The lights in the bedroom flickered off and on.
I lay in our bed listening to a heavy thumping
coming from somewhere, quickening.

In a half-dream, I created the idea of walking to the door
and shouting, Who’s doing that?

Even the thought of it was tiring, and I rolled over with eyes half-closed,
lucid enough to be afraid to sleep but longing for it

with the same urgency I longed to take a deep breath
without pain, or to be able to sit up
without my lungs feeling crushed.

I tried to fill my thoughts with something other
than the every-second-of-half-breathing, the crushing and stupor.

Was the sound growing near?

Was it a foot banging a door, my daughter running circles in the living
room, feet pounding in a rhythmic pattern?

Was it the neighbor at some task again that required loud repetitive
pounding and screeching?

The questions were something to latch onto in my mind. I entertained them.

A slit of light broke from the bedroom door and my son crawled in
beside me, wrapping his small limbs around mine

underneath the coat of blankets. He was whispering but I could not
hear because of the thumping.

Who is doing that, I said. I slept.

My husband woke me to feed me soup, water from a straw.

I sat up in bed, the room bluing. Our five-year-old
jumping on the bed, adding a beat to the drumming

that started again when I opened my eyes (though I was sure
I heard it in my sleep).

It had been weeks since I’d left either the bed, or the couch,
laying, blinking, and when awake, staring through the window,
at a wall, at one of the children’s faces.

Breath came as if through a tiny sieve, which I gulped in small pockets.

You’re here, the doctor said one morning on the phone.
Be grateful. So the air like fish eggs, like the meager rationing
in the form of pills.

Sucking, coughing, my chest strained and ready to snap.

Nebulizer hush and burr. Inhaler sip. Eight more times.

Times seven. Again. Times sixty days.

The world shimmered in blue, the faces of my son, my husband
and our girls, cast in that same blue.

One morning or one night, or the next day, or the night that was yesterday
and before, tomorrow, I dreamt of running at full speed
down our street, past the school, toward the bayou ten blocks away.

The banks were filling with rain, ready to break over the edge
of the concrete embarkment, and I ran so hard every part of me
ached and I knew that this feeling, familiar, happened yesterday,

today, and tomorrow. I woke up wheezing and choking.
The thumping in my ears, my own heart racing,
like I was running, every second running.

At the insistence of my husband, I sat outside wrapped in a blanket,
feeling shorn. I watched my children play in the front yard
while the light flickered through the leaves of the tree on the lawn.

Underneath the world—or was it beside it, along it, between it?
(There was no relative space to pin it)—I saw the pulsing of blue,
an under-color to the kaleidoscope of reality’s rough imagery—

my son’s kid sneakers of black and red and white, flashing lights
when he jumped, my-eight-year-old’s plastic sandals, both of the children

dangling off the edge of a spider swing, their small hands flayed out
and waving. The laughter, her sigh.

Underneath it all was this color, not an earthly blue, blue of ocean,
precious stone or gem cut into rock, a sky flanking a horizon. No.

This blue which was not blue was the color of sacred, deep,
with a center to it, blood of childbirth, the whitened lips of the dead,
the infant’s purple wail—

all of it mixed together, long and unraveling, a cruel silence
with a terrifying bell inside.

I rested my head back on the chair and stared at the sky
that was no longer the sky.

I blinked and felt close to that color—this underwater, the blue eggs,
blue veins on an infant’s foot, the black feather of a blue jay that feigned
blue, the blue mouth of a glacier.

Was this what ran parallel and twinned to our lives,
a universe linked with a battered rope to this one,
where I had died, and hanging by a thread
to the universe where I lived.

The giant bell in its cruel silence behind the blue,
and my rollercoaster heartbeat readying me for the terrifying drop
to the ground. I longed to hear the bell.

I would not share it, only save it inside my body,
and never, even to my worst enemies, (but is that true?)
tell anyone the sound it made that killed small parts
all at once with a blow.

I opened my eyes, heavy pinned.

I had already heard the bell.
I had already imagined my children without me.

I sat feeling the holes of it,
growing cold.

Light overhead grew brighter
until wind threw the branches together,
a dark shadow enveloping our family.

Spin faster, I said to my children.
Do it again.

Copyright © 2020 by Leslie Contreras Schwartz. This poem originally appeared in Luna Luna, June 2020. Used with permission of the author.
 

Size color class I was never allowed to be little

And by little I mean innocent

By little I mean allowed to play

make mistakes

If anything occurred in whatever setting

I was always blamed

I was mistaken constantly for being older than I was

At 6 when my stepmother came she refused to

allow me alone time with my father

If a moment occurred she asked

What were you doing with him?

As if I at 6 were molesting my father

I was caught once through an open bathrobe

trying to see my father’s penis

My stepmother never forgot

You were trying to look at him, she said.

I was not given toys books anything

Stuffed animals

Bows ribbons anything that may be attached to a little girl

I was also my mother’s sounding board for her adult problems

with my Dad

Constantly instructed to call the police

when he hit her

The only thing my parents could figure out to do together

for some small infraction was to give me punishment

2 weeks

So I never knew the nurturance

that girls got

My adult life has duplicated this

always to blame

always outside

refusing to see my little girl

On occasion my mother sent me to the store to get candy

Things that she liked

Fire balls

Reese's peanut butter cups

Kit Kat bars

Black licorice

Sometimes red which I liked

Twizzlers

I remember once chewing a pack of red Twizzlers as an adult

the red stem hung out of my mouth

A friend at the time exclaimed

You're such a little girl …

And once when I was with a woman

Someone looked on and said oh

Your little girl is out

In relationships too I was never

the little girl

In fact in most of them I rescued radically immature women

I was their mother caretaker

the one with all responsibility

And of course when it ended I was always to blame

Everything to me lies around class race gender lines

Even in so called evolved communities

Even with people of color

I always know no one would treat a white skinned woman or a man the way I've been treated

In colleges where I teach

I'm always aware of the hierarchy

People screaming about diversity

I moan complain

How the Aids narrative only belongs to men

They never ask women

Black women

As if Aids didn't happen to us

Our fathers brothers sons nephews

Cousins acquaintances

The black gay boys in the choir

became our disappeared

I remember a pair of black gay men

who were spiritual

would act as ministers

and bury the dead black boys

families wouldn't recognize

These men showed up as the priests

and gave last rites

And what of the women

A mother nursing a grown son

returned to a baby

ravaged by Aids

Me being young myself going into sick wards

like leper colonies

seeing those abandoned by society

I never forgot

Even my era did not allow me to be little

innocent

A threat if I spoke up

A competitor for middle class white girls

who had the world handed to them

And resented me/you for surviving

thriving despite all odds.

From Funeral Diva (City Lights Books, 2020). This poem originally appeared in The Brooklyn Rail. Used with the permission of City Lights Books and the author. 

Lark of my house,
keep laughing.
Miguel Hernández

this little lark says hi
to the rain—she calls
river as she slaps
the air with both wings—
she doesn’t know pine
from ash or cedar
from linden—she greets
drizzle & downpour
alike—she doesn’t
know iceberg from melt—
can’t say sea level
rise—glacial retreat—
doesn’t know wildfire—
greenhouse gas—carbon
tax or emission—
does not legislate
a fear she can’t yet
feel—only knows cats
& birds & small dogs
& the sway of some
tall trees make her squeal
with delight—it shakes
her tiny body—
this thrill of the live
electric sudden—
the taste of wild blue-
berries on her tongue—
the ache of thorn-prick
from blackberry bush—
oh dear girl—look here—
there’s so much to save—
moments—lady bugs—
laughter—trillium—
blue jays—arias—
horizon’s pink hue—
we gather lifetimes
on one small petal—
the river’s our friend—
the world: an atom—
daughter: another
name for: hope—rain—change
begins when you hail
the sky sun & wind
the verdure inside
your heart’s four chambers
even garter snakes
and unnamed insects
in the underbrush
as you would a love
that rivers: hi—hi

Copyright © 2020 by Dante Di Stefano. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 9, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

You rode your bike from your house on the corner to the dead end of the street, and turned it around at the factory, back to the corner again. This was the loop your mother let you ride, not along the avenue with its cavalcade of trucks, or up the block where Drac the Dropout waited to plunge his pointy incisors into virginal necks. You can’t remember exactly your age, but you probably had a bike with a banana seat, and wore cutoff jeans and sweat socks to the knees. You are trying to be precise but everything is a carbon-like surface that scrolls by with pinpricks emitting memory’s wavy threads. One is blindingly bright and lasts only seconds: You are riding your bike and the shadowy blots behind the factory windows’ steel grates emit sounds that reach and wrap around you like a type of gravity that pulls down the face. You can’t see them but what they say is what men say all day long, to women who are trying to get somewhere. It’s not something you hadn’t heard before. But until then, you only had your ass grabbed by boys your own age—boys you knew, who you could name—in a daily playground game in which teachers looked away. In another pin prick, you loop back to your house, where your mother is standing on the corner talking to neighbors. You tell her what the men said, and ask, does this mean I’m beautiful? What did she say? Try remembering: You are standing on the corner with your mother. You are standing on the corner. This pinprick emits no light; it is dark, it is her silence. Someday you will have a daughter and the dead end will become a cul de sac and all the factories will be shut down or at the edges of town, and the men behind screens will be monitored, blocked. And when things seem safe, and everything is green and historic and homey, you will let her walk from school to park, where you’ll wait for her, thanks to a flexible schedule, on the corner. And when she walks daydreaming along the way and takes too long to reach you, the words they said will hang from the tree you wait under.

Copyright © 2020 by Rosa Alcalá. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 7, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

          how do I admit I’m almost glad of it?

          the way it’s scraped off
          those flash-storms of rage

          I grew delicately-feathered
          luna moth antennae
          to fine-tune your emotional weather:
          sometimes a barometric shift
          in the house’s atmosphere / a tight
          quickening / some hard dark shadow
          flickering glossy as obsidian
          pulled down like a nightshade
          behind your irises / but sometimes
          you struck with no warning at all
          rattlesnaked fang of lightning
          incinerating my moon-pale wings
          to crumpled cinder and ash

          now your memory resets
          itself every night / a button
          clearing the trip odometer
          back to zero / dim absinthe fizz
          of radium-green glow
          from the dashboard half-lifing
          a midnight rollover from
          omega to alpha to omega

          I remember when you told me
          (maybe I was three?)
          I was mentally damaged
          like the boy across the street /
          said you’d help me pass
          for normal so no one would know
          but only if I swore to obey
          you / and only you / forever

          now your memory fins
          around and around / like
          the shiny obsessive lassos
          of a goldfish gold-banding
          the narrow perimeters
          of its too-small bowl

          coming home from school
          (maybe I was fifteen?)
          you were waiting for me
          just inside the front door /
          accused me of stealing a can
          of corned beef hash from
          the canned goods stashed
          in the basement / then beat me
          in the face with your shoe

          how do I admit I’m almost glad of it?
          that I’ve always pined for you
          like an unrequited love / though I
          was never beautiful enough
          for you / your tinned bright laugh
          shrapneled flecks of steel to hide
          your anger when people used to say
          we looked like one another

          but now we compare
          our same dimpled hands /
          the thick feathering of eyebrows
          with the same crooked wing
          birdwinging over our left eye /
          our uneven cheekbones making
          one half of our face rounder
          than the other / one side
          a full moon / the other side
          a shyer kind of moon

          how can I admit I’m almost glad of it
          when you no longer recognize
          yourself in photographs
          the mirror becoming stranger
          until one day—will it be soon?—
          you’ll look in my face / once again
          seeing nothing of yourself
          reflected in it, and—unsure
          of all that you were and all
          that you are—ask me: who are you?

Copyright © 2019 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 24, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

My grandmother is only one day
into her infirmity and doped up
on Morphine. Her shoulder is immobile

beneath layers of plaster.
Her eighty-five-year-old frame droops
from the weight of it.

My mother confesses:
she cannot take care of her mother.
I am not she says a nursemaid.

My mother is angry. Angry
at my sister who didn’t give enough
support, angry at my grandmother

for shuffling her feet, angry even
at the dog that was tucked beneath
my grandmother’s arm

as they all three tried to squeeze
into the door of the vet’s office.
She calls me from the emergency room

to say that grandmother fractured her shoulder
in three places. She’s become an invalid
overnight, she says. My sister calls her cruel

for refusing to run the bathwater, refusing
to wash my grandmother’s naked body, for
not even considering renting

a wheelchair for her to move from place
to place. When grandmother whispers
that she is afraid to walk, my mother

tells her that there’s nothing wrong with
her legs, tells her she’ll have to go to a
nursing home if she won’t walk

to the bathroom: one piss in the bed is
understandable, two is teetering too
close to in-home care.

My sister does not understand that there
is too much to overcome between them—
always the memory of the black dress

grandmother refused to wear
on the day of her husband’s funeral—
the way she turned to my mother and said,

I am not in mourning.

Copyright © 2019 by Hali Sofala-Jones. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 6, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

after Gwendolyn Brooks

My wild grief didn’t know where to end.
Everywhere I looked: a field alive and unburied.
Whole swaths of green swallowed the light.
All around me, the field was growing. I grew out
My hair in every direction. Let the sun freckle my face.
Even in the greenest depths, I crouched
Towards the light. That summer, everything grew
So alive and so alone. A world hushed in green.
Wildest grief grew inside out.

I crawled to the field’s edge, bruises blooming
In every crevice of my palms.
I didn’t know I’d reached a shoreline till I felt it
There: A salt wind lifted
The hair from my neck.
At the edge of every green lies an ocean.
When I saw that blue, I knew then:
This world will end.

Grief is not the only geography I know.
Every wound closes. Repair comes with sweetness,
Come spring. Every empire will fall:
I must believe this. I felt it
Somewhere in the field: my ancestors
Murmuring Go home, go home—soon, soon.
No country wants me back anymore and I’m okay.

If grief is love with nowhere to go, then
Oh, I’ve loved so immensely.
That summer, everything I touched
Was green. All bruises will fade
From green and blue to skin.
Let me grow through this green
And not drown in it.
Let me be lawless and beloved,
Ungovernable and unafraid.
Let me be brave enough to live here.
Let me be precise in my actions.
Let me feel hurt.
I know I can heal.
Let me try again—again and again.

Copyright © 2022 by Laurel Chen. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 21, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

"So Much Happiness" from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Far Corner Books.

for Otis Douglas Smith, my father

The recipe for hot water cornbread is simple:
Cornmeal, hot water. Mix till sluggish,
then dollop in a sizzling skillet.
When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You’ve got to wait
for the burning and get it just right.

Before the bread cools down,
smear it with sweet salted butter
and smash it with your fingers,
crumple it up in a bowl
of collard greens or buttermilk,
forget that I’m telling you it’s the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head
when he taught me.

Mix it till it looks like quicksand, he’d say.
Till it moves like a slow song sounds.

We’d sit there in the kitchen, licking our fingers
and laughing at my mother,
who was probably scrubbing something with bleach,
or watching Bonanza,
or thinking how stupid it was to be burning
that nasty old bread in that cast iron skillet.
When I told her that I’d made my first-ever pan
of hot water cornbread, and that my daddy
had branded it glorious, she sniffed and kept
mopping the floor over and over in the same place.

So here’s how you do it:

You take out a bowl, like the one
we had with blue flowers and only one crack,
you put the cornmeal in it.
Then you turn on the hot water and you let it run
while you tell the story about the boy
who kissed your cheek after school
or about how you really want to be a reporter
instead of a teacher or nurse like Mama said,
and the water keeps running while Daddy says
You will be a wonderful writer
and you will be famous someday and when
you get famous, if I wrote you a letter and
send you some money, would you write about me?


and he is laughing and breathing and no bullet
in his head. So you let the water run into this mix
till it moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
which is another thing Daddy said, and even though
I’d never even seen a river,
I knew exactly what he meant.
Then you turn the fire way up under the skillet,
and you pour in this mix
that moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
like quicksand, like slow song sounds.
That stuff pops something awful when it first hits
that blazing skillet, and sometimes Daddy and I
would dance to those angry pop sounds,
he’d let me rest my feet on top of his
while we waltzed around the kitchen
and my mother huffed and puffed
on the other side of the door. When you are famous,
Daddy asks me, will you write about dancing
in the kitchen with your father?
I say everything I write will be about you,
then you will be famous too. And we dip and swirl
and spin, but then he stops.
And sniffs the air.

The thing you have to remember
about hot water cornbread
is to wait for the burning
so you know when to flip it, and then again
so you know when it’s crusty and done.
Then eat it the way we did,
with our fingers,
our feet still tingling from dancing.
But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,
sometimes,

poems are born.

From Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Smith. Used with permission of Coffee House Press.

MEET KIRSTEN. Wears milkmaid braids to conserve her swedish past. Relinquished herself to assimilation at 8 after saying bye to her bff Singing Bird, whose tribe was forced off their land. “1854 was a wild year for me, guys. Cancel culture is real, but how could I disown my family for the racist things they say? How could I even point out that the things they say are racist? Like, how could I even say ‘Can you consider the words coming out of your mouth & never say them again?’” 

MEET MOLLY. Buys baguettes on mondays and wears a beret literally everywhere. Obsessed with hollywood films and harsh realities. Surprisingly patriotic despite her love of all things british, especially plaid. An expert on taking up space. When the trainer asks if anyone can define discrimination, she pulls out a legal pad “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been discriminated against because I’m a woman. I write literally every instance down as proof. Exactly how many hours do we have?”

MEET SAMANTHA. 25-year-old well-meaning rule lover who enjoys progress and satin. Would like to be a painter or possibly the president of the united states of america. Out of the two AMA questions received before the training, both came from her. One for each black person she’s ever talked to in her life. “1) This is more of a comment than anything, but I don’t understand why I can’t be curious about Addy’s hair 2) Remind me again, what’s the difference between equality and equity?”

MEET FELICITY. Wears wide brim hats for horse races and can stitch the shit out of anything. Makes a mean southern sweet tea just like her mommy used to in the old virginia colony. When the diversity trainer asks if anyone can recall a time in their lives when they’ve been racist, she has a hard time pinning down just one time. “Sure I could, but I’d rather focus on rescuing horses from alopecia than spend a few hours at this dumb-ass training. Honestly, who has the time for any of this?”

MEET ADDY. Just look at all these dolls crying, complaining and getting paid for it all. Meanwhile hot girl summer came and left and I’m still stuck here performing history. Imma just slap the next bitch who tries to buy me. The scholars who brought me to life built the best american story but forgot two key facts. 1) I’m tired of being sold  2) less than half the people who buy me actually listen. But if I raised my hand right now & asked “Do I really need to be here?” you think my boss would just let me leave? 

Copyright © 2020 by Kortney Morrow. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 10, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.