How could I have known I would need to remember your laughter,

the way it ricocheted—a boomerang flung 
from your throat, stilling the breathless air.

How you were luminous in it. Your smile. Your hair 
tossed back, flaming. Everyone around you aglow.

How I wanted to live in it those times it ignited us 
into giggles, doubling us over aching and unmoored

for precious minutes from our twin scars—
the thorned secrets our tongues learned too well

to carry. It is impossible to imagine you gone, 
dear one, your laugh lost to some silence I can’t breach,

from which you will not return.

for Fay Botham (May 31, 1968–January 10, 2021)

For my Brother(s)

My brother was a dark-skinned boy
with a sweet tooth, a smart mouth,
and a wicked thirst. At seventeen,
when I left him for America, his voice
was staticked with approaching adulthood,
he ate everything in the house, grew
what felt like an inch a day, and wore
his favorite shirt until mom disappeared it.
Tonight I’m grateful he slaked his thirst
in another country, far from this place
where a black boy’s being calls like crosshairs
to conscienceless men with guns and conviction.

I remember my brother’s ashy knees
and legs, how many errands he ran on them
up and down roads belonging to no one
and every one. And I’m grateful
he was a boy in a country of black boys,
in the time of walks to the store
on Aunty Marge’s corner to buy contraband
sweeties and sweetdrinks with change
snuck from mom’s handbag or dad’s wallet—
how that was a black boy’s biggest transgression,
and so far from fatal it feels an un-American dream.

Tonight, I think of my brother
as a black boy’s lifeless body spins me
into something like prayer—a keening
for the boy who went down the road, then
went down fighting, then went down dead.
My brother was a boy in the time of fistfights
he couldn’t win and that couldn’t stop
him slinging his weapon tongue anyway,
was a boy who went down fighting,
and got back up wearing his black eye
like a trophy. My brother who got up,
who grew up, who got to keep growing.

Tonight I am mourning the black boys
who are not my brother and who are
my brothers. I am mourning the boys
who walk the wrong roads, which is any road
in America. Tonight I am mourning
the death warrant hate has made of their skin—
black and bursting with such ordinary
hungers and thirsts, such abundant frailty,
such constellations of possibility, our boys
who might become men if this world spared them,
if it could see them whole—boys, men, brothers—human.

Variations in Blue

For Frank X Walker

FXW: I don’t know how to swim
Me: What?!
FXW: There were no pools for Black Folk when I was coming up

In sleep’s 3-D theatre: home,
a green island surrounded
by the blue of ocean. Zoom
to the heart, see the Couva
swimming pool filled with us
—black children shrieking
our joy in a haze of sun; our life-
guard, Rodney, his skin flawless
and gleaming—black as fresh oil
—his strut along the pool’s edge,
his swoonworthy smile; Daddy
a beach-ball-bellied Poseidon,
droplets diamonding his afro;
my brother, hollering as he jumps
into his bright blue fear, his return
to air gasping and triumphant.
And there, the girl I was: dumpling
thick and sun-brown, stripped
down to the red two-piece suit
my mother had made by hand,
afloat in the blue bed of water,
the blue sky beaming above.
When I wake up, I’m in America
where Dorothy Dandridge
once emptied a pool with her pinkie,
and in Texas a black girl’s body
draped in its hopeful, tasseled bikini,
struck earth instead of water,
a policeman’s blue-clad knees
pinning her back, her indigo wail
a siren. I want this to be a dream,
but I am awake and in this place
where the only blue named home
is a song and we are meant to sink,
to sputter, to drown.

Nothing to Declare

There is no name for what rises in you 
as you enter the dim world of the taxi
and wheel through the night, escorted 
by smooth jazz and a battalion of street-
lights. At the airport, you heave the bags 
you have stuffed to the limits of carriage 
and check them in. You have no trouble 
knowing what to do with your empty 
hands. At security, the usual stripping.
You surrender your body to the scan, 
the searching sweep, as if what is dangerous 
is not what cannot be so easily detected.
You comply. At the gate, grateful to be 
early, you sit with your books, plug in 
devices that tether you to this place 
you’re meant to be leaving, that crowd 
out thoughts of arrival and its bittersweet
complications. Yuh going home or just visiting,
someone will ask, and you never know
how you will answer. You know the bones
of your mother’s brown arms will wind 
around you, her breath against your neck
will baptize you again in names you have 
no one to call you in the other place 
you belong to. You know the waiting
untended in you will surge toward her,
and you know something else will sink, 
sulk itself into a familiar, necessary sleep.
You know yourself now only as the ocean 
knows this island—always pulling away, 
always, always, returning.

Related Poems

Elegy, Surrounded by Seven Trees

for Michele Antoinette Pray-Griffiths

Ordinary days deliver joy easily
again & I can't take it. If I could tell you
how her eyes laughed or describe
the rage of her suffering, I must
admit that lately my memories
are sometimes like a color
warping in my blue mind.
Metal abandoned in rain.

My mother will not move.

Which is to say that
sometimes the true color of
her casket jumps from my head
like something burnt down
in the genesis of a struck flame.
Which is to say that I miss
the mind I had when I had
my mother. I own what is yet.
Which means I am already
holding my own absence
in faith. I still carry a faded slip of paper
where she once wrote a word
with a pencil & crossed it out.

From tree to tree, around her grave
I have walked, & turned back
if only to remind myself
that there are some kinds of
peace, which will not be
moved. How awful to have such
wonder. The final way wonder itself
opened beneath my mother's face
at the last moment. As if she was
a small girl kneeling in a puddle
& looking at her face for the first time,
her fingers gripping the loud,
wet rim of the universe.

Poof

Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you'd
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.

You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we're not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.

We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can't snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who's just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I'm still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.

Elegy Composed in the New York Botanical Garden

Catmint—tubular, lavender, an ointment
to blur the scar, bloom the skin. My mouth has begun
the hunt for words that heal.

In the garden, I am startled by a cluster
of sun-colored petals marked, Radiation.
Piles of radiation. Orange radiation, huddled together

like families bound by a hospital-bright morning.
And behind them: a force of yuccas
called Golden Swords. A bush or mound

of sheath-like leaves sprouting from a proud center.
And isn’t that the plot?
First the radiation, then the golden sword.

I remember, incurably,
your mother. The laughter that flowered
from her lips. I’m sorry I have no good words

to honor her war. It crumbled me to watch you
overwhelmed by her face
in the daffodils outside your childhood home.