slides down into my body, soft
lambs wool, what everybody
in school is wearing, and for me
to have it my mother worked twenty
hours at the fast-food joint.
The sweater fits like a lover,
sleeves snug, thin on the waist.
As I run my fingers through the knit,
I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
dipping a strainer full of stringed potatoes.
In a twenty hour period my mother waits
on hundreds of customers: she pushes
each order under ninety seconds, slaps
the refried beans she mashed during prep time,
the lull before rush hours, onto steamed tortillas,
the room's pressing heat melting her make-up.
Every clean strand of weave becomes a question.
How many burritos can one make in a continuous day?
How many pounds of onions, lettuce and tomatoes
pass through the slicer? How do her wrists
sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping
of meat patties? And twenty
hours are merely links
in the chain of days startlingly similar,
that begin in the blue morning with my mother
putting on her polyester uniform, which,
even when it's newly-washed, smells
of mashed beans and cooked ground beef.
Copyright © 2014 by Joseph O. Legaspi. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
I love a white v-neck t-shirt
on you: two cotton strips racing
to a point they both arrived at: there
vigor barely contained, flaming hair,
collarless, fenced-in skin that shines.
Cool drop of hem, soft & lived-in,
so unlike my father, to bed you go,
flushed with fur in a rabbit’s burrow
or nest for a flightless bird, brooding.
Let me be that endangered species,
huddled in the vessel of the inverted
triangle: gaped mouth of a great white
fish on the verge of striking, poised
to devour & feed on skin, on all.
Copyright © 2016 by Joseph O. Legaspi. From Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014). Used with permission of the author.
You walk through Heaven anywhere to any-
where on that soft green grass or nowhere it
Don’t matter anywhere you walk a bright
And cool and it’s about a foot-wide stream of
The cleanest water anywhere with each
Step you take parts the grass beside you
On your left side if you’re left-handed
And on your right side otherwise just reach
Down if you’re thirsty or you’re dirty or
You’re hot they got the sun in Heaven still
And folks get hot sometimes me sometimes I
Walk just to see the stream appear
Sometimes I lead it through my name on Earth I couldn’t spell
My name now my great thirst has been revealed to me
Copyright © 2019 Shane McCrae. This poem originally appeared in Kenyon Review, March/April 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Even the gods misuse the unfolding blue. Even the gods misread the windflower’s nod toward sunlight as consent to consume. Still, you envy the horse that draws their chariot. Bone of their bone. The wilting mash of air alone keeps you from scaling Olympus with gifts of dead or dying things dangling from your mouth—your breath, like the sea, inching away. It is rumored gods grow where the blood of a hanged man drips. You insist on being this man. The gods abuse your grace. Still, you’d rather live among the clear, cloudless white, enjoying what is left of their ambrosia. Who should be happy this time? Who brings cake to whom? Pray the gods do not misquote your covetous pulse for chaos, the black from which they were conceived. Even the eyes of gods must adjust to light. Even gods have gods.
Copyright © 2017 by Nicole Sealey. Originally published in Ploughshares. Used with permission of the author.
The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.
From The Wild Iris, published by Ecco Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Louise Glück. All rights reserved. Used with permission. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on October 10, 2020.
I give up touch. My hand holds stems
of air, while I remember
the long hair I wore
as a not-girl child.
I give up touch to feel
safe in a body. How could I be
the girl they saw the man
I am? Somewhere beyond language
we are touching
only the long hair
of the cool stream
meeting the lake
and I remember
sky when I look down
into its surface, my face
only veil, and below, rocks fish
my shadow. My pulse. Sun and moon
set and rise. Everywhere branches
tangle. Mist from the lake
catches in my beard. Once a butterfly
rested there. The moment I said I’m not
a flower, she lifted away
and I was all bloom.
What is our essence and who
drinks its nectar? A small god
surely lives in my throat
a kind of temple. I have fed him flesh
from the forest floor
and he cradles my eyes
and he grows me up
into the green
of trees. I know
he’s gold though he’s only ever been
visible in dreams. He appears
as my mother, childhood
pets, a first love, a ghost
story whispered over flashlight
in a backyard tent, neighbors
whose names I’ve lost.
Here is where I try to hear him.
Here is where I study how to love him
bring him elderberry, oxeye
daisy, row of purple
slug, mock orange, morning
glory, mountain lettuce.
It rains here often. I learn to be water
in a garden. A handsome solitude is not the same
as loneliness. It’s here I call my little gold god
Copyright © 2020 by Ely Shipley. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 22, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
For 7 days and 7 nights, I’ve been shooting free throws
The doctor said I needed focus
There is no net because some guy tried hanging himself from it
But the moonlight betrayed him
In the courtyard where we sit, a dandelion grows
I see you’re uncomfortable. Ignore these
blood-brick walls, cemented ground, nurse station window
There’s forgiveness here. And I need to apologize
You’re seeing me in these weed-green scrubs, bone-cloth robe
I unscrewed the roof from our home
swallowed all the memories
Did I tell you the cops wrote “superficial cuts” in their report?
They didn’t understand when I said
I needed something red. They didn’t understand when I said
I needed to paint my chest vermillion
I’m scared to go home. Have I told you that?
I’ve always been
I keep having a nightmare where my hands grow into copper antlers
I keep having this nightmare where I hold
a dandelion in one hand, a robin in the other
I made you something during craft hour. A paint-by-numbers thing
Two deer in a winter forest full of birch trees
Look, a tiny spot of orange. Hunter orange
Blaze orange. See the buck? His antlers are still velvet
See how strong he’s standing? No, wait
his right front leg is soft on the ground. No
He’s not standing, he’s kneeling. Only,
He’s not kneeling
He’s fallen. Notice
There’s only one deer now and he’s still
His tongue juts from the corner of his mouth
His eyes are focused on me
Wait, his head is missing. The antlers are gone. Everything
Is gone. There’s a bright streak
of red screaming across the snow
There are only shadows now and boot prints. There’s only snow
I made you something during craft hour
A cheap paint-by-numbers rip-off of O’Keeffe
A forest of birch trees but the math of it all didn’t make sense
So I painted the numbers blank, then left
I couldn’t focus so I went and shot free throws
I thought about the man who tried hanging himself
How afraid he must have been about going home
That dandelion is his ghost. His head
A thousand yellow florets, burning. The sun
Never felt so good. I’m glad you’re here.
Copyright © 2016 b: william bearheart. This poem originally appeared in Boston Review. Reprinted with the permission of Carrie Bearheart.
I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired
No more turned cheek
No more patience for the obstruction
of black woman’s right to vote
& plant & feed her family
Equality will cost you your luxurious life
If a Black woman can’t vote
If a brown baby can’t be fed
If we all don’t have the same opportunity America promised
Ain’t no mountain boulder enough
to wan off a determined woman
Look at my hands
Each palm holds a history
of the 16 shots that chased me
harm free from a plantation shack
Look at my eyes
Both these are windows
these little lights of mine
Nothing but death can stop me
from marching out a jail cell still a free woman
Nothing but death can stop me from running for Congress
No black jack beating will stop my feet from working
& my heart from swelling
& my mouth from praying
America! you will learn freedom feels like
butter beans, potatoes & cotton seeds
picked by my sturdy hands
Victoria Gray, Anna Divine & Me
In our rightful seats on the house floor
Until my children
& my children’s children
& they babies too
can March & vote
& get back in interest
what was planted
in this blessed land
I ain’t stopping America
I ain’t stopping America
Not even death can take away from my woman’s hands
what I’ve rightfully earned
Copyright © 2019 by Mahogany Browne. Originally featured in Vibe. Used with permission of the author.