For Mario Gonzalez Arenales (1994-2021)
He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s just scaring my wife.
—call to the Alameda Police Department, April 19, 2021
They watched him from the window of the house, a man at the fence
in a crooked wool cap, chipping at their tree with a comb, liquor bottles
in a shopping basket by his feet. They heard him speak to the wife’s
mother in the yard, tongue thick in his mouth, heavy with lamentation.
He could be the Aztec god of pestilence, no mask, breathing the plague
on them through walls and doors. The Mexican nanny might be able
to read the hieroglyphics tumbling from his mouth, but she was wheeling
a stroller through the streets of Alameda, the trees bowing deeply.
On the news, the body-cam clip wobbles like the video at a barbecue.
The cops are cheerful as they encircle him in the park across the street.
He says his name is Mario. One cop scolds this refugee from Oakland about
drinking in our parks, wants ID so they can be on our merry way. Mario says:
Merry-go-round? He steps up on a tree stump as if to ride it. The cops climb off
the spinning horses of Mario’s imagination, tugging at his arms as he peeks
at them under the cap. Now they are cowboys at the rodeo, but Mario is not
a steer, crashing to the applause of hands that would carve him into steaks.
The cops shove him to the ground, facedown. Mario squirms and bucks;
he is the prize at the county fair, a beast who tries to calm his captors,
so he spits all the words he knows to make them stop: oh God, please,
thank you, and sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I forgive you, says one cop,
as the other cop digs his knee into Mario’s back, where it stays even after
they cuff him, even after the first cop says: Think we can roll him on his side?
He asks Mario for his birthday, as if there will be a barbecue in the backyard
at the cop’s house, and Mario, facedown in the wood chips and the dirt,
with the other cop’s knee pressing into his back, wheezes the word: 1994.
There were cries, then silence. There were no last words. In medieval days,
the prisoner at the block would forgive the headsman and drop a coin into
his hand for a clean strike of the blade. In Salem’s Puritan days, a man accused
of witchcraft, after two days of stones stacked on him, sneered: More weight.
There were no last words from Mario when they rolled him over at last.
The last words were in the headlines that same day, jury deliberations
two thousand miles away in Minneapolis, the case of a cop kneeling
on the neck of a Black man, facedown and handcuffed, for nine minutes.
In Alameda, the cops began CPR and their incantation over the asphyxiated body:
Wake up, Mario, wake up, as if he would be late for school on class picture day,
as if he would miss his shift at the pizzeria where the paychecks dwindled away,
as if he had an autistic brother waiting at home for Mario to help him step from
the shower, button his shirt, comb his hair. His autistic brother still waits for Mario.
The man who called the cops, his wife’s hand gripping his shoulder,
says We greatly regret what happened and never intended, says Terrible
things are being said about us, says Our autistic child is able to read
and is terribly sensitive. The sign in front of the dark house says: For Sale.
The merry-go-round in Mario’s imagination grinds on, creaking
day after day: the caller who presses the button to make the horses go,
the cops charging like cavalry after the renegade, the dead man galloping
ahead, escape impossible, his horse impaled on a pole, kicking the air.
The Mexican nanny called Crucita blames herself for rolling the stroller back
too late. She visits the altar for Mario across the street from the tree missing
a sliver of bark from his comb. The roses wreathing his face shrivel to plastic,
balloons gone flat, votive candles cold. There is an autopsy after the autopsy.
The coroner keeps the city’s secrets, a priest hiding in the confessional.
In her sleep, Crucita sees Mario, sometimes a body splayed across the street,
breath squeezed from his lungs like the last note from the pipes of a calliope,
sometimes breaking free, the painted horse lunging away, as he rides
along the coast to the deserts of Baja California, down mountain trails
off the maps of Yanqui generals and their armies, deep into the songs about
bandidos too clever to be caught, revolutionaries the bullets cannot kill.
Copyright © 2022 by Martín Espada. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 9, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
may also kill them,
but she had no great plans
to live happily ever after.
Today is all she could manage,
that & the breathless sounds of Pres,
tamping down the day’s anarchy.
Twenty years earlier, her voice left her,
so she quit smoking. When it returned
it was vibrating like a dusty contralto.
Today she smells facts:
the air thick with tomorrow’s rain,
a slow leak in the basement.
The five shots of Jameson on his breath.
His undershirt brushed with
someone else’s perfume, a scent
she’d worn in high school—Shalimar.
Twenty years ago, on a dime,
she’d have cut or shot him to clear
the air, but today is not that day.
Today she looks at her body
with some hesitation. It’s late
in the morning & the gravy’s
gonna run thin tonight.
Will she miss the wanting, the having or the gone?
Copyright © 2022 by Linda Susan Jackson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 4, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
i stand before you to say
that today i walked home
& caught the light through
the fence & it was so golden
i wanted to cry & i lifted
my right hand to say thank
you god for the sun thank
you god for a chain link fence
& all the shoes that fit into
the chain link fence so that
we might get lifted god thank
you & i just wanted to dance
& it feels good to have food
in your belly & it feels good
to be home even when home
is the space between metal
shapes & still we are golden
& a man who wore the walk
of hard grounds & lost days
came toward me in the street
& said ‘girl what a beautiful
day’ & i said yes, testify
& i walked on & from some
place a horn rose, an organ,
a voice, a chorus, here to tell
you that we are not dead
we are not dead we are not
dead we are not dead we are
not dead we are not dead
we are not dead we are not
Copyright © 2022 by Eve L. Ewing. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 28, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
Black Virgin Mountain.
Yeah, gore, & all
the damn vagaries
of war locked inside a song.
Yeah, sometimes one thing
leads to another
rainbow, a choker of hippie beads,
& I can’t
stop hearing Dad’s voice
almost going there
on “Nature Boy,” no struggle
trying to hide
behind his eyes. He almost made it,
know how to leave dirt on the roots.
is why I must keep hurt alive,
some bamboo cage.
Lately, I feel how worlds shift.
I don’t know
how they slip the yoke,
but three nights ago
these sappers broke through
their naked bodies greased,
as they ran & slung
wild satchel charges.
I was tied up in a hut
of clay & thatch, & a nameless
sat in a corner, sizing me up,
in blackface, & she wore
next to nothing.
I heard a tap on the other side
of the wall,
sounding a message in code,
& the nurse Lt.
stood up, & said, that’s John.
What’s going on here,
huh? I mean, look,
the Navy pilot never played
blind czar of Id
ransacking the rosebushes
on a false trail,
& we need him at our backs.
do heel spurs rise from?
Pardon my brogue.
All summer the devil
was sharping his blade
on cold black whetstone,
& now this hard rain
falling inside, turning life
into gray moss,
but I still love my jackfruit.
Sometimes I hear Roberta
come here, Boy,
& let us talk glory days.
We sit there, ruminating,
police would shoot
unarmed Black folks,
gazing at our faces
in the water, as the cork
bobs, & nylon line tightens,
my bone hook
in the throat of a gold-belly
perch big as two
hands, & I feel the river
ready to leap the bank,
ready to rampage
one hundred years in one
dusk to dawn’s new season.
Copyright © 2022 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on February 1, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
Braiding my hair, working with, and not against,
the silver waves, breaking through the crests
of my crushed curls—
I consider my life, my regrets and my absences,
my not-love life at press time, the small bundle
of garbage, tied-up by the door,
and I think, looking into the mirror, As soon
as I don’t need them, that’s when they’ll come
running; it’s a law, it’s diffusion
and I think, I could write a theory of whiteness,
but I won’t, because that’s exactly what they want.
Then I follow that with,
It’s not really about them, it’s about us,
and I consider broadcasting that thought
to the whole wide world—
but instead, I sit down to piecemeal these
lines in the quiet of my quiet-dark,
for you, listening now.
Copyright © 2022 by Safia Jama. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 21, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
i come from the fire city / fire came and licked up our houses, lapped them up like they were nothing / drank them like the last dribbling water from a concrete fountain / the spigot is too hot to touch with your lips be careful / fire kissed us and laughed / and even now the rust climbs the walls, red ivy / iron fire and the brick blossoms florid / red like stolen lipstick ground down to a small flat earth / stand on any corner of the fire city, look west to death / the red sun eats the bungalows / the fire city children watch with their fingers in their mouths / to savor the flaming hots or hot flamins or hot crunchy curls or hot chips / they open the fire hydrants in the fire city and lay dollar store boats in the gutters / warrior funeral pyres unlit
Copyright © 2017 Eve L. Ewing. “I come from the fire city.” originally appeared in Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017). Used with permission of the author.
looking over the plums, one by one
lifting each to his eyes and
turning it slowly, a little earth,
checking the smooth skin for pockmarks
and rot, or signs of unkind days or people,
then sliding them gently into the plastic.
whistling softly, reaching with a slim, woolen arm
into the cart, he first balanced them over the wire
before realizing the danger of bruising
and lifting them back out, cradling them
in the crook of his elbow until
something harder could take that bottom space.
I knew him from his hat, one of those
fine porkpie numbers they used to sell
on Roosevelt Road. it had lost its feather but
he had carefully folded a dollar bill
and slid it between the ribbon and the felt
and it stood at attention. he wore his money.
upright and strong, he was already to the checkout
by the time I caught up with him. I called out his name
and he spun like a dancer, candy bar in hand,
looked at me quizzically for a moment before
remembering my face. he smiled. well
hello young lady
hello, so chilly today
should have worn my warm coat like you
yes so cool for August in Chicago
how are things going for you
oh he sighed and put the candy on the belt
it goes, it goes.
Copyright © 2018 Eve L. Ewing. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Spring 2018.
Sometimes you don’t die
when you’re supposed to
& now I have a choice
repair a world or build
a new one inside my body
a white door opens
into a place queerly brimming
gold light so velvet-gold
it is like the world
when I call out
all my friends are there
everyone we love
is still alive gathered
at the lakeside
my honeyed kin
beneath the sky
a garden blue stalks
white buds the moon’s
marble glow the fire
distant & flickering
the body whole bright-
with the hours
of the day beautiful
nameless planet. Oh
friends, my friends—
bloom how you must, wild
until we are free.
Copyright © 2018 by Cameron Awkward-Rich. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 30, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, published by Harpers. © 1960 by Gwendolyn Brooks. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
An original poem written for the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress.
There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.
There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.
There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.
There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.
There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.
There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.
There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.
There's a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.
How could this not be her city
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.
There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.
There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.
Copyright © 2017 by Amanda Gorman. Reprinted from Split This Rock's The Quarry: A Social Justice Database.
This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.
This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the alphabet
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron and lace.
This is a love initialed Black Genius.
This is not a small voice
From Wounded in the House of a Friend. Copyright © 1995 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Copyright © 2017 by Ada Limón. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 15, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.