Tamir Rice, 2002–2014
the boy’s face
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel
of its becoming, a charcoal sunflower
swallowing itself. Who has eyes to see,
or ears to hear? If you could see
what happens fastest, unmaking
the human irreplaceable, a star
falling into complete gravitational
darkness from all points of itself, all this:
the held loved body into which entered
milk and music, honeying the cells of him:
who sang to him, stroked the nap
of the scalp, kissed the flesh-knot
after the cord completed its work
of fueling into him the long history
of those whose suffering
was made more bearable
by the as-yet-unknown of him,
playing alone in some unthinkable
future city, a Cleveland,
whatever that might be.
Two seconds. To elapse:
the arc of joy in the conception bed,
the labor of hands repeated until
the hands no longer required attention,
so that as the woman folded
her hopes for him sank into the fabric
of his shirts and underpants. Down
they go, swirling down into the maw
of a greater dark. Treasure box,
comic books, pocket knife, bell from a lost cat’s collar,
why even begin to enumerate them
when behind every tributary
poured into him comes rushing backward
all he hasn’t been yet. Everything
that boy could have thought or made,
sung or theorized, built on the quavering
but continuous structure
that had preceded him sank into
an absence in the shape of a boy
playing with a plastic gun in a city park
in Ohio, in the middle of the afternoon.
When I say two seconds, I don’t mean the time
it took him to die. I mean the lapse between
the instant the cruiser braked to a halt
on the grass, between that moment
and the one in which the officer fired his weapon.
The two seconds taken to assess the situation.
I believe it is part of the work
of poetry to try on at least
the moment and skin of another,
for this hour I respectfully decline.
I refuse it. May that officer
be visited every night of his life
by an enormity collapsing in front of him
into an incomprehensible bloom,
and the voice that howls out of it.
If this is no poem then…
But that voice—erased boy,
beloved of time, who did nothing
to no one and became
nothing because of it—I know that voice
is one of the things we call poetry.
It isn’t to his killer he’s speaking.
"In Two Seconds: Tamir Rice, 2002-2014" previously appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of American Poetry Review. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Doty. Used with permission of the author.
& I found it at the bottom of an american river—& in
the leaves which gathered at its surface’s semblance
of stillness, appearing & not so, as if endless
though counted for, & I found it not in the beams
of light, but how, electric & frantic, they danced beneath
the water, like a choreography preceding any notion of
body, or unknowable twins returning to the half-self
they could have never imagined & I found it in that half
-liminal light, divined into fractal’s endless—before split
& risen, before splay & tempt, before
womblessness became an american sadness & I found it
in my mother’s breath, her reek of rivers still
enough to pass as reflection & in the smogged
aftermath of filter & filter &, I found it—there,
yes, there: in the wilderness rotting
at the center of me—crater of me, tender cesspool
unaccounted for, unnameable aside from the complacency
of latex & in the tempt of men I will
not fable, not legend, or border between. Because I cannot
taint this dark with all the names
they could not give me, the only crown I reach for
is felled kingdom—this is how I fawn
the toxic, flora. But is this not the first
motion, of arriving at a pastoral: to have
a past to run from? Though the Anthropocene of me
is memoryless as a pathing wind, as prayer’s
barter. Gethsemane of me, I beg of you a fruit
half-bitten & worm writhed—first language, bitter
prosody of me. This is the only fall my body
can muster: eclipse of. Lone, knowable
nightfall. I cannot return to a weightless less american
than this, the pulled into: body
of me. Poisoning eucharist
of. Take me into the canon’s night & may it be a good,
good night—& may that night be anything, anything but
a mouth—anything but a body of—
Copyright © 2021 by George Abraham. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 1, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
The cat releases his urine on
your side of the bed
where it neatly
pools in the indention
you nightly rest your head
How am I to infer this male urine?
A stream of (un)consciousness?
Relief(-lease) to my neuroses?
A psychoanalytical sweet caress?
The cat releases his yearning
on my side of the bed
Westernized tentacles of Thought
Colon(-ized) instinctual urges
s(M)other the Matriarch’s head
My dynamic unconscious reaches
to strangle the cat, my past life
extends a hand to stroke fixations,
relief with each sleek touch
The cat (wise old man) releases his Jungian
approach, vicissitudes flood my bed-
lam. The body politic morphs, treaty lines
blackened with cedar charcoal. Your
Urban Indian complex(ations), fix(you)ations thunder and split
Copyright © 2021 by Esther Belin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 25, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
I grew up in South Korea during the US-backed military dictatorship. I was born a year after General Park Chung Hee led a military coup and came into power. My father filmed the day of martial-law declaration in front of Seoul City Hall. Back then, he worked as a freelance photojournalist for UPI. The saluting lieutenant general is one of Park’s collaborators. The man in the background below the window, holding a small camera in front of his face, is most likely a police or intelligence officer. My father is at the bottom left, holding his film camera. After the parade, my father was briefly taken into the building where he stood face-to-face with Park. My father said that he was not afraid. He said he wasn’t afraid of Syngman Rhee, the previous dictatorial president, either. He wasn’t afraid of anything then, he said; instead, he complained to Park about the censorship of the news. That day his film made it out of Kimpo Airport to Tokyo, and his news footage appeared worldwide. Because I was an infant, I have no memory of this infamous day except through my father’s memory. Memory’s memory. Memory’s child. My memory lives inside my father’s camera, the site where my memory was born, where my retina and my father’s overlap. When I was old enough, I always accompanied my mother to the airport to greet my father, who returned home every three to five months from Vietnam. Overlapping memory always longs for return, the return of memory.
What I remember about my childhood are the children, no older than I, who used to come around late afternoons begging for leftovers, even food that had gone sour. The drills at school in preparation for attacks by North Korea kept me anxious at night. I feared separation from my family due to the ever-pending war. I feared what my mother feared—my brother being swept up in protests and getting arrested and tortured. Our radio was turned off at night in case we were suspected of being North Korean sympathizers. At school, former North Korean spies came to give talks on the evil leader of North Korea. I stood at bus stops to see if I could spot any North Korean spies, but all I could spot were American GIs. My friends and I waved to them and called them Hellos. In our little courtyard, I skipped rope and played house with my paper dolls among big, glazed jars of fermented veggies and spicy, pungent pastes. I feared the shadows they cast along the path to the outhouse. Stories of abandoned infant girls always piqued my interest, so I imagined that the abandoned babies might be inside the jars. Whenever I obeyed the shadows, I saw tiny, floating arms covered in mold. And whenever it snowed, I made tiny snowmen on the covers of the jars. Like rats, children can be happy in darkness. But the biggest darkness of all was the midnight curfew. I didn’t know the curfew was a curfew till my family escaped from it in 1972 and landed in Hong Kong. That’s how big the darkness was.
In 1980, my father filmed the rising waves of student protests against the dictatorship in Seoul. He also witnessed the beginning of the brutal military crackdown on the pro-democratic movement in Gwangju. He believed then that the dictatorship would never end and that it would be too dangerous for us to return home. He sold one of his cameras to pay for surgery when my older brother was injured during his mandatory military service. He gave the South Korean government news footage of a student protest in downtown Seoul he had filmed—from far away, from a rooftop—in exchange for the release of my injured brother from the military and a permit to leave South Korea. He believed that he was saving us from a life of perpetual darkness. In 1983, my family scattered all over, as my mother said. My parents and my younger brother headed to West Germany. My sister remained in Hong Kong, my older brother left for Australia, and I went to the US as a foreign student to complete my degrees in art. In light, we all were ailing from separation and homesickness. In light, we had to find a way to settle down, as my mother said. In light, we lived like birds.
In December 2016, I returned to South Korea. I returned in the guise of a translator, which is to say, I returned as a foreigner. And as a foreigner, I was invisible to most. I flittered about in downtown Seoul searching for my child self that had been left behind long ago. As a foreigner, I understood only the language of wings—the wings on totem animals on old palaces where I used to run around and play. The traditional tiled roofs I grew up beneath had grown wings, as had the mountain peaks behind Gwanghwamun Square. They no longer recognized me in a crowd of other foreigners—tourists, rather. Nevertheless, I went on searching for more wings, my language of return.
From DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020) by Don Mee Choi. Copyright © 2020 by Don Mee Choi. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Wave Books, wavepoetry.com.
We should have a land of sun,
Of gorgeous sun,
And a land of fragrant water
Where the twilight is a soft bandanna handkerchief
Of rose and gold,
And not this land
Where life is cold.
We should have a land of trees,
Of tall thick trees,
Bowed down with chattering parrots
Brilliant as the day,
And not this land where birds are gray.
Ah, we should have a land of joy,
Of love and joy and wine and song,
And not this land where joy is wrong.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 19, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
By which a strip of land became a hole in time
Grandfather I cannot find,
flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,
what country do you belong to:
where is your body buried,
where did your soul go
when the road led nowhere?
Grandfather I’ll never know,
the moment father last saw you
rips open a wormhole
that has no end: the hours
became years, the years
forever: and on the other side
lies a memory of a memory
or a dream of a dream of a dream
of another life, where what happened
never happened, what cannot come true
comes true: and neither erases
the other, or the other others,
world after world, to infinity—
If only I could cross the border
and find you there,
find you anywhere,
as if you could tell me who he is, or was,
or might have become:
no bloodshot eyes, or broken
bottles, or praying with cracked lips
because the past is past and was is not is—
give me back my father—
or not back, not back, give me the father
I might have had:
there, in the country that no longer exists,
on the other side of the war—
Copyright © 2019 by Suji Kwock Kim. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 6, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I don't mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,
The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.
Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion--pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.
Look at you, chopping and weeping. Idiot.
Is this the way you go through life, your mind
A stopless knife, driven by your fantasy of truth,
Of lasting union--slashing away skin after skin
From things, ruin and tears your only signs
Of progress? Enough is enough.
You must not grieve that the world is glimpsed
Through veils. How else can it be seen?
How will you rip away the veil of the eye, the veil
That you are, you who want to grasp the heart
Of things, hungry to know where meaning
Lies. Taste what you hold in your hands: onion-juice,
Yellow peels, my stinging shreds. You are the one
In pieces. Whatever you meant to love, in meaning to
You changed yourself: you are not who you are,
Your soul cut moment to moment by a blade
Of fresh desire, the ground sown with abandoned skins.
And at your inmost circle, what? A core that is
Not one. Poor fool, you are divided at the heart,
Lost in its maze of chambers, blood, and love,
A heart that will one day beat you to death.
From Notes from the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim. Copyright © 2003 by Suji Kwock Kim. Reproduced with permission of Louisiana State University Press. All rights reserved.
Out of albumen and blood, out of amniotic brine, placental sea-swell, trough, salt-spume and foam, you came to us infinitely far, little traveler, from the other world— skull-keel and heel-hull socketed to pelvic cradle, rib-rigging, bowsprit-spine, driftwood-bone, the ship of you scudding wave after wave of what-might-never-have-been. Memory, stay faithful to this moment, which will never return: may I never forget when we first saw you, there on the other side, still fish-gilled, water-lunged, your eelgrass-hair and seahorse-skeleton floating in the sonogram screen like a ghost from tomorrow, moth-breath quicksilver in snowy pixels, fists in sleep-twitch, not yet alive but not not, you who were and were not, a thunder of bloodbeats sutured in green jags on the ultrasound machine like hooves galloping from eternity to time, feet kicking bone-creel and womb-wall, while we waited, never to waken in that world again, the world without the shadow of your death, with no you or not-you, no is or was or might-have-been or never-were. May I never forget when we first saw you in your afterlife which was life, soaked otter-pelt and swan-down crowning, face cauled in blood and mucus-mud, eyes soldered shut, wet birth-cord rooting you from one world to the next, you who might not have lived, might never have been born, like all the others, as we looked at every pock and crook of your skull, every clotted hair, seal-slick on your blue-black scalp, every lash, every nail, every pore, every breath, with so much wonder that wonder is not the word—
Copyright © 2018 by Suji Kwock Kim. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 4, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
Qawem ya sha’abi, qawemhum. Resist my people, resist them.
Hawaiians are still here. We are still creating, still resisting.
Stand in rage as wind and current clash
rile lightning and thunder
fire surge and boulder crash
Let the ocean eat and scrape away these walls
Let the sand swallow their fences whole
Let the air between us split the atmosphere
We have no land No country
But we have these bodies these stories
this language of rage left
This resistance is bitter
and tastes like medicine Our lands
replanted in the dark and warm there
We unfurl our tangled roots stretch
to blow salt across
blurred borders of memory
They made themselves
fences and bullets checkpoints
gates and guardposts martial law
They made themselves
hotels and mansions adverse
possession eminent domain and deeds
They made themselves
through the plunder
They say we can never— They say
we will never—because
and the hills and mountains have been
mined for rock walls the reefs
pillaged for coral floors
They say we can never—
and the deserts and dunes have been
shoveled and taken for their houses and highways—
because we can never— because
the forests have been raided razed
and scorched and we we the wards
refugees houseless present-
absentees recognition refusers exiled
uncivilized disposable natives
our springs and streams have been
dammed—so they say we can never return
let it go accept this
progress stop living
in the past—
but we make ourselves
strong enough to carry all of our dead
engrave their names in the clouds
We gather to sing whole villages awake
We crouch down to eat rocks like fruit
to hold the dirt the sand in our hands
to fling words
the way fat drops of rain
splatter off tarp or corrugated roofs
We remember the sweetness We rise from the plunder
They say there is no return
they never could really make us leave
Copyright © 2021 by Brandy Nālani McDougall. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 23, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
What is home:
it is the shade of trees on my way to school
before they were uprooted.
It is my grandparents’ black-and-white wedding
photo before the walls crumbled.
It is my uncle’s prayer rug, where dozens of ants
slept on wintry nights, before it was looted and
put in a museum.
It is the oven my mother used to bake bread and
roast chicken before a bomb reduced our house
It is the café where I watched football matches
My child stops me: Can a four-letter word hold
all of these?
From Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear by Mosab Abu Taha. Copyright © 2022 by Mosab Abu Taha. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of City Lights Publishers.