After dinner, I’m mailed back to my father in a suitcase.
The tablecloth is edible. Gold is edible. God is edible too.
Don’t believe the words on the table—they’re not food.
I’m worried someone will walk in and take my plate away.
The men I grew up with ate white rice burritos.
Sometimes the stars feel nearby. Sometimes they write.
When my parents fought about rent, the ends of my body came and went.
My father climbs out of my body at night in search of gold chains
He can pawn at Don Roberto Jewelers.
At some point, a pattern will emerge—at some point, all of it will make sense.
A vast table, laid out with fruits, vegetables, and smoked meats.
Gold is edible. Fathers are edible too.
Mom makes a list of chores for my brother and I to avoid being slapped
Or asked to assume the position from across the room.
We are nuisances, embarrassments, party-squatters to teenage parents.
At my cousin’s wedding: birria, red rice and potato salad.
Then into the bathroom—I go.
I try but can’t stop putting certain things inside me.
For a long time, I thought all girls were disciplined this way,
Thrown into the dark to reckon with thoughts.
He told me the vein inside had broken—put that in my book.
Fairy tales about girls who’ve been wronged.
Copyright © 2023 by Diana Marie Delgado. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 23, 2023, by the Academy of American Poets.
I go to the railroad tracks
And follow them to the station of my enemies
A cobalt-toothed man pitches pennies
at my mugshot negative
All over the united states, there are
Toddlers in the rock
I see why everyone out here
got in the big cosmic basket
And why blood agreements mean a lot
And why I get shot back at
I understand the psycho-spiritual refusal
to write white history or take the glass freeway
White skin tattooed on my right forearm
Ricochet sewage near where I collapsed
into a rat-infested manhood
My new existence as living graffiti
In the kitchen with
a lot of gun cylinders to hack up
House of God in part
No cops in part
My body brings down the Christmas
The new bullets pray over blankets made from old bullets
Pray over the 28th hour’s next beauty mark
Extrajudicial confederate statue restoration
the waist band before the next protest poster
By the way,
Time is not an illusion, your honor
I will save your desk for last
You are witty, your honor
You’re moving money again, your honor
It is only raining one thing: non-white cops
And prison guard shadows
Reminding me of
Spoiled milk floating on an oil spill
A neighborhood making a lot of fuss over its demise
A new lake for a Black Panther Party
Malcom X’s ballroom jacket slung over my son’s shoulders
The figment of village
a noon noose to a new white preacher
-All in an abstract painting of a president
Bought slavers some time, didn’t it?
The tantric screeches of military bolts and Election-Tuesday cars
A cold-blooded study in leg irons
Proof that some white people have actually fondled nooses
That sundown couples
made their vows of love over
opaque peach plastic
and bolt action audiences
Man, the Medgar Evers-second is definitely my favorite law of science
Fondled news clippings and primitive Methodists
My arm changes imperialisms
Simple policing vs. Structural frenzies
Elementary school script vs. Even whiter white spectrums
Artless bleeding and
the challenge of watching civilians think
“terrible rituals they have around the corner.
They let their elders beg for public mercy”
“I am going to go ahead and sharpen these kids’ heads
into arrows myself and see
how much gravy spills out of family crests.”
Modern fans of war
What with their t-shirt poems
And t-shirt guilt
And me, having on the cheapest pair of shoes on the bus,
I have no choice but to read the city walls for signs of my life
Copyright © 2020 by Tongo Eisen-Martin. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 31, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Every day try and write down one terrible thing.
One terrible thing—I’m filled with them,
carry each one
like an organ locked in a Coleman cooler.
Add a little color for emphasis.
I say my father’s surname to a migration of crows.
His name like a figure jumping out of an aerodynamic object
through a burning hoop
into a glass of still water.
My history is comprised of the inappropriate.
I look into the mirror and see disturbed human qualities,
my face like grass in a summer essay
like a senator stepping into an empty room
to hate his speech,
the almost symmetrical science of it.
Trying to feel something.
Covering rented light with a curtain.
Today make nothing happen very slowly.
I can see through the atmosphere’s silk chemise
all the way to the faint constellation in the southern sky
and it’s making me want to shake my head
and ask a question
to the clairvoyant 8-Ball in my hands—ask
if we are among those left in a dark forest
with our flare guns pointed at the ground
or among those loved by our parents’ parents
on the paternal side we never see.
Hell If I know, the 8-Ball says
drunk in its dark blue alcohol.
Winter breathed out all language.
My father appeared
and began taking my hair
one follicle at a time.
He worked his way to the neural tissue
threw himself down
in a tantrum.
I listen attentively to the wind
and cannot compute this.
I sell my letter to the sentimentalists
leaving behind a trail of fuck you
crumbs the largest of birds cannot tear.
Despite the parables I keep close
I won’t be mythologized by my father
who moves like an incoherent, boozing breeze
through my life’s antechambers.
I won’t admire the west vestibule of the Frick with him
not with this roast on a spit in my chest
the mind like a database of rage-expressions
the mind like a bottle of loose glitter—
so shadowy, my people, you begin
to see the blueprints in all things
until you can’t hold a book without
blowing on it to see if it will scatter
or laying on a bed, waiting to fall through
into the particle-laden apartment below—
to each his own until it ruins pleasure.
Where is the rain
when I am feeling this
I went to a doctor and she said
There’s a little you in there who feels
the little me fell
like a grand piano into my lap
Visualize a knock-knock joke with yourself
in a white noise somewhere
on the Upper West Side
a box of Kleenex in your hand.
memory swam through the grotesque
with its spoon paddle.
My dreams always fell flat.
The doctor said:
Start with finding out where your hands go
when you say your father’s name.
I say his name and I can see him.
He squats in the corner computing Zeno’s paradox.
He fills another glass and pukes,
starts in again about the illusion of motion—
If I’m coming toward you on the street
I will never reach you, he raves.
I’ll go half way and there will be another half and another half and another half.
He stands in infinite points on the distance
assuring with his ancient terrible glee
that I am going to go out and get a drink with him.
Deep within some cell
the nucleus grows unstable
I used to put a miniature rosebush
in the ground each year
to counteract my squalor.
Don’t tell me that definition of madness,
doing the same thing over again etcetera.
The definition of madness
is a certain enthusiasm, then there has
to be another person there
to not share in it—who is oppressed by it
who can only stare into it.
Tell it to the bluebird rustling over my head.
Tell it to a satellite orbiting in its delusion of being a moon.
I’m coaxing the black bull out of my mouth
with a red flag and a beer. I’m constructing
out of my faulty genes,
my last sentence, my last thing
which addresses the dilemma obliquely:
we will perceive our own pain in others.
And we will know if we are capable of loving them.
From Someone Else's Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014) by Bianca Stone. Copyright © 2014 by Bianca Stone. Used with permission of the author.
to Tony Earley
Strange how I remember standing on a limb
that curved out over open space that fell
away down slopes I’d never climb back out of
had I fallen. And once, when I was six,
I almost left my mother’s car—outside a bar—
because I knew the nearby bottomlands
would reach the river, and I could disappear
from her and find another family—just
show up at some stranger’s door, be taken
in, and live a different life. That’s how
I thought back then—a determined little cuss,
I’m told, who hid my fossils in the snaky
roots of trees and sometimes climbed up
high inside a thick magnolia, where I
refused to answer when my name was
called. I think about the times I might have
died, my infant brother sliding from the seat
to slam against the floorboard, the car
stuck sideways down a ditch embankment,
the icy nights near swollen creeks and rivers,
the woods a child could lose his life in
trying to escape. I guess that’s why I
listen toward the farthest trees as if a prayer
were stirring only I can hear. Perhaps its
single word is mend, a word that all my
other words have felt a kinship with.
Evenings when I sit out back, I think my
thoughts have always been inclining toward
a self whose soul has found a place to be
alone, away from others I don’t trust,
content to watch the falling leaves. Dull
image—perhaps cliché—but I’ll take it
nonetheless. The truth is: here we are
inside these lives we sometimes do not
recognize, these lives we don’t deserve.
So many selves we almost came to be
never came to be. So many words too true
to whisper to ourselves we go on listening
toward. So many bridges never crossed,
others stepped back from. So much I’ll
never understand about the reasons
I survived when others didn’t. Years
ago I found a book, like a gift, fallen
between two shelves. Inside, someone
had penciled, Language isn’t sad but
meaning is. I’ve held those words as
close as any I have known, having felt
a pull toward nothingness, toward lack
of anyone or anything that might repair
my ruined thoughts, and just as often
I have stood in shallow creeks, waiting
on my world to end, assured I have no
place, no name, no face, no words to say
the source of what I’m always reaching
toward. I have followed driftwood,
imagined my own dead self assigned
to stir above the silt. I’ve watched
the motions course along through shadows,
soon to reach a bend and carry on unseen.
Still, I have a faith that what is next is what
the story most requires so that the shape
of time allotted, ordained to be, can then
reveal itself. Bend, mend—the echo isn’t
lost on me—and giving in to where I’m
being taken has been the way I’ve come
to know my life, to speak its mysteries.
My guess is such an explanation overlooks
as much as it imagines. I’m sure I’ve
simplified the coarser parts, smoothed
them over as a stream refines a stone
through centuries. I’ve left out what is
obvious to anyone who knows or cares
to know the fullness of my life. Even so,
once I hid beneath a car, half an hour,
refusing to be left somewhere I didn’t
want to be—knowing days would pass,
my mother drunk. I was caged and fierce
despite the gravel shards that scraped
my arms and face when finally she caught
my leg and jerked my body out. So many
times another story line became the thing
that almost did me in. My papaw
snatched me from a pigpen where I
tumbled in one morning while he milked
the cows. So many times I’ve wondered
what the reasons are for why my life
was spared. Curses were all around me—
guns, dynamite, darkening fields, coyotes,
waterfalls, snake dens, hard-driven men.
I stood on snowy hillsides and almost
turned to follow logging roads wherever
they might lead. I guess I’m saying that
I came to where I am by way of almost
going somewhere else. I hope you’ll see
how I have tried to find a word to hold
between our broken souls, a word no voice
has ever found that sounds like wind that
bends and mends the sage grass in its wake,
perhaps the Holy Spirit’s whispering
revealing countless mercies granted all
the times I didn’t see its presence leading
me to where I am, to who I am, this self
I never thought I’d be, who found a language
meaning can rejoice in—a kingdom I’m still
the only home I call my own.
Copyright © 2017 Jeff Hardin. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Spring 2017.
Your look makes me want to jump off the roof
of the modern art museum. How am I supposed
to tell you about my life? Yesterday I saw a turtle
eat a dandelion flower up close. I cannot say what
this might mean to you. It was on my phone,
which is where I’ve been living lately. I can’t expect
you to understand. I cry openly and you stare at me
with big wet cow-eyes. I tell you what the abyss is like.
I heard breathing. It was my own. I wasn’t terrified.
Loneliness binds me to myself but I use my phone
as a wedge, use it to keep myself from touching who
I am. Nobody wants to grow up, not even children.
They just want to be taller because they hate being
looked down upon. What is it we see when we turn
and look back? Salt? Pepper? I’ll take both. No more
questions. All I want is to sit in this field with you,
little cow, this field I built in my mind. I pet you, make
little noises. You try to move away but I hold on to you,
I throw my arms around your neck. You drop
your dark head, continue chewing what you chew.
Copyright © 2017 Matthew Siegel. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Winter 2017.
if the body is just a parable
about the body if breath
is a leash to hold the mind
then staying alive should be
easier than it is most sick
things become dead things
at twenty-four my liver was
already covered in fatty
rot my mother filled a tiny
coffin with picture frames
I spent the year drinking
from test tubes weeping
wherever I went somehow
it happened wellness crept
into me like a roach nibbling
through an eardrum for
a time the half minutes
of fire in my brainstem
made me want to pull out
my spine but even those
have become bearable so
how shall I live now
in the unexpected present
I spent so long in a lover’s
quarrel with my flesh
the peace seems over-
cautious too-polite I say
stop being cold or make
that blue bluer and it does
we speak to each other
in this code where every word
means obey I sit under
a poplar tree with a thermos
of chamomile feeling
useless as an oath against
dying I put a sugar cube
on my tongue and
swallow it like a pill
Copyright © 2017 by Kaveh Akbar. From Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017). Used with permission of the author.
us was a thing hard to
come by. We would have to make due with
we had: these
were pills and a pencil,
blue earplugs to block out the voices
our heads, which
would tell us time passed and
these thoughts that would shine like soft lights on
our brains would
one day fade
relief. We would write in our binders,
a moment of grief. We
were deeply aware we would have to
make up for
lost time, but
when we took our pills, the
world would seem fine, seem as if it had
fine. Once we
had adequate supplies
we’d sell, but until then we decid-
ed to re-
fill. We had
determined that we would
not brood. Instead we charted out our
moods and light-
ened up our
loads. Before the rest of
time unfolds, we would like to hold on-
to this life,
feel like it’s
beating, there, deep inside
of our chests, not out of fear. We are
Copyright © 2014 by Katy Lederer. Used with permission of the author.
in memoriam the once-frozen North
Our collective consciousness does not allow punishment
where it cannot impose blame.
United States v. Lyons
Judge Alvin Benjamin Rubin, dissenting
There is of course the other idea: that the intricate latticework
Of our bodies loosed from us at last will leave us free
To become anything, pure light, perhaps, or wing-beats
In fresh powder beneath some maples locked up in their thin veneer
Of ice. But then as always a sudden gust and the limbs’ clacking,
And, as when some insurgent sound crosses over the porous border
Of a dream, the world recrystallizes around us: midday, snow-
Grayed, the wind-chill’s sub-zero like a ball-peen to the forehead.
It’s cold enough to quiet even the soul’s feathery throat-song,
And so it does. Nothing moves and I move through the woods
At the edge of its city with dog, hoping he’ll shit his daily shit
Before this reddening flesh numbs entirely. Nothing moves,
But beneath months-thick ice and powder, winter’s put up its dead:
Squirrels and sparrows, the wren and the fox, whole families
Of field mice posed as if in the pet store’s deep freeze, even,
Here and there, scattered and whole, occasional missing persons.
For now, for guilty, for guiltless, no matter, the world offers neither
Deliverance nor decay, and though we trust in that the thaw
Will come, that someday soon some pond water, water
Still and softly rippled as pre-War window-glass, will again reflect
Its image of the bloodless sky, cut, at intervals, by spring’s
First returning vultures, and though the police will then take
A little comfort, as they kick the MOBILE CRIME LAB’s tires
Before rolling it out for the season, that the birds help at least
To ease the legwork, we know no one’s, you know, going to be
Set free. The skull’s thin as eggshell so far as the beak’s thick curve
Is concerned. The raisin of the eye’s an easy delicacy.
And so to imagine the future is to imagine the present, but warmer,
But more forthrightly, more honestly violent. And so another day’s
Bones picked clean. There is of course the idea’s consolation:
For eternal patience, eternal reward, for the meek, the Earth’s
Corpse. Instead, a sort of waking sleep, a sort of waking slow;
We rub our eyes, warm the last of yesterday’s coffee, stare
As our email loads: surely something must have come, surely
Someone has spirited us that which would make all the difference.
We call to complain that nothing’s working because we like
The on-hold music, which is a sound other than our breathing.
We ask the music if we can speak to its supervisor but when we try
To explain it only laughs, Guiltless! Who do you think you are anyway?,
Laughs its little soprano sax laugh before it loops back to its loop’s
Beginning. The coffee pot runs on mediated coal and drips acids.
The car’s topped up with artillery and emits amputees. The idea was
Waking would make things clearer, would startle us as from any night’s
Nightmare: these sheets’ cold which is not bare concrete floor,
This patch of light the moon has cast not the interrogator’s light,
This knocking in our head not some still-indecipherable code
Tapped against an adjacent wall by who knows who, by someone
We can’t even begin to imagine, someone stuck here longer
Than even ourselves yet still committed to the idea that finding
A way to speak to each other would help matters, this knocking
None of that but rather something real, here, furnace clank or thief
In the night, something real and something present and not
The dream of what must be held that way until it stops thrashing,
Not the dream of being held that way, but what could be danger
Or else nothing once more, which means we prowl once more
The house, ridiculous in our underwear, ridiculous with a flashlight
Gripped like a truncheon, the floorboards cold somehow as bare
Concrete, the floorboards that croak somehow like vultures who are
Not here, who winter south, scan the Sonoran desert’s northern
Edge, its empty water bottles and tire ruts and those nameless
It dries to a sort of jerky, those nameless who labored in vain
To cross it, who had hoped that in crossing, they would be set free.
Nothing’s wrong, the house secure, bolts bolted, latches latched.
Somewhere in the distance beyond the kitchen window, downtown
And its bus bench bail bondsman, downtown and its graffiti
Covered wall’s Great Writ: Repent! The End Is Nigh! As always, as always,
Answers the darkness. But, pre-War? In what will soon enough be
Dawn-light, in this near-light, who can tell if it’s blood spread thin
On our hands or else just a healthy, living glow? Outside, the idea
Of night and the idea of day seem to have come to a standoff.
No one’s calling for negotiations. We know what happens next:
Whether the stars flicker or merely flinch, the sun, whose face
Is a badge, has always been a little trigger happy. And though
The firestorm will consume, soon enough, everything, it seems
For the moment this will go on. As if indefinitely. As if without cause.
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey Schultz. Used with permission of the author.