Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
as I need to be
alone because I can’t do what I want to do with my own
who in the hell set things up
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him if after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was/wrong
to be who I am
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like the
proof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blackland
after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe
and if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even to
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
and according to the Times this week
back in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problem
and the problem was this man named Nkrumah so they
killed him and before that it was Patrice Lumumba
and before that it was my father on the campus
of my Ivy League school and my father afraid
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
boy and that I should have been lighter skinned and
that I should have had straighter hair and that
I should not be so boy crazy but instead I should
just be one/a boy and before that
it was my mother pleading plastic surgery for
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it’s about walking out at night
or whether it’s about the love that I feel or
whether it’s about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and indisputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can’t tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life
Copyright © 2017 by the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Used with the permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate, www.junejordan.com.
Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.
Everybody already knows everything
so you can
lie to them. That's what they want.
But lie to yourself, what you will
lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.
For each gay kid whose adolescence
was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial
forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.
Involuted velleities of self-erasure.
Quickly after my parents
died, I came out. Foundational narrative
designed to confer existence.
If I had managed to come out to my
mother, she would have blamed not
me, but herself.
The door through which you were shoved out
into the light
was self-loathing and terror.
Thank you, terror!
You learned early that adults' genteel
fantasies about human life
were not, for you, life. You think sex
is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.
Copyright © 2012 by Frank Bidart. Used with permission of the author.
my lover is a woman
& when i hold her
feel her warmth
i feel good
then—i never think of
my family’s voices
never hear my sisters say
bulldaggers, queers, funny
come see us, but don’t
bring your friends
it’s ok with us,
but don’t tell mama
it’d break her heart
never feel my father
turn in his grave
never hear my mother cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?
my lover’s hair is blonde
& when it rubs across my face
it feels soft
feels like a thousand fingers
touch my skin & hold me
and i feel good
then—i never think of the little boy
who spat & called me nigger
never think of the policemen
who kicked my body & said crawl
never think of Black bodies
hanging in trees or filled
with bullet holes
never hear my sisters say
white folks hair stinks
don’t trust any of them
never feel my father
turn in his grave
never hear my mother talk
of her backache after scrubbing floors
never hear her cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?
my lover's eyes are blue
& when she looks at me
i float in a warm lake
feel my muscles go weak with want
then—i never think of the blue
eyes that have glared at me
moved three stools away from me
in a bar
never hear my sisters rage
of syphilitic Black men as
rage of sterilized children
watch them just stop in an
intersection to scare the old
never feel my father turn
in his grave
never remember my mother
teaching me the yes sirs & ma'ams
to keep me alive
never hear my mother cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?
& when we go to a gay bar
& my people shun me because i crossed
& her people look to see what's
wrong with her
drove her to me
& when we walk the streets
of this city
forget and touch
or hold hands
& the people
stare, glare, frown, & taunt
at those queers
every word taught me
every word said to me
every deed done to me
& then i hate
i look at my lover
& for an instant
then—i hold her hand tighter
& i can hear my mother cry.
Lord, what kind of child is this?
"My Lover Is a Woman" by Pat Parker © Anastasia Dunham-Parker-Brady, used with permission.
After my mother and father fight, my father takes my hand and we walk down to the Mississippi where he smokes Camel cigarettes. He flicks his ashes away from me. He rarely says my name. All day on TV, I watch monks in Saigon douse themselves in gasoline and light their saffron robes on fire. When they ignite, they do not cry out. I study their silence to comprehend how a tongue turns into flame.
Poem from The Clerk’s Tale, reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Company
In the invitation, I tell them for the seventeenth time
(the fourth in writing), that I am gay.
In the invitation, I include a picture of my boyfriend
& write, You’ve met him two times. But this time,
you will ask him things other than can you pass the
whatever. You will ask him
about him. You will enjoy dinner. You will be
enjoyable. Please RSVP.
They RSVP. They come.
They sit at the table & ask my boyfriend
the first of the conversation starters I slip them
upon arrival: How is work going?
I’m like the kid in Home Alone, orchestrating
every movement of a proper family, as if a pair
of scary yet deeply incompetent burglars
is watching from the outside.
My boyfriend responds in his chipper way.
I pass my father a bowl of fish ball soup—So comforting,
isn’t it? My mother smiles her best
Sitting with Her Son’s Boyfriend
Who Is a Boy Smile. I smile my Hurray for Doing
a Little Better Smile.
Everyone eats soup.
Then, my mother turns
to me, whispers in Mandarin, Is he coming with you
for Thanksgiving? My good friend is & she wouldn’t like
this. I’m like the kid in Home Alone, pulling
on the string that makes my cardboard mother
more motherly, except she is
not cardboard, she is
already, exceedingly my mother. Waiting
for my answer.
While my father opens up
a Boston Globe, when the invitation
clearly stated: No security
blankets. I’m like the kid
in Home Alone, except the home
is my apartment, & I’m much older, & not alone,
& not the one who needs
to learn, has to—Remind me
what’s in that recipe again, my boyfriend says
to my mother, as though they have always, easily
talked. As though no one has told him
many times, what a nonlinear slapstick meets
slasher flick meets psychological
pit he is now co-starring in.
Remind me, he says
to our family.
Copyright © 2018 by Chen Chen. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 19, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
June 18, 2015
So I’m at this party, right. Low lights, champagne, Michael
Bublé & a gang of loafers I’m forever dancing around
in unduly charged conversations, your favorite
accompanist—Bill Evans behind Miles, ever present
in few strokes—when, into the room walks
this potentially well-meaning Waspy woman obviously
from Connecticut-money, boasting an extensive background
in nonprofit arts management. & without much coaxing
from me, really, none at all, she whoops, Gosh, you’re just
so well spoken! & I’m like, Duh, Son. So then we both
clink glasses, drink to whatever that was. Naturally,
not till the next morning & from under a scalding
shower do I shout: Yes, ma’am. Some of us does talk good!
to no one in particular but the drain holes. No one
but the off-white tile grout, the loofah’s yellow pores.
Because I come from a long braid of dangerous men
who learned to talk their way out of small compartments.
My own Spartan walls lined with their faces—Ellison
& Ellington. Langston, Robeson. Frederick Douglass
above the bench press in the gym, but to no avail—
Without fail, when I’m at the Cross Eyed Cricket
(That’s a real diner. It’s in Indiana.) & some pimple-
face ginger waiter lingers nervous & doth protest
too much, it’s always Sir, you ever been told you sound like
Bryant Gumbel? Which is cute. Because he’s probably
ten. But then sometimes I sit in his twin’s section, & he
once predicted I could do a really wicked impression
of Wayne Brady. I know for a fact his name is Jim.
I’ve got Jim’s eighteenth birthday blazed on my bedside
calendar. It reads: Ass whippin’. Twelve a.m.—& like
actually, that woman from the bimonthly
CV-building gala can kick rocks. Because she’s old
enough to be my mother, & educated, if only
by her own appraisal, but boy. Dear boys. Sweet
freckled What’s-His-Face & Dipshit Jim,
we can still be play friends. Your folks didn’t explain
I’d take your trinket praise as teeny blade—
a trillionth micro-aggression, against & beneath
my skin. Little buddies, that sore’s on me.
I know what you mean. That I must seem, “safe.”
But let’s get this straight. Let’s call a spade a—
Poor choice of words. Ali, I might not
be. Though, at the very least, a heavyweight
throwback: Nat King Cole singing silky
& subliminal about the unforgettable model
minority. NBC believed N at & his eloquence
could single-handedly defeat Jim Crow.
Fact: They were wrong. Of this I know
& not because they canceled his show
in ’57 after one season, citing insufficient
sponsorship. Or because, in 1948,
the KKK flamed a cross on his LA lawn.
But because yesterday, literally yesterday,
some simple American citizen—throwback
supremacist Straight Outta Birmingham, 1963—
aimed his .45 & emptied the life from nine
black believers at an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,
beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems about
the same age as me. I’m sorry. No, friends.
None of us is safe.
From Silencer (Mariner Books, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Marcus Wicker. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
one is hard & the other tried to be
one is fast & the other was faster
one is loud & one is a song
with one note & endless rest
one's whole life is a flash
both spend their life
trying to find a warmth to call home
both spark quite the debate,
some folks want to protect them/some think we should just get rid
of the damn things all together.
Copyright © 2014 by Danez Smith. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
A woman tattoos Malik’s name above
her breast & talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way
to say that someone kirked out, emptied
five or six or seven shots into a still warm body.
No indictment follows Malik’s death,
follows smoke running from a fired pistol.
An old quarrel: crimson against concrete
& the officer’s gun still smoking.
Someone says the people need to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house falling on only
a few heads. This & the stop snitching ads
are the conundrum and damn all that blood.
All those closed eyes imagining Malik’s
killer forever coffled to a series of cells,
& you almost believe them, you do, except
the cognac in your hand is an old habit,
a toast to friends buried before the daybreak
of their old age. You know the truth
of the talking, of the quarrels & how
history lets the blamed go blameless for
the blood that flows black in the street;
you imagine there is a riot going on,
& someone is tossing a trash can through
Sal’s window calling that revolution,
while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed,
& Malik’s casket door clanks closed,
& the bodies that roll off the block
& into the prisons and into the ground,
keep rolling, & no one will admit
that this is the way America strangles itself.
Copyright © 2015 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. From Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
The border is a brand, the “Double-X” of barbed wire scarred into the skin of so many.
The border has always been a welcome stopping place but is now a stop sign, always red.
The border is a jump rope still there even after the game is finished.
The border is a real crack in an imaginary dam.
The border used to be an actual place, but now, it is the act of a thousand imaginations.
The border, the word border, sounds like order, but in this place they do not rhyme.
The border is a handshake that becomes a squeezing contest.
The border smells like cars at noon and wood smoke in the evening.
The border is the place between the two pages in a book where the spine is bent too far.
The border is two men in love with the same woman.
The border is an equation in search of an equals sign.
The border is the location of the factory where lightning and thunder are made.
The border is “NoNo” The Clown, who can’t make anyone laugh.
The border is a locked door that has been promoted.
The border is a moat but without a castle on either side.
The border has become Checkpoint Chale.
The border is a place of plans constantly broken and repaired and broken.
The border is mighty, but even the parting of the seas created a path, not a barrier.
The border is a big, neat, clean, clear black line on a map that does not exist.
The border is the line in new bifocals: below, small things get bigger; above, nothing changes.
The border is a skunk with a white line down its back.
Copyright © 2015 by Alberto Ríos. Used with permission of the author.
Some maps have blue borders
like the blue of your name
or the tributary lacing of
veins running through your
father’s hands. & how the last
time I saw you, you held
me for so long I saw whole
lifetimes flooding by me
small tentacles reaching
for both our faces. I wish
maps would be without
borders & that we belonged
to no one & to everyone
at once, what a world that
would be. Or not a world
maybe we would call it
something more intrinsic
like forgiving or something
simplistic like river or dirt.
& if I were to see you
tomorrow & everyone you
came from had disappeared
I would weep with you & drown
out any black lines that this
earth allowed us to give it—
because what is a map but
a useless prison? We are all
so lost & no naming of blank
spaces can save us. & what
is a map but the delusion of
safety? The line drawn is always
in the sand & folds on itself
before we’re done making it.
& that line, there, south of
el rio, how it dares to cover
up the bodies, as though we
would forget who died there
& for what? As if we could
forget that if you spin a globe
& stop it with your finger
you’ll land it on top of someone
living, someone who was not
expecting to be crushed by thirst—
Copyright © 2017 by Yesenia Montilla. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 28, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister's heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.
I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the backseat of the squad card; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede bare-handed into the bullets drilling his forehead.
I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking,
words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail-light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.
I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.
Reprinted from Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. Copyright © 2016 by Martín Espada. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. and Frances Goldin Literary Agency.