Mayagüez, Puerto Rico 1856
I. The First Horse
Cholera swarmed unseen through the water, lurking in wells and fountains,
squirming in garbage and excrement, infinitesimal worms drilling the intestines,
till all the water and salt would pour from the body, till the body became a worm,
shriveling and writhing, a slug in salt, till the skin burned blue as flame, the skin
of the peasant and the skin of the slave gone blue, the skin in the slave barracks blue,
the skin of ten thousand slaves blue. The Blue Death, face hidden in a bandanna,
dug graves with the gravediggers, who fell into holes they shoveled for the dead.
The doctors died too, seeing the signs in the mirror, the hand with the razor shaking.
II. The Second Horse
Doctor Betances stepped off the boat, back from Paris, the humidity of the plague
glistening in his beard. He saw the stepmother who fed him sink into a mound
of dirt, her body empty as the husk of a locust in drought.He toweled off his hands.
In the quarantine tents there was laudanum by the bitter spoonful, the lemonade
and broth; in the dim of the kerosene lamps there was the compress cool against
the forehead, the elixir of the bark from the cinchona tree. For peasants and slaves
moaning to their gods, the doctor prescribed chilled champagne to soothe the belly.
For the commander of the Spanish garrison, there was silence bitter as the spoon.
III. The Third Horse
At every hacienda, at every plantation, as the bodies of slaves rolled one by one
into ditches all hipbones and ribs, drained of water and salt, stripped of names,
Doctor Betances commanded the torch for the barracks where the bodies would
tangle together, stacked up as if they never left the ship that sailed from Africa,
kept awake by the ravenous worms of the plague feasting upon them. Watching
the blue flames blacken the wood, the doctor and the slaves saw another plague
burning away, the plague of manacles scraping the skin from hands that cut
the cane, the plague of the collar with four spikes for the runaways brought back.
IV. The Fourth Horse
The pestilence of the masters, stirred by spoons into the coffee of the world,
spread first at the marketplace, at auction, the coins passing from hand to hand.
So Doctor Betances began, at church, with twenty-five pesos in pieces of eight,
pirate coins dropped into the hands of slaves to drop into the hands of masters,
buying their own infants at the baptismal font. The secret society of abolitionists
shoved rowboats full of runaways off the docks in the bluest hour of the blue night,
off to islands without masters. Even the doctor would strangle in the executioner’s
garrote, spittle in his beard, if the soldiers on watch woke up from the opiate of empire.
V. The Fifth Horse
The governor circled his name in the name of empire, so Doctor Betances
sailed away to exile, the island drowning in his sight, but a vision stung
his eyes like salt in the wind: in the world after the plague, no more
plague of manacles; after the pestilence, no more pestilence of masters;
after the cemeteries of cholera, no more collar of spikes or executioners.
In his eye burned the blue of the rebel flag and the rising of his island.
The legend calls him the doctor who exhausted five horses, sleepless
as he chased invisible armies into the night. Listen for the horses.
*To read this poem in its intended format, please click here from your laptop or desktop.
Copyright © 2020 by Martín Espada. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 23, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Returning to the US, he asks
my occupation. Teacher.
What do you teach?
I hate poetry, the officer says,
I only like writing
where you can make an argument.
Anything he asks, I must answer.
This he likes, too.
I don’t tell him
he will be in a poem
where the argument will be
I place him here, puffy,
pink, ringed in plexi, pleased
with his own wit
and spittle. Saving the argument
I am let in
I am let in until
Copyright © 2020 by Solmaz Sharif. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 16, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
My family never stopped migrating. We fight
so hard. With each other and ourselves. Don’t
talk about that. Not now. There is never
a good time and I learn that songs are the only
moments that last forever. But my mother
always brings me the instant coffee my
dede drank before he died. She wraps it
so carefully in a plastic bag from the market
that we go to when Caddebostan feels unreachable.
We don’t talk about that. Or the grief.
Or my short hair. I want to know what
dede would have said. I want to know that he
can feel the warm wind too if he tried.
We fight so hard. We open the tops of
each other’s heads and watch the birds
fly out. We still don’t talk about my dede.
Copyright © 2021 by beyza ozer. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 6, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
basma & rudy were first each holding
a mirror in her arms where i could see
my face as their faces & we pierced
our noses & wore gamar boba
in our ears & everyone at the party
thought them hoop earrings & in the new york years
i crowd smoky bars alongside ladin
& shadin & majid & linda & nedal
atheel & amir & elkhair & mo & mohammed & mo
& we are forever removing our shoes in each other’s
apartments ashing cigarettes
into the incense burner making tea
with the good dried mint our mothers taught us
to keep in the freezer next to the chili
powder from home making songs & dinner
& jokes in our parents’ accents & i am funniest
when i have two languages to cocktail
when i can say remember & everyone was there
the rented room at the middle school on sundays
where our parents volunteered to teach us arabic
to watch us bleat alef baa taa thaa & text
our american boyfriends that we were bored
& at restaurants everyone asks if we are related
& we say yes we do not date because we are probably
cousins we throw rent parties & project the video
where albabil sing gitar alshoug & i am not
the only one crying not the only one made & remade
by longing the mutation that arabic makes of my english
metallic noises the english makes in my arabic
we ululate at each other’s weddings we ululate at the club
& sarah & hana make the mulah vegan & in english safia
spells her name like mine but pronounces it
like purified sews a patch of garmasees
to the back of my denim jacket we wash our underwear
in the sink & make group texts on whatsapp
we go home & take pictures of the pyramids
we go home & take pictures of the nile we move
to other cities & feel doubly diasporic
& your cousin’s coworker’s little sister emails me
a list of bigalas in oakland brings me crates
of canned fava beans from her own parents’
basement & i say sudanese-american & mean also
british sudanese & canadian & australian & raised
in the gulf azza & yousra & amani & yassmin
& it’s true that my people are everywhere
the uncles driving taxis at the end of our nights
the pharmacist who fills my prescription
who is named for the mole denoting beauty
adorning her left cheek guardian spirits of my every
hookah bar of my every untagged photograph
of crop tops & short shorts & pierced cartilage & tattoos
of henna & headscarves & undercuts & shaved heads
my tapestries embroidered with hundreds
of little mirrors glinting like sequins in the changing light
Copyright © 2021 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 7, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
now i like to imagine la migra running
into the sock factory where my mom
& her friends worked. it was all women
who worked there. women who braided
each other’s hair during breaks.
women who wore rosaries, & never
had a hair out of place. women who were ready
for cameras or for God, who ended all their sentences
with si dios quiere. as in: the day before
the immigration raid when the rumor
of a raid was passed around like bread
& the women made plans, si dios quiere.
so when the immigration officers arrived
they found boxes of socks & all the women absent.
safe at home. those officers thought
no one was working. they were wrong.
the women would say it was god working.
& it was god, but the god
my mom taught us to fear
was vengeful. he might have wet his thumb
& wiped la migra out of this world like a smudge
on a mirror. this god was the god that woke me up
at 7am every day for school to let me know
there was food in the fridge for me & my brothers.
i never asked my mom where the food came from,
but she told me anyway: gracias a dios.
gracias a dios del chisme, who heard all la migra’s plans
& whispered them into the right ears
to keep our families safe.
Copyright © 2021 by José Olivarez. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 12, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
We meet at a coffee shop. So much time has passed and who is time? Who is waiting by the windowsill? We make plans to go to a museum but we go to a bookshop instead. We’re leaning in, learning how to talk to each other again. I say, I’m obsessed with my grief and she says, I’m always in mourning. She laughs and it’s an extension of her body. She laughs and it moves the whole room. I say, My home is an extension of my body and she says, Most days are better with a long walk. The world moves without us—so we tend to a garden, a graveyard, a pot on the windowsill. Death is a comfort because it says, Transform but don’t hurry. There is a tenderness to growing older and we are listening for it. Steadier ways to move through the world and we are learning them. A way to touch your own body. A touch that says, Dig deeper. There, in the ground, there is our memory. I am near enough my roots. Time is my friend. Tomorrow is a place we are together.
Copyright © 2021 by Sanna Wani. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 15, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.