In the pull-out bed with my brother
in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment
my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,
pulsing so hard they kept me awake—
or was it the Metro North train cars
flying past the apartment, rocking the walls,
or was it the sound of apartment front doors
as heavy as prison doors clanging shut?
Was the Black Nation whispering to me
from the Jet magazines stacked on the floor, or
was it my brother’s unfamiliar ions
vibrating, humming in his easeful sleep?
Tomorrow, as always, Grandfather will rise
to the Spanish-Town cock’s crow deep in his head
and perform his usual ablutions,
and prepare the apartment for the day,
and peel fruit for us, and prepare a hot meal
that can take us anywhere, and onward.
Did sleep elude me because I could feel
the heft of unuttered love in his tending
our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing
that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake
as my growing bones did, growing larger
than anything else I would know?
From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press.
My grandmother kisses
as if bombs are bursting in the backyard,
where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes
through the kitchen window,
as if somewhere, a body is falling apart
and flames are making their way back
through the intricacies of a young boy’s thigh,
as if to walk out the door, your torso
would dance from exit wounds.
When my grandmother kisses, there would be
no flashy smooching, no western music
of pursed lips, she kisses as if to breathe
you inside her, nose pressed to cheek
so that your scent is relearned
and your sweat pearls into drops of gold
inside her lungs, as if while she holds you
death also, is clutching your wrist.
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere
a body is still
Copyright © 2014 by Ocean Vuong. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
What remains of my childhood
are the fragmentary visions
of large patios
like an oceanic green mist over the afternoon.
Then, crickets would forge in the wind
their deep music of centuries
and the purple fragrances of Grandmother
always would receive without questions
our return home.
The hammock shivering in the breeze
like the trembling voice of light at dusk,
the unforeseeable future
that would never exist without Mother,
the Tall tales that filled
with their most engaging lunar weight our days
—all those unchangeable things—
were the morning constellations
that we would recognize daily without sadness.
In the tropical days we had no intuition of the winter
nor of autumn, that often returns with pain
in the shadows of this new territory
—like the cold moving through our shivering hands—
that I have learned to accept
in the same way you welcome
the uncertainty of a false and cordial smile.
Those were the days of the solstice
when the wind pushed the smoke from the clay ovens
through the zinc kitchens
and the ancient stone stoves
of the secrets of our barefooted and wise Indian ancestors.
The beautiful, unformed rocks in our hands
that served as detailed toys
seemed to give us the illusion
of fantastic events
that invaded our joyful chants
with infinite color.
It was a life without seasonal pains,
a life without unredeemable time
a life without the somber dark shadows
that have intently translated my life
that slowly move today through my soul.
Todos volvemos al lugar donde nacimos
De mi infancia solo quedan
las visiones fragmentarias
de los patios tendidos
como un naval terciopelo sobre la tarde.
Entonces, los grillos cuajaban sobre el aire
su profunda música de siglos
y las fragancias empurpuradas de la abuela
meciéndose en la noche
siempre recibían sin preguntas nuestra vuelta al hogar.
La hamaca temblando con la brisa,
como la voz trémula del sol en el ocaso;
el futuro imprevisible
que jamás existiría sin la madre;
cargadas de su peso lunar más devorador;
—todas esas cosas inalterables—
eran las constelaciones diurnas que reconocíamos sin tristeza.
Entonces no se intuía el invierno,
ni el otoño que retoña con dolor
entre las sombras de este territorio
—como el frío entre las manos doblegadas—
que hoy he aprendido
de la misma forma en que se acepta
la incertidumbre de una falsa sonrisa.
Eran los días en que el solsticio
acarreaba humaredas polvorientas
por las ventanas de las cocinas de zinc
donde el fogón de barro milenario
el secreto de nuestros ancestros sabios y descalzos.
Las rocas deformes en nuestras manos
la ilusión de eventos fabulosos
que invadían nuestras gargantas de aromas desmedidos.
Era una vida sin dolores estacionales
Vida sin tiempos irredimibles:
Vida sin las puras formas sombrías
que se resbalan hoy lentamente por mi pecho.
From Central America in My Heart / Centroamérica en el corazón. Copyright © 2007, Bilingual Press / Editorial Bilingüe, Arizona State University.
We walked on the bridge over the Chicago River
for what turned out to be the last time,
and I ate cotton candy, that sugary air,
that sweet blue light spun out of nothingness.
It was just a moment, really, nothing more,
but I remember marveling at the sturdy cables
of the bridge that held us up
and threading my fingers through the long
and slender fingers of my grandfather,
an old man from the Old World
who long ago disappeared into the nether regions.
And I remember that eight-year-old boy
who had tasted the sweetness of air,
which still clings to my mouth
and disappears when I breathe.
From The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) by Edward Hirsch. Copyright @2010 by Edward Hirsch. Used with permission of the author.
—at The Giant Heart, The Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, PA)
Today the boy won’t rest long enough
for me to burn a single metaphor
back to whether precision or
prayer leavens the language I need
cast into the well of our survival. And then
the boy urges my turn to stay
poised on a floor scale while watching 24
chilling cups of hurt-colored liquid spill
into a clear cylinder. The gutted window
to the privacy of blood harbored
in this body thins the daily belief
that no sick imaginary could cut us
full open. And then the boy gawks around
a carousel of animal hearts, fidgets against
his surprise at the smallness of the lion’s
carnal engine beside the cow’s. Before
I can weigh the un-chambered bellows
of hunger, the boy begins to sound
a panel that plays the pulse of each animal.
He doesn’t linger with a blood-music; he keeps
mashing buttons at random—from the canary’s
constant lift to the cavernous crawl
of the blue whale—until I can’t see living
inside a god-rhythm that soothes
this earthly cacophony pleading
toward the dark effort of tomorrow.
By now, I have a strange image for heart
filling my mouth. I’m remembering
the tiny fleshy pyramids my own father
cleaned from sunfish. When they ceased
their tight contractions, I strained
to recognize the heart-ness in his hand,
sometimes pressing down into the soft
plunge of his palm to witness one
last lunge. This memory dissolves because
the boy dashes off, and then I’m chasing him
through the beating corridors of a giant
vascular room. The way is dim
and narrow—: I’m working hard to keep up.
I’m trying not to lose the boy
inside the heart. But every time I hear the light
of his laughter murmur across another
distance, I breathe into the new blessing
his life has kindled from the space between us:—
I think I could survive like this all day.
Copyright © 2017 by Geffrey Davis. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 8, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
I have taken scales from off The cheeks of the moon. I have made fins from bluejays’ wings, I have made eyes from damsons in the shadow. I have taken flushes from the peachlips in the sun. From all these I have made a fish of heaven for you, Set it swimming on a young October sky. I sit on the bank of the stream and watch The grasses in amazement As they turn to ashy gold. Are the fishes from the rainbow Still beautiful to you, For whom they are made, For whom I have set them, Swimming?
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 3, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one Because his children were all failures. But I know of a fate more trying than that: It is to be a failure while your children are successes. For I raised a brood of eagles Who flew away at last, leaving me A crow on the abandoned bough. Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name, And thus to win my children’s admiration, I ran for County Superintendent of Schools, Spending my accumulations to win—and lost. That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”— (It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.) The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on February 9, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
No one believes in you
like I do. I sit you down on the table
& they overlook you for
fried chicken & grits,
crab cakes & hush puppies,
black-eyed peas & succotash
& sweet potatoes & watermelon.
Your stringy, slippery texture
reminds them of the creature
from the movie Aliens.
But I tell my friends if they don’t like you
they are cheating themselves;
you were brought from Africa
as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair
Nothing was wasted in our kitchens.
We took the unused & the throwaways
& made feasts;
we taught our children
how to survive,
So I write this poem
in praise of okra
& the cooks who understood
how to make something out of nothing.
Your fibrous skin
melts in my mouth—
green flecks of flavor,
still tough, unbruised,
part of the fabric of earth.
From Underlife (CavanKerry Press, 2009). Copyright © 2009 by January Gill O’Neil. Used with the permission of the author.
Which could almost be said
to glisten, or glow,
like the weaponry
As if slickened
with some Pentecost
-al auntie’s last bottle
of anointing oil, an ark
of no covenant
one might easily name,
apart from the promise
to preserve all small
& distinctly mortal forms
the day she sees sixty.
Consider the garden
of collards & heirloom
her long, single braid
streaked with gray
like a gathering
the child popped
in church for not
sitting still, how even that,
they say, can become an omen
if you aren’t careful,
if you don’t act like you know
all Newton’s laws
don’t apply to us
the same. Ain’t no equal
& opposite reaction
to the everyday brawl
race in America is,
no body so beloved
it cannot be destroyed.
So we hold on to what
we cannot hold.
in Vaseline, or gold,
or polyurethane wrapping.
Call it ours
Call it just
Copyright © 2018 Joshua Bennett. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Fall 2018.