for Michael Burkard
Still winter. Snowing, still. Can it even be called action, this patience
in the form of gravity overdressed in gray?
Days like this, the right silence can be an action, an axe,
right through the frozen sea, as Kafka calls for. A necessary smashing,
opening. Though silence can also be a shattering, closing.
Think of peace & how the Buddhists say it is found through silence.
Think of silence & how Audre Lorde says it will not protect you.
Think of silence as a violence, when silence means being made
a frozen sea. Think of speaking as a violence, when speaking is a house
that dresses your life in the tidiest wallpaper. It makes your grief
sit down, this house. It makes you chairs when you need
justice. It keeps your rage room temperature. I’ve been thinking
about how the world is actually unbearable.
About all those moments of silence we’re supposed to take.
Each year, more moments, less life, & perhaps
the most monastic of monks are right to take vows
of silence that last a decade.
Though someone else (probably French) says our speaking
was never ours; our thoughts & selves housed
by history, rooms we did not choose, but must live in.
Think of Paul Celan, living
in the bone-rooms of German. Living, singing.
What does it mean, to sing in the language of those
who have killed your mother,
would kill her again? Does meaning shatter, leaving
behind the barest moan? This English, I bear it, a master’s
axe, yet so is every tongue—red with singing & killing.
Are we even built for peace? I think of breath & my teacher,
Michael, one of the least masterly, most peaceful people I know,
& Kafka’s number one fan. I think of the puffy blue vest Michael wears
when his breaths turn white. Even when I’m doing my best
think axes & walls, brave monks & unbearable houses,
the thought of Michael in his bit-too-big deep blue vest
leaks in. & I don’t think I will ever stop trying to sneak
into casual conversation the word “ululation.” If only all language
could be ululation in blue vests. If silence could always be
as quiet as Michael, sitting with his coffee & his book, rereading.
From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. Copyright © 2016 by Chen Chen. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
I used to dream of living here. I hike
a trail I know that at the end opens
to glorious views of the city I did
live in once, when men my age kept dying
while I learned how to diagnose AIDS.
Some dreams don’t come true, and some dreams become
nightmares. Across a field that smells of sage,
a few horses loiter. I want to think
that they forgive me, since they’re noble creatures.
They stamp and snort, reminding me they know
nothing of forgiveness. I used to dream
that someday I’d escape to San Francisco,
when I was still in high school and I knew.
Tall and muscled, the horses are like the jocks
on the football team who beat me once, as if pain
teaches truth and they knew I had to learn.
I used to dream I was as white as them,
that I could slam my locker closed and not
think of jail. Some nightmares come true,
like when my uncle got arrested for
cocaine. My family never talked about it,
which made me realize they could also feel shame.
That’s when I started dreaming I could be
a doctor someday, that I could get away,
prescribe myself a new life. Right now, as
the city comes into view, I think of those
animals and hope they got what they deserved.
The city stretches out its arms, its two bridges
to Oakland, to Stockton, to San Rafael,
to Vallejo; places I could have been from
but wasn’t. It looks just as it did
all those years ago. Yet I know it’s changed
because so many of us died, like Rico,
who took me up here for the first time.
We kicked a soccer ball around and smoked
a joint. I think we talked about our dreams,
but who can remember dreams. I look out
and the sun like your hand on my face
is warm, and for a moment I think this is
glorious, this is what forgiveness feels like.
Copyright © 2020 by Rafael Campo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 5, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
When we first met, my heart pounded. They said the shock of it was probably what broke his heart. In search of peace, we traveled once to Finland, tasted reindeer heart. It seemed so heartless, how you wanted it to end. I noticed on the nurse who took his pulse a heart tattooed above her collarbone. The kids played hearts all night to pass the time. You said that at its heart rejection was impossible to understand. “We send our heartfelt sympathy,” was written in the card your mother sent, in flowing script. I tried interpreting his EKG, which looked like knife wounds to the heart. I knew enough to guess he wouldn’t last much longer. As if we’d learned our lines by heart, you said, “I can’t explain.” “Please don’t,” was my reply. They say the heart is just a muscle. Or the heart is where the human soul resides. I saw myself in you; you looked so much like him. You didn’t have the heart to say you didn’t want me anymore. I still can see that plastic statue: Jesus Christ, his sacred heart aflame, held out in his own hands. He finally let go. How grief this great is borne, not felt. Borne in the heart.
Copyright © 2018 by Rafael Campo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 8, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
On a dusty rooftop in Giza, I tell Imam,
in another life, he and Hugh would have been
the best of friends. I picture Hugh, taking him
by the arm down the corniche
or the Cape, the cool night air refusing
silence. I hear their strings and tubes cutting through
beaming crowds in Imbaba and Soweto. Miriam
is serenading an open sea, clicking to the wind
by El Montaza. I see Biko
and Negm, side by side, in a crowded auditorium,
a whole generation huddled
around their voices. This is to say, in another
life revolution would be but
abstract. Biko would be a doctor,
perhaps in Durban. There would be no trains
for Hugh to sing of, save for those
that would bring him back to his loved
ones, safely. Negm would only be known
for love poems. What more
could one ask for? Let us not cheer
for those who would rather die
as soldiers when there is no
war. My whole life I have envied
the kind of thirst for music
that can be quenched by
Elvis and Sinatra. I have prayed
nightly for those I have idolized
to find a good night’s sleep
before deadly fame. What good is poetry
if it kills the poet? In another life, what must be said
here is but fairytale, ghost stories
for the rowdy children. Kanafani would live
in Acre, Baldwin would die
in Harlem, neither knowing the taste
of exile. I would write of bees
and clocks. I would not need men’s solemn
crooning to put me
to sleep. I would not mourn
Copyright © 2021 by Hazem Fahmy. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 10, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.