As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
I imagine when this galloping man gets home
he’s going to want to have sex with his wife,
who slept in late, and then he’ll eat
barbecued ribs and let the baby teethe on a bone
while he drinks a cold dark beer. I can’t stop
wishing my daughter had had a father like that.
I can’t stop wishing I’d had that life. Oh, I know
it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.
It took eight years for my parents to conceive me.
First there was the war and then just waiting.
And my mother’s bones so narrow, she had to be slit
and I airlifted. That anyone is born,
each precarious success from sperm and egg
to zygote, embryo, infant, is a wonder.
And here I am, alive.
Almost seventy years and nothing has killed me.
Not the car I totalled running a stop sign
or the spirochete that screwed into my blood.
Not the tree that fell in the forest exactly
where I was standing—my best friend shoving me
backward so I fell on my ass as it crashed.
And I gave birth to a child.
So she didn’t get a father who’d sling her
onto his shoulder. And so much else she didn’t get.
I’ve cried most of my life over that.
And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.
Yet she is the one who, when I asked her to kill me
if I no longer had my mind—
we were on our way into Ross,
shopping for dresses. That’s something
she likes and they all look adorable on her—
she’s the only one
who didn’t hesitate or refuse
or waver or flinch.
As we strode across the parking lot
she said, O.K., but when’s the cutoff?
That’s what I need to know.
Originally published in The New Yorker. Copyright © 2017 by Ellen Bass. Used with the permission of the poet.
when I dropped my 12-year-old off at her first homecoming dance, I tried not to look her newly-developed breasts, all surprise and alert in their uncertainty. I tried not to imagine her mashed between a young man's curiousness and the gym's sweaty wall. I tried not picture her grinding off beat/on time to the rhythm of a dark manchild; the one who whispered “you are the most beautiful girl in brooklyn” his swag so sincere, she'd easily mistaken him for a god.
Copyright © 2019 by Mahogany L. Browne. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 7, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I call my father during halftime when the Irish are on TV. (Family history: my father called his father from a rotary phone screwed to the wall.) It’s good to hear my father’s voice, to have cellular access to familiar sounds: his admonishments, his praise and anger. (Memory of bedtime songs he’d sing on his guitar: I sing them to my daughter now—Phil Ochs’s “When I’m Gone” and Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song.”) My grandfather, who lived in Indiana, named my father James. I rarely think about it, his having a name—my father, James.
Copyright © 2017 Brian Phillip Whalen. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Spring 2017.
In the first version, Persephone is taken from her mother and the goddess of the earth punishes the earth—this is consistent with what we know of human behavior, that human beings take profound satisfaction in doing harm, particularly unconscious harm: we may call this negative creation. Persephone's initial sojourn in hell continues to be pawed over by scholars who dispute the sensations of the virgin: did she cooperate in her rape, or was she drugged, violated against her will, as happens so often now to modern girls. As is well known, the return of the beloved does not correct the loss of the beloved: Persephone returns home stained with red juice like a character in Hawthorne— I am not certain I will keep this word: is earth "home" to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably, in the bed of the god? Is she at home nowhere? Is she a born wanderer, in other words an existential replica of her own mother, less hamstrung by ideas of causality? You are allowed to like no one, you know. The characters are not people. They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict. Three parts: just as the soul is divided, ego, superego, id. Likewise the three levels of the known world, a kind of diagram that separates heaven from earth from hell. You must ask yourself: where is it snowing? White of forgetfulness, of desecration— It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says Persephone is having sex in hell. Unlike the rest of us, she doesn't know what winter is, only that she is what causes it. She is lying in the bed of Hades. What is in her mind? Is she afraid? Has something blotted out the idea of mind? She does know the earth is run by mothers, this much is certain. She also knows she is not what is called a girl any longer. Regarding incarceration, she believes she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter. The terrible reunions in store for her will take up the rest of her life. When the passion for expiation is chronic, fierce, you do not choose the way you live. You do not live; you are not allowed to die. You drift between earth and death which seem, finally, strangely alike. Scholars tell us that there is no point in knowing what you want when the forces contending over you could kill you. White of forgetfulness, white of safety— They say there is a rift in the human soul which was not constructed to belong entirely to life. Earth asks us to deny this rift, a threat disguised as suggestion— as we have seen in the tale of Persephone which should be read as an argument between the mother and the lover— the daughter is just meat. When death confronts her, she has never seen the meadow without the daisies. Suddenly she is no longer singing her maidenly songs about her mother's beauty and fecundity. Where the rift is, the break is. Song of the earth, song of the mythic vision of eternal life— My soul shattered with the strain of trying to belong to earth— What will you do, when it is your turn in the field with the god?
"Persephone the Wanderer" from Averno by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2006 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
One summer she goes into the field as usual stopping for a bit at the pool where she often looks at herself, to see if she detects any changes. She sees the same person, the horrible mantle of daughterliness still clinging to her. The sun seems, in the water, very close. That's my uncle spying again, she thinks— everything in nature is in some way her relative. I am never alone, she thinks, turning the thought into a prayer. Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer. No one understands anymore how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers. Also that he embraced her, right there, with her uncle watching. She remembers sunlight flashing on his bare arms. This is the last moment she remembers clearly. Then the dark god bore her away. She also remembers, less clearly, the chilling insight that from this moment she couldn't live without him again. The girl who disappears from the pool will never return. A woman will return, looking for the girl she was. She stands by the pool saying, from time to time, I was abducted, but it sounds wrong to her, nothing like what she felt. Then she says, I was not abducted. Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted to escape my body. Even, sometimes, I willed this. But ignorance cannot will knowledge. Ignorance wills something imagined, which it believes exists. All the different nouns— she says them in rotation. Death, husband, god, stranger. Everything sounds so simple, so conventional. I must have been, she thinks, a simple girl. She can't remember herself as that person but she keeps thinking the pool will remember and explain to her the meaning of her prayer so she can understand whether it was answered or not.
"The Myth of Innocence" from Averno by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2006 by Louise Glück. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
And wasn’t that good?
Them at your hips—
isn’t this what God felt when he pressed together
the first Beloved: Everything.
Fever. Vapor. Atman. Pulsus. Finally,
a sin worth hurting for. Finally, a sweet, a
You are mine.
It is hard not to have faith in this:
from the blue-brown clay of night
these two potters crushed and smoothed you
into being—grind, then curve—built your form up—
atlas of bone, fields of muscle,
one breast a fig tree, the other a nightingale,
both Morning and Evening.
O, the beautiful making they do—
of trigger and carve, suffering and stars—
Aren’t they, too, the dark carpenters
of your small church? Have they not burned
on the altar of your belly, eaten the bread
of your thighs, broke you to wine, to ichor,
to nectareous feast?
Haven’t they riveted your wrists, haven’t they
had you at your knees?
And when these hands touched your throat,
showed you how to take the apple and the rib,
how to slip a thumb into your mouth and taste it all,
didn’t you sing out their ninety-nine names—
Zahir, Aleph, Hands-time-seven,
Sphinx, Leonids, locomotura,
Rubidium, August, and September—
And when you cried out, O, Prometheans,
didn’t they bring fire?
These hands, if not gods, then why
when you have come to me, and I have returned you
to that from which you came—bright mud, mineral-salt—
why then do you whisper O, my Hecatonchire. My Centimani.
My hundred-handed one?
On my way home from school up tribal Providence Hill past the Academy ballpark where I could never hope to play I scuffed in the drainage ditch among the sodden seethe of leaves hunting for perfect stones rolled out of glacial time into my pitcher’s hand; then sprinted lickety- split on my magic Keds from a crouching start, scarcely touching the ground with my flying skin as I poured it on for the prize of the mastery over that stretch of road, with no one no where to deny when I flung myself down that on the given course I was the world’s fastest human.
Around the bend that tried to loop me home dawdling came natural across a nettled field riddled with rabbit-life where the bees sank sugar-wells in the trunks of the maples and a stringy old lilac more than two stories tall blazing with mildew remembered a door in the long teeth of the woods. All of it happened slow: brushing the stickseed off, wading through jewelweed strangled by angel’s hair, spotting the print of the deer and the red fox’s scats. Once I owned the key to an umbrageous trail thickened with mosses where flickering presences gave me right of passage as I followed in the steps of straight-backed Massassoit soundlessly heel-and-toe practicing my Indian walk.
Past the abandoned quarry where the pale sun bobbed in the sump of the granite, past copperhead ledge, where the ferns gave foothold, I walked, deliberate, on to the clearing, with the stones in my pocket changing to oracles and my coiled ear tuned to the slightest leaf-stir. I had kept my appointment. There I stood in the shadow, at fifty measured paces, of the inexhaustible oak, tyrant and target, Jehovah of acorns, watchtower of the thunders, that locked King Philip’s War in its annulated core under the cut of my name. Father wherever you are I have only three throws bless my good right arm. In the haze of afternoon, while the air flowed saffron, I played my game for keeps— for love, for poetry, and for eternal life— after the trials of summer.
In the recurring dream my mother stands in her bridal gown under the burning lilac, with Bernard Shaw and Bertie Russell kissing her hands; the house behind her is in ruins; she is wearing an owl’s face and makes barking noises. Her minatory finger points. I pass through the cardboard doorway askew in the field and peer down a well where an albino walrus huffs. He has the gentlest eyes. If the dirt keeps sifting in, staining the water yellow, why should I be blamed? Never try to explain. That single Model A sputtering up the grade unfurled a highway behind where the tanks maneuver, revolving their turrets. In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn. I am looking for the trail. Where is my testing-tree? Give me back my stones!
I stand neither in the wilderness nor fairyland but in the fold of a green hill the tilt from one parish into another. To look at me through a smirr of rain is to taste the iron in your own blood because I hoard the common currency of longing: each wish each secret assignation. My limbs lift, scabbed with greenish coins I draw into my slow wood fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Brittania. Behind me, the land reaches toward the Atlantic. And though I’m poisoned choking on the small change of human hope, daily beaten into me look: I am still alive— in fact, in bud.
Copyright © 2007 by Kathleen Jamie. Reprinted from Waterlight: Selected Poems with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
To the memory of Tahar Djaout*
on the day of his funeral
The earth opens and welcomes you Why these cries, these tears these prayers What have they lost What are they looking for those who trouble your refound peace? The earth opens and welcomes you Now you will converse without witnesses O you have things to tell each other and you'll have eternity to do so Yesterday's words tarnished by the tumult will one by one engrave themselves on silence The earth opens and welcomes you She alone has desired you without you making any advances She has waited for you with Penelopian ruses. Her patience was but goodness and it is goodness brings you back to her The earth opens and welcomes you she won't ask you to account for your ephemeral loves daughters of errancy meat stars conceived in the eyes accorded fruits from the vast orchard of life sovereign passions that make sun in the palm's hollow at the tip of the tipsy tongue The earth opens and welcomes you You are naked She is even more naked than you And you are both beautiful in that silent embrace where the hands know how to hold back to avoid violence where the soul's butterfly turns away from this semblance of light to go in search of its source The earth opens and welcomes you Your loved one will find again some day your legendary smile and the mourning will be over Your children will grow up and will read your poems without shame your country will heal as if by miracle when the men exhausted by illusion will go drink from the fountain of your goodness O my friend sleep well you need it for you have worked hard as an honest man Before leaving you left your desk clean well ordered You turned off the lights said a nice word to the guardian And then as you stepped out you looked at the sky its near-painful blue You elegantly smoothed your mustache telling yourself: only cowards consider death to be an end Sleep well my friend Sleep the sleep of the just let us for awhile carry the burden
Créteil, June 4, 1993
From The World's Embrace by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Victor Reinking, Anne George, and Edris Makward. Translation copyright © 2003 by Victor Reinking, Anne George, and Edris Makward. Reproduced by permission of City Lights Publishers. All rights reserved.
Dedicated to the Poet Agostinho Neto,
President of The People’s Republic of Angola: 1976
I will no longer lightly walk behind
a one of you who fear me:
I plan to give you reasons for your jumpy fits
and facial tics
I will not walk politely on the pavements anymore
and this is dedicated in particular
to those who hear my footsteps
or the insubstantial rattling of my grocery
then turn around
and hurry on
away from this impressive terror I must be:
I plan to blossom bloody on an afternoon
surrounded by my comrades singing
terrible revenge in merciless
I have watched a blind man studying his face.
I have set the table in the evening and sat down
to eat the news.
I have gone to sleep.
There is no one to forgive me.
The dead do not give a damn.
I live like a lover
who drops her dime into the phone
just as the subway shakes into the station
wasting her message
canceling the question of her call:
fulminating or forgetful but late
and always after the fact that could save or
I must become the action of my fate.
How many of my brothers and my sisters
will they kill
before I teach myself
Shall we pick a number?
South Africa for instance:
do we agree that more than ten thousand
in less than a year but that less than
five thousand slaughtered in more than six
WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH ME?
I must become a menace to my enemies.
And if I
if I ever let you slide
who should be extirpated from my universe
who should be cauterized from earth
(lawandorder jerkoffs of the first the
then let my body fail my soul
in its bedeviled lecheries
And if I
if I ever let love go
because the hatred and the whisperings
become a phantom dictate I o-
bey in lieu of impulse and realities
(the blossoming flamingos of my
wild mimosa trees)
then let love freeze me
I must become
I must become a menace to my enemies.
Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.
To bring back a time and place.
A feeling. As in "we are all in this
together." Or "the United States and her allies
fought for Freedom." To bring back.
The experience of killing and getting killed.
Get missed. Get hit. Sun—is it with us. Holiday,
are you with us on this beach today.
Hemisphere of one, my soul, paratrooper,
greatness I house in my body, deepset, my
hands on these triggers—who once could outrun
his brother—consumed with fellow-feeling like a madness that does not
lower its pitch—going to the meeting place,
the spire of the church in Vierville, seen on aerial maps, visible from
eighteen miles out,
if it weren't for fog, and smoke, and groundmist,
the meeting place, the appointed time surging in me,
needing to be pierced—but not me—not me—
only those to the left and right of me—
permit me to let you see me—
Me. Driven half mad but still in biography.
By the shared misery of. Hatred. Training. Trust. Fear.
Listening to the chatter each night of those who survived the day.
There is no other human relationship like it.
At its heart comradeship is an ecstasy.
You will die for an other. You will not consider it a personal
loss. Private Kurt Gabel, 513 Parachute Infantry Regiment—
"The three of us Jake, Joe and I became an entity.
An entity—never to be relinquished, never to be
repeated. An entity is where a man literally insists
on going hungry for another. A man insists on dying for
an other. Protect. Bail out. No regard to
consequence. A mystical concoction." A last piece
of bread. And gladly. You must understand what is meant by
gladly. All armies throughout history have tried
to create this bond among their men. Few succeeded as well
as the paratroop infantry of the U.S. Army,
Rifle Company E, 506th.
Fussell: It can't happen to me. It can happen to me. It is
going to happen to me. Nothing
is going to prevent it.
Webster (to his parents): I am living on borrowed time—
I do not think I shall live through the next jump.
If I don't come back, try not to take it too hard.
I wish I could persuade you to regard death
as casually as we do over here. In the heat of it
you expect it, you are expecting it, you are not surprised
by anything anymore, not surprised when your friend
is machine-gunned in the face. It's not like your life, at home,
where death is so unexpected. (And to mother):
would you prefer for someone else's son to die in the mud?
And there is no way out short of the end of war or the loss
of limb. Any other wound is patched up and you're sent back
to the front. This wound which almost killed him
healed up as well and he went back.
He never volunteered. One cannot volunteer.
If death comes, friend, let it come quick.
And don't play the hero, there is no past or future. Don't play
the hero. Ok. Let's go. Move out. Say goodbye.
Copyright © 2005 by Jorie Graham. From Overlord. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
treatment belongs to water.
it designates the sum of all relations one has with another.
you might say the life schemed between two is treatment.
to treat water is to cure it for consumption, but your
treatment speaks volumes about your desire to bear witness.
to treat you like water, i’d have to assume you as essential and
i aspire to this when i fall in love, that you be my water.
since we are both from here, we are a bit
contaminated, which treatment must consider.
i treat you like an island looks at another and understands
water is power.
i know i’m mixing things, but treatment is the mixture of all
we did to each other when we they took our land, cut down
and distributed our crops.
it isn’t a metaphor when i say crop.
sometimes it’s a metaphor when i talk about us and water.
it’s easy to get confused with so much barnacle language
stuck to our wall.
confusion is a way of getting close.
i come close, fail, and fall in love.
treatment is the sum of all relations had
with each person i knew on this island.
each i loved, to a greater or lesser degree.
if they hurt me or took my shirt,
they are still part of the treaty we signed.
el trato pertenece al agua.
designa la totalidad de relaciones que tienes con otro.
se podría decir que la vida que se trama entre dos es trato.
tratar el agua es curarla para el consumo, pero tu
trato habla volúmenes de tus ganas de presenciarnos.
al tratarte como agua, te asumiría como esencial y cotidiana.
a esto aspiro cuando me enamoro, a que seas mi agua.
como somos los dos de aquí, estamos un poco
contaminados y el trato debe tomarlo en cuenta.
te trato como una isla que mira a otra isla y entiende que el
agua es poder.
sé que mezclo cosas, pero el trato es la mezcla de todas las cosas
que nos hicimos cuando nos quitaron la tierra, talaron nuestros
y repartieron los frutos.
no es metáfora cuando digo fruto.
a veces es metáfora cuando hablo del agua y de nosotros.
es fácil confundirse con tanto lenguaje de percebe
pegado a nuestro muro.
confundirse es una manera de acercarse.
me aproximo, fallo y me enamoro.
el trato es la suma de las relaciones que tuve
con cada persona que conocí en esta isla,
a quienes amé en menor y mayor grado.
si me hirieron o me quitaron la camisa,
igual son parte del trato que firmamos.
From before island is volcano: poems by Raquel Salas Rivera (Beacon Press, 2022). Copyright © 2022 by Raquel Salas Rivera. Used with permission from Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
I once made a diorama from a shoebox
for a man I loved. I was never a crafty person,
but found tiny items at an art store and did my best
to display the beginning bud of our little love,
a scene recreating our first kiss in his basement
apartment, origin story of an eight-year marriage.
In the dollhouse section, I bought a small ceiling fan.
Recreated his black leather couch, even found miniscule
soda cans for the cardboard counters that I cut and glued.
People get weird about divorce. Think it’s contagious.
Think it dirty. I don’t need to make it holy, but it purifies—
It’s clear. Sometimes the science is simple. Sometimes
people love each other but don’t need each other
anymore. Though, I think the tenderness can stay
(if you want it too). I forgive and keep forgiving,
mostly myself. People still ask, what happened?
I know you want a reason, a caution to avoid, but
life rarely tumbles out a cheat sheet. Sometimes
nobody is the monster. I keep seeing him for the first
time at the restaurant off of West End where we met
and worked and giggled at the micros. I keep seeing
his crooked smile and open server book fanned with cash
before we would discover and enter another world
and come back barreling to this one, astronauts
for the better and for the worse, but still spectacular
as we burned back inside this atmosphere to live
separate lives inside other shadow boxes we cannot see.
I remember I said I hate you once when we were driving
back to Nashville, our last long distance. I didn’t mean it.
I said it to hurt him, and it did. I regret that I was capable
of causing pain. I think it’s important to implicate
the self. The knife shouldn’t exit the cake clean.
There is still some residue, some proof of puncture,
some scars you graze to remember the risk.
Copyright © 2021 by Tiana Clark. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 14, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
This fireman comes every afternoon
to the café on the corner
dressed for his shift in clean dark blues
This time it’s the second Wednesday of January
and he’s meeting his daughter again
who must be five or six
and who is always waiting for her father like this
in her charcoal gray plaid skirt
with green and red stripes
She probably comes here straight from school
her glasses a couple nickels thick
By now I know that she can sit (except
for her one leg swinging from the chair)
absolutely still while her father pulls
fighters’ wraps from his work bag
and begins half way down the girl’s forearm
winding the fabric in overlapping spirals
slowly toward her fist then he props
her wrist like a pro on his own hand
unraveling the black cloth weaving it
between her thumb and forefinger
around the palm taut but
not so much that it cuts off the blood then
up the hand and between the other fingers
to protect the knuckles the tough
humpback guppies just under the skin
He does this once with her left then again
to her right To be sure her pops knows he has done
a good job she nods Good job Good
Maybe you’re right I don’t know what love is
A father kisses the top of his daughter’s head
and knocks her glasses cockeyed
He sits back and downs the last of the backwash
in his coffee cup They got 10 minutes to kill
before they walk across the street down the block
and out of sight She wants to test
her dad’s handiwork by throwing
a couple jab-cross combos from her seat
There is nothing in the daughter’s face
that says she is afraid
There is nothing in the father’s face
to say he is not He checks his watch
then holds up his palms as if to show his daughter
that nothing is burning In Philadelphia
there are fires I’ve seen those in my lifetime too
Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Rosal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 23, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
A second death in as many days and I succeed at being
Strong and contained, until the tweet
Where one young brother says I’m not scared of dying,
I’m scared of breaking my mother’s heart. I am flesh
Two rooms down the hall from my mother’s flesh
Holding in my hands the news which is not new and today, at last, I understand
How primal and intelligent her need
To be done with this—
Our sorrow, our joy, anything at all thought ours—
To be done with the almost unavoidable assertion
Of a self she refused
To let her body take on—and to be done
Permanently, by making
A useful choice, through a man made useful by her choosing,
A man of Irish-Scandinavian stock (the only criteria,
I have wondered, in angrier moments), so that
Her boys, my brothers and I, or at least our bodies
Emerged from hers looking Spanish, maybe Greek or Italian.
Three boys, each passing
Closer to her one True North.
When she tells me not to put forward that I am Black, she is saying I love you.
She is saying I want you to live. I see now. When she told my brother she wished
He’d just find a nice blonde girl and settle down, I took her by the face
And, staring into her even-keeled nonchalance,
Told her I love you and you are crazy. Today
I see: I am flesh, I am free
To inhabit my life: to stand, to sit, to breathe, to play tag
Or with a toy gun, to walk away, or to run, to put my hands up, to ask why.
Today on a walk I took to release
How it felt to be shut out—this time,
By the editor of the African diasporic journal
Who asked not me but someone who didn’t know me
Was I Black—
I cross 112th and Amsterdam and suddenly
Am 20 years-old again,
Drunk, out-of-control in pain without knowing
Why, trying to jump a taxi
Because I’d spent my money on booze, and the cop
Whose car pulled into the crosswalk to block me,
To stop me as I ran, gets out and says to me
If you don’t pay the man, I’ll arrest you.
I was underage. I jumped a taxi. I was incoherent and angry.
I did not have the money to pay the man. I was not arrested.
Turning from the news, I complain now to a friend
I don’t know why we (all of us) should want to live—
It’s all so futile and banal. It’s all so pointless, even when it’s good—
As my mother rests inside her safe and dusty room
Next to the man she crossed an ocean to find.
I have thought her wrong
To think that we would need saving. But what do I know
Of having to choose one violence over another? Asleep now
She rests inside her flesh, my father close beside her
On his back, his forearm across his eyes,
He who chose her, too,
And over his own family, he knew to tell us, having learned early
That you must cross whatever line you have to cross.
Copyright © 2018 by Charif Shanahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 24, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.