In the dark room he asks me
to change where we have to
bow below the ceiling, coughing
while he draws the sheet hung
to save my modesty, though
I have none to save. I peel off
my wet dress for pants thin
as the pillowcases I slept on
as a girl in Georgia, the purple
tie-dye ballooning my pelvis,
and I knot the remaining cloth
at my navel, fold the sheathing
I arrived inside, seams filled
with smoke, city, into a sharp
black square at the corner
of the single mattress. I can see
his body moving quickly, quietly
lighting candles behind the cot
-ton: divided, we both know not
to speak. This is the last trip
I’ll take with the one I still call
my husband, this man and this
room now a bought hour
of silence from the silence of
my body walking behind another
in Bangkok, and I pleat myself
into the center of the bed, my
calves under my thighs, palms
sweating the lap, the way Asian
women know to wait. He senses
my pinned posture and pulls
the twin sheet back, and for
the first time I see him beyond
instruction, or introduction, how
the small hoods of his eyes drip
into his smooth high cheeks,
his tendonous neck and clavicles
rooting to a person more furtive
than my own. He asks me where
I hurt, everywhere. But more
at my neck and lower back,
because I won’t ask this stranger
to cup the cone of my caged
heart. The springs depress
where he has sunk in to hold
me, his chest at the hump
of my spine, my hands in
his, our fingers entrenched.
He says of our shared, colored
skin same, same, and I say sawat
dee ka because I do not know
how to use the language past
gratitude—my accent broken,
tiger balm spiriting his pores,
and his breath at my neck, the two
candles hunkering blue light
in the corner, and somewhere
below, banned from this dark
room and in the laboring street
is the one who’s forgotten
to touch me, a man framing
in telephoto the smoky arms
of women frying chicken over gel
gas, and the foreheads of girls
hacking durian, their temples
shining, bent to the million
spines at each green shell, their
steel knives unstringing such
soft yellow fruit. Still to come
is a grief so large it will shape into
an estranged and swollen face
cursing me at the next party, our
future folding into our past, wine
staining our hands, our lips.
The sun drops, conspires
to further the darkness of this
blued room, where candles are
shivering in secret. The fan
whirs. The man embracing me
squeezes our four hands, and I
understand the gesture to trust
him. He swings me, cracks my back.
From For Want of Water (Beacon Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Sasha Pimentel. Used with the permission of the poet and Beacon Press.
I wake in the golden belly of this abode
and sense some diurnal grace at work.
I take my body to the fall, to bathe
and anoint my genitals with shea.
I have made my journey to the cold hills
to commune with my people there.
I come for the second beautiful harvest
and have waited long to look into its eye.
The harvest hosts libations, the meal
and my desire—so I drink the deep
heady liquid of its languid stare, under
the hum of many voices: burgeoning
friendships and reunion in the low light.
I break into the soft weirdness of injera
and dip my fingers into the meat stew,
to celebrate the glory of the kings.
The clear splendor of the serving boy,
his slow blink as of a camel, does not
distract me—here to reap but seduced
by the second beautiful harvest.
Copyright © 2019 by Dante Micheaux. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 14, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.
Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see.
I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be.
From Five Poems (Rainmaker Editions, 2002) by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara Walker. Used with permission from The Believer Magazine.
In some other life, I can hear you
breathing: a pale sound like running
fingers through tangled hair. I dreamt
again of swimming in the quarry
& surfaced here when you called for me
in a voice only my sleeping self could
know. Now the dapple of the aspen
respires on the wall & the shades cut
its song a staff of light. Leave me—
that me—in bed with the woman
who said all the sounds for pleasure
were made with vowels I couldn’t
hear. Keep me instead with this small sun
that sips at the sky blue hem of our sheets
then dips & reappears: a drowsy penny
in the belt of Venus, your aureole nodding
slow & copper as it bobs against cotton
in cornflower or clay. What a waste
the groan of the mattress must be
when you backstroke into me & pull
the night up over our heads. Your eyes
are two moons I float beneath & my lungs
fill with a wet hum your hips return.
It’s Sunday—or so you say with both hands
on my chest—& hot breath is the only hymn
whose refrain we can recall. And then you
reach for me like I could’ve been another
man. You make me sing without a sound.
Copyright © 2019 by Meg Day. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 1, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
A stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.
The bridegroom came forth into the porch
With ‘Let us look at the sky,
And question what of the night to be,
Stranger, you and I.’
The woodbine leaves littered the yard,
The woodbine berries were blue,
Autumn, yes, winter was in the wind;
‘Stranger, I wish I knew.’
Within, the bride in the dusk alone
Bent over the open fire,
Her face rose-red with the glowing coal
And the thought of the heart’s desire.
The bridegroom looked at the weary road,
Yet saw but her within,
And wished her heart in a case of gold
And pinned with a silver pin.
The bridegroom thought it little to give
A dole of bread, a purse,
A heartfelt prayer for the poor of God,
Or for the rich a curse;
But whether or not a man was asked
To mar the love of two
By harboring woe in the bridal house,
The bridegroom wished he knew.
This poem appears in the public domain.
translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi
My eye laps at you in lamplight
Like a white hot tongue. Longing
Draws back, then rises, tidal.
The curtain of my hair
Announces my breasts. Your lips:
A languid breeze. Like a miracle
We feast and feast and nothing is spent.
Let flesh attend to flesh, sex to sex.
O, dexterous gold watch of the universe
On which one minute can straddle
A hundred years.
Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith. Used with the permission of the author.
To think that my eyes once could draw your eyes down for a moment, From their lifting and straining up toward the opulent heights— To think that my face was the face you liked best once to look on, When fairer ones softened to pleading ’neath shimmering lights! Regret you? Not I! I am glad that your proud heart disowned me, The while it was lying so sullenly under my feet; Since Love was to you but a snare and a pain, and you knew not Its height and its depth, all unsounded, and soundless, and sweet. Too dark was the shadow that fell from your face bending over me— Too hot was the pant of your breath on the spring of my cheek! I but dimly divined, yet I shrank from the warring of passions So strong that they circled and shook me while leaving you weak. Acknowledge! You knew not aright if you loved me or hated; But you pushed me aside, since I hindered your seeing the heights. They were but the cold, barren peaks up which selfish sould clamber, And for which they surrender the gardens of scented delights. From where I am sitting I watch your lone steps going upward, And to-night I am back in those nights that we knew at the start. I think of your eyes dark with pain, full of thwarted caressings, And suddenly, after these years, from my hold slips my heart! But no matter! There’s too much between us—we cannot go back now I’m glad of it!—yes, I will say it right on to the end!— I’m glad that my once sore-reluctant, tempestuous lover Hasn’t leisure nor heart now to be my most leisurely friend! My lover! Why how you would fling me the word back in fury! Remembering you loved me at arms’ length, in spite of denial; That the protests were double: each went from the struggle unconquered: The hour of soft, silken compliance was not on our dial. You were angry for loving me, all in despite of your reasoning— I was angry because you were able to hold your love down; And jealous—because in the scales of your logic you weighed me, And slighted me for the dry bread of a sordid renown. So I laughed at your loving—I laughed in the teeth of your passion; And I made myself fair, but to stand in you light from sheer malice; Delighting to hold up the brim to the lips that were thirsting, While I scorned to let fall on their dryness one drop from the chalice! Alas, for the lips that are strange to the sweetness of kisses— The kisses we dream of, and cry for, and think on in dying! Alas, for unspoken endearments that stifle the breathing; Since such in the depths of two hearts, never wedded, are lying! You say, “It is best!” but I know that you catch your breath fiercely. I say, “It is best!” but a sob struggles up from my bosom; For out of a million of flowers that our fingers are free of, The one that we care for the most is the never-plucked blossom. Yet, O, my Unbroken, my strong one—too strong for my breaking!— I am glad of the hours when we warred with each other and Love: Though you never drew nearer than once when your hair swept my fingers And their touch flushed your cheek as you bent at my side for my glove. Never mind! I felt kisses that broke through the bitterest sayings. Never mind! since caresses were hid under looks that were proud. Shall we say there’s no moon when she leaves her dear earth in the shadow And hides all her light in the breast of some opportune cloud? Yet this germ of a love—could it ever have bourgeoned to fulness?— For us could there ever have been a sereneness of bliss, With the thorns overtopping our flowers, turning fondness to soreness? Ah, no! ’twas a thousand times better it ended like this! And yet, if I went to you now in the stress of your toiling— If we stood but one moment alone while I looked in your eyes— What a melting of ice there would be! What a quickening of currents! What thrills of despairing delight betwixt claspings and cries!
This poem is in the public domain.
Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.
From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.
His artfully unkempt strawberry blonde head sports outsized headphones. Like a contemporary bust. Behold the innocence of the freckles, ripe pout of cherry lips. As if the mere sight of the world hurts him, he squints greenly and applies saline drops. You dream him crying over you. For the duration of a subway ride you fall blindly in love. Until he exits. Or you exit, returning home to the one you truly love to ravish him.
Copyright © 2013 by Joseph O. Legaspi. From Subways (Thrush Press, 2013). Used with permission of the author.
Up until this sore minute, you could turn the key, pivot away.
But mine is the only medicine now
wherever you go or follow.
The past is so far away, but it flickers,
then cleaves the night. The bones
of the past splinter between our teeth.
This is our life, love. Why did I think
it would be anything less than too much
of everything? I know you remember that cheap motel
on the coast where we drank red wine,
the sea flashing its gold scales as sun
soaked our skin. You said, This must be
what people mean when they say
I could die now. Now
we’re so much closer
to death than we were then. Who isn’t crushed,
stubbed out beneath a clumsy heel?
Who hasn’t stood at the open window,
sleepless, for the solace of the damp air?
I had to get old to carry both buckets
yoked on my shoulders. Sweet
and bitter waters I drink from.
Let me know you, ox you.
I want your scent in my hair.
I want your jokes.
Hang your kisses on all my branches, please.
Sink your fingers into the darkness of my fur.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellen Bass. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 13, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Your curls are soaked in gold but your fingers
cling to my back & could work
a filament & needle through
the gash that leads to the decayed
rafters of a barn
hush the pigeons who coo there
one by one by
breaking their necks
The river smells of September wending
through the dry fields
a blue vein
your thumb traces along a wrist
to the source
I’ve slept with the image of your
arm on my chest
your breath collects in the tiniest
droplets on my neck
but touching myself
to your scalp’s human smell
tarnishes the mirror’s
Another woman holds
your beloved’s hands
You hold me like the blue
of an egg you’ve found
bulging from the grass
Trade your house key for
a clutch of mums
we'll put in water on the sill
Fold your ring
in the chapped hand of a man
waiting by the exit ramp
though the jingle of coins or
a bitten chicken sandwich
Turn to me & lift your hair
I’ll clasp on you a necklace
strung with the heads of snakes
Copyright © 2020 by Kyle Churney. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 7, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Like when, seventeen, I’d slide into your Beetle and you’d head
out of town, summer daylight, and parked among the furrows
of some field, you’d reach for the wool blanket. I knew you’d
maneuver then into the cramped quarters between passenger seat
and glove box, blanket over your head and my lap, where you’d
sweat and sweat until I cried out. Or further back, first winter
of our courtship, nearing curfew, when we’d “watched” Predator again
from the Braden’s lovers’ row, you’d slow to a halt at the last stop sign
before my house. I knew we’d linger under the streetlamp’s acid glow,
and you’d ask if I had to go home. Yes, I’d say, I better, soon—but I
knew you wouldn’t hit the gas, not for the longest time, three minutes,
five, and snow falling and the silent streets carless, I’d lift my top,
you’d unzip my jeans and treat the expanse of soft skin between shirt hem
and underwear like sex itself, your worshipful mouth, my whole body lit
from within and without. Or even further back, how I knew by the first
electric touch of our fingers in that dark theater, like a secret handshake—
I know you, I need you, like an exchange of life force between two
aliens from planets never before joined across the cold, airless terror
of space, that it was on, that it was on and on and on, forever.
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Crowe. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 21, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Now I am all
One bowl of kisses,
Such as the tall
Of Egypt filled
For a God’s excesses.
I lift to you
My bowl of kisses,
And through the temple’s
Cry out to you
In wild caresses.
And to my lips’
Bright crimson rim
The passion slips,
And down my slim
White body drips
The shining hymn.
And still before
The altar I
Exult the bowl
Brimful, and cry
To you to stoop
And drink, Most High.
Oh drink me up
That I may be
Within your cup
Like a mystery,
Like wine that is still
Of you and me
In one fulfill
This poem is in the public domain.
The meek inherit nothing.
God in his tattered coat
this morning, a quiet tongue
in my ear, begging for alms,
cold hands reaching up my skirt.
Little lamb, paupered flock,
bless my black tea with tears.
I have shorn your golden
fleece, worn vast spools
of white lace, glittering jacquard,
gilded fig leaves, jeweled dust
on my skin. Cornsilk hair
in my hems. I have milked
the stout beast of what you call America;
and wear your men across my chest
like furs. Stick-pin fox and snow
blue chinchilla: They too came
to nibble at my door,
the soft pink tangles I trap
them in. Dear watchers in the shadows,
dear thick-thighed fiends. At ease,
please. Tell the hounds who undress
me with their eyes—I have nothing
to hide. I will spread myself
wide. Here, a flash of muscle. Here,
some blood in the hunt. Now the center
of the world: my incandescent cunt.
All hail the dark blooms of amaryllis
and the wild pink Damascus,
my sweet Aphrodite unfolding
in the kink. All hail hot jasmine
in the night; thick syrup
in your mouth, forked dagger
on my tongue. Legions at my heel.
Here at the world’s red mecca,
kneel. Here Eden, here Bethlehem,
here in the cradle of Thebes,
a towering sphinx roams the garden,
her wet dawn devouring.
“Center of the World” first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Poetry. Subsequently published in Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Copyright © 2015 by Safiya Sinclair.
but I remember sitting alone on the brown couch in my grandmother’s living room, couch whose cushion covers were of velvet and the color of dark rust, or dried blood —and sewn by the tailor from up the block, the same one who made me my first light blue suit two years earlier And I sat there running my hands back and forth over the short smooth hairs of the fabric and understanding what touch meant for the first time—not touch, the word, as in don’t touch the hot stove or don’t touch your grandfather’s hats but touch like Tom Jones was singing it right then on the television, with a magic that began in his hips, swiveled the word and pushed it out through his throat into some concert hall somewhere as a two-syllabled sprite, so that women moaned syllables back in return. And I knew I wanted to touch like that because Tom Jones stooped down at the edge of the stage and a woman from the audience in a leopard-print jumpsuit unfurled from her front row seat, walked like a promise of what I couldn’t quite discern up to him and pushed her mouth soft and fast up against his mouth and they both cooed into his microphone mouths still move-moaning together like that for an eternity. And then Tom Jones unlocks his mouth from hers while my breath is still caught in my throat, and moves to the other end of the stage, and squats there, and kisses another woman from the audience in a black jumpsuit, while the first woman looks on, swaying so slightly I almost can’t tell—to the band which is still vamping the chorus line— mesmerized and taut with expectation as I am, palms down on the velvet-haired cushions and Tom pauses, sensing the first woman’s impatient almost-mewling and says Easy Tiger while he moves his mouth against this woman’s, his cheeks working like tiny bellows, before returning to the first one and then the bridge or the chorus or whatever—at that point the song is an afterthought, and I knew there was a mission to be fulfilled—Tom Jones pointed to the women and said touch and the new color TV made everything shimmer with promise so my eight year old body preened and stretched itself against the ecstatic couch and dreamed of what tomorrow could be like if I could make touch mean so many things, if I could make a building or a body coo like this.
Who are you
woman in my dream
kissing me open mouthed
pressing me for ice
we fetch together naked
from the freezer
with bright aluminum tumblers
red deep blue purple
so cold it hurts
lips and teeth and membrane
lacy lattices of ice
shattering on our tongues
who are you
how could I have forgotten
my bright aluminum tumblers
I had to hold with both hands
they couldn’t be broken
even if I dropped them
that’s how little I was
Traveling over your body I found
The failing olive and the cajoling flute,
Where I knelt down, as if in prayer,
And sucked a moist pit
From the marl
Of the earth in a sacred cove.
You gave yourself to the god who comes,
The liberator of the loud shout,
While I fell into a trance,
Blood on my lips,
And stumbled into a temple on top
Of a hill at the bottom of the sky.
I know this room,
and there are corridors:
the pictures, I have seen before;
the statues and those gems in cases
I have wandered by before,—
stood there silent and lonely
in a dream of years ago.
I know the dark of night is all around me;
my eyes are closed, and I am half asleep.
My wife breathes gently at my side.
But once again this old dream is within me,
and I am on the threshold waiting,
wondering, pleased, and fearful.
Where do those doors lead,
what rooms lie beyond them?
But my baby moves and tosses
from side to side,
and her need calls me to her.
Now I stand awake, unseeing,
in the dark,
and I move towards her cot…
I shall not reach her… There is no direction…
I shall walk on…
This poem is in the public domain.
I do not care to talk to you although
Your speech evokes a thousand sympathies,
And all my being’s silent harmonies
Wake trembling into music. When you go
It is as if some sudden, dreadful blow
Had severed all the strings with savage ease.
No, do not talk; but let us rather seize
This intimate gift of silence which we know.
Others may guess your thoughts from what you say,
As storms are guessed from clouds where darkness broods.
To me the very essence of the day
Reveals its inner purpose and its moods;
As poplars feel the rain and then straightway
Reverse their leaves and shimmer through the woods.
This poem is in the public domain.
10. Here on my knees I look for the single animal: you left
ravaged at the edge of a meadow
9. Is everything accounted for? The fingers dipped
beneath the torso—to keep this body bright
8. Every breath we are desperate to take
sounds as if a war lost against a country of promise
7. Discarded halos: the light you remember
in your head—you feed on what is crushed between the teeth
6. America declares these dreams I have every night be re-
dreamed & pressed into names
5. Upended petals of qém’es
abandoned like torn butterfly wings—we’é I pray
4. I pray that nobody
ever hears us
3. An eye gone
bloodshot: I tear through the crisp apple of your throat & find—
2. myself: this—a boy beside a boy. An eyelash
fallen at the base of a valley, our dark bones bursting in-
1. to bloom. I stare into your beloved face & enter: yes,
yes, this nation, under god, its black sky we lay our nightmares to
0. where I am your animal: my Lamb—now eat
Copyright © 2019 by Michael Wasson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 1, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I saw you as I passed last night,
Framed in a sky of gold;
And through the sun’s fast paling light
You seemed a queen of old,
Whose smile was light to all the world
Against the crowding dark.
And in my soul a song there purled—
Re-echoed by the lark.
I saw you as I passed last night,
Your tresses burnished gold,
While in your eyes a happy bright
Gleam of your friendship told.
And I went singing on my way;
On, on into the dark.
But in my heart still shone the day,
And still—still sang the lark.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on July 25, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Friday night I entered a dark corridor rode to the upper floors with men who filled the stainless elevator with their smell. Did you ever make a crystal garden, pour salt into water, keep pouring until nothing more dissolved? A landscape will bloom in that saturation. My daddy's body shop floats to the surface like a submarine. Men with nibblers and tin snips buffing skins, sanding curves under clamp lights. I grew up curled in the window of a 300 SL Gullwing, while men glided on their backs through oily rainbows below me. They torqued lugnuts, flipped fag ends into gravel. Our torch song had one refrain--oh the pain of loving you. Friday nights they'd line the shop sink, naked to the waist, scour down with Ajax, spray water across their necks and up into their armpits. Babies have been conceived on sweat alone-- the buttery scent of a woman's breast, the cumin of a man. From the briny odor of black lunch boxes--cold cuts, pickles, waxed paper--my girl flesh grows. From the raunchy fume of strangers.
From Except By Nature published by Graywolf Press, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Sandra Alcosser. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
I sit beside two women, kitty-corner
to the stage, as Elvin's sticks blur
the club into a blue fantasia.
I thought my body had forgotten the Deep
South, how I'd cross the street
if a woman like these two walked
towards me, as if a cat traversed
my path beneath the evening star.
Which one is wearing jasmine?
If my grandmothers saw me now
they'd say, Boy, the devil never sleeps.
My mind is lost among November
cotton flowers, a soft rain on my face
as Richard Davis plucks the fat notes
of chance on his upright
leaning into the future.
The blonde, the brunette—
which one is scented with jasmine?
I can hear Duke in the right hand
& Basie in the left
as the young piano player
nudges us into the past.
The trumpet's almost kissed
by enough pain. Give him a few more years,
a few more ghosts to embrace—Clifford's
shadow on the edge of the stage.
The sign says, No Talking.
Elvin's guardian angel lingers
at the top of the stairs,
counting each drop of sweat
paid in tribute. The blonde
has her eyes closed, & the brunette
is looking at me. Our bodies
sway to each riff, the jasmine
rising from a valley somewhere
in Egypt, a white moon
opening countless false mouths
of laughter. The midnight
gatherers are boys & girls
with the headlights of trucks
aimed at their backs, because
their small hands refuse to wound
the knowing scent hidden in each bloom.
From Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
I wake up cold, I who Prospered through dreams of heat Wake to their residue, Sweat, and a clinging sheet. My flesh was its own shield: Where it was gashed, it healed. I grew as I explored The body I could trust Even while I adored The risk that made robust, A world of wonders in Each challenge to the skin. I cannot but be sorry The given shield was cracked, My mind reduced to hurry, My flesh reduced and wrecked. I have to change the bed, But catch myself instead Stopped upright where I am Hugging my body to me As if to shield it from The pains that will go through me, As if hands were enough To hold an avalanche off.
From Collected Poems by Thom Gunn. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn.