Vaccinated

I once saw Jazell Barbie Royale
Do Whitney Houston so well
I got upset with myself for sneaking 
Past the cashier 
After having been patted down. Security frisks you 
For nothing. They don’t believe in trouble. They don’t 
Imagine a gun or a blade, though
Sometimes they make you walk all the way back 
To the car with the weed you didn’t tuck well.
No one’s at fault. That’s how they say it
Where I’m from. Everyone’s got a job. 
I should have paid. Our women
Need to perform for the tips they couldn’t earn
After the state shut down for good reason 
And too late. We lost so many friends. 
My buddy Janir swears 
He still can’t smell his lip balm. Our women need us 
To call them beautiful 
Because they are. They’ve done what they must
To prove it, and how often does any woman get
To hear the truth? Jazell is so pretty.
Whitney Houston is dead. No one wore a mask.
It wasn’t safe, so it wasn’t really free.
If you don’t watch me, I’ll get by you. I’ll take
What I’ve been missing. My mother says 
That’s not how she raised me. I spent 
A year and a half sure she’d die.
The women who lip sync for us could die.
People like to murder them, 
And almost everyone else wonders
If they should be dead. Who got dressed looking 
For safety today? Who got patted down?  My mother 
Says what we do is sin. But all we do 
Is party. Even when I’m broke, I can 
Entertain. You’re going to miss me some day. 
You’re going to forget the words to your favorite song. 
You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.

Odd Jobs

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

Langston Blue

“O Blood of the River of songs,
O songs of the River of Blood,”
       Let me lie down. Let my words

Lie sound in the mouths of men
Repeating invocations pure
       And perfect as a moan

That mounts in the mouth of Bessie Smith.
Blues for the angels kicked out
       Of heaven. Blues for the angels

Who miss them still. Blues
For my people and what water
       They know. O weary drinkers

Drinking from the bloody river,
Why go to heaven with Harlem
       So close? Why sing of rivers

With fathers of our own to miss?
I remember mine and taste a stain
       Like blood coursing the body

Of a man chased by a mob. I write
His running, his sweat: here,
       He climbs a poplar for the sky,

But it is only sky. The river?
Follow me. You’ll see. We tried
       To fly and learned we couldn’t

Swim. Dear singing river full
Of my blood, are we as loud under
       Water? Is it blood that binds

Brothers? Or is it the Mississippi
Running through the fattest vein
       Of America? When I say home,

I mean I wanted to write some
Lines. I wanted to hear the blues,
       But here I am swimming in the river

Again. What flows through the fat
Veins of a drowned body? What
       America can a body call

Home? When I say Congo, I mean
Blood. When I say Nile, I mean blood.
       When I say Euphrates, I mean,

If only you knew what blood
We have in common. So much,
       In Louisiana, they call a man like me

Red. And red was too dark
For my daddy. And my daddy was
       Too dark for America. He ran

Like a man from my mother
And me. And my mother’s sobs
       Are the songs of Bessie Smith

Who wears more feathers than
Death. O the death my people refuse
       To die. When I was 18, I wrote down

The river though I couldn’t win
A race, climbed a tree that winter, then
       Fell, flat on my wet, red face. Line

After line, I read all the time,
But “there was nothing I could do
       About race.”

Heart Condition

I don’t want to hurt a man, but I like to hear one beg.
Two people touch twice a month in ten hotels, and
We call it long distance. He holds down one coast.
I wander the other like any African American, Africa
With its condition and America with its condition
And black folk born in this nation content to carry
Half of each. I shoulder my share. My man flies
To touch me. Sky on our side. Sky above his world
I wish to write. Which is where I go wrong. Words
Are a sense of sound. I get smart. My mother shakes
Her head. My grandmother sighs: He ain’t got no
Sense. My grandmother is dead. She lives with me.
I hear my mother shake her head over the phone.
Somebody cut the cord. We have a long distance
Relationship. I lost half of her to a stroke. God gives
To each a body. God gives every body its pains.
When pain mounts in my body, I try thinking
Of my white forefathers who hurt their black bastards
Quite legally. I hate to say it, but one pain can ease
Another. Doctors rather I take pills. My man wants me
To see a doctor. What are you when you leave your man
Wanting? What am I now that I think so fondly
Of airplanes? What’s my name, whose is it, while we
Make love. My lover leaves me with words I wish
To write. Flies from one side of a nation to the outside
Of our world. I don’t want the world. I only want
African sense of American sound. Him. Touching.
This body. Aware of its pains. Greetings, Earthlings.
My name is Slow And Stumbling. I come from planet
Trouble. I am here to love you uncomfortable.

Related Poems

Black Parade

Coming out isn’t the same as coming to America

except for the welcome parade

put on by ghosts like your granduncle Roy

who came to New York from Panamá in the 50s

and was never heard of again

and by the beautiful gays who died of AIDS in the 80s

whose cases your mother studied

in nursing school. She sent you to the US to become

an “American” and you worry

she’ll blame this country

for making you a “marica,”

a “Mary,” like it might have made your uncle Roy.

The words “America” and “marica” are so similar!

Exchange a few vowels

and turn anyone born in this country

queer. I used to watch Queer as Folk as a kid

and dream of sashaying away

the names bullies called me in high school

for being Black but not black enough, or the kind of black they saw on TV:

black-ish, negro claro, cueco.

It was a predominately white school,

the kind of white the Spanish brought to this continent

when they cozened my ancestors from Africa.

There was no welcome parade for my ancestors back then

so, they made their own procession, called it “carnaval”

and fully loaded the streets with egungun costumes,

holy batá drum rhythms, shouting and screaming in tongues,

and booty dancing in the spirit.

I don’t want to disappear in New York City,

lost in a drag of straightness.

So instead, I proceed

to introduce my mother to my first boyfriend

after I’ve moved her to Texas

and helped make her a citizen.

Living is trafficking through ghosts in a constant march

toward a better life, welcoming the next in line.

Thriving is wining the perreo to soca on the

Noah’s Arc pride parade float, like you’re

the femme bottom in an early aughts gay TV show.

Surviving is (cross-)dressing as an American marica,

until you’re a ‘merica or a ‘murica

and your ancestors see

you’re the king-queen of Mardi Gras,

purple scepter, crown, and krewe.

Dressing Down

   —to Shirley Q. Liquor, Drag Queen in Blackface

When you're gay in Dixie,

you're a clown of a desperate circus.

Sometimes the only way to be like daddy

is to hate like him—

hope your brothers laugh

instead of shoot,

wrap a confederate skirt around your waist.

You traded glamour for nasty tricks—

dethroning your mammy's image for dollars

that will never cover so much debt,

unraveling years she lost

loving you for a living.

The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

Heaven is the certainty that you will be avenged
            I know    	     I know             the kingdom is not fair
but it’s what I have  a montage of red and a mitosis
 	     of knuckles   I’m not sure how you could expect me
to love anything       Ain’t no question  	
	                                       sadness is regal like that
                         golden and replaceable     once I wanted
a lineage of identical men   	    once a mouth soft and hot
as the quickest way that gold can hurt you     You see
       a pattern yet?               I practice the want of nothing	and fail
                                          I’ve been shown how ugly I can be
when I am invisible
   	                                  I don’t believe in yesterdays
The throat of loneliness?               Straddled with my knife
            I press my hands to my face  	      and the lament is a valley
the light sags through       What do you do when you have
 	           lost Everything?       Rewrite the history of Everything
I don’t like my smile  	      because someone told me I didn’t like it
    	   Now I am gorgeous in all the languages I mothered
                 Flex the antonym of Missing   	     I avenge myself
Stretch my hands     I orphan my grief for the living and it is beauty
                                         ain’t no question       	I monarch
the lonely     I my own everything now	  I miss my love and
            it is an American grief     I strike the smell from nostalgia
cut my memory to spite my country         What is the odor of nothing            
            but my dominion in want of excess   	  I grin and pillars of bone flower
into sawed-off crowns      say I flex the light and the light flexes
            heat shimmer    	   unfurling like a bicep 	 my lust a mirage
where the body is merely a congealing of the river  	I can feel it
      slowly drifting away from me 	The world I knew is gone
and getting more gone	   and my anthem populating my nose            
            with an abundance of salt I slip the shroud over the life I named
and forget I belonged to someone once       My soverign's face is a riot
of diamonds whining    	This will be a beautiful death   and I am free
and gorgeous and desperate to never have to miss anyone again
I rock the jeweled shroud        become the bride of my own sad light