to forty-six UC Santa Cruz students and
seven faculty arrested in Watsonville for
showing solidarity with two thousand
striking cannery workers who were mostly
Mexican women, October 27, 1985
is a life
a nail in
is this room opening onto the balcony,
it is also the balcony with its flowers
that come and go over the months, and that seem to me
luminous even when they turn the color
of a sad wind
is the white cloth covering me, the dishes placed on me
each day, the arms that lean on me,
even the water in which I nearly drowned,
spilled absentmindedly by the hand that poured it
over my body, a clumsy,
I came to know it early on,
my country that is,
when it was still the perfumed landscape
of various timbers, my sisters all, of the sawmill,
its air filled with tiny filaments and sweetly
scented dust, the fingers that then chose me,
a broad piece of wood, and stroked and caressed me
with planes, varnish, polish
that was already my country: a prairie of insects,
white winds, the living sap that ran
in my veins, the water I drank to survive,
and that protected me
May the hand that rests on me
remember this our shared condition:
we came from the same realm, and to that same realm
we will go, she and me:
the atoms that shaped and made me
could so easily have been hers
(Standing Stone Creek, Pa.)
[A startling observation about the nature of human life]
or [A concrete description of trout]
[Backstory, alluding to an individuating experience]
or [Personal background, like “I have a weird relationship
to rural America”]
[Imagery only loosely related to backstory/background]
or [Tropical fruits if part of you is tropical]
[Some intellectual discourse on the word “part”]
or [Agonized associative thinking about the nature
of something politically urgent, like colorism]
[A return to the opening vignette so folks stay on track,
like “is it possible that a suburban mixed kid actually
has nothing at all to claim, not the trout, not the breadfruit”]
[A direction, e.g. “towards”]
or [A time e.g. “now” or “after”]
[A prepositional or noun phrase if grammatically necessary]
[A turn, which should also be startling, as in oh
this is what the poem is really about]
or [Imagery that achieves roughly this purpose, like that of
the properties of brackish water,
or the length and nature of brackish days]
I’m standing on 10th Street. I’m not the only one. Buildings rise like
foliage and human touch.
And so shall dig this cigarette as my last, and rattle trains, and rot the fences
of the gardens of my body—
or without the harmony of speaking here the many sounds and rhythms that
sound a lot like anger
when anger’s silent, like a painting, though in the stillness of the paint itself
the painter nods or waves or asks for help.
I’m not the only one. The pharmacy’s untitled. The stars are there at night.
In this Humidity
the forlorn singing of the insects clings to anything nailed down. A whole bag of
things I’m working
through, some set things that I know, like words I know that mean "from
one place to another," the word that means
"to carry." I’m standing still on 10th Street. I’m not the only one.
The dark tastes of salt and oranges. Its eyes
wander round and round. I am its thousand windows. I think about the future
and the sea. And stay.
I've got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I've got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
'Til I can rest again.
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You're all that I can call my own.
The figs we ate wrapped in bacon.
The gelato we consumed greedily:
coconut milk, clove, fresh pear.
How we’d dump hot espresso on it
just to watch it melt, licking our spoons
clean. The potatoes fried in duck fat,
the salt we’d suck off our fingers,
the eggs we’d watch get beaten
’til they were a dizzying bright yellow,
how their edges crisped in the pan.
The pink salt blossom of prosciutto
we pulled apart with our hands, melted
on our eager tongues. The green herbs
with goat cheese, the aged brie paired
with a small pot of strawberry jam,
the final sour cherry we kept politely
pushing onto each other’s plate, saying,
No, you. But it’s so good. No, it’s yours.
How I finally put an end to it, plucked it
from the plate, and stuck it in my mouth.
How good it tasted: so sweet and so tart.
How good it felt: to want something and
pretend you don’t, and to get it anyway.
I wake up & it breaks my heart. I draw the blinds
& the thrill of rain breaks my heart. I go outside.
I ride the train, walk among the buildings, men in
Monday suits. The flight of doves, the city of tents
beneath the underpass, the huddled mass, old
women hawking roses, & children all of them,
break my heart. There’s a dream I have in which I
love the world. I run from end to end like fingers
through her hair. There are no borders, only wind.
Like you, I was born. Like you, I was raised in the
institution of dreaming. Hand on my heart. Hand
on my stupid heart.
Sometimes, I am reminded that so many of the references I carry
in my body are occupied by white women and I am lost
in an ocean of memories, worlds beneath worlds
of ocean that should be kept hidden, as all sacred things
we want to keep from being policed must be kept hidden. Like
language. Once, I learned Morse code. Spent a weekend
at Pidgeon Point Lighthouse with a ham radio, tapping greetings
to kids in Russia then waiting for their response in return.
When I think about lighthouses, I think of us eager to reach across
borders, or that Sinéad O’Connor song about the woman forever
waiting for her man to return from sea, but when I think of men
who disappear, never to return, there’s always the image of my father
who made a practice of it until leaving was the one thing he perfected.
In death he’s become a soft-spoken man, not silent, but quiet.
Not a whisper, but a windfall. When he speaks, I’m only a kid reaching.
I’m a woman alone in a lighthouse with underwater memories, always
waiting. Some nights, I search my body with a flashlight for signs of a future.
translated from the Japanese by Robert Hass
When the winter chrysanthemums go,
there's nothing to write about
My father and I sit at a sushi bar in my new city
sampling three different kinds of salmon nigiri.
He tells me about a great funeral speech
he recently heard a son give for his father.
The speech was structured around regrets
everyone assumed the father didn’t have,
interspersed with hilarious stories involving boys
crashing the family van and fishing mishaps.
The ivory salmon is pale and impossibly soft.
The sliver of steelhead, orange enough
to pretend it’s salmon. How else to say it.
I am my father’s only child, and he is my mother.
We dip our chopsticks into a horseradish paste
dyed green and called wasabi. I know his regrets.
I could list them. But instead at his funeral
I will talk if I can talk about nights like this,
how good it felt just to be next to him,
to be the closest thing he had.
When first you sang a song to me
With laughter shining from your eyes,
You trolled your music liltingly
With cadences of glad surprise.
In after years I heard you croon
In measures delicately slow
Of trees turned silver by the moon
And nocturnes sprites and lovers know.
And now I cannot hear you sing,
But love still holds your melody
For silence is a sounding thing
To one who listens hungrily.
After Miguel and Erykah Badu
If you be the needle
I be the LP.
If you be the buffed wall,
I be the Krylon.
If you be the backspin,
I be the break.
If you be the head nod,
I be the bass line.
If you be a Phillie,
I be the razor.
If you be microphone,
then I be palm.
If you be cipher,
then I be beatbox.
If you be hands thrown up,
then I be yes, yes, y’all.
If you be throwback,
then I be remix.
If you be footwork,
then I be uprock.
If you be turntable,
then I be crossfader.
If you be downtown C train,
then I be southbound Red Line.
If you be shell toes,
then I be hoodie.
If you be freestyle,
then I be piece book.
If you be Sharpie,
then I be tag.
If you be boy,
then I be girl
who wants to
One woman smelled like honey, the other like Funyuns.
I hadn't started carrying a purse yet, kept a check safe
in my sports bra. When house lights turned off I was not
centered. But nobody waits for a shadow to catch up.
One woman took measurements, the other extracted
feathers from a gallon bag. What exactly was I learning
aside from how to lean? My unremarkable thighs
clanged together like volumes of a fresh encyclopedia.
I wondered how many people had touched the clipboard.
Back then people still actively licked their fingers.
I walked everywhere, considered a coat demeaning.
My street had more boards than windows, a stray rooster.
Thinking about the moon brought collective nausea.
It was 1990 and we spent zero time pondering the future.
People always asked if I had a fever. I tested poorly.
When the flood lights powered on it felt like spit falling.
Basically it was a life with very little context beyond
yes or no. They assigned me a leotard thinner than a mask.
The only taboo was braids so loose they resembled grain.
A phone was a thing with square buttons, a wall mount.
The "hangout" a bald fire pit by warehouse tracks.
Getting high meant becoming happy, and I aspired to it.
After the last ee
had uzzed its last uzz,
the irds and the utterflies
did what they could.
ut soon the fields lay are,
few flowers were left,
nature was roken,
and the planet ereft.
and for a long time I thought I’d write her a letter and she’d donate her
24-karat gold wheelchair to me for my stiff joints but today I’m finding
out that Gaga doesn’t even have lupus she has synovitis and it’s actually
Toni Braxton who has lupus and in 2008 she collapsed on stage in
Vegas and I’m like how did I miss this Toni is my girl I remember all
them car rides when my mother played the [ ] out of Toni’s debut
album in 93’ I was only 13 and singing them love songs as if I knew
what my mama was going through and if somebody made a bet with
me today to try and figure out which song from that album was my
mother’s favorite I’d put everything I have on “Love Shoulda Brought
You Home” and now I’m spending most of my time tryna place a face to
the you my mama coulda been singing to cuz in 93’ she’d already split
from my daddy and I just can’t picture him cheating and that being the
real reason she filed for divorce
Ain’t no form out here
I’m your blade cleaving leaving
No throat uncut stayin’ stacked on air People sayin’
you can’t make me happy
police this corner Politicians police everybody
wants us dead—gentrify this hood like they
got us bodied but we movin’ our stars like chess pieces my love
don’t give them one kill-toned drop our love don’t split or spill f
or nobody what new approach to killing they got we can’t yeet from
promise we gonna be just fine I’ll never stop this work.
You streetlights on clear nights be my song Your heart
my beat-drop, joy dripping between your fingers palm-up
holding down tomorrow us wishin’ a motherf—look
blood moving heart to hands
freein’ space for opps wanting to pull up.
All I ever wanted to be was a song—
something soft and light held in the mouth
sung sweet beneath the coming dawn.
I return to that first desire—its gingham blouse
rubbed against the heavy pull of flesh hovered
in a dark that I can only recall as that dark.
I ask what grace awaits that tender tendril’s suffered
stretch of green wide enough to tear a stark
light out from under a troubled sky? I return
to the center of that smallness and sing its wounds—
jagged rasp crooned until edged out and earned.
I was the only boi I knew dreaming in soft bruise.
And it made me as beautiful as the blood’s slow sprawl
at my knee, right before punching a bullying boy to crawl.
Learn from the man who spends much of his life speaking
To the back of your head knowing what it means to follow
The razor’s edge along a worn strop or random thoughts
As they spring so invisibly from the mind to a mouth
Who shouldered soldiers in two wars and fled fire fields
Undecorated who fathered once but was fatherless forever
And who works his sentiments in deeper into your scalp
Under a sign on the knotty-pine walls whose rubric reads
quot homines, tot sententiae which means he sees
In you his suffering smells of horehound tonics and gels
Pillow heads and powders and a floor full of snippings
Swept neatly every evening into a pile for the field mice
All those roundabout hours only a man who fixes his tie
To clip crabgrass crowding a lady’s grave could believe
With a certain clean devotion and who would never for one
Moment dream of hurting you when your back was turned
I am a good student. Voted most likely to try
harder. Not voted most likely for fairytales, though I have
been both hooded and wolfed. My honors thesis on the role
of motherlessness and love hunger brought the candied
I could’ve been valedictorian if the metric
was ardor and potential for transformation. I recognize
the chemical structure of oxytocin and how to calculate
my best chance for a free drink from across the room,
and both have strong angles.
I know how it feels when that hormone unlatches
my ribs, silks my legs. I don’t confuse that with love
because in each unit of intimacy, I enter slow. Adjust
my breath. Recognize the accusations that are
I excelled in the serious ethics of kissing, how
it makes the body more image than idea, but I admit
that sometimes I like to lick mezcal and grapefruit from
a hero’s morally ambiguous mouth. I’m sorry.
That’s how I know I’m a successful candidate.
The temptations. The failures. The ever afters of forgiveness
I have already lived. For so long I offered others the love
I wanted to receive, the cursive letters and lost slippers.
The balanced equations and checkbooks. Years of service
in the scales of care. Change my story. Accept me.
I am a good man.
The amount of fear
I am ok with
I love many people
who don’t love me.
I don’t actually know
if that is true.
This is love.
It is a mass of ice
melting, I can’t hold
it and I have nowhere
to put it down.
Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?
Life’s sunny hours flit by,
Enjoy them as they fly!
What though Death at times steps in,
And calls our Best away?
What though sorrow seems to win,
O’er hope, a heavy sway?
Yet Hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well.
The day of trial bear,
For gloriously, victoriously,
Can courage quell despair!
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
"Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
I said, in drunken pride of youth and you
That mischief-making Time would never dare
Play his ill-humored tricks upon us two,
Strange and defiant lovers that we were.
I said that even Death, Highwayman Death,
Could never master lovers such as we,
That even when his clutch had throttled breath,
My hymns would float in praise, undauntedly.
I did not think such words were bravado.
Oh, I think honestly we knew no fear,
We loved each other so.
And thus, with you believing me, I made
My prophecies, rebellious, unafraid . . . .
And that was foolish, wasn’t it, my dear?
From out my open window, I can see
The rolling waves, as fierce and restlessly,
They dash against the long, long stretch of shore,
And in the distance, I can dimly trace,
Some out-bound vessel having left her place
Of Harbor, to return perhaps no more.
Within my mind there dwells this lingering thought,
How oft from ill the greatest good is wrought,
Perhaps some shattered wreck along the strand,
Will help to make the fire burn more bright,
And for some weary traveller to-night,
’Twill serve the purpose of a guiding hand.
Ah yes, and thus it is with these our lives,
Some poor misshapen remnant still survives,
Of what was once a fair and beauteous form,
And yet some dwelling may be made more bright,
Some one afar may catch a gleam of light,
After the fury of the blighting storm.
Praise to the obsidian sole, which kisses the glass-
coated asphalt before becoming airborne. Praise
to the black tongue, camouflaged, yet still
flashing a warning of give no [ ]. Praise to the
magic of ones turned two-piece, left and right
feet a pair of wingmen to all that is fair in love.
Original uniform of the fighter, multi-mission,
robbin’ hoodies from designer shops to redistribute
wealth. Praise to the weave of your vamp poised
to catch flight into ribs at night, at noon,
whenever. Praise to the aight whatever,
aight bet, spoken wordlessly via emblem,
prophecy of manual dexterity, long rumored
tale of ten toes down come true. Praise to
your run through rap charts, Nelly who sang
of your stomp and survival, to 1982
the year of your birth, your absorption of
pressure waves from apartheid bombings,
Tough, by Kurtis Blow rerouted into
the democratization of dark energy. Ode to
your essence making up 73% of the cosmos,
the power of 310 Angola aircraft in a single heel,
to each uptown caressing a possible president,
to a force beyond force = mass x acceleration.
Fast lil ma working behind the cash register.
On the way home she passes home.
Ode to what you gave her, what you give her,
wherever she’s going.
our first lightning
strike was convulsive
we felt sad for our
wolves and bison
we do not need a
doctor to say
to live so
we put them
in parks to be
wild on purpose
a museum of fur
fangs and hooves
“I don’t know what to tell you.
Your daughter doesn’t understand
math. Numbers trouble her, leave
her stuck on ground zero.”
Y fueron los mayas
quienes imaginaron el cero,
un signo para nada, para todo,
en sus gran calculaciones.
Is zero the velvet swoop into dream,
the loop into plumes of our breath?
“I suggest you encourage languages.
Already she knows a little Spanish,
and you can teach her more of that.
She lives for story time.”
In the beginning there was nothing.
Then the green of quetzal wings.
Las historias siguen cambiando,
sus verdades vigorizadas
con cada narración
como X x X = X2
No more and no fewer.
Yes, the vistas were majestic.
Yes, the smoked salmon omelets were–I’ll say it–divine.
I don’t think I’m alone, however, when I say there were never
enough Saturdays, and there were always too many options for
choosing how to spend them–cliff diving or window shopping,
getting the oil changed or self-destructing in front of a stranger.
And while some of the neighbors contributed in kind to courtyard
barbecues, others were [ ], and you never knew which you
were getting until you’d already paid the first and last month’s rent.
I’m not saying I didn’t have a good time, I’m just saying I’m not
sure I should have. It was all too much, and it was never enough,
and I can’t help but feel as if I’ve forgotten more than I could ever
The woman who is being paid to swab my grandmother’s dry lips
sings the psalter like a seraph, and it should be me there with the
wet Q-tip, but I have to be elsewhere if I want to have the means to
afford a person to also swab my own chapped lips when it’s time.
It is the wildest, weirdest, most heartbreaking planet I’ve ever been.
I swear I just got here, but it feels like I’ve been here forever.
I don’t want to leave, & I absolutely, positively never want to ever
At birth my parents pulled my legs
and split me lengthwise like a wish.
Rumiñahui saved his city
from Spaniards by striking two stones,
holy temples made pure as ash.
When a concerned citizen pinned
me to airport wall to check my
origin, I whispered, thank you.
My dad says, Good, we’re safer now.
My uncle: then leave the country.
Christmases, I stay home in bed.
Only the chaste were burned alive.
One mind replies, I want to live.
The other: I want to live well.
Is it rude for Barbie Chang to tell men
she doesn’t love them
just the idea of them what if we don’t
even love living but just
the idea of it pictures always look
lovely but it was an
ugly day if women were actually paid
the same as men would
we all just pass on the highest bidder
who says it’s a privilege
to be romantic romance with its antics
and its time limits like the
nut that never tells us or other nuts
when it will let go
we stand under the tree ready to
collect them with our
arms wide open as in waltzing who
authored the word love
does anyone know the author’s original
intent does it matter
that no one knows exactly what it means
does it matter that it
might signify everything what if we never
needed a word for it
what if it is shapeless and composed
of gestures if we name
the thing love it doesn’t mean it
will last a nut does its
best to last but at some point just falls
like all the others before it
The sound of quiet. The sky
deeper from the top, like tea.
In the absence
of anything else, my own
breathing became obscene.
I heard the beating
of bats’ wings before
the air troubled above
my head, turned to look
and saw them gone.
On the surface of the black
lake, a swan and the moon
still. I knew this was
a perfect moment.
Which would only hurt me
to remember and never
live again. My God. How lucky to have lived
a life I would die for.
If you cannot, at the moment, give me much joy,
I get it. I have asked
& received many a great joy
already. Just give me, if you can spare it,
a small joy, say, the size
of a ketchup packet. If that’s too much
to ask for, then how about a small
kindness, a tiny kindness, the size of a kiss
from a dust mote? No?
Okay. Would it be possible for you to take
away some things, then? For instance,
the soreness on the right side of my neck?
If you could remove maybe half
a pinch of that soreness, I would leap up
as though it were a great joy. I mean,
it would absolutely be a great, great joy,
thank you in advance, O
highest O mightiest O most.
Still no? Well. What about this
sense that everything has become
very slippery, everything is slipping
right out of my fingers & faster
every day? I’m not asking you to cure
my fear. Nor unslipify
my fingers. Only, if you could,
if you have a quarter of a split
nanosecond, it would be
greatly appreciated, see, I don’t
need joy or kindness
or ketchup, I
beg you, if you are
a being, a higher, some
Mysteries that can listen, can
mercy, I just need to lose
for the young who ask, “How did you learn to like yourself?”
There are glaciers, imposing, yet shrinking.
There is the iris, violet sky cradling shards of sun.
The white Bengal tiger, snow and black ink.
Infinite reasons I could give for gladness,
though none may salve the wound from which
your question arises, how to be glad to be alive?
Stitch your heart’s fissure: recall family, friends,
a slap, cigarette burn, the rod, something smashed
down, or welled up in your darkened pupil.
Turn outward: two A.M. streets, the creeps in cars,
the chaos of human folly delivered by calm,
coiffed news anchors. The wound is within you
and not. The answer within you and not.
Want, comfort, desire, love ought not be wounds.
We pine for them from our first wail,
what you must give and take, till no voice is left.
we used our words we used what words we had
to weld, what words we had we wielded, kneeled,
we knelt. & wept we wrung the wet the sweat
we racked our lips we rang for words to ward
off sleep to warn to want ourselves. to want
the earth we mouthed it wound our vowels until
it fit, in fits the earth we mounted roused
& rocked we harped we yawned & tried to yawp
& tried to fix, affixed, we faceted, felt.
we fattened fanfared anthemed hammered, felt
the words’ worth stagnate, snap in half in heat
the wane the melt what words we’d hoarded halved
& holey, porous. meanwhile tide still tide.
& we: still washed for sounds to mark. & marked.
some dreams hang in the air
like smoke. some dreams
get all in your clothes and
be wearing them more than you do and
you be half the time trying to
hold them and half the time
trying to wave them away.
their smell be all over you and
they get to your eyes and
you cry. the fire be gone
and the wood but some dreams
hang in the air like smoke
I tell my mother
I’ve won the Nobel Prize.
Again? she says. Which
discipline this time?
It’s a little game
we play: I pretend
I’m somebody, she
pretends she isn’t dead.
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
I think I grow tensions
in a wood where
Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.
If for a day joy masters me,
Think not my wounds are healed;
Far deeper than the scars you see,
I keep the roots concealed.
They shall bear blossoms with the fall;
I have their word for this,
Who tend my roots with rains of gall,
And suns of prejudice.
the angels here
have pigeons' wings
washed in sweat
the common salt
in a stew of cultures
singing asphalt songs
in the midst of seagulls
the San Andreas
a humble plate
After Angel Nafis
“I’m so show-off / My diamonds designed to twinkle and bleed light” – Azealia Banks
Mark my words, [ ].
Someday I’ll wear the fur
of every animal inside me
still crying for attention’s milk.
I don’t care what you call me:
tantrum, mink momentum, siren
of the cheapest songs. I wish it wasn’t true,
but scream any name & I’ll come.
Tbh I’d pull a thousand looks
from your eyes if it meant
I’d finally be seen. I mean, [ ].
What does a [ ] have
to do around here to get a tulip
tucked sweetly behind her ear? Die?
I can only do that a little at a time.
Y’all can wait. & I can continue
to sprawl the mania out on my good
chaise lounge. I know what I’m doing.
I’m fighting off invisibility with a snakeskin belt.
I’m rewiring the audience to finally look
me in the eye. I got so many reasons
to scream & so little chiffon to do it in.
Ashamed? With this face?
Girl, I wouldn’t be caught dead.
They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun
the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.
They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths
revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.
With the intention of abandoning the hierarchies of capitalism—
The machinery of thought. Hey, with the desire of growing lilacs
In our community garden, bougainvillea running along the wall.
Hey, as we denounce the walls of isolation and marginalization.
No, to the elite. No, to centuries of settler colonialism,
Their insistence, we are immigrants on our own land.
Hey, at midnight, beneath the candle of the moon: our arms
Interlocked like laurels painted onto the rims of renaissance paintings.
Hey, I miss you. I never even met you: let’s take a deep dive
Into each other’s bookshelves, until we find oceans of imagery
And metaphors we can discuss, dissect, not for ego’s sake, but for love.
I think I forgot to turn
off the radio when
I left my mother’s
In Hasidic Judaism
it is said that before we
are born an angel
enters the womb,
strikes us on the
and we forget all
that we knew of
all that we know
I think that I forgot
I was born into two
places at once—
In one, it was chilly
lonely physical &
in the other, I stayed
in the dimension of
Spirit. What I knew,
I did not forget
The world of spirit
held me in its arms.
Are you having a good time?
Are you having a time at all?
Everywhere in the garden I see the slime vine
of your neck, the stubborn baby curls—
I know I’m not saying this right.
“Good” hair has no body
in this country; like trained ivy,
it hangs and shines. Mine comes out
in clusters. Is there such
a thing as a warning? The Hawaiian
mulberry is turning to ash
and the snail has lost its home.
Are you really all over with? How done
On the other side of a mirror there's an inverse world, where the insane go
sane; where bones climb out of the earth and recede to the first slime of love.
And in the evening the sun is just rising.
Lovers cry because they are a day younger, and soon childhood robs them
of their pleasure.
In such a world there is much sadness which, of course, is joy ...
Pink is an unhappy hue, not soothing like cerulean, nor calming like lavender or gray. It is the color of fingernails shorn away, blood dripping from the waxen quick. It is the color of a sunburned arm. The color of harm that lingers on cut shins for days. Pink is not the shade of buttercups or daisies. It is the color of poisonous brugmansia blooms, of poppies that bring on sleep. Pink saturates the face in anger. It is the cast left on a cutting board by a hunk of uncooked meat. Pink, too, is the bittersweet shade of passion subdued, passion that has slipped from burgundy to rose. It is only a tincture of desire and so carries the least conviction. It is the tint that drifts away unnoticed in the night. Be frightened of pink. Do not think it the innocent color of dresses or barrettes, the blush of areolas, strawberry snow cones, or grenadine martinis. Try, for once, to see it rightly. It is frightening. It is the hue of a person’s insides, the color of a womb. That room where life arises. That room where babies are made. Where arms, legs, and heads are created. Eyes, blood, and tiny teeth.
Wearing nothing but snakeskin
boots, I blazed a footpath, the first
radical road out of that old kingdom
toward a new unknown.
When I came to those great flaming gates
of burning gold,
I stood alone in terror at the threshold
between Paradise and Earth.
There I heard a mysterious echo:
my own voice
singing to me from across the forbidden
side. I shook awake—
at once alive in a blaze of green fire.
Let it be known: I did not fall from grace.
Tread where the name has prepared
A full name full of desire
Clay like plenty
Love is sensitive
In the space of crying
The name goes ahead
To prepare you
Grasp the vessel
With both hands and
A road of red clover
It’s true I wanted
to be beautiful before
authentic. Say the word
exotic. Say minority—
a coiled, dark curl
a finger might wrap
itself in—the long
staircase, and I was
of metal springs
—the long staircase,
and I was a stacked series
of spheres finger-tipped
again into motion—say
taut, like a child
who must please
the elders and doesn’t
know how, a curl pulled
thin. I wanted to be
a reckoning, to tornado
into each day’s hard
hands, that wanton
in the dark, another
soaked black ringlet,
that sudden halting
I’m sorry—this space is reserved
for poems with disabilities. I know
it’s one of the best spaces in the book,
but the Poems with Disabilities Act
requires us to make all reasonable
accommodations for poems that aren’t
normal. There is a nice space just
a few pages over—in fact (don’t
tell anyone) I think it’s better
than this one, I myself prefer it.
Actually I don’t see any of those
poems right now myself, but you never know
when one might show up, so we have to keep
this space open. You can’t always tell
just from looking at them, either. Sometimes
they’ll look just like a regular poem
when they roll in... you’re reading along
and suddenly everything
changes, the world tilts
a little, angle of vision
jumps, your entrails aren’t
where you left them. You
remember your aunt died
of cancer at just your age
and maybe yesterday’s twinge means
something after all. Your sloppy,
fragile heart beats
a little faster
and then you know.
You just know:
If it had been a heart attack, the newspaper
might have used the word massive,
as if a mountain range had opened
inside her, but instead
it used the word suddenly, a light coming on
in an empty room. The telephone
fell from my shoulder, a black parrot repeating
something happened, something awful
a sunday, dusky. If it had been
terminal, we could have cradled her
as she grew smaller, wiped her mouth,
said good-bye. But it was sudden,
how overnight we could be orphaned
& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside
& the ringing all we’d eat.
It is really something when a kid who has a hard time becomes a kid who’s having a good time in no small part thanks to you throwing that kid in the air again and again on a mile long walk home from the Indian joint as her mom looks sideways at you like you don’t need to keep doing this because you’re pouring with sweat and breathing a little bit now you’re getting a good workout but because the kid laughs like a horse up there laughs like a kangaroo beating her wings against the light because she laughs like a happy little kid and when coming down and grabbing your forearm to brace herself for the time when you will drop her which you don’t and slides her hand into yours as she says for the fortieth time the fiftieth time inexhaustible her delight again again again and again and you say give me til the redbud tree or give me til the persimmon tree because she knows the trees and so quiet you almost can’t hear through her giggles she says ok til the next tree when she explodes howling yanking your arm from the socket again again all the wolves and mourning doves flying from her tiny throat and you throw her so high she lives up there in the tree for a minute she notices the ants organizing on the bark and a bumblebee carousing the little unripe persimmon in its beret she laughs and laughs as she hovers up there like a bumblebee like a hummingbird up there giggling in the light like a giddy little girl up there the world knows how to love.
After she died, I’d catch her
stuffing my nose with pine needles and oak,
staring off into the shadows of early morning.
Me, too jetlagged for the smells a ghost leaves behind.
The tailor of histories,
my mother sewed our Black Barbies and Kens
Nigerian clothes, her mind so tight against
the stitching, that in precision, she looked mean
as [ ], too. My mother’s laugh was a record skipping,
so deep she left nicks in the vinyl.
See? Even in death, she wants to be fable.
I don’t know what fathers teach sons,
but I am moving my mother
to a land where grief is no longer
gruesome. She loved top 40, yacht rock,
driving in daylight with the wind
wa-wa-ing through her cracked window
like Allah blowing breath
over the open bottle neck of our living.
She knew ninety-nine names for God,
and yet how do I remember her—
as what no god could make?
May the poems be
the little snail’s trail.
Everywhere I go,
every inch: quiet record
of the foot’s silver prayer
I lived once.
It was here.
They’re chasing my boy, his
behind him like bed sheets
from the second-story
window of a house fire
He and the asphalt
I watch and I watch
like a black hole swallowing
a baby universe. (This is the last
of the gunmetal dreams.)
I wring the blood
from my ribcage
my world in your chest, child.
When I was a child
I believed God held us
like a paper bag
to the mouth of a panic attack
How I’m holding
a city like my boy,
my boy to my own
How the wind-as-breath
moved us, bent our
to snapping, like our songs
on our knees.
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken.
I don’t see anything objectively.
I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist.
When I speak passionately,
that’s when I’m least to be trusted.
It’s very sad, really: all my life, I’ve been praised
for my intelligence, my powers of language, of insight.
In the end, they’re wasted—
I never see myself,
standing on the front steps, holding my sister’s hand.
That’s why I can’t account
for the bruises on her arm, where the sleeve ends.
In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous.
People like me, who seem selfless,
we’re the cripples, the liars;
we’re the ones who should be factored out
in the interest of truth.
When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges.
A clear sky, the clouds like white fibers.
Underneath, a little gray house, the azaleas
red and bright pink.
If you want the truth, you have to close yourself
to the older daughter, block her out:
when a living thing is hurt like that,
in its deepest workings,
all function is altered.
That’s why I’m not to be trusted.
Because a wound to the heart
is also a wound to the mind.
Do they mean this as a synonym for disorganization?
Machine with excess parts? If I called the parts of me
I no longer want vestigial this would imply they were
the vestige of a once-boy. Remnant of a never-was.
Or perhaps they mean it as disruption in the neat
arrangement of a system? Misplaced chromosome.
Missing rib. Screw balded as a knuckle. First cell to
metastasize. Our language unable to speak my gender
out of disease. Breasts growing like tumors from a lab
rat’s spleen. Cells in disarray. Gender as etymology of
abrupted skin. As melanoma severed. The scar a creeping
ulcer leaves. My clutter of apoplectic nerves. Spine a chaos
of misplaced bone. Trace vestigial back to its oldest root
& you will find a footprint in the dust. Trace my gender
back to its oldest root & you will find my father’s footprint
on my chest, sinking all the way down to my blood.
This New England kind of love reminds me
of the potted chrysanthemum my husband
gave me. I cared for it faithfully,
turning the pot a quarter turn each day
as it sat by the window. Until the blossoms
hung with broken necks on the dry stems.
Cut off the dead parts and watched
green leaves begin, new buds open.
Thinking the chrysanthemum would not die
unless I forced it to. The new flowers
were smaller and smaller, resembling
little eyes awake and alone in the dark.
I was offended by the lessening,
by the cheap renewal. By a going on
that gradually left the important behind.
But now it's different. I want the large
and near, and endings more final. If it must
be winter, let it be absolutely winter.
I love your hands:
They are big hands, firm hands, gentle hands;
Hair grows on the back near the wrist . . . .
I have seen the nails broken and stained
From hard work.
And yet, when you touch me,
I grow small . . . . . . . and quiet . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . And happy . . . . . . . .
If I might only grow small enough
To curl up into the hollow of your palm,
Your left palm,
Curl up, lie close and cling,
So that I might know myself always there,
. . . . . . . Even if you forgot.
And then when Ralph Ellison’s corpse burst
open, I discovered his body had been hoarding
all these years a luscious slush, a sludge
of arterial words, the raw and unsaid pages
with their plots and propositions, with their arcs
of intention and babbling, with their mumbling
streams and false starts and their love
and misanthropic thrusts, tendons of syntax
unraveled from his bones and intestinal cavities,
the froth of singing, stinging, stinking ink,
reams of script fraught with the demons,
demagogues and demigods of democracy,
demographies of vague landscapes,
passages describing muddy river bottoms
and elaborate protagonists crawling
through a foliage greener than money in America
before America thought to release anyone
from its dream
Now, now, how come your talk turn cold?
Gained the whole world for the price of your soul
Tryin' to grab hold of what you can't control
Now you're all floss, what a sight to behold
Wisdom is better than silver and gold
I was hopeless, now I'm on Hope Road
Every man wanna act like he's exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can't slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement's similar to a serpent
Tried to play straight, how your whole style bent?
Consequence is no coincidence
Hypocrites always wanna play innocent
Always want to take it to the full out extent
Always want to make it seem like good intent
Never want to face it when it time for punishment
I know you don't wanna hear my opinion
There come many paths and you must choose one
And if you don't change then the rain soon come
See you might win some, but you just lost one
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.
At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?
Now it is almost over.
Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.
It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.
Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
I know that you think you already know but—
Longer than that.
even longer than that.
That I could love
My fear could
Build with it
A desk and chest
Like fear was
Made of pine
And glue could
Into a dress
With it or
In shocking blue
My hair with it
With it could
Thin my paint
It like a sheet
Onto my bed
Could slice a loaf
Of bread on fear’s
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
I am a body
in earthen flesh
learning to see
in the unyielding
barrenness of my mother’s
The salted fault lines
become me. I bear
a trace of invasion
of a martyr’s will.
of medicinal weeds
interrupts my molting
Dandelion greens fuzz
up my apathy. A flower
dares itself to bloom
amongst my most quiet
When the rain comes,
I turn mud in my lover’s mouth.
Something fecund hums
through my blood
And maybe . . . this
is the living. These
would-be dead things in
the same place, the same time
my body. Ours. Not mine—
unowned and fruited and
poor and black and ugly and Here
with you. I reach
a hand out the wildness
And catch hold
a soft pulse
we nursed you
don’t you dare
I’ve been old.
I’ve been poor.
I’ve been vulnerable.
I’ve been exploited.
I’ve been called an angel.
I’ve studied spiders.
I’ve lingered in love like a hummingbird outside a window.
I’ve likened myself to a pigeon, a dove.
I’ve been duped.
I’ve been brilliant.
I’ve been a genie in a bottle.
I’ve been let out.
I’ve been put back in.
I am in the dark.
How to get out with love in my mouth?
The dreams of the dreamer
Are life-drops that pass
The break in the heart
To the soul’s hour-glass.
The songs of the singer
Are tones that repeat
The cry of the heart
‘Till it ceases to beat.
Everyone remembers her haircut,
lion’s mane sheared like lamb’s wool,
but few remember why. She stood
on the busy street corner, broke up with
the boy she loved. I can’t change
who I am—I don’t want to, she told him.
I’d never said that to a boy. I said,
You’re right; that band is stupid. I said,
I’ll stop watching soap operas. I said,
I don’t know; what do you think? I said,
Please don’t leave me. I said,
I can be anyone you want me to be.
She walked away, crossed the street,
plopped into the plastic swivel chair.
Her bare feet pointed and flexed over the
metal bar, beside the pile of curls.
Her eyes blinked in the mirror. She
marveled at what she could leave behind.
Only when you wake to a fistful of pulled hair
on the floor beside your bed and, from a glance,
can guess its weight, when you study dried tear
streaks on your cheeks like a farmer figuring out
where the season went wrong, when a friend calls
out your name three or four times before you know
your name is yours, when your name fits like clothes
you’ve suddenly outgrown, when there is too much
of you, too few of you, too you of you, and the mirrors
wish all of you would just look away, when the clocks
can’t feel their hands and the calendars begin to doubt
themselves, when you begin to agree with the glares
from mirrors but your reflection follows you around
the house anyway, when you catch yourself drunk
on memory, candles lit, eyes closed, your head tilted
in the direction of cemetery grass, yellow and balding
above what’s left of the body that birthed you, and you
try to remember the sound of laughter in her throat
and fail, only then, orphan, will I take all my selves
after Ted Berrigan
Floss my throat
wash my feet then glower
kiss Curtis at 7:30
to shake him
stroll the valley
of dearth to Journal Square
keep the faith like a Benedictine
under the Hudson
Work like a yo-yo
nap like a bear
address endless emails
to forgotten writers
jack the meter
to stand tall
drink lust as if
it were spring water
walk through the Mews
when the coast is near
leave my friends and shadows
generous margins for error
Somebody go & ask Biggie to orate
what's going down in the streets.
No, an attitude is not a suicide note
written on walls around the streets.
Twitter stays lockstep in the frontal lobe
as we hope for a bypass beyond the streets,
but only each day bears witness
in the echo chamber of the streets.
Grandmaster Flash's thunderclap says
he's not the grand jury in the streets,
says he doesn't care if you're big or small
fear can kill a man on the streets.
Take back the night. Take killjoy's
cameras & microphones to the streets.
If you're holding the hand lightning strikes
juice will light you up miles from the streets
where an electric chair surge dims
all the county lights beyond the streets.
Who will go out there & speak laws
of motion & relativity in the streets?
Yusef, this morning proves a crow
the only truth serum in the street.
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.
Walked out the gas station
A homeless man with a semi-tan complexion
Asked me for ten rand
Stressin' about dry land
Deep water, powder blue skies that crack open
A piece of crack that he wanted, I knew he was smokin'
He begged and pleaded
Asked me to feed him twice, I didn't believe it
Told him, beat it
Contributin' money just for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, my son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothin' less, nothin' more
I told him I ain't have it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost
It's more to feed your mind
Water, sun and love, the one you love
All you need, the air you breathe
I wash my hands, I said my grace, what more do you want from me?
Tears of a clown, guess I'm not all what is meant to be
Shades of grey will never change if I condone
Turn this page, help me change, to right my wrongs
Tell me how much a dollar cost
It's more to feed your mind
Water, sun and love, the one you love
All you need, the air you breathe
On considering gender augmentation surgery
Do I change?
Do I go the—as you say—whole way?
The breast, a predicament of treatment:
It seems, be more than just the crow’s zigzag
In the wind,
But a thing like breasts, it hangs
There, even in the mind,
Behind the muscle’s freeze,
Homogenously patient for its sister—the breasts,
I mean; the Will, I was saying; but it seems I am
The crow, the same flying
Inside so many green and ruder choices.
Trans, a choice
Written on my body. And I’m allowed.
Trans, a fecund decision,
Androgynously made. No sin.
I pray to God I decide, Rickey.
Yes. I’ll go the whole way.
Let the scalpel in.
What is a wound but a flower
dying on its descent to the earth,
bag of scent filled with war, forest,
torches, some trouble that befell
now over and done. A wound is a fire
sinking into itself. The tinder
serves only so long, the log holds on
and still it gives up, collapses
into its bed of ashes and sand. I burned
my hand cooking over a low flame,
that flame now alive under my skin,
the smell not unpleasant, the wound
beautiful as a full-blown peony.
Say goodbye to disaster. Shake hands
with the unknown, what becomes
of us once we’ve been torn apart
and returned to our future, naked
and small, sewn back together
scar by scar.
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Amphibians live in both.
Immigrants leave their land,
hardening in the sea.
Out of water.
In Greek, amphibian means
“on both sides of life.”
Terra and aqua. Shoreline.
In fresh water:
immigrants give birth
in early stages. On land,
amphibians develop lungs.
Immigrants develop lungs.
Through damp skin
and sleep breathlessly.
Skin forms glands.
Eyes form eyelids.
Amphibians seek land; immigrants, other lands.
Their colors brighten, camouflage.
They’ve been known to fall
out of the sky.
Fully at home in the rain.
In the dark, I could read the stiff salt
of your cheeks like Braille. What more
could anyone want than to crease history
into a paper boat and feed the thing
to a riptide? I wore a tooth-pocked tongue
filled with old curses. You too.
Thought as many wishes
as there are pills in a pharmacy.
When I slept, my dreams
shook like a brood from a mob,
the sheets spindled into a tapestry
the fridge lumbered to life down the hall.
I pass the feeder and yell, Grackle party! And then an hour later I yell, Mourning
dove afterparty! (I call the feeder the party and the seed on the ground the
afterparty.) I am getting so good at watching that I’ve even dug out the binoculars
an old poet gave me back when I was young and heading to the Cape with so
much future ahead of me it was like my own ocean. Tufted titmouse! I yell, and
Lucas laughs and says, Thought so. But he is humoring me, he didn’t think so at
all. My father does this same thing. Shouts out at the feeder announcing the party
attendees. He throws out a whole peanut or two to the Steller’s jay who visits on
a low oak branch in the morning. To think there was a time I thought birds were
kind of boring. Brown bird. Gray bird. Black bird. Blah blah blah bird. Then, I
started to learn their names by the ocean and the person I was dating said, That’s
the problem with you, Limón, you’re all fauna and no flora. And I began to learn
the names of trees. I like to call things as they are. Before, the only thing I was
interested in was love, how it grips you, how it terrifies you, how it annihilates and
resuscitates you. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t even love that I was interested
in, but my own suffering. I thought suffering kept things interesting. How funny
that I called it love and the whole time it was pain.
Once again it is fall all around us
there are sports teams praying
for god to smite their opponents
which you know I love like I love
the idea of god walking dripless out
of the ocean a monster no one can be
sure is here to protect or destroy
our seaside cities and I love that we can
scream whatever we want knowing
it can be fixed later in the subtitles
and I love the scrub pine for looking
exactly how it sounds and I love
memory for continuing to be the past
with a leak in it somehow I love you
a little better every day surprised by it
each morning the way I am always
surprised by how goats make the sound
of drunks making goat noises
When on the verge of ripening into plums,
Some girls dream of sunsets & of other girls
Some girls dream of bursting beneath darkening sky
Some girls dream of her body as book while
Tasting the bitter of their own skins
When on the verge of ripening into plums
Plucked to be eaten or preserved
Through gentle pressure & a slight twist,
Some girls dream of bursting beneath darkening sky
Split to open center & amaranthine flesh,
Pruned back to unharmed parts
When on the verge of ripening into plums
In the middle of concrete cities where fruit
Coats pavement & smoke shadows the moon
Some girls dream of bursting beneath darkening sky—
Water her roots; Cut back her branches &
Turn her full-faced to sun
When on the verge of ripening into plums—
Some girls dream of bursting.
We live in a world where some lies sink
to their knees in the bottomland. Others
unsheathe wings, lift and ferry their seeds, drift
up like the down of angels. My mother believed
selling vacuum cleaners and eternal salvation
were both honorable. I agree. It doesn't matter
if you're slicing limes for your fancy gin or tossing
the rinds under the porch to ward off feral cats,
you can still sever what you need the most.
These days, it's the need that interests me.
Not once have I told the kind of lie that flew away.
Like pine sap on fingers, mine have fused and clung,
tacky, awkward. And sometimes you just don't know
what you don't know. For years I said I was in love
with windows but it turned out what I loved was light.
To be honest, I'm in it for the tomatoes and the flowers.
I can't go on harvesting carrots in the rain forever.
Where the road forks right toward the meaning of life
and left toward cheese and crackers, I go left. And
in the end we will die like the cedars, wet, with cold feet.
Every morning you'd think
all the moths would throw themselves
into the Sun.
But they wait
to consume them
in small coughs
I have stopped
listening to my moth soul.
My dear, I am done
tilting at streetlights.
My paper wings soar,
your blazing heart.
How you holding up?
High waves of anxiety
mixed with periods of surface calm.
How you holding up?
By a thread. I’m being held up
by a single thread and what scares me
is not knowing what’s inside
the liquid I’m being held up over
and is it cold?
How you holding up?
With both hands. I’m holding it up
with both hands.
How you holding up?
Like a bank with Monolopy money in the drawers.
Like a three-day-old birthday cake.
Like a middle finger out a car window.
Like a bad perm on a rainy day.
Like the hand of a mediocre student in the back row
who wants to show he’s participating
but doesn’t want to get called on.
Like the eyebrows of Winona Ryder.
Like the fist from a pile of rubble.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured [ ] that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
“death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.”
I tell my daughter first, because her knowing
forces it to become true. I have to leave dad.
Nothing is going to change. She nods
like a priest in a booth, the last fifteen years
staring down at us. Explains, softly,
how she’s spoken of me to her therapist.
Her worry of becoming my mirror. Tells me,
I remember you, mom, before him. You were happy.
Oh. Oh. To surrender to your death by someone else’s
hand is still a kind of suicide. Slower. I stand naked
on the porch as she recounts in perfect detail,
(in a poet’s detail) the very things I’d hoped
to disguise. My careful little spectator. Diligent neighbor
to my unnamed agonies. It is not ungrateful to resist
the tyrannies of obsession. It is no selfish act
to want, suddenly, to stay alive. My dear girl.
She is teaching and I am learning. I not only
want to be seen, I want to be seen through.
I return to my house, haunted and waiting.
I look into the mirror and notice the door.
Rouge sunset battered
atop each finger
a small galaxy
of comet & solar flare,
I am a god
of these two hands
& today let there be
Let there be an origin
story that is not bruised
fruit lodged in the throat
like a knife with no hilt.
When someone says
man [ ] up, they mean
what breathing thing
have you made
into a wound? What wounds
have you worn as trophy?
I try to name
that is not a wolf
masked in the body
of a wolf
& I end up howling
at the white fist pressed
into the night’s soft cheek.
I’m sorry I’m not
sorry I undressed
myself of knuckles today.
I imagined a universe
not dipped in blood
& made myself drip
I walked out
the front door
at the way everything I touch
translated from Arabic by Robyn Creswell
A ruthless catalog of sorrows:
years in front of the screen, diplomas before jobs,
and languages–all that torture–now ranged under Languages.
Where are all the wasted days? And the nights
of walking with hands stretched out
and the visions that crept over the walls?
Where are the feelings of guilt
and the sudden sadness faced with a little hill of fruit
atop a handcart in some forgotten street?
Years with no mention of the empty hours or the funerals,
expunged of black depressions and nibbled nails,
the house keys forgotten inside the house.
There isn’t a single open window
and no trace of the desire, deferred, to leap out.
A life overstuffed with accomplishments,
scrubbed free of dirt:
proof that the one who lived it
has cut all ties to the earth.
I became myself.
I became myself.
No, I always was myself.
There’s no such person as myself.
I wouldn’t have to turn my eye
inward, I thought, if I could train my eye
on him—the one I loved.
But I was wrong. My eye loved
everything it fell upon.
And then one day it fell upon
a mirror. And he was nowhere
in the mirror. And she was everywhere.
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark
After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s
voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—
something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted
Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,
and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.
The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.
After a century, humpbacks migrate
again to Queens. They left
due to sewage and white froth
banking the shores from polychlorinated-
biphenyl-dumping into the Hudson
and winnowing menhaden schools.
But now grace, dark bodies of song
return. Go to the seaside—
Hold your breath. Submerge.
A black fluke silhouetted
against the Manhattan skyline.
Now ICE beats doors
down on Liberty Avenue
to deport. I sit alone on orange
A train seats, mouth sparkling
from Singh’s, no matter how
white supremacy gathers
at the sidewalks, flows down
the streets, we still beat our drums
wild. Watch their false-god statues
prostrate to black and brown hands.
They won’t keep us out
though they send us back.
Our songs will pierce the dark
fathoms. Behold the miracle:
what was once lost
now leaps before you.
Sometimes when you start to ramble
or rather when you feel you are starting to ramble
you will say Well, now I’m rambling
though I don’t think you ever are.
And if you ever are I don’t really care.
And not just because I and everyone really
at times falls into our own unspooling
—which really I think is a beautiful softness
of being human, trying to show someone else
the color of all our threads, wanting another to know
everything in us we are trying to to show them—
but in the specific,
in the specific of you
here in this car that you are driving
and in which I am sitting beside you
with regards to you
and your specific mouth
parting to give way
to the specific sweetness that is
the water of your voice
tumbling forth—like I said
I don’t ever really mind
how much more
you might keep speaking
as it simply means
I get to hear you
speak for longer.
What was a stream
now a river.
and I keep mistaking the screen for a
mirror. By which I mean, I too was once
adolescent and unconquerable:
purple hair; a body unmarked by pain.
Then, the bright unholiness of onset.
She screams, glitches into crimson static.
In the right light, even pain can sparkle.
Blood cells glinting into oblivion.
Flicker of agony, scarlet against
the ego. Candescence of a body
as it burns itself undone. If I am
to live this way–neurons blazing, my fists
clenched proudly against a whimper–let me
at least malfunction in a way that shines.
She asks me to write a list
of all the names I’ve been called.
And then a list of things
that are killing me.
Where to start? Susie. Sue.
Big Head. Men have called me cold.
Men I know, men I don’t.
It’s all over the news
how they want to kill me.
It doesn’t matter what they
call me. When I was 17, I kneeled
on the stained carpet at Men’s Wearhouse,
looping a tape measure around
a small boy’s waist and he showed me
my name. He pulled his eyes slant
as I measured the distance
between belly button and floor: inseam
or outseam, it’s hard to keep track.
A wedding, his father said.
There was going to be a wedding.
The boy needed a tux.
I don’t like this memory
because I did nothing.
I become nothing again.
Not long after in college,
I was sorting clothes in the back
of a Goodwill. Court-ordered community
service. An older man took
his time looking me up
and down as I sweat through my shirt,
threw pit-stained blouses
into the discard pile,
everything else the salvaging bin.
I went home with him for years,
not knowing about the prior assaults.
Would my knowing have changed
anything? He was gentle
to my face. I only ignored
his texts sometimes.
Men have destroyed me
for less. Even the boy.
I’m supposed to tell you
I forgive him—
he was just a boy.
I forgive myself instead.
(after Juan Luis Guerra)
from Africa to a Caribbean hill
de África a las lomas del Caribe
to the smiling ruin of our cities
a la feliz ruina de ciudades
anoint the neural vessels we refill
al matorral neural en donde vive
until your acid muse drowns our pities
tu agria musa que ahoga soledades
return us to our tribe that grew dark beans
devuélvenos al semillero isleño
cut through the grease of our late-night omelets
metaboliza la grasa nocturna
and warm this empty diner by the club
trae tu calor a nuestro desvelo
where luckless lovers stare at tiny screens
haz que el amante no muera de sueño
and poets brew old socks into psalmlets
tu borra es poema que embadurna
while dreaming it rains coffee from above.
y sombría tu alegría de cielo.
a calm musical note arrives.
You balance it on your tongue,
a single ripe grape,
till your whole body glistens.
In the space between breaths
you apply it to any wound
and the wound heals.
Soon the nights will lengthen,
you will lean into the year
humming like a saw.
You will fill the lamps with kerosene,
knowing somewhere a line breaks,
a city goes black,
people dig for candles in the bottom drawer.
You will be ready. You will use the song like a match.
It will fill your rooms
opening rooms of its own
so you sing, I did not know
my house was this large.
for Alison & Nate, on the occasion of their wedding
& always for Erika
let’s get married on a Tuesday
with a six piece from Harold’s as our witness.
let’s get married at noon & then again at 3:30
when the school day lets out & a whole block
of dandelions flower our ceremony. let’s
get married under a full moon & then again
under a new moon, so every celestial being
can witness our vows. love, one wedding
isn’t enough for me. i want to propose
again & again. on a Wednesday because
you did the dishes. on a Thursday because
we woke up next to each other again. say yes.
say less. i’ll be on one knee asking you
to share in the delight of knowing each other.
let’s get married because Chicago. because
St. Louis is a city on a map. because your name
is my favorite word. let’s get married because
there are vows we can only make in the dark.
because we don’t need a witness to say i do.
let’s get married because it’s raining
& that’s supposed to be good luck. mi amor,
mi cielo, mi vida, let’s get married
in every language we can & can’t speak.
under every god. my god, the way you look
at me is a miracle i believe in. because
we get one life. one. say yes. then, say yes
again. let’s get married after we get married
because underneath every word i write
there is one word i carve into every desk.
one word i tag onto every building on every block
of my heart. marry me: make me (no, not complete),
but a little more alive than i’ve ever been.
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Consider the mathematics of my German father.
The unconditional tears of my Filipino mother.
Call me Spock, but it was logic versus emotion
every day on Earth.
Out in space, there are over a million miles
between asteroids in an asteroid field.
It’s pretty much impossible to hit one unless you actually aim for it.
Not so on Star Trek. There, they have to grit their teeth,
put their shields up, crash a couple times and assess the damage.
As kid, I was amazed by the skill of those spacemen,
“skill” which I soon realized was nothing more than sheer incompetence.
Hitting an asteroid? There’s just no excuse for that.
A modest revelation. But these revelations
strung themselves together, orbited the planet
in ways that messed with things like gravity and light.
It went like this: You knew you could fly
until your first attempt left you with two broken teeth.
You knew you were like all the other kids,
until your best friend said, No, you’re not.
And he was right.
And in that moment, something shifted.
The galaxy became real, and in its realness, the asteroids
seemed so much closer than you thought.
You were half-alien, staring down an eternity
that was both limitless and dangerous
as a captain’s voice boomed from above:
Brace for impact, we’re going down.
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
Here is what I know: when
that bell tolls again, I
need to go and make something,
anything: a poem, a pie, a terrible
scarf with my terrible knitting, I
need to write a letter, remind myself
of any little lifeline around me.
When death sounds, I forget most
of what I learnt before. I go below.
I compare my echoes with other people’s
happiness. I carve that hole in my own
chest again, pull out all my organs once
again, wonder if they’ll ever work again
stuff them back again. Begin. Again.
We come to hear the endings
of all the stories
in our anthology
of false starts:
how the girl who seemed
as hard as nails
how the athletes ran
out of races;
how under the skin
our skulls rise
to the surface
like rocks in the bed
of a drying stream.
Look! We have all
We used to say,
That’s my heart right there.
As if to say,
Don’t mess with her right there.
As if, don’t even play,
That’s a part of me right there.
In other words, okay okay,
That’s the start of me right there.
As if, come that day,
That’s the end of me right there.
As if, push come to shove,
I would fend for her right there.
As if, come what may,
I would lie for her right there.
As if, come love to pay,
I would die for that right there.
recycling Pablo Neruda's "Sonnet XVII"
I don't love you as if you were rare earth metals,
conflict diamonds, or reserves of crude oil that cause
war. I love you as one loves the most vulnerable
species: urgently, between the habitat and its loss.
I love you as one loves the last seed saved
within a vault, gestating the heritage of our roots,
and thanks to your body, the taste that ripens
from its fruit still lives sweetly on my tongue.
I love you without knowing how or when this world
will end. I love you organically, without pesticides.
I love you like this because we'll only survive
in the nitrogen rich compost of our embrace,
so close that your emissions of carbon are mine,
so close that your sea rises with my heat.
When sidelong hours reach deep
into the house, objects turn
unbearably distinct and I think
of girlhood, how the sinking golden light
had to be seized, like the last
mouthful of soda in a warm can shared
with my sister. Whether I wanted to or not,
I climbed higher in the tree, higher
than I even liked, to watch the back door
where my mother would appear
and call me in. For years now
a supper made by someone else
is all I want, but this late sun
keeps pressing in. The linen chair
beside the window looks more
salmon-hued and woven now
than at noon. And the not-chair
stretches long beside it. Shadows
sharpen and themselves become
objects filling the room. A child wakes
down the hall. Light gathers on the faces
of ranunculus in a mantle vase,
browning and collapsing
in their centers. I think I have been
sad every afternoon of my life.
Outside a child runs in the grass.
Soon I will appear and call her to me.
Praised be friends. Praise enemies.
Praise the dark above.
Praise hangovers. Praise cigarettes.
The vulture and the dove.
Praise all music. Praise the harp.
And the amplifier's buzz.
Praise the days we'd live forever.
And loneliness. And love.
Praise even death, or at least the dying,
who taught us how to live.
Praise you, someday, reading this.
Praise light. Praise the wind.
We sat across the table.
he said, cut off your hands.
they are always poking at things.
they might touch me.
I said yes.
Food grew cold on the table.
he said, burn your body.
it is not clean and smells like [ ].
it rubs my mind sore.
I said yes.
I love you, I said.
That’s very nice, he said
I like to be loved,
that makes me happy.
Have you cut off your hands yet?
You only watch the news to find out
where the fires are burning, which way
the wind is blowing, and whether
it will rain. Forecast ahead but first:
A mother’s boy laid out
in the street for hours.
These facts don’t wash away.
Another word I love is evening
for the balance it implies, balance
being something I struggle with.
I suppose I would like to be more
a planet, turning in & out of light
It comes down again to polarities,
equilibrium. Evening. The moths
take the place of the butterflies,
owls the place of hawks, coyotes
for dogs, stillness for business,
& the great sorrow of brightness
makes way for its own sorrow.
Everything dances with its strict
negation, & I like that. I have no
choice but to like that. Systems
are evening out all around us—
even now, as we kneel before
a new & ruthless circumstance.
Where would I like to be in five
years, someone asks—& what
can I tell them? Surrendering
with grace to the evening, with
as much grace as I can muster
to the circumstance of darkness,
which is only something else
that does not stay.
I just want them to stop emailing. All of them. You. The bots.
I want the kids to stop whining, the floor
to sweep itself, the sun to rise blamelessly
into the sky. In every Disney movie the main character
gets to stop, look into the camera, and howl
her “I Want” song straight into our chests. Once
it’s been laid out for all of us to hear, we know
she has to get it. But there’s so much that I want—
for the trees not to burn, or at least
not these trees, not unless they’re far away or
beneficial to the understory. I want to stop
feeling like I’d better buy the fruit
now because maybe next year there will be
no more fruit, no more water, maybe the crops will burn
or wither or be sprayed with the chemical that kills
the bees and which studies now show
kills the bees’ children and children’s children
two bee-generations after exposure.
I want not to think about the expiration of the world.
I want to delete my profile, I want pollination
of the blossom and the swelling of fruit.
I want to stand inside the fog socked in under a crown
of redwoods. I want to become the fog.
Sometimes she walks through the village in her
little red dress
all absorbed in restraining herself,
and yet, despite herself, she seems to move
according to the rhythm of her life to come.
She runs a bit, hesitates, stops,
and, all while dreaming, shakes her head
for or against.
Then she dances a few steps
that she invents and forgets,
no doubt finding out that life
moves on too fast.
It's not so much that she steps out
of the small body enclosing her,
but that all she carries in herself
frolics and ferments.
It's this dress that she'll remember
later in a sweet surrender;
when her whole life is full of risks,
the little red dress will always seem right.
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
The border is a brand, the “Double-X” of barbed wire scarred into the skin of so many.
The border has always been a welcome stopping place but is now a stop sign, always red.
The border is a jump rope still there even after the game is finished.
The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam.
The border used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
leaving stained reminders
on dusty sidewalks.
Here where I strut alone
as glass lies broken by my feet
and a blanket of darkness is slung
across the wooden shacks
of nuetsra colonia.
dripping from carcasses of dreams:
is old people
sitting on torn patio sofas
with empty eyes
and children running down alleys
with big sticks.
on vacant lots
and burned-out buildings–
temples desolated by a people’s rage.
Where fear is a deep river.
Where hate is an overgrown weed.
even as we laugh,
recall good times,
drink and welcome daylight
through the broken windshield
of an old Impala.
Here is the Watts of my youth,
where teachers threw me
from classroom to classroom,
not knowing where I could fit in.
Where I learned to fight or run,
where I zigzagged down alleys,
jumped over fences,
and raced by graffiti on crumbling
Where we played
broken limbs and torn flesh,
and where years later
we shot up carga
in the playground
of our childhood.
as the shadow of the damned
engulfs all the chinga of our lives.
In the warmth of a summer night,
gunshots echo their deadly song
through the silence of fear;
prelude to a heartbeat.
as I bled
getting laid-off from work,
standing by my baby’s crib,
touching his soft check
and fingering his small hand
as dreams shatter again,
dreams of fathers
for little men.
and the city hemorrhages,
unable to stop the flow
from this swollen and festering sore.
Oh bloom, you trampled flower!
Come alive as once
you tried to do from the ashes.
Watts, bleeding and angry,
you will be free.
From the beginning of my life
I have been looking for your face
but today I have seen it
Today I have seen
the charm, the beauty,
the unfathomable grace
of the face
that I was looking for
Today I have found you
and those who laughed
and scorned me yesterday
are sorry that they were not looking
as I did
I am bewildered by the magnificence
of your beauty
and wish to see you
with a hundred eyes
My heart has burned with passion
and has searched forever
for this wondrous beauty
that I now behold
I am ashamed
to call this love human
and afraid of God
to call it divine
Your fragrant breath
like the morning breeze
has come to the stillness of the garden
You have breathed new life into me
I have become your sunshine
and also your shadow
My soul is screaming in ecstasy
Every fiber of my being
is in love with you
has lit a fire in my heart
and you have made radiant
the earth and sky
My arrow of love
has arrived at the target
I am in the house of mercy
and my heart
is a place of prayer
who goes there? who is this young man born lonely?
who walks there? who goes toward death
whistling through the water
without his chorus? without his posse? without his song?
it is autumn now
in me autumn grieves
in this carved gold of shifting faces
my eyes confess to the fatigue of living.
i ask: does the morning weep for the dead?
i ask: were the bullets conscious atoms entering his chest?
i ask: did you see the light anointing his life?
the day i heard the sound of your death, my brother
i walked outside in the park
we your mothers wanted to see you safely home.
i remembered the poems in your mother's eyes as she
panther-laced warred against the state;
the day you became dust again
we your mothers held up your face green with laughter
and i saw you a child again outside your mother's womb
picking up the harsh handbook of Black life;
the day you passed into our ancestral rivers,
we your mothers listened for your intoxicating voice:
and i heard you sing of tunes bent back in a
cold curse against black
against black (get back)
against black (get back)
we anoint your life
in this absence
we anoint our tongues
with your magic.
Immediately after the diagnosis, we flip through the racks.
Each of us yearns for a sweater or spoons—a reason to stay—a bargain—a bet.
Ma and I search different sections of the store for something—then each other.
Her—in lamps. Me—in clothes. Striking wires—
The clacking hangers clapping one after another—bursting at the joints
mimicking the sounds of knobs turning,
or window panes breaking in slow motion, the air knocked out of them, too.
I stack clearance candles in our cart.
Ma checks out bathroom rugs and kitchen towels.
These days we build separate homes from red tag items.
I miss Ma the most between the Kitchen and Women’s Clothing departments.
Unraveled by the operation of how
one builds a house from the inside.
A second diagnosis that day: I won’t ever come back here alone after she’s gone.
Isn’t shopping a series of searching?
On the best days, everything is a grab—a steal—cancer and—my mother from me.
My hope is that every space with four walls—that every day of treatment
will be a door out—will be sunlight in bags—despite discount—let it be—big—
all the time we buy back.
The more i learn the more i learn
i don’t know what the [ ] i’m talking
about. To someone who doesn’t care
a fig for poetry they’d likely think
i knew a lot, yet in most bookshops
i’m lost, shelves heavy with the bodies
of forgotten writers. It’s relative.
a president can say audacity or
a president can say sad & both eat
the cured meat of empire. When i say
i carry my people inside me i don’t
mean a country. The star that hangs
from my neck is simply a way
of saying israel is not a physical place
but can be carried anywhere. It says
my people are most beautiful when
moving when movement, when
our only state is the liquid state of water,
is adapting to our container. Homeland
sometimes just means what books
you’ve read, what stories you’ve spread
with your sneakers. My people,
any place you live long enough
to build bombs is a place you’ve lived
too long–it’s relative. My friends,
the only thing I know for sure is
the missiles on television are only beautiful
if you’ve never known suffering.
My friends the only country i will
ever pledge my allegiance to
is your music, is under investigation
A loop, a girl born
to each family,
prelude to suffering.
Bless the baby girl,
caul of dissatisfaction,
patron saint of not
Are you there, God?
It’s me, Warsan.
Born to a lullaby
newborn ears checked
for the first signs of color.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified.
The child reads surahs each night
to veil her from il
protecting body and home
She wakes with a fright,
someone cutting the rope,
deep inside her
Are you there, God?
It’s me, the ugly one.
Bless the Type 4 child,
scalp massaged with the milk
of cruelty, cranium cursed,
crushed between adult knees,
drenched in pink lotion.
Everything you did to me,
Mama, I made it
out of your home
alive, raised by
in my head
my love is black though my love is not black ::
think the darkness cradling the milky way ::
imagine quick light flowing down the back
of my throat, glowing—i swallow the day ::
my love is black, an absorbing array
of colors :: gold yolk escaping the cracked
shell :: a shiny silver moon-coin to play ::
a juicy peach, plump plums, cup of cognac ::
my love is black, the only way i know
to live :: now fierce and demanding, now free
and unpossessed :: so for my magnet, my
love becomes steel, then, for my butterfly,
will not a flower but a whole field be ::
my love and my blackness together go—
A man with a bandage is in the middle of something.
Everyone understands this. Everyone wants a battlefield.
Red. And a little more red.
Accidents never happen when the room is empty.
Everyone understands this. Everyone needs a place.
People like to think war means something.
What can you learn from your opponent? More than you think.
Who will master this love? Love might be the wrong word.
Let's admit, without apology, what we do to each other.
We know who our enemies are. We know.
Talking to yourself in an empty room
sometimes feels like prayer but isn’t.
It isn’t prayer if you’re not asking
for anything, and what would you ask for?
Any request more specific than save me
would be so granular as to be worthless.
It can’t be prayer if you’re standing
at your kitchen counter, wearing an apron
and a far-off look. It can’t be prayer
if you’re walking in your neighborhood,
muttering to yourself, while Orion
keeps buckling and unbuckling his belt
over the houses. It can’t be prayer if you have
the expectation of privacy. If you think
no one’s listening. As a child I believed
so fiercely in the power of my own mind,
when I thought apple, I half-expected
a real one, large and red, to appear
in my hand. Now I know better. I talk
to myself. Sometimes I even answer.
They say she weeps
Knee-deep in the river,
The gray of dusk
A shawl over her head.
She weeps for her children,
Their smothered faces
Of sleeping angels . . .
Normaaaa, Mariooo, Carlooooos.
They say she calls
From her sleeve.
They say she will
Point a long finger,
Gnarled root of evilness,
And stare a soft
Hole in your lungs:
The air leaks
From this hole
And climbs in the trees.
In autumn, she appears
With a pomegranate,
Each seed the heart
Of a child she took away.
She will whisper, Monicaaaaa,
If you’re on your bike,
If you’re on foot,
Run without looking up.
In these times,
The sliced moon hangs
In the sky, moon
That is orange,
The color of
A face in the porchlight.
The cooler in the window
Stops, then starts,
And the TV flickers
With a climate of snow.
These are signs, and the
Dog with mismatched eyes,
The turtle in the
Middle of the road,
And the newspapers
Piling up on a roof.
La Llorona is the mother
of drowned children.
Beware a woman
Dripping water in July
when no rain has fallen.
A crate of peaches straight from the farm
has to be maintained, or eaten in days.
Obvious, but in my family, they went so fast,
I never saw the mess that punishes delay.
I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,
stored it in the coolest part of the house,
then devoured it before any could rot.
I’m from the Peach State, and to those
who ask But where are you from originally,
I’d like to reply The homeland of the peach,
but I’m too nice, and they might not look it up.
In truth, the reason we bought so much
did have to do with being Chinese—at least
Chinese in that part of America, both strangers
and natives on a lonely, beautiful street
where food came in stackable containers
and fussy bags, unless you bothered to drive
to the source, where the same money landed
a bushel of fruit, a twenty-pound sack of rice.
You had to drive anyway, each house surrounded
by land enough to grow your own, if lawns
hadn’t been required. At home I loved to stare
into the extra freezer, reviewing mountains
of foil-wrapped meats, cakes, juice concentrate,
mysterious packets brought by house guests
from New York Chinatown, to be transformed
by heat, force, and my mother’s patient effort,
enough to keep us fed through flood or storm,
provided the power stayed on, or fire and ice
could be procured, which would be labor-intensive,
but so was everything else my parents did.
Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids,
who grew up to confuse work with pleasure,
to become typical immigrants’ children,
taller than their parents and unaware of hunger
except when asked the odd, perplexing question.
translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan
I am filled with love
as a great tree with the wind,
as a sponge with the ocean,
as a great life with suffering,
as time with death.
Why should you believe in magic,
pretend an interest in astrology
or the tarot? Truth is, you are
free, and what might happen to you
today, nobody knows. And your
personality may undergo a radical
transformation in the next half
hour. So it goes. You are consumed
by your faith in justice, your
hope for a better day, the rightness
of fate, the dreams, the lies
the taunts—Nobody gets what he
wants. A dark star passes through
you on your way home from
the grocery: never again are you
the same—an experience which is
impossible to forget, impossible
to share. The longing to be pure
is over. You are the stranger
who gets stranger by the hour.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Because a corazón is more resilient than a heart, sangre richer than
blood. Because when my abuelo’s spleen ruptured right there on
Queens Boulevard he yanked himself up with nothing but smog
to hold onto and walked home fifteen blocks before collapsing
on the bathroom floor. That takes babilla. Simple courage won’t do.
Because songs are nice but a cancion bathes inside the veins.
The dankdim nightclub lounges of my youth gave me confidence,
it’s true, but only Hector Lavoe’s rooster calls can resurrect the dead,
only Celia’s “azucar!” incites warring tribes to fall in love. Because
an abrazo can shield you from famine and flame. A hug just lacks
that kind of sorcery. Because bochinche is both science and art.
It can turn men into rats and spread through the respiratory system
like a viral infection. Gossip is clearly no match for bochinche.
Because el sol is spirit. The sun, her child. And a besito is sweeter
than any kiss. Because arboles are monasteries for the lost, while
men don’t think twice about felling trees. Because dios inspires
humility like no god can. Because vida blossoms from the mouth
like a fulgent garden, whereas life is merely the title of a children’s
game, a syllable in search of a hyphen.
Imagine you’re an astronaut stuck in outer space. And it’s just you. Only you.
What would you write about? What
do you see outside your spaceship windshield? What do you miss? Who is your
brother now, all those miles down? Where’s west? What would you have
brought, had you known you would be out here, maybe forever, all by yourself?
What about regret? What if
there are whole days where you don’t think of your hands? How closely related
is loneliness to remembrance?—when you let yourself think about it?
Do the stars feel heavier now?
Is there, truly, anything you would do over?—knowing everything you know
now? If regret was a type of animal, any animal, what song would it sing in you?
Outside are all these tiny windows you can’t look through.
Do you miss having a sky to throw wishes against? What did it look like last?—
describe the blue.
What phrases do you miss people saying? By “people” I mean:
write about something small—but with great detail—about everyone you love.
What blurs then builds a forest inside you? Is that too specific? Pretend
it’s summer again and that you’re the fire for it—would it even be worth writing about?
Would you, by now, meaning in outer space, and very much alone, want to replay the moments of your life you wished had gone differently?—Or have you gotten over it all already? What stage are we in? Is being stuck in space like dying and not getting to ghost-visit your own funeral? Which is the first moment you’d go back to in order to change it? By it I mean where the regret sprang from. Would you feel bad about the rippling? Is worry just a wider room? There is always a box in which regret will fit. After you tape it shut, describe the sound. Describe the blue.
These things, they are just things. You are told all your life to
develop a thick skin, that you should not take these things so
seriously. These things, these moments, they are just things in
the greater scheme of things, so what if you are consistently
called by your last name?—it is easier to pronounce—it is just
a small thing. These things, they accumulate, they stick, they
cling to your clothing, your skin, they alter your thinking, they
affect your seeing, your way of being. You wake up one day.
You look in the mirror. You have grown a thick skin, and the
you in the mirror is no longer you. One day, in the third period
on the first day of class, you decide to change your name to
Tom. You do not care for the name, not in the slightest. It is
easy to spell. It is easy to say. You will have plenty of time to
regret your choices. It is just a thing, you tell yourself. You
carry these things. They are placed on you. They are thrown at
you. You walk through life. You are carrying these things. You
anticipate a time when someone is compelled to correct your
grammar; again it happens, and you collapse under the weight.
You are buried beneath a lifetime of these things.
Could we have coffee? -No, my truth
I’m still on this side.
I saw you last night, again,
at the bar on 57th,
O faceless dancer,
and I put down my mask
I wanted you to touch me
You stood there neither man nor woman,
beautiful edge by the water
My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
She really let herself go.
This story is hard to tell.
When the men you love
insist a woman hold on
let herself go
let herself loose
let herself leave
let herself depart
let herself mobilize
let herself imagine
let herself grow
big enough to lift off
like a jet
full of fuel.
It’s like that sometimes. A man bends
so completely he begins believing in
his own holiness. An empty house
kids are too scared to vandalize sees itself
in time as haunted. Even the moon
our dogs wail to each night as if in prayer
fears a response is expected. The war
my brother brought home & the home he
pined for in war converge in an unruly
absence. Is it finally fair to say like gods
we make images to pour ourselves into?
Like rivers, how they tend to move
farther from the source? What skin
remembers & the mind reimagines:
between them a truth serrated as light.
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Sacred stars blanket a nighttime sky,
each light reminds us of the preciousness of life.
Your memory lives along the Milky Way,
each twinkle saying don’t forget my name.
It’s an epidemic, a sickness of the earth,
a war we enter as soon as we are birthed.
Indigenous women, girls, our two-spirit, too.
When did this world start disappearing you?
My mother has a gap between
her two front teeth. So does Daddy Gunnar.
Each child in this family has the same space
Our baby brother, Roman, was born pale as dust.
His soft brown curls and eyelashes stop
people on the street.
Whose angel child is this? they want to know.
When I say, My brother, the people
thick as a cape
until we smile
and the cape falls.
It is both on-brand and honest
for me to call this gray warehouse
the most beautiful thing for miles.
I mean aisles.
Rows of bulk to clean and feed your family.
I go looking for something
and I find it
but it’s way too heavy
to try to carry home.
An Almond Roca melts forever in my gongong’s jacket pocket.
All summer since Popo died.
In moments of personal and national catastrophe, it is my job to tweet:
“Catch me crunching croissants at a crossroads.”
I am not on Twitter.
I am stacking glossy boxes in a cart with one bum wheel.
I am examining assorted shrink-wrapped muffins.
These muffins are Asian American cuisine.
Especially the double chocolate.
I am testing Kirkland socks for hand-feel.
These are Asian American socks.
In 1942, Isamu Noguchi drives himself into the desert of his own volition.
He is not allowed to leave.
This is an Asian America story.
Costco Iwilei is the busiest Costco in the nation, an Asian American fact.
Its pizza is the best pizza in Hawaii, but the bar is low.
Yes, I will sample anything in a small enough cup.
Where there is need
there is devotion.
I was raised a short walk away. I’ve taken dates to this food court.
In Queens, I am never far.
On bad days, the gas lines stretched further away than my mother’s apartment.
No ocean in sight.
It was my job to push the cart.
I have history.
It’s so nice to have a place.
I read a Korean poem
with the line “Today you are the youngest
you will ever be.” Today I am the oldest
I have been. Today we drink
buckwheat tea. Today I have heat
in my apartment. Today I think
about the word chada in Korean.
It means cold. It means to be filled with.
It means to kick. To wear. Today we’re worn.
Today you wear the cold. Your chilled skin.
My heart kicks on my skin. Someone said
winter has broken his windows. The heat inside
and the cold outside sent lightning across glass.
Today my heart wears you like curtains. Today
it fills with you. The window in my room
is full of leaves ready to fall. Chada, you say. It’s tea.
We drink. It is cold outside.
Javiercito, you’re leaving me tomorrow
when our tortilla-and-milk breaths will whisper
te amo. When I’ll pray the sun won’t devour
your northbound steps. I’m giving you
this conch swallowed with this delta’s
waves and the sound of absorbing sand.
Hold it to your ear. I’m tired
of my children leaving. My love for you
shatters windows with birds. Javiercito,
let your shadow return, alone,
or with sons, but soon. Call me Mamá,
not Abuelita. All my children
learned the names of seasons
from songs. Tonight, leaves fall.
There’s no autumn here. When you mist
into tomorrow’s dawns, at the shore
of somewhere, listen to this conch.
Don’t lose me.
& how we lose ourselves against the new year
burning brighter with each dying
candle, baiting our breaths in the temple’s
dimness. Already, the newborn lantern light
ebbs away from our fluttering fingers, echoing
fireflies mating at dusk. How we used to sink into
grey, muted by the silhouette of a nation
hungering for our heads; our hands clasping
in between gasps for mercy. Tell me, is my
jaded tongue invitation for this prayer of
knives? At night I toil among the reaping ghosts,
listening to the thunder of fireworks my ancestors
mistake for the revolution’s canons. In my family
no spirit escapes the altar where orange incense &
opium drown the cries of a body lingering against
perfumed mortuary of language. Like a daughter, I
quiet the rebellion knotted inside my throat; in
rigor mortis, morning excavates my ashes inside
sutured skies. In every dream, I consider coming clean
through my skin like a shadow, every bare bloodline
unedited & untouched. In every reality, I play
vulture to my native vocabulary; carve the exit
wounds into the spine of teeth, whispering
xīn nián kuài lè in worship of the newness
yellowing the old. Somewhere in the next life, I want to
zip these sacred scars, memorialize the forgotten.