for Natalie So much like sequins the sunlight on this river. Something like that kiss— remember? Fourth of July, with the moon down early the air moved as if it were thinking, as if it had begun to understand how hard it is to feel at home in the world, but that night she found a place just above your shoulder and pressed her lips there. Soft rain had called off the fireworks: the sky was quiet, but back on Earth two boys cruised by on bikes trying out bad words. You turned to reach her mouth, at last, with yours after weeks of long walks, talking about former loves gone awry— how the soul finally falls down and gets up alone once more finding the city strange, the streets unmarked. Every time you meet someone it’s hard not to wonder who they’ve been—one story breaking so much into the next: memory engraves its hesitations— but that night you found yourself unafraid. Do you remember what the wind told the trees about her brown hair?— how the cool dark turned around: that first kiss, long as a river. Didn’t it seem like you already loved her? Off the sidewalk: a small pond, the tall cattails, all those sleepy koi coloring the water.
On the way to water, I think, low moan, heat too deep for me to reach. A new noise from a vent in the paper palace. Before, I bounce off brick wall, begging for a change; the door swings open and unhinges me to the nail. I heard ssssSMH behind me; you not ready. As it turns out, ticks, like cops, have a taste for black blood. The mosquitos made a meal of me for weeks—their walking Slurpee. One stuck his straw in my third eye. I spell him struck blind. My friends compile lists of things they never knew, read me for filth. I say in every language, I don’t have the answers. They don’t believe me. I stop buying tickets to the shit show, but no matter the distance, the smell is pervasive. In the woods, I learned baby wolves get high from the scent of hearts bursting on their Instagram feeds. Serotonin is a helluva drug. In the clearing, I strain to hear the echoes of men whose bodies drag the forest floor. Unfortunately, all the witnesses withered seventy winters ago. Blood is a potent fertilizer.
I want thirty more years of poems I want tiger lily poems orange blossom poems poems by Lucille Clifton and Suheir Hammad poems by Dionne Brand and Joy Harjo I want Grace Jones to sing she “Bumper song,” sweet and lawless doh care a damn what nobody feel I want Jamaican yard talk poems how I love that Nannie ah de Maroons talk gimme some Trini bush poems spiked with Vat 19 rum and plenty blue hundred dollar bills lots and lots of blue bills so mami cud just stay home brush she hair and count bills make flying fish and dumplings count blue bills and make babies with names like tamarind and flambeau names like one sweet braid down she back names like kneel-n-pray names like inhabited and poems to light white candles poems that blow kerosene and inspire rage poems to taunt the gods and almost get them vex let mami stay home cut oil drums to make steel pan and rock melodies until my dead twin come walking unshaven in de yard with Malik on he arm and say all right all’yuh we home we light ah big yard fire make pigtail soup and smoked duck and Guinness stout ice cream this time around de girls go churn de ice de boys go pour de salt we go praise sing for we dead we go drink old oak rum rub a little on de chiren gums we go brew mauby bark and sorrell and at sixty-seven granny go collect fresh blood an child-bear again Cheryl and mami go get back de twins dey lost at birth da go be bacchanal plenty ting fer neighbors to talk bout.
South of Plaza Mayor by Plaza de Cascorro— past streets named Lettuce, Raisin, Barley— is Madrid’s outdoor market called El Rastro, hundreds of stalls, lean-tos, tents squeezed tight as niches where anything from a clawfoot tub, to a surgeon’s saw to a tattered La Celestina bound in sheepskin could be haggled down with raunchy bravado or the promise of beer. Mostly it was junk passed off to the tourists as pricey souvenirs, like plastic castanets, hand fans of silk (rayon really), or tin-plate doubloons. So what drew the youth of Madrid to this place every Sunday afternoon by the hundreds? None of us were bargain hunters or hoarders, just hippieish kids in patched dungarees, espadrilles, & wool coats frayed to cheesecloth, our pockets with enough pesetas to buy a handful of stale cigarettes. It was to revel in life, squeeze out joy from the lees of fate, make fellowship like pilgrims to a shrine. We’d sprawl against a wall or a lamppost long into the afternoon to talk, joke, carouse, eat cheese rinds with secondhand bread, drink wine more like iodine than merlot, oblivious to time & space, the crowds tripping on our legs, tossing butts into our heads, how they smelled like horses & we told them so, who then shot out crude medieval curses, but we didn’t care, for we felt alive as never before, singular in every breath, word, & thought, stubborn as wayward seeds that trick a drought & grow into hardscrabble woodland trees.
Are atoms made of lots of circles? is the first thing my small son says when he wakes up. My mind swims around, trying to remember if molecules are bigger than atoms. In models of atoms, when they show what they look like, there are lots of circles, I say. The new chair of women’s studies at my alma mater is a man. He writes me without using my professional title to ask what I’ve been up to since graduation. His work, the letter says, has been mentioned on NPR. Quarks? I think, imagining electrons swimming in circles around neutrons. Before bed, I tell my son a story about when he was a small bear living with his bear family in a remote part of the forest. I describe the white snow, the black branches, the brightness of the cardinal on a top branch who greets him when he leaves his cottage. This is meant to be lulling. Bears hibernate in winter, he says. Do you want to be hibernating? I say. No! he is seized by a narrative impulse, his little body trembles with it. Tell how I could turn into a polar bear when I was cold and into a fearsome desert bear when I got hot! Tell how surprised everyone was. I tell all about it, the fearsomeness and the changing fur. How he once sat there half-polar and half-desert bear, sipping hot cocoa with marshmallows by the cozy fire. In the morning, I leave my son at school. I am dissatisfied with how they greet him. The teachers do not know of his powers. His fearsome magic. Have a good day, I say, kissing his crown. Have a good Friday at home, he says, following me to the door. Have a good shopping trip. At home I straighten my bed, turn it down, and slip back in. I lie very still, with pillow levees on either side of my body. My son is safe at school... I think. Most likely safe at school… I try not to think about what the ER doctor said, what machine guns do to human organs. I only tremble a little bit. A molecule, an atom, a particle, a quark, I think. A mourning dove calls, and it is lulling. Particle was the word that I forgot. This is what I’ve been up to since graduation.
How much like angels are these tall gladiolas in a vase on my coffee table, as if in a bunch whispering. How slender and artless, how scandalously alive, each with its own humors and pulse. Each weight- bearing stem is the stem of a thought through which aspires the blood-metal of stars. Each heart is a gift for the king. When I was a child, my mother and aunts would sit in the kitchen gossiping. One would tip her head toward me, “Little Ears,” she’d warn, and the whole room went silent. Now, before sunrise, what secrets I am told!—being quieter than blossoms and near invisible.
they asked me to write a poem like a lush life, a johnny hartman poem. a poem that would make your fake eyelashes fall off. a poem with the city all up in it. a poem, matter of fact, like a city, one that can only be reached by train. yeah, write us a poem like a train, but not like coltrane. just write a coltrane poem that contains the essence of the city, the way the horizon sounds like elvin jones playing cymbals & trash trucks. i mean, just write a poem that contains the essence of west philly—a poem you’ve already written—write that. yeah, write a recycled philly poem about a philly that doesn’t exist anymore. write the sequel. write a new romancing the stone, but set it in philly, starring a black woman poet & a belizean sailor. write that scene where your angry neighbors shut down a fast food joint with danny devito or those motley kids discover the smirking mouth of a creek buried under 43rd. make sure it’s juicy with brotherly love & that other stuff. drop-in a cheesesteak, but make sure it’s gluten-free because our audience is particular. y’know, like people who don’t like poetry. not that you can’t write what you want, but for now, just write it like you love every damn inch of the city. even the hawks & vultures & raccoons & the characters like knives sharpened by the week, or like fruit bruised & first-frosted. write it like you believe the city has seasons, that it can change in its deepest cracks, unseen corners. write like you know these corners, you know why this building is painted pink, why this one is empty, why this one is a missing tooth on the block. write it like you know what it’s like for a tooth to be taken. write it like you know what it’s like for a home to be lost. or try writing it like you carry the voices of lost homes to bed with you. like they are evidence & you are a detective. like they are memories & you are family. write it like you can see beyond seeing. like you know the origin of shoulders sharp as javelins, can decode 3-pointed stars hunched under streetlights. like you are related to the men selling socks & incense, oils & belts. like you can read the compass on their faces. like you can recreate the arpeggios of the one-eyed singer or the $200 upright with beer-colored keys at the thrift store. just write a poem like a secondhand store full of dishes & leather jackets. vibrating with the leftovers of people. bleeding in solidarity with a woman in a ripped red sweater like an ear, wailing in the street one summer night. a poem full of peach seeds & lightning bugs. a poem that can change the color of the sky.
Before you returned from treatment I rearranged our room: turned the bed ninety degrees switched the nightstands. I didn’t want you to come home to see that everything has changed nothing is familiar. On the other hand, I wanted you to see that everything has changed nothing is familiar.
When you ask where I want it, the knife you’ve made of your tongue—so swollen & hard it fills the empty spaces left by bicuspids, lost to excess of sweet, to child Or adult play—I say nothing, only nudge your lips from the tip of my nose past My own, to the dark forest of my chin, where I dare you to find, blanketed in lavender, Peppermint, & oud, the dimple a rock cleft decades ago. You who are not the one Who’s named me Ma, you who are young enough to have made a cougar of my mother & old enough to have sired me as you crammed for the Alabama bar. That fat tongue You wave traces my beard’s amber & frankincense trail from neck to clavicle, & when You’ve left your mark there, where we’ve agreed you may first suck the cursèd river Coursing to stain my flesh’s surface redder, where only I’ll see it long after you’ve departed, You let the perfumed purse you’ve gathered inside your mouth drip onto my meager chest’s Tiny right eye, dilating now, begging like a young bud waiting to bloom for mourning dew. You blow as it swells, then latch & shower it in wet expectation. Make of me, sweet lord, The mother of some new nectar we misbegotten ones can nurse inside & pass from breast To breast. Make of this hallowed hearth in my chest a pulsing womb, an isthmus to anywhere but Here—where bare backs kiss this floor’s knotted tiles & your cedar bed towers—so far from home.
You will transcend your ancestor’s suffering You will pick a blue ball. You will throw it to yourself. You will be on the other side to receive. Green leaves grow around your face. Hair stands on your body. You look at old photographs that say: The bread is warm! A child is a blessing! That’s what I said! I meant it! You could say this is a poem. Like the great halves of the roof that caved and carved together. Found us before words and tender-footing. Before wrongdoing and the octaves of blue above us all.
It is the first day of the year again, this time in the quiet absence of Portlandia, we have our own quiet way of entering the spaces between the seconds of life, where time fades. The fire makes a noise, inside here where ice and snow make the earth frozen, press us to guess what weather will do now as weather becomes a matter of climate with no divination. I listen to your napping, air going inside to fill you with warmth from the fireplace, air going out to let your soul teach the world what it is to make the journey to the heart. So this first poem the day a golden retriever wallowed in the sunrise over frozen snow, then sat up to grin the silly grin of its kind, as if to say, the light is there if you only wait. We wait together for the first man to enter this house we are leaving for another house, as you say it is me, I am the man to bless the heart, its mystery of fire and the light.
“river with a valley so shallow it is measured in inches” says McKibben and no longer Ever but shrinking, this marsh-wealth in a buzz of conversing, wing flaps and wind, ringed by housing, drained by canals, an expanse thick with mangroves, orchids, birds erupting out of grasses— “so flat that a broad sheet of water flows slowly across it on the way to the sea”— algae, floating lilies, water purified and sent into the dreamscape— Heaven’s beneath us, what I look down into, bubbling mud, permeable skin— Driving here, miles across paved-over space till what’s missing gathers— jaw open in the sun, wings explaining— What can’t be seen is more than all of this Strokes of green blades swells of nothing— we’re Ever latched to each other, burning
Nine goats scamper up the gnarly argan tree and graze it clean. They ingest the wrinkled fruit whole, though it’s the bitter pulp alone that rouses their appetite for more. Sated, they stare at the horizon till branches wear thin and fall. Farmers harvest goats’ droppings to extract the pit rich in kernels of oil. Haven’t you too wished yourself a goat perched punch-drunk on a linden tree, blasé about the gold you might shit, how it might serve both hunger and greed. Haven’t you goaded yourself to balance just a bit longer, chew on some fugitive scents, forget what a ditch the earth is.
Nobody straightens their hair anymore. Space trips & limited air supplies will get you conscious quick. My shea-buttered braids glow planetary as I turn unconcerned, unburned by the pre-take-off bother. “Leave it all behind,” my mother’d told me, sweeping the last specs of copper thread from her front porch steps & just as quick, she turned her back to me. Why had she disappeared so suddenly behind that earthly door? “Our people have made progress, but, perhaps,” she’d said once, “not enough to guarantee safe voyage to the Great Beyond,” beyond where Jesus walked, rose, & ascended in the biblical tales that survived above sprocket-punctured skylines & desert-dusted runways jeweled with wrenches & sheet metal scraps. She’d no doubt exhale with relief to know ancient practice & belief died hard among the privileged, too. Hundreds of missions passed & failed, but here I was strapped in my seat, anticipating—what exactly? Curved in prayer or remembrance of a hurt so deep I couldn’t speak. Had that been me slammed to the ground, cuffed, bulleted with pain as I danced with pain I couldn’t shake loose, even as the cops aimed pistols at me, my body & mind both disconnected & connected & unable to freeze, though they shouted “freeze!” like actors did on bad television. They’d watched & thought they recognized me, generic or bland, without my mother weeping like Mary, Ruby, Idella, Geneava, or Ester stunned with a grief our own countrymen refused to see, to acknowledge or cease initiating, instigating, & even mocking in the social networks, ignorant frays bent and twisted like our DNA denied but thriving and evident nonetheless— You better believe the last things I saw when far off lifted were Africa Africa Africa Africa Africa Africa Africa Africa... & though it pained me to say it sooner: the unmistakable absence of the Great Barrier Reef.
The time of birds died sometime between When Robert Kennedy, Jr. disappeared and the Berlin Wall came down. Hope was pro forma then. We’d begun to talk about shelf-life. Parents Thought they’d gotten somewhere. I can’t tell you What to make of this now without also saying that when I was 19 and read in a poem that the pure products of America go crazy I felt betrayed. My father told me not to whistle because I Was a girl. He gave me my first knife and said to keep it in my right Hand and to keep my right hand in my right pocket when I walked at night. He showed me the proper kind of fist and the sweet spot on the jaw To leverage my shorter height and upper-cut someone down. There were probably birds on the long walk home but I don’t Remember them because pastoral is not meant for someone With a fist in each pocket waiting for a reason.
When glaciers trapped a third of Earth’s water and drained the Bering Strait, humans journeyed to this land where wind swept the steppes of snow, exposing grass that would be plucked by mammoth trunks and ground by washboard teeth. Up to thirteen feet, their tusks curved helically and would intertwine if they went on a little longer. The beasts’ dense hair—brown, blonde, or ginger—swung like a skirt about their flanks. I want to rest my head against that shaggy coat, to crane my ears, to be protected from the giant short-faced bear. I want to be their baby, wrap my trunk around my mother’s, watch the wild horses of Beringia canter across the steppes in tawny, fine-boned movements. The thick fat under my hair keeps me warm when the sun goes low, and I grow into an eight-ton bull, pierce the ice with my tusks and drink from glacial pools. The wind is bitter, but my strongest features have grown bigger than my father’s. When summer comes I must find a mate, and it only takes a few tusk locks to show my strength. After our calf is born, I see upright creatures eyeing him from the mesa. I will fling them against the icy mountains. They wear our hair as if it were their skin. Still, I will live through many winters, through each warm season’s hardheaded matches. I know the range that slopes like the hump on my back, sunsets redder than the long-toothed cat’s gorging mouth, how musk oxen form a wall of horns and still fall prey to the blade thrown. I know how many herds have fled, and the curves of carcasses stripped to bone by men, wind, and time. I do not know that I am gone.
The Chicago Cubs 1908–2015 In the hazy birth records of the Arkansas of Europe my Bubbie’s birth scrawled in Yiddish, as eight days past a minor Jewish holiday and not the week before the Cubs most recent World Series victory, fall 1908. Ten years since Bartman cursed his Cubs right out of their first shot at the National League pennant a since-1908 champless existence. Bartman won’t take your calls, or any major network news organ. But the Sun-Times published his every address to find fans awaiting him lunch hour and bath. To become unfamous on Chicago’s north side when you deflect the ball out of Moises Alou’s waiting glove is a challenge. We are assured—Cubs fan Bartman’s healthy, employed, still in Chicagoland. Twenty years before Penicillin’s discovery and two before the bra’s invention the Cubs last won the Series. When the NFL, NBA, and NHL didn’t exist. My Bubbie a baby hadn’t heard of America where she’d later give birth, or Chicago, place of her brother’s future suicide—more camp trauma than Cubs letdown. Bartman holds no vendetta against Alou despite his motherfucker hollers aimed to stands. It was never Bartman’s fault, you can’t make a double play from your seat. Moises, you can’t tell a little league coach not to reach for a major league ball aimed at your heart.
Someone else used to do this before. Someone responsible, someone who loved me enough to protect me from my own filth piling up. But I’m over 40 now & live alone, & if I don’t remember it's Thursday & rise with the cardinals & bluejays calling up the sun, I’m stuck with what’s left rotting for another week. I swing my legs like anchors over the side of the bed & use the wall for leverage to stand, shuffle to the bathroom. In summer, I slide into a pair of shorts & flip flops, wandering room to room to collect what no longer serves me. I shimmy the large kitchen bag from the steel canister, careful not to spill what’s inside or rip it somehow & gross myself out. Sometimes I double bag for insurance, tying loose ends together, cinching it tightly for the journey. Still combing through webs of dreams, of spiders’ handiwork glistening above the wheeled container on the back patio, I drag my refuse down the driveway past the chrysanthemums & azaleas, the huge Magnolia tree shading the living room from Georgia’s heat, flattening hordes of unsuspecting ants in my path to park it next to the mailbox for merciful elves to take off my hands. It is not lost on me that one day someone responsible, someone who loves me enough will dispose of this worn, wrinkled container after my spirit soars on. I don’t wait to say thank you to those doing this grueling, necessary work. But I do stand in the young, faintly lit air for a long moment to inhale deeply, & like clockwork when he strides by, watch the jogger’s strong, wet back fade over the slight rise of the road.
Long ago I met a beautiful boy Together we slept in my mother's womb Now the street of our fathers rises to eat him :: Everything black is forbidden in Eden In my arms my brother sleeps, teeth pearls I give away the night so he can have this slumber :: I give away the man who made me white I give away the man who freed my mother I pry apart my skull my scalp unfurls :: I nestle him gray inside my brain, my brother sleeps and dreams of genes mauve lips fast against spine he breathes. The sky :: bends into my eyes as they search for his skin Helicopter blades invade our peace::: Where is that Black Where is it Where :: Blades slice, whine pound the cupolas I slide him down and out the small of my vertebrae He scurries down the bone and to the ocean :: navigates home in a boat carved of gommier When he reaches our island everyone is relieved though they have not forgotten me, belsé :: Where is your sister, eh? Whey? Koté belsé yé? Whey? Koté li yé Koté li yé To the sand To the stars on the sea Koté li yé Koté li yé To the one-celled egun To the torpid moon Koté li yé Koté li yé :: There::: Koté li yé drapes across a baton; glows electric in shine of taser; pumped dry with glass bottle; :: There::: Koté li yé vagina gape into the night; neck dangle taut with plastic bags and poorly knotted ropes; :: There::: Koté li yé belsé Koté? ::: I burn my skin shines blacker, lacquer ::: non-mwen sé flambó ashes tremble in the moonlight ::: sans humanité my smoking bones fume the future ::: pa bwè afwéchi pou lafiyèv dòt moun
I like literature that makes me think: Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21, A constant reference to the things that I’m supposed to want, but ironically, but effectively, like a commercial that employs racial stereotypes but still makes me want to go to that restaurant to scoop the vestiges of salad on my plate with a piece of bread. Before I moved, I was obsessed with the mall. I wanted to spray myself with scents and wear overpriced loungewear as a nihilistic act. I like Instagram posts that make me think: Crystals, juice, my psychic, These collective practices of the personal. I can feel my heart is a gravitational force, and my head bonded only by mystical means. One end attracts, the other repulses. Some of my friends live in the neighborhood, some live in the woods. We talk about how to combat gentrification and what to do if you see a ghost. I like Twitter posts that make me think: Meaningless, prescription drugs, inadequacy. I felt resistant to aimless positivity for a long time. I wanted to be a soulless yoga bitch with blacked out eyes doing drugs on a pontoon, a perfect body filled with destruction. I wanted to create a cult to my body, but most jobs think its cute to show gratitude with carbs and Seroquel gives me the munchies. I like life experiences that make me think: Fish tank, trees, justice, we made it, aliens, secret society, perfect feed, torrent download, hair and makeup, freak paradise, small objects on a window sill, sweet flea market find, alternative section, slow motion suburban intro with darkwave soundtrack, oasis in the ghetto with organic snacks, etc.
Whatever her story is, today and every day that I’m here, she’s here in her long, quilted green coat, her companion—a beagle?— nose to the ground, its tail a shimmy. Unlidded to lidded trash can they go, and all along the fence lining the stream, looking, I think, for whatever salvageable cast-offs can be found. By all appearances, she doesn’t need to, but who knows, maybe she does. The day after the first snow, she’d stopped, asked, What’s that you’re doing? and, to my answer, Yes, she’d said, of course, taiji. Today, as I turned southwest into Fair Lady Works the Shuttles, in it lost, there they were, close by, again, her companion sniffing along the fence at court’s edge, and she, standing by. I want to believe by now that she and I have gone beyond just being fair-weather friends as, moving on without pause, we simply smile, nod, say, Hello. Or don’t.
(Stand Your Ground) In this one, ladies and gentlemen, Beware, be clear: the brown man, The able lawyer, the paterfamilias, Never makes it out of the poem alive: The rash, all-too-daily report, The out of the blue bullet Blithely shatters our treasured Legal eagle’s bones and flesh— In the brusque spectacle of point-blank force, On a crimsoned street, Where a revered immigrant plummets Over a contested parking spot, And the far-seeing sages insist, Amid strident maenads Of at-the-ready patrol car sirens, Clockwork salvos, The charismatic Latino lawyer’s soul Is banished, elsewhere, without a shred Of eloquence in the matter— And the brute, churning Surfaces of the world, They bear our beloved citizen away— Which means, austere saints And all-seeing masters, If I grasp your bracing challenge: At our lives’ most brackish hour, Our highest mission isn’t just to bawl, But to turn the soul-shaking planet Of the desecrated parking lot (The anti-miracle), The blunt, irascible white man’s Unnecessary weapon, And the ruse of self-defense Into justice-cries and ballots? Into newfound pledges and particles of light? in memory of J. Garza, 1949-2017
I could have chosen to write this poem about the drastically entitled and out-of-his-mind-seeming white septuagenarian who, clearly upset, yowled I’M ABOUT TO BE UPSET, while turning to address a line-out-the-door post office like we were attending his performance art piece, who said he was going to BLOW UP THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT because YOU wouldn’t give him a money order without proper ID, & I know, technically, now I have written this poem about him, but would you please set that aside for the moment & let me write to you about how you remind me of a babysitter from my childhood— Alex or Ian, Allison or Marie—telling me a secret I’m not supposed to know just yet, because of age or subjective cultural context, in your 2-door Honda bumping let’s talk about sex baby as I gulp cans of Mr. Pibb in the backseat. You whisper capital-T truth to me not to gain social capital, nor thwart thine enemy, nor even to gain my confidence so that one day, in the thick of an apocalyptic-type emergency, as we surely shall be, I will decide to take you on my proverbial lifeboat above all the others, no, nor not for any other self-serving reason do you ladle generous amounts of altruistic, tender, personal attention upon me, but just for that the fact that we are alive together in this moment in time and space and this post office was once a buffet-style restaurant where, as a kid, I looked forward to eating the few times of year we did, because this particular establishment had the option to devour unlimited amounts of pizza & soft serve ice cream, which now, you divulge to me, the guys in the back call it The Posterosa, which delights me, which salves me, which allows me to see we a little more truly, this revealing of our secrets, this dogged bursting through of taboo, which palimpsests our souls a little closer with you on me on I on us on them on they on we.