Pennsylvania

In 2018, Raquel Salas Rivera was named poet laureate of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rivera will serve a two-year term.

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The Permanent Way

            Steamtown National Historic Site was created in 1986 to
            preserve the history of steam railroading in America,
            concentrating on the era 1850 through 1950.

We weren’t supposed to, so we did
      what any band of boys would do
& we did it the way they did in books
      none of us would admit we stole
from our brothers & kept hidden

under bedskirts in each of our rooms:
      dropped our bicycles without flipping
their kickstands & scaled the fence
      in silence. At the top, somebody’s overalls
snagged, then my Levi’s, & for a few deep

breaths, we all sat still—grouse in a line—
      considering the dark yard before
us, how it gestured toward our defiance—
      of gravity, of curfews, of what we knew
of goodness & how we hoped we could be

shaped otherwise—& dared us to jump.
      And then we were among them,
stalking their muscled silhouettes as our own
      herd, becoming ourselves a train
of unseen movements made singular,

never strangers to the permanent way
      of traveling through the dark
of another’s shadow, indiscernible to the dirt.
     Our drove of braids & late summer
lice buzz cuts pivoted in unison

when an engine sighed, throwing the moon
      into the whites of our eyes & carrying it,
still steaming, across the yard to a boilerman,
      her hair tied up in a blue bandana.
Somewhere, our mothers were sleeping

prayers for daughters who did not want women
      to go to the moon, who did not ask
for train sets or mitts. But here—with the moon
      at our feet, & the whistle smearing
the cicadas’ electric scream, & the headlamp

made of Schwinn chrome, or a cat’s eye
      marble, or, depending on who
you asked, the clean round scar of a cigarette
      burn on the inside of a wrist so small
even my fingers could fasten around

it—was a woman refilling the tender
      in each of us. We watched her
the way we’d been told to watch
      our brothers, our fathers:
in quiet reverence, hungry all the while.
 

      

The Dancing

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco 
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel's "Bolero" the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop—in 1945—
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany—
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

Tear It Down

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.