wiped in the restroom beyond the wall

We all know the cart outside waits for us to finish

They turn to the page or turn to the screen and write

I stand and write and I am aware of looking them over

My tongue folds to the edge of my mouth

Naming Myself

I have guarded my name as people 

in other times kept their own clipped hair,

believing the soul could be scattered

if they were careless.


I knew my first ancestor.

His legend. I have touched

his boots and moustache, the grandfather

whose people owned slaves and cotton.

He was restless in Virginia

among the gentleman brothers, until

one peppered, flaming autumn he stole a horse,

rode over the mountains to marry

a leaf-eyed Cherokee.

The theft was forgiven but never

the Indian blood. He lost his family’s name

and invented mine, gave it fruit and seeds.

I never knew the grandmother.

Her photograph has ink-thin braids

and buttoned clothes, and nothing that she was called.


I could shed my name in the middle of life,

the ordinary thing, and it would flee

along with childhood and dead grandmothers

to that Limbo for discontinued maiden names.


But it would grow restless there.

I know this. It would ride over leaf smoke mountains

and steal horses.

Title Not Given

Information delayed. Information withheld.

Saturation with info, useless and helpful blended. Plot

not “completed.” Size and significance of events

unemphatic: far too much attention paid to

tiny subjects. Option on funny noises.

Order of info homogeneous. Litotes, a Greek god,

Litotes of Lacedaemonia. Why isn’t this boring?

Do I need this info? It changes all the time,

doesn’t repeat itself, it only almost does.

What is a “conditional honorific”?

Randomness and inductive method, both at once.

“So what?” is a valuable question to ask. Frame story,

like Taming of the Shrew, but W.S. didn’t

finish the frame! A is really a pretext for B. B is what counts.

To Stammering

Where did you come from, lamentable quality?

Before I had a life you were about to ruin my life.

The mystery of this stays with me.

“Don’t brood about things,” my elders said.

I hadn’t any other experience of enemies from inside.

They were all from outside—big boys

Who cursed me and hit me; motorists; falling trees.

All these you were as bad as, yet inside. When I spoke, you were there.

I could avoid you by singing or acting.

I acted in school plays but was no good at singing.

Immediately after the play you were there again.

You ruined the cast party.

You were not a sign of confidence.

You were not a sign of manliness.

You were stronger than good luck and bad; you survived them both.

You were slowly edged out of my throat by psychoanalysis

You who had been brought in, it seems, like a hired thug

To beat up both sides and distract them

From the main issue: oedipal love. You were horrible!

Tell them, now that you’re back in your thug country,

That you don’t have to be so rough next time you’re called in

But can be milder and have the same effect—unhappiness and pain.



War Motive

War Marvel

War Mother

War Martyr

War Mourning

War Money

War Monger

War Murder

War Monster

War Monster

War Monster


The Builders

All are architects of Fate,

Working in these walls of Time;

Some with massive deeds and great,

Some with ornaments of rhyme.


Nothing useless is, or low;

Each thing in its place is best;

And what seems but idle show

Strengthens and supports the rest.


For the structure that we raise,

Time is with materials filled;

Our to-days and yesterdays

Are the blocks with which we build.


Truly shape and fashion these;

Leave no yawning gaps between;

Think not, because no man sees,

Such things will remain unseen.


In the elder days of Art,

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part;

For the Gods see everywhere.


Let us do our work as well,

Both the unseen and the seen;

Make the house, where Gods may dwell,

Beautiful, entire, and clean.


Else our lives are incomplete,

Standing in these walls of Time,

Broken stairways, where the feet

Stumble as they seek to climb.


Build to-day, then, strong and sure,

With a firm and ample base;

And ascending and secure

Shall to-morrow find its place.


Thus alone can we attain

To those turrets, where the eye

Sees the world as one vast plain,

And one boundless reach of sky.

A Litany for Survival

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going

in the hours between dawns

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

seeking a now that can breed


like bread in our children’s mouths

so their dreams will not reflect

the death of ours;


For those of us

who were imprinted with fear

like a faint line in the center of our foreheads

learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us

For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.


And when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid


So it is better to speak


we were never meant to survive.

Where I'm From

I am from clothespins,

from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.

I am from the dirt under the back porch.

(Black, glistening,

it tasted like beets.)

I am from the forsythia bush

the Dutch elm

whose long-gone limbs I remember

as if they were my own.


I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,

          from Imogene and Alafair.

I'm from the know-it-alls

          and the pass-it-ons,

from Perk up! and Pipe down!

I'm from He restoreth my soul

          with a cottonball lamb

          and ten verses I can say myself.


I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,

fried corn and strong coffee.

From the finger my grandfather lost

          to the auger,

the eye my father shut to keep his sight.


Under my bed was a dress box

spilling old pictures,

a sift of lost faces

to drift beneath my dreams.

I am from those moments--

snapped before I budded --

leaf-fall from the family tree.

The Sentence

begins with its subject,

          which is the sentence.


Track the sentence

          to find out what happens


or how it will act. It is

          the subject, after all. To track,


meaning keep an eye on,

          which is synecdoche,


part representing the whole

          of a thing. One


may track a package if he pleases.

          One may track a person,


though you’d probably want

          the whole of him, not only


an eye, or perhaps

          only an eye. Look how


the sentence is so capable

          of embracing contraction.


A him may function

          as a subject, but that depends


upon the sentence, i.e., A man

          is subject to his sentence.


You understand.

          Such syntax renders it like


a package showing evidence

          of having been tampered with—

The Quiet World

In an effort to get people to look

into each other’s eyes more,

and also to appease the mutes,

the government has decided

to allot each person exactly one hundred   

and sixty-seven words, per day.


When the phone rings, I put it to my ear   

without saying hello. In the restaurant   

I point at chicken noodle soup.

I am adjusting well to the new way.


Late at night, I call my long distance lover,   

proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.   

I saved the rest for you.


When she doesn’t respond,

I know she’s used up all her words,   

so I slowly whisper I love you

thirty-two and a third times.

After that, we just sit on the line   

and listen to each other breathe.


Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,

For weary centuries despised, oppressed,

Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place

In the great life line of the Christian West;

And in the Black Land disinherited,

Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,

My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,

For this my race that has no home on earth.

Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry

To the avenging angel to consume

The white man's world of wonders utterly:

Let it be swallowed up in earth's vast womb,

Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke

To liberate my people from its yoke!

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


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




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

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

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

Fasterfasterfaster Let me see those eyes Beautiful If you were mine

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

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

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

I don’t mean to be




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

You’re just going to rip apart whatever I say

You’ve said sorry only two times

We tacitly agreed

Then dead me




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arachis Hypogaea

Great Creator, why

did you make the peanut?



Arachis Hypogaea may have been

smuggled to North America by slaves

who hid seeds of survival in their hair.

Despite your nakedness, the chains, the stench,

if white men did not eat you, you might come

to a cruel land where, tended by moonlight

and exhaustion, your seed might grow to be

your children's manna in the wilderness.


Arachis Hypogaea, or goober,

an annual preferring warmth and sun,

is an attractive plant, resembling clover.

It bears flowers of two distinct genders:

the staminate, or “male,” yellow, pretty,

and the inconspicuous pistillate “female.”

When fertilized, the pistillate turns down 

and corkscrews six inches into the ground.


Each corkscrew, called a “peg,” grows one to four

peanuts in the soil near the mother plant;

each shell two of her shots at infinity.

From the laboratory of a slave emerged

a varied, balanced diet for the poor,

stock foods, ink, paints, cosmetics, medicines ...

Promise and purpose, the Ancestors' dream.

“The Peanut Man,” we say, and laugh at him.


When my father wanted to point out galaxies

or Andromeda or the Seven Sisters, I’d complain

of the huzz of mosquitoes, or of the yawning

moon-quiet in that slow, summer air. All I wanted


was to go inside into our cooled house and watch TV

or paint my nails. What does a fifteen year-old girl know

of patience? What does a girl know of the steady turn

of a telescope dial until whole moon valleys crest


into focus? Standing there in our driveway with him,

I smacked my legs, my arms, and my face so hard

while I waited for him to find whatever small pinhole

of light he wanted me to see. At night, when I washed


my face, I’d find bursts of blood and dried bodies

slapped into my skin. Complaints at breakfast about

how I’d never do it again, how I have more homework

now, Dad, how I can’t go to school with bites all over


my face anymore.                    But now I hardly ever

say no to him. He has plans to go star-gazing

with his grandson and for once I don’t protest.

He has plans. I know one day he won’t ask me,


won’t be there to show me the rings of Saturn

glow gold through the eyepiece. He won’t be there

to show me how the moons of Jupiter dance

if you catch them on a clear night. I know


one day I will look up into the night sky

searching, searching—I know mosquitoes

will have their way with me

and my father won’t hear me complain.

Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.

Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”

and expect it to be handed back to you

on a shiny plate.


Still, I like your spirit.

Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,

write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.

So I’ll tell a secret instead:

poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,

they are sleeping. They are the shadows

drifting across our ceilings the moment 

before we wake up. What we have to do

is live in a way that lets us find them.


Once I knew a man who gave his wife

two skunks for a valentine.

He couldn’t understand why she was crying.

“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”

And he was serious. He was a serious man

who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly

just because the world said so. He really

liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them

as valentines and they became beautiful.

At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding

in the eyes of skunks for centuries 

crawled out and curled up at his feet.


Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us

we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock

in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.

And let me know.

poem where no one is deported

now i like to imagine la migra running

into the sock factory where my mom

& her friends worked. it was all women


who worked there. women who braided

each other’s hair during breaks.

women who wore rosaries, & never 


had a hair out of place. women who were ready

for cameras or for God, who ended all their sentences

with si dios quiere. as in: the day before 


the immigration raid when the rumor

of a raid was passed around like bread

& the women made plans, si dios quiere.


so when the immigration officers arrived

they found boxes of socks & all the women absent.

safe at home. those officers thought


no one was working. they were wrong.

the women would say it was god working.

& it was god, but the god 


my mom taught us to fear

was vengeful. he might have wet his thumb

& wiped la migra out of this world like a smudge


on a mirror. this god was the god that woke me up

at 7am every day for school to let me know

there was food in the fridge for me & my brothers.


i never asked my mom where the food came from,

but she told me anyway: gracias a dios.

gracias a dios del chisme, who heard all la migra’s plans


& whispered them into the right ears

to keep our families safe.

How lucky we are that you can’t sell a poem

How lucky we are

That you can’t sell

A poem, that it has

No value. Might

As well

Give it away.


That poem you love,

That saved your life,

Wasn’t it given to you?

Game Prayer

Maybe it’s the way boys

look at each other before the last game,

their eyes wet and glimmering with rain.


Maybe it’s that I catch them

in these shy moments of waiting,

turning the world like a pigskin,


flipping it nonchalantly, low spiral

drilling the air. Maybe it’s this

moment before the splash of lights


before the game prayer

before you run from the door.

If so, forgive me


for seeing you so vulnerable,

in that quiet moment

before the helmets.


For someone to read a poem

again, and again, and then,


having lifted it from page

to brain—the easy part—


cradle it on the longer trek

from brain all the way to heart.

The Poetry Cops

PAPO: You have to forget what you heard, even if you were out there when it happened.


COPS: But how to stay true to what you see?


PAPO: I wrote what I saw in the face of what I remember.


COPS: Well, who is the you?


PAPO: The you is you. Us, we, all of them, and the others. That’s you.


COPS: Let’s continue.


PAPO: That’s all. I’m just trying to build.


COPS: Let’s talk about Voice.


PAPO: Okay. Voice. On any Saturday night you could find yourself running against your voice. The voice that yells Five-O Teddy-Up is about to jump. That voice that suggests you don’t go down a certain block, that you stay away from that blond streak, that you go home early, that at any moment your screams can go dry.


COPS: What happens when Voice comes to stay?


PAPO: Like Baraka used to say, I can see something in the way of ourselves.


COPS: That sounds like Brother Lo.


PAPO: You don’t know patience until you stand on the corner when [  ] is slow. Brother Lo was on some planet rock [  ]. He made sure that we enlisted in the fight for freedom—not now, but right now.


I have never felt so at ease as the day you called me precocious.

I have never feared big words, only those that refused to use them,

And the syllables rolled off your tongue like honey;

I was hooked.

Language became our vein of communication,

And I know that everybody uses language to communicate but ours was different,

As if in between the letters and the syllables there is a  secret message only we can decipher.


My days were filled with sound of your voice,

And your nights were littered with the loops of my handwriting.

We exchanged our favorite words, mine being ‘illuminated’ and yours being ‘cattywampus’;

And our least favorites, mine ‘moist’ and yours ‘almost.

And when I asked you why, you said it was because almost held failed potential,

That it represented our ability to be just not good enough,

That we had come to the brink of something beautiful but fell short so many times, we crafted a word for it.


But even we, with our supposed mastery of the English language, were not immune to the shortcomings of our vocabularies.

Words can only help you if you speak them.

I never told you that I loved you.

You never told me that you were dying.

5 easy words that would have shattered our world,

“I love you, I think.”

“I have a brain tumor.”


You know, still to this day, I don’t know all the details because medical jargon has never fit right in my mouth,

And even now, 5 years later, it feels like an invasion of your privacy,

But I do know, I have poured over our conversations, searching for the secret message you certainly tried to send me,

And I am sorry, but I only almost found it.

Salt water is not good for paper and my tears warped your words.


After some serious consideration, I’ve decided to change my least favorite word,

Because, while ‘moist’ is gross, ‘malignant’ is malicious.

‘Malignant’ is uncontrollable.

Means a phone call in the phrase “He didn’t wake up.”

‘Malignant’ is messy  and unfair and a thief.

‘Malignant’ means I never got to say ‘goodbye’.

‘Malignant’ is the cause of almost,

Because you were on the brink of something beautiful but you couldn’t quite reach it and you fell too far.

I am so sorry I wasn’t there to catch you.

I hope your heaven is a library and I hope it is void of ‘almost’s’.

Te amo, Daniel. Sleep well.


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.


Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Blue Earth Banks

Mankato, MN, my hometown, is the site of the largest mass execution ever on US soil: a platform, 38 men hung, jeers and sneers of the masses. This is the aftermath of the US Dakota War. Growing up I remember a small plaque, referring to this historical event, lay hidden among the library shadows. Now, a public library sits on this site next to the Minnesota River—a waterway encased in blue clay shores. These are the voices I heard: the 38 Dakota. I hope we always remember the stories and lives of the Original People.


Their memory, do not let it lie fallow

On the blue earth banks

Which caught the 38 tears

As they spilled, shedding death amid jeers.

Mother absorbed them,

Heard them,

Entwined them in the River Minnesota.

Oh, Mankato. My Mankato, what have you done?

The shades of flesh are not





Honor and dishonor,

Truth and deceptions,

Peace and fury.

So, Mother, continue your burial.

Swallow the 38 into your blue earthen clay,

Molding a fount to hold the tears:

Washing out the words sioux uprising and dakota conflict.


Mother, clasp the vibrations

Of their last voices rising to sing,

I am here!

From the water’s edge,

Let all remember and hear your funeral dirge in the currents of the River Minnesota.

A Memory

I remember

The crackle of the palm trees

Over the mooned white roofs of the town…

The shining town…

And the tender fumbling of the surf

On the sulphur-yellow beaches

As we sat…a little apart…in the close-pressing night.


The moon hung above us like a golden mango,

And the moist air clung to our faces,

Warm and fragrant as the open mouth of a child

And we watched the out-flung sea

Rolling to the purple edge of the world,

Yet ever back upon itself…

As we…


Inadequate night…

And mooned white memory

Of a tropic sea…

How softly it comes up

Like an ungathered lily.

A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen—

You are a hundred wild centuries


And fifteen, bringing with you

In every breath and in every step


Everyone who has come before you,

All the yous that you have been,


The mothers of your mother,

The fathers of your father.


If someone in your family tree was trouble,

A hundred were not:


The bad do not win—not finally,

No matter how loud they are.


We simply would not be here

If that were so.


You are made, fundamentally, from the good.

With this knowledge, you never march alone.


You are the breaking news of the century.

You are the good who has come forward


Through it all, even if so many days

Feel otherwise. But think:


When you as a child learned to speak,

It’s not that you didn’t know words—


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

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


From those centuries we human beings bring with us

The simple solutions and songs,


The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies

All in service to a simple idea:


That we can make a house called tomorrow.

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


Is ourselves. And that’s all we need

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


Look back only for as long as you must,

Then go forward into the history you will make.


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

Make us proud. Make yourself proud.


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

Hear it as their applause.

When Giving Is All We Have

One river gives

Its journey to the next.


We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.


We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.


We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—


Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.


Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:


Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.


You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green. You gave me


What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made


Something greater from the difference.

Who Has Seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind? 

Neither I nor you: 

But when the leaves hang trembling, 

The wind is passing through. 


Who has seen the wind? 

Neither you nor I: 

But when the trees bow down their heads, 

The wind is passing by.

The Elephant in the Room

The room is

almost all


Almost none

of it isn’t.

Pretty much

solid elephant.

So there’s no

room to talk

about it.

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.

Good Night

Many ways to spell good night.


Fireworks at a pier on the Fourth of July

        spell it with red wheels and yellow spokes.

They fizz in the air, touch the water and quit.

Rockets make a trajectory of gold-and-blue

        and then go out.


Railroad trains at night spell with a smokestack

        mushrooming a white pillar.


Steamboats turn a curve in the Mississippi crying

        in a baritone that crosses lowland cottonfields

        to a razorback hill.


It is easy to spell good night.

                                     Many ways to spell good night.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Did u hear about the rose that grew

from a crack 

in the concrete

Proving nature's law is wrong it learned 2 walk 

without having feet

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,

it learned 2 breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else even cared!

Who Will Tell Them

It turns out you can kill the earth,

Crack it open like an egg.

It turns out you can murder the sea,

Poison your own children

Without even thinking about it.


Goodbye passenger pigeon, once

So numerous men threw nets over trees

And fed you to pigs. Goodbye

Cuckoo bird who lays eggs

In the nests of strangers.


Goodbye elephant bird

Who frightened Sinbad.

Goodbye wigeon,

Curlew, lapwing, crake.

Goodbye Mascarene coot.

Sorry we never had a chance to meet.


Who knew you could wipe out

Everything? Who knew

You could crack the earth open

Like an egg? Who knew

The endless ocean

Was so small?


Right now, there are children playing on the shore.

There are children lying in hospital beds.

There are children trusting us.

Who will tell them what we’ve done?

April Is a Dog’s Dream

april is a dog's dream

the soft grass is growing

the sweet breeze is blowing

the air all full of singing feels just right

so no excuses now

we're going to the park

to chase and charge and chew

and I will make you see

what spring is all about

Excerpt from “summer, somewhere”

somewhere, a sun. below, boys brown

as rye play the dozens & ball, jump


in the air & stay there. boys become new

moons, gum-dark on all sides, beg bruise


-blue water to fly, at least tide, at least

spit back a father or two. I won’t get started.


history is what it is. it knows what it did.

bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy


color of a July well spent. but here, not earth

not heaven, boys can’t recall their white shirt


turned a ruby gown. here, there is no language

for officer or law, no color to call white.


if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call

us dead, call us alive someplace better.


we say our own names when we pray.

we go out for sweets & come back.






this is how we are born: come morning

after we cypher/feast/hoop, we dig


a new boy from the ground, take

him out his treebox, shake worms


from his braids. sometimes they’ll sing

a trapgod hymn (what a first breath!)


sometimes it’s they eyes who lead

scanning for bonefleshed men in blue.


we say congrats, you’re a boy again!

we give him a durag, a bowl, a second chance.


we send him off to wander for a day

or ever, let him pick his new name.


that boy was Trayvon, now called RainKing.

that man Sean named himself I do, I do.


O, the imagination of a new reborn boy

but most of us settle on alive.

Hip-Hop Ghazal

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,

decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.


As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,

inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.


Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping 'tween floorboards,

wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.


Engines grinding, rotating, smokin', gotta pull back some.

Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.


Gotta love us girls, just struttin' down Manhattan streets

killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.


Crying 'bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off

what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.


One’s is to feed. One’s is to cleave.

One’s to be doubled over under greed.

One’s is strife. One’s to be strangled by life.

One’s to be called and to rise.

One’s to stare fire in the eye.

One’s is bondage to pleasure.

One’s to be held captive by power.

One’s to drive a nation to its naked knees

in war. One’s is the rapture of stolen hours.

One’s to be called yet cower.

One’s is to defend the dead.

One’s to suffer until ego is shed.

One’s is to dribble the nectar of evil.

One’s but to roll a stone up a hill.

One’s to crouch low

over damp kindling in deep snow

coaxing the thin plume

of cautious smoke.

One’s is only to shiver.

One’s is only to blow.

At the Student Poetry Reading


I guess you could call me broken,

says one. I’m still lonely, says another,

but now I can name it with a song.


In my poem, says another,

I can forget I am forgotten. Now

I understand being misunderstood,


says another. And another says,

in a bold, undeniable voice of power,

I won’t step down from myself again.


And they are beautiful, beautiful,

standing one by one at the mic

where they have come forth at last


from behind the curtain.

Walking West

Anyone with quiet pace who

walks a gray road in the West

may hear a badger underground where   

in deep flint another time is


Caught by flint and held forever,   

the quiet pace of God stopped still.   

Anyone who listens walks on   

time that dogs him single file,


To mountains that are far from people,   

the face of the land gone gray like flint.   

Badgers dig their little lives there,   

quiet-paced the land lies gaunt,


The railroad dies by a yellow depot,   

town falls away toward a muddy creek.   

Badger-gray the sod goes under

a river of wind, a hawk on a stick.


Body my house

my horse my hound

what will I do

when you are fallen


Where will I sleep

How will I ride

What will I hunt


Where can I go

without my mount

all eager and quick

How will I know

in thicket ahead

is danger or treasure

when Body my good

bright dog is dead


How will it be

to lie in the sky

without roof or door

and wind for an eye


With cloud for shift

how will I hide?

The Last Wolf

The last wolf hurried toward me

through the ruined city

and I heard his baying echoes

down the steep smashed warrens

of Montgomery Street and past

the ruby-crowned highrises

left standing

their lighted elevators useless


Passing the flicking red and green

of traffic signals

baying his way eastward

in the mystery of his wild loping gait

closer the sounds in the deadly night

through clutter and rubble of quiet blocks

I hear his voice ascending the hill

and at last his low whine as he came

floor by empty floor to the room

where I sat

in my narrow bed looking west, waiting

I heard him snuffle at the door and

I watched


He trotted across the floor

he laid his long gray muzzle

on the spare white spread

and his eyes burned yellow

his small dotted eyebrows quivered


Yes, I said.

I know what they have done.

The Charge of the Light Brigade


Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.



“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.



Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred.



Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.



Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.



When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!

The Empty Notebook Interrogates Itself


The empty notebook wonders

about existence. It wants to

know how blank space can fill

a void, how emptiness can be

a burden. When a page detaches

itself, the empty notebook feels

pain ruffle its edges. The empty

notebook thinks emptiness contains 

something more than nothing, but

is filled with possibility, with longing,

with the urge to start from scratch.

Behold! A Spectacle

all those historical revisionists got it wrong / stonewall was a parade / procession of contagious breath / illicit ceremony of rubber clubs & handcuffs / grinding on dance floors / built on smashed glass / own this history / girl / tuck this inheritance / into your heels / wear each queen’s split skull / like a crown / remember this / when you walk home alone / afraid of men who name you / pretty thing / praying they don’t come closer / you can already imagine them / draping your majestic body across the pavement / bleeding disco lights & spilling all over / each fist raised in celebration / full of so much party / laughing / cheering you on / to your own funeral march

How Bright It Is

April. And the air dry

As the shoulders of a water buffalo.


Grasshoppers scratch at the dirt,

rub their wings with thin legs

flaring out in front of the soldiers

in low arcing flights, wings a blur.


The soldiers don’t notice anymore,

seeing only the wreckage of the streets,

bodies draped with sheets, and the sun,

how bright it is, how hard and flat and white.


It will take many nails from the coffinmakers

to shut out this light, which reflects off everything:

the calloused feet of the dead, their bony hands, 

their pale foreheads so cold, brilliant in the sun.


They ignored the new boy,

snickering behind his back.


                                                    In silence, I stayed     safe.

                                                    My lips pressed          together.


Growing bolder, they

pierced him with arrow-sharp



                                                    I pretended

                                                    I hadn’t                       heard.


They twisted his arms.

One word escaped his lips

before they dragged him

out of sight, out of earshot:



                                                    I ran                             away.



                                                    All the                          words

                                                    I didn’t say                    haunt me every day.

Emily Dickinson at the Poetry Slam

I will tell you why she rarely ventured from her house. 

It happened like this:


One day she took the train to Boston,

made her way to the darkened room,

put her name down in cursive script

and waited her turn. 


When they read her name aloud

she made her way to the stage

straightened the papers in her hands —

pages and envelopes, the backs of grocery bills,

she closed her eyes for a minute,

took a breath, 

and began. 


From her mouth perfect words exploded,

intact formulas of light and darkness.

She dared to rhyme with words like cochineal

and described the skies like diadem. 

Obscurely worded incantations filled the room

with an alchemy that made the very molecules quake.


The solitary words she handled

in her upstairs room with keen precision

came rumbling out to make the electric lights flicker.


40 members of the audience 

were treated for hypertension.

20 year old dark haired beauties found their heads

had turned a Moses White.


Her second poem erased the memory of every cellphone

in the nightclub,

and by the fourth line of the sixth verse

the grandmother in the upstairs apartment 

had been cured of her rheumatism. 


The papers reported the power outages. 

The area hospitals taxed their emergency generators

and sirens were heard to wail through the night.


Quietly she made her way to the exit,

walked to the terminal and rode back to Amherst. 


She never left her room again

and never read such syllables aloud. 

Toy Boat

For Tamir Rice


yellow plastic

black sea


eye-shaped shard

on a darkened map


no shores now

to arrive—or


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



toy boat

toy leaf dropped

from a toy tree




as if the sp-


thinning above you

are not

already pierced

by their own names

Did I Miss Anything?

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here

we sat with our hands folded on our desks

in silence, for the full two hours


   Everything. I gave an exam worth

   40 percent of the grade for this term

   and assigned some reading due today

   on which I’m about to hand out a quiz

   worth 50 percent


Nothing. None of the content of this course

has value or meaning

Take as many days off as you like:

any activities we undertake as a class

I assure you will not matter either to you or me

and are without purpose


   Everything. A few minutes after we began last time

   a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel

   or other heavenly being appeared

   and revealed to us what each woman or man must do

   to attain divine wisdom in this life and

   the hereafter

   This is the last time the class will meet

   before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth.


Nothing. When you are not present

how could something significant occur?


   Everything. Contained in this classroom

   is a microcosm of human experience

   assembled for you to query and examine and ponder

   This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered


   but it was one place


   And you weren’t here

You Go to My Head

I sang my songs so much

that they became

the soundtrack for my dreams,

the melody of my moods,

a room I lived in,

and a balm for my wounds.


I sang my songs enough

to know them backward

and forward, enough

to wonder if they could lift me

from hometown haunts

to center stage.


I’d sung my songs enough

to think I could take on

Baltimore’s best talent

at the Harlem Theatre

Amateur Hour

and maybe even win.


If you sing a song enough,

it can go to your head that way.

O me! O life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?



That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


no more grandma poems

they said 

forget your grandma

these american letters

don’t need no more 

grandma poems

but i said 

the grandmas are 

our first poetic forms

the first haiku 

was a grandma 

& so too 

the first sonnet

the first blues

the first praise song 


every poem 

is a grandmother 

a womb that has ended 

& is still expanding 

a daughter that is 

rhetorically aging 

& retroactively living

every poem 

is your grandma

& you miss her

wouldn’t mind 

seeing her again

even just 

for a moment 

in the realm of spirit

in the realm 

of possibilities 

where poems 

share blood 

& spit & exist 

on chromosomal 

planes of particularity 

where poems 

are strangers

turned sistren 

not easily shook 

or forgotten

football dreams

No one was faster

than my father on the football field.

No one could keep him

from crossing the line. Then

touching down again.

Coaches were watching the way he moved,

his easy stride, his long arms reaching

up, snatching the ball from its soft pockets

of air.


My father dreamed football dreams,

and woke up to a scholarship

at Ohio State University.

Grown now

living the big-city life

in Columbus

just sixty miles

from Nelsonville

and from there

Interstate 70 could get you

on your way west to Chicago

Interstate 77 could take you south

but my father said

no colored Buckeye in his right mind

would ever want to go there.


From Columbus, my father said,

you could go just about


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.


Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.


The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:


For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.