My white therapist calls it my edge, I hear
Angry Black Woman. She says, Strength
of Willful Negative Focus. She says, Acerbic
Intellectual Temperament. I copy her words
onto an index card. She wants
an origin story, a stranger with his hand
inside me, or worse. I’m without
linear narrative and cannot sate her. We
perform rituals on her living room floor. I burn
letters brimming with resentments, watch
the paper ember in the fireplace, admit
I don’t want to let this go. What if anger,
my armor, is embedded in the marrow
of who I am. Who can I learn to be
without it? Wherever you go,
there you are. She asks what I will lose
if I surrender, I imagine a gutted fish,
silvery skin gleaming, emptied of itself—
When the bottle of hot sauce shattered in the kitchen he stood in the doorframe, shook his head at the mess. Not worried if I was injured, mostly curious at what else it was I’d broken. You are so clumsy with the things you hold, he never said. The red stain on my chest bloomed pungent, soaked any apology. I used his shirt, the one I slept in, to wipe the counter and pale-colored kitchen floor. That night and the next for a straight week as he prepared boxes to leave I hunched and scrubbed the tiles. Couldn’t rid myself of the things that I’d sullied, of the look he left behind.
So what if the old man on the bus is trying and failing to remember his dead mom’s face, as if the past were not a cartoon tunnel scratched on a wall? He’s still trying, and when did we forget our cattle-shoes and feather-parkas, how we carry with us a lowing sadness, an extinguished memory of flight? Today I’m going to count all the blackbirds between the prison and the Walmart where, right now, in its galloping sadness a bald man who sounds like a car horn is hector-lecturing his infant-hushing girlfriend—as her unhappiness, radiant as a cleat, sharp as an ice skate, sprays to a sudden stop. Right now, at the emergency crisis center right next to the gun store, the nurse feels entombed in hours like a fly in amber as the waiting room TVs spin despair’s golden honey— and I think of the ice I waded out on as a kid, of how often the world seems like it’s going to shatter, but then, miraculously, mercilessly, does not.
English is your fourth language
the baby of the family
the one your mouth spoils
favorite by default
who may one day be sold off by its siblings
in hopes to never return
all of your other tongues have grown jealous
your country has over 200 dialects
that’s over 200 ways
to say Love
to say family
to say I am a song
to say I belong to something
that does not want to kill me
& does not want to siphon the gold from my
blood or the stories from my bones
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.
My love is as ancient as my blood.
And of course my blood is still mine
because a woman, sweetened black
with good song, pulled me from the river
like an axe pulled back from the bark.
I learned love, first, as scar.
And of course my love is only mine
because I found the nerve to say it is.
Ha, My love is mine.
But was first my mother’s. Not the how
but the why. But was first her mother’s.
Not the how but the why.
Not the how; Not the how; Not the how;
Not the how; Not the how; Not the how.
I am bored with this beat. I seek
a different dance toward death.
Lord, listen up. Lean in:
I crave a love that happens as sweetly
as it was named. If love must be swung,
let it soften. Not split.
After Hanif Abdurraqib & Frank O’Hara It is the last class of the day & I am teaching a classroom of sixth graders about poetry & across town a man has walked into a Starbucks & blown himself up while some other men throw grenades in the street & shoot into the crowd of civilians & I am 27 years old which means I am the only person in this room who was alive when this happened in New York City & I was in eighth grade & sitting in my classroom for the first class of the day & I made a joke about how mad everyone was going to be at the pilot who messed up & later added, how stupid do you have to be for it to happen twice? & the sixth graders are practicing listing sensory details & somebody calls out blue skies as a sight they love & nobody in this classroom knows what has happened yet & they do not know that the school is in lockdown which is a word we did not have when I was in sixth grade & the whole class is laughing because a boy has called out dog poop as a smell he does not like & what is a boy if not a glowing thing learning what he can get away with & I was once a girl in a classroom on the lucky side of town who did not know what had happened yet & electrical fire is a smell I did not know I did not like until my neighborhood smelled that way for weeks & blue skies is a sight I have never trusted again & poetry is what I reached for in the days when the ash would not stop falling & there is a sixth grade girl in this classroom whose father is in that Starbucks & she does not know what has happened yet & what is a girl if not a pulsing thing learning what the world will take from her & what if I am still a girl sitting in my classroom on the lucky side of town making a careless joke looking at the teacher for some kind of answer & what if I am also the teacher without any answers looking back at myself & what is an adult if not a terrified thing desperate to protect something you cannot save? & how lucky do you have to be for it to miss you twice? & tomorrow a sixth grade girl will come to class while her father has the shrapnel pulled from his body & maybe she will reach for poetry & the sky outside the classroom is so terribly blue & the students are quiet & looking at me & waiting for a grown-up or a poem or an answer or a bell to ring & the bell rings & they float up from their seats like tiny ghosts & are gone
I love two dogs, even when they’re killing a baby possum near the columbines, shaking the varmint until the death squeal chokes to a gargle, and both dogs stand before the bloody marsupial nosing it to move, because that’s Nature, right? (And whom did I just ask whether that was right?) (And what’s a moral quandary for a possum?) I love the dog who leans, matter-of-fact in her need, and the big smile of the small Pit Bull. But when I am a hummingbird, finally, I will beat my wings eighty times per second, thousands of seconds and eighty thousands and thousands of my splendiferous beating wings, faster than all of the eighty thousand beautiful things in the world, and no one will stop me or catch me or take my picture, I will be too fast, and I will dive into the meat of the possum and beat there, the mean, bloody thing alive again.
my roommate one year in college would say of my smallness that any man who found me attractive had a trace of the pedophilic & i would shrink newly girled twenty-one with my eyebrows plucked to grownup arches sprouting back every three weeks in sharp little shoots already men have tried to steal me in their taxis corral me into alleyways of the new city already the demand for my name though no one ever asks how old i am though no one ever did i feel creaking & ancient in the repetition of it all i feel my girlhood gone for generations my entire line of blood crowded with exhausted women their unlined faces frozen in time with only a thickness about the waist a small shoot of gray to belie the years i make up names to hand to strangers at parties i trim years from my age & share without being asked that i am fifteen seventeen & no one blinks no one stops wanting i am disappeared like all the girls before me around me all the girls to come everyone thinks i am a little girl & still they hunt me still they show their teeth i am so tired i am one thousand years old one thousand years older when touched
Love me stupid. Love me terrible. And when I am no mountain but rather a monsoon of imperfect thunder love me. When I am blue in my face from swallowing myself yet wearing my best heart even if my best heart is a century of hunger an angry mule breathing hard or perhaps even hopeful. A small sun. Little & bright.
the gone did not go so that we’d endure plucking grapes from the potato salad we did not stretch Frankie Beverly’s voice like a tent across this humble meadow of amber folk sipping gold sun through skin rejoicing over their continued breath just for you to invite anyone in able to pause the bloody legacy and distract your eyes with a flimsy act you break all the unwritten covenants forged in the saved language of unmarked graves those called to eat are those who starved with us and not those whose mouths still water when watching the grill’s flame lick Uncle’s arm
A metal bunk bed A mattress and hard pillow Two lockers and one desk A toilet and sink A door that is closed Heat out the vent and it’s hot I’m sweating, yet it’s cold A night light on, yet it’s dark A sheet covers me Yet I want more than a sheet The floor is cold Yet I need more than heat A window, but it’s closed A mirror, but it's fogged A mind full of thoughts A heart of love that feels clogged A rush to go, yet I’m here I say I smile, but it’s a tear I say I’m relaxed, but I’m tense I say I’m free, but see a fence
I told a million lies now it’s time to tell a single truth Sometimes I cry It’s hard dealing with my pride Not knowing whether to fight or flee Sometimes I cry Hard to maintain this image of a tough guy When deep down inside I am terrified If I ever told you I wasn’t scared I lied Struggling to make it back To society and my family I cry I cry for my son who I barely see Due to these mountains And me and his mom’s beef I cry for my siblings who never knew their older brother Because he stayed in the streets I cry for my grandma who is now deceased I cry for my life, half of which they took for me I cry for my anger and rage The only emotions I can show in this place I cry for how we treat each other inside these walls I cry for the lack of unity we have most of all When will it end I want to know Till then all I can do is let these tears flow
I've been fighting a War Within Myself all my life, Tired of the hurt, the pain, the strife. Anger consumes me from day to day, Cellies now walking on eggshells, unsure of what to say. I do pray each night for the peace that I need in my heart, I need it before I tear what friendships I have apart. Prison has a funny way of doing some things, Leaves me wondering what tomorrow may bring. I'm tired of the hate, anger and pain that I feel, I just want my heart and soul to be healed. I want to be able to simply laugh at a joke, I need someone to help me before I lose all hope. My heart is almost completely hardened with what I've been through, I need someone, anyone, maybe that someone is you. I'm fighting a War Within Myself, and I'm so tired, So nervous, scared, like I'm on a high tight wire. I hope that I don't fall before someone catches me, But then again... maybe it's my destiny.
The worst pain I’ve ever felt was looking at you, reach for me through a video screen and I couldn’t touch you; right then, I knew what it felt like to die, a living death—
Guilty Guilty Guilty for actions that took my sympathy Shackles around my wrist shackles at my feet Prom and high school graduation these eyes will never see My heart said, Oh well At least you will no longer have to endure your daily home abuse I grew into a woman unbalanced behind those wire fences Recall (3xs) that’s all I knew Always committing some illegal offenses straight to the SHU These eyes have seen the bottom of boots, Mace in the face, The heavy blue dress while people watch you 24hrs a day, A lock in a sock, Shall I go on? My heart was always heavy when I constantly placed myself back in the same abuse I thought I would escape I knew I had something in me worth showing the world, but what? Fighting my demons was real tuff A peaceful life didn’t feel so ruff I opened my mouth and people was shocked That I could read, count, think, understand, listen, play chess, learn a trade They started to see my worth My eyes have seen a life the majority would have failed surviving Rape, abuse, homelessness, parent-less, drugs, prison, mental health, failure My heart became strong enough to finally love myself And I finally looked up to the woman in the mirror
The war was all over my hands. I held the war and I watched them die in high-definition. I could watch anyone die, but I looked away. Still, I wore the war on my back. I put it on every morning. I walked the dogs and they too wore the war. The sky overhead was clear or it was cloudy or it rained or it snowed, and I was rarely afraid of what would fall from it. I worried about what to do with my car, or how much I could send my great-aunt this month and the next. I ate my hamburger, I ate my pizza, I ate a salad or lentil soup, and this too was the war. At times I was able to forget that I was on the wrong side of the war, my money and my typing and sleeping sound at night. I never learned how to get free. I never learned how not to have anyone’s blood on my own soft hands.
after a bottle of chianti Don’t mistake me, I’ve pondered this before. But tonight I’m serious. One bottle and the end is certain. Tomorrow: Lawyer. Boxes. Road map. More wine. while walking the dog Paris won’t even notice. I’ll feed the pup, pack a quick bag, take out the trash, and slip away into the night. Home to Sparta. Or Santa Monica. An island off the southernmost tip of Peru. Disappear. Like fog from a mirror. while paying the bills Guess I’ll have to give up that whole new career plan. Academic dreams. House-and-yard dreams. Stay on like this a few more years. Or forever. Face the bottomless nights in solitude. Wither. Drink. Write poems about dead ends. Drink more. Work. Pay rent. End. when Paris comes home drunk Call Clytemnestra. Make a plan. Move a few things into Clym’s spare room, storage for the rest. Set up arbitration. File what needs to be filed. Head to Athens. Or back to Crown Heights. Maybe find a roommate in Fort Greene. All I know is out out out. Sure, I can blame the past or the scotch or my own smartmouth or my worst rage, but blame is a word. I need a weapon. when Menelaus writes a letter As if. from the ocean floor Bathtub. Ocean. Whichever. All this water. Yes, Paris pulled me from the ruby tub. Menelaus fed me to the river a year before that. Metaphorical, and not at all. O, a girl and her water. Such romance. Gaudy. And gauche. How do I leave what cared enough to keep me? What of those goddamn ships? That ridiculous horse? All those men? Now, wretched little me. All this dizzy sadness. How many kings to tame one woman? Silence her? How many to put her under?
And after the black boy is
strangled by police, after
the protests where the man,
his Rottweiler on an iron leash yells,
let's go mash up dis city;
and another crowd bulks,
the parents of the murdered
beg us not to become
the monsters some think
we already are—even when
the barista shakes her head
at the banners, says actually,
police be killing whites too.
Look how scary it is
to be here and know
if we die someone
will make a sound
like her before earth
is tipped over us.
Who hasn’t had enough?
into static and sirens?
Who isn’t chanting
enough, throwing spells,
holding what they can
in front of a supermarket
or police stations
or voting booths—I am
kind to the man
sitting next to me
in C.L.R James Library, even if
his breathing disturbs me.
Can we disagree graciously
I am tired of people
not knowing the volume
of their power. Who doesn’t
some silence at night?
We pay to enter the dirty pen. We buy small bags of feed to feed the well-fed animals. We are guests in their home, our feet on their sawdust floor. We pretend not to notice the stench. Theirs is a predictable life. Better, I guess, than the slaughter, is the many-handed god. Me? I’m going to leave here, eat a body that was once untouched, and fed, then gutted and delivered to my table. Afterwards, I’ll wash off what of this I can. If I dream it will be of the smallest goat, who despite her job, flinched from most of the hands. Though she let me touch her, she would not eat from my palm. In my dream, she’ll die of old age and not boredom.