- after Gregory Pardlo
It was leap year, on a Thursday, I was born
upstate New York, Borsch Belt small town.
To a family of farmers, where covered bridges crossed
creeks. Twenty miles to the racetrack in
Monticello, our nearest city, where father worked
for an air conditioning installation firm.
The Evergreens of the Catskills.
A mother off seeking four-leaf clovers.
Born to arrowheads and quartz, to blueberry
bushes in back fields. I ran to frogs
and salamanders across stone fences
through wild woods, no eyes followed me.
It was during the cold war red scare, but I,
a wild barn child was unaware. Daddy’s little girl
I wore patent leather shoes at Easter and
blue velvet at Christmas. The cameo necklace,
Mother gave me, fell into a stream. I was a wild thing
from go, feeling the velocity of wind. The night
I came a fierce push. I was born clear white,
pastel perfect skin, with spit-on Irish blood
and German ancestry I was told to never
acknowledge by a direct line uncle. The year
I came, there was a storm brewing in the guts
of women to have climaxes they’d never reached.
There was a surge to land on the moon. The
Atom bomb was introduced from Britain. Born
in the year of the Dragon, I knew it would be rocky
not a song in the rain, nor the cotton candy
fun world where mother resided.
We may have been young and stupid
We tried things this life
We survived to tell or hold our tongue
I only wanted good teeth
It was the kind of day that kissed
my adrenals, I was in love but didn’t
know, I forget his essential nature
Looking at altars I swim the undersea
Our art, how we breathe it
becomes our moment of forgiveness
Everything essential dies or disappears
Fear takes us out of our body
I waited forever to sing
They wrote a song with ordinary
words about an ordinary man
I could not stand to listen
The whole world cries each day
Let the bells ring
Step 1. Show up on Inauguration Night
Leave your pretensions at home this time,
you will not be saving anyone here.
There is a surge of black-clad bodies that will quickly take your stubborn
Berniecrat and I’m With Her shirts out of fashion.
You have a bleeding heart
pinned to your sleeve by a safety pin
Huffington Post told you to wear it
Your well-meaning aunt told you,
with the force of a whole rich neighborhood association’s facebook group behind her, that this
tiny piece of metal
will save the poor and wretched
welcome them to your teeming shore —
Don’t get caught up in pretensions.
Step 2. When you see notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer being interviewed by the news,
make sure your safety pin is visible.
Wait for a poor, victimized Person of Color to approach you for help.
You’ll grow so tired
of waiting for an opportunity to show off your allyship you might learn something.
Step 3. Here is the hard part
While Richard Spencer is talking about the Pepe the Frog pin on his lapel
will be interviewed by a fist instead.
He, all bigotry, hair gel, and bloated pride
stumbles from the well-placed blow, lands on the concrete a couple yards away
Suddenly, the assailant’s fist is Lady Liberty’s torch, blazing a trail for us to march on.
we are all the fist
humiliating white supremacy at its own inauguration.
In the universe of this small victory,
no one is president.
No cop tear gasses a restaurant without resistance
bleeds from biting its own eager tongue again.
Someone punches Richard Spencer and hope blooms a tangible thing in me.
Hundreds of miles away
I breathe just a little easier>
so before you yell,
“just sign a change.org petition!”
Think of how long we have been waiting.
How you say,
“we’ll survive these four years”
as if we
have not been trying to survive for centuries.
Think of you love watching us swallow when we want to spit.
Pressure hosing a panther and reprimanding her when she bites.
Think of how you pulled the nine inch knife out six inches, stared at the wound, and called the bleeding progress.
Think of where you were
when an islamophobe tore off her hijab on the bus,
and you did not do anything.
Think of the community centers that shook with death threats
did not do anything
Think of the cops that gunned a black kid
into memory and you
I will not come to you for help.
Take off the safety pin.
Know that fascism does not arrive with a name tag,it arrives as your friend.
It arrives as Richard Spencer, well-manicured and well-behaved, speaking poison into cameras spinning it acceptable.
Do not allow this by any means necessary
Leave your pretensions at home.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole says,
“My hope is this will be the community’s police station”
and every inch of black girl resistance in me becomes a tremor becomes palpitation of heart and earth,
a bullet in barrel,
Earth’s crust eager to rift itself into a beast that breathes fire.
a .9 earthquake will hit Seattle within the century.
Police union says it needs a new facility able to endure eventual catastrophe and I think
if cops need building material,
there’s nothing more able to endure fission than a black or brown body.
There’s nothing that holds up guilt, greed, and excess more than a back that is used to being broken,
but I’m glad
I get a seat at a table I’ve set
A community space a floor above a shooting range:
a court to practice the de-escalation technique of killing people who look like my family Thank you, officer, for this concession.
Capital will never become full enough to not steal the fruits of our labor. Will never sacrifice beyond what it can get away with spitting up. Capital
harvests stolen crop
until mouth twists into gallant smile, blood on leaves and blood at root Strange
O’Toole wants the new precinct host a farmers market.
What can grow in a fortress besides a pedestal to hang a noose? What good is a community that bonds over lynching?
Is this what a safe city looks like?
Emerald City progressive showing us the man behind the curtain and expecting us to pay no mind?
Government ain't the wizard we hoped
but a coward pretending to be better than he is
Is this the fraud I'm expected to call progressive?
Is this the shooting range I am expected to call my community?
What's a new precinct to Oscar Perez’s grieving family?
What's a new bunker to the 10,000 homeless people in Seattle besides another place they can't live in?
This is excessive force
of the most insidious kind
I don't know which will hurt me first:
a building collapse or a cop mistaking my mother’s body for a weapon Either way
I know whose lives matter in this city
and it's not black lives.
Seattle is prepared for us to die
Seattle making a refuge for people who already get away with killing us, too.
Insurrection will be the next major disaster this city faces
Will resurface all the lies and empty promises it was told
Pulse from the streets up, radiate the heat of magma Molotov and bitter history, no longer latent and cowering,
but surging, dangerous, and revolutionary.
We will be hammer to the coffin of every cruel and fragile thing that has wronged us and tool to every dream we want to build in its place
A table where capitalism is not welcome
A city my mother can feel safe in
A city where all lives actually matter
Where hands reach out to hold mine instead of to the gun in its holster
it's hard to stay hopeful
in times where death seems to lurk around every corner But we are unstoppable
and another world is growing within us
I am prepared to fight
for a community
That is real
forget your perfect offering
just ring the bells that still can ring
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
- Leonard Cohen
there is a crack in everything
my professor shows us kintsukuroi tea cups on the projector the Japanese to English translation means
traditionally, the same tea cups are used in ceremonies for generations, their cracks filled in with gold.
it’s the damage that makes them beautiful
that’s how the light gets in
i am glass half empty
my heart is the size of my fist too often i give myself beatings
leaking through cracks i make
i say, “my idealized self would have fixed these by now” wouldn’t have made cracks in the first place
her, some kind of invincible spiritual plumber
heals as a pastime & is never late
her confidence doesn’t have an asterix at the end all her cracks
she gets a red ribbon cutting when they’re fixed within a
two day weekend.
meanwhile, no one throws a ceremony when i manage to get out of bed
do cracks even deserve gold when they take this long to fix?
i imagine liquid motivation spilling on bedroom floor, bus seat, hallways
all the countless hours wasted trying to find the newest, quickest method of being alone
when my wounds heal and shut into thicker skin i dig into my heart’s topsoil
— cracked & barren —
try to rip this numbness out like a bad root
try to hold onto
like scarce nuggets of gold never seem to be worth enough
so i let my wounds be tender, golden & feeling instead
it’s own type of healing instead
my mother writes
“if light could speak,
It would say your name”
forget your perfect offering
the Latin to English translation of the word
means “quality of suffering”
there will never be a time when i’m untouched by hardship
this world don’t have much patience for self care that interrupts the work week yet here i am
reclaiming my time
forgiving myself for all i’ve let slip
I stop missing my idealized self because i will never meet her
i call recovery
because i know how it feels in my hands
because i don’t look for it in a mirror
just trust how it beats in my chest,
never as fast as i want,
but patiently doing the work nonetheless
just ring the bells that still can ring
i throw a small ceremony when i get out of bed
I decide, that’s its own kind of beautiful ritual of patience
the kind able to be used for centuries
glanced her tongue & saw blade
from the cockiness
of her throat dare breathe
saw vertebrae of her quaking spine
/ grenade keys
mistook her words
as / gunpowder
seattle police call this nightmare-making
(using a taser “wasn’t protocol”.
“hands on approach” would have
“put them at risk”
pepper spray was “tactically counterproductive”
could have endangered
the officer’s ability
“There was no viable alternative,”
besides twisting her body — black & alive —
into a banshee
a black woman’s body
is always gleaned more weapon
as if nothing
can harvest here but
husks of babies
Charleena Lyle’s knife last seen:
cutting the ribbon on Inauguration Day of Seattle’s new mayor
whose glass-ceiling womanhood
— like her title “trailblazer” —
is also steeped in whiteness.
Charleena’s knife last seen:
cutting the limestone of this
headstones in a city she might
have once called hers
but would never hug
Charleena’s knife last seen:
haunting the guilt of officers & a city too infatuated
with its own reflection
to see her
gleaming in the corners of
their Trumped-up nightmares.
only has so much patience
for those who are black and angry
trauma longer than a soundbite
and a week of headlines
“how awful they must feel,” someone pale & alive tells me,
“to have killed someone by mistake. To have to live with that.”
police brutality ain’t supposed to happen here, right?
not in this safe space city
its liberals are so heartbroken.
too bad their bleeding hearts don’t feed justice, just-stain hands.
too bad their guilt never makes it to the courthouses, somehow.
“too bad” “too bad” too bad”
Charleena’s knife last seen:
cutting umbilical cord of
babied by a society that will always
call their fist an open palm
who will never teach them how to pronounce
a c c o u n t a b i l i t y
in front of a mirror
“maybe they feel guilty,
but she’s still dead,” I say.
Missing Persons Report for the Words I Did Not Say:
I CAN’T MAKE IT
THROUGH AN ARTICLE ABOUT THE SHOOTING
THE SOBS BEATING MY CHEST
FEEL LIKE GUNSHOTS
heart of glass
& blood too dark
to bring up at dinner.
YOU’RE REELING FROM THE KICKBACK OF A GUN
YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU SHOT.
Charleena Lyles is still dead.
Seattle thrives & she is still dead.
Mayor sharpens her reputation on her headstone at the MLK rally & she is still dead
Police try holding her knife
up to a mirror
it shrivels into ash
yet she is still dead.
she is still dead.
she is still dead.
Wind kicks a few cups down the alley.
Pocketful of stones, a greasy lot.
Morning chill in fleeting sunlight.
You’d rather stay under this blanket agreement.
Not any storm can house you off the cuff.
The troposphere brushes your cold turned cheek.
Wake up. Get the child to school.
Now you are alone in this story
of cornflakes and Tuesday frost.
If you smell gas leak, all the more reason.
If you can walk back your talking point
happier still. Confusion in the hypodermis.
Poverty of whiteness
or hostile witness —
you’ll need a hole to crawl into
soon enough. Who lingers
finds the daylight wary. Who wavers
stands for nothing still. Hyper
nation state of being always out of
reach for the sky. Though you thought
your silence golden.
Though you felt like running
until your feet grew wings. This very morning
a crooked heartbeat stalked you out the door.
Full of rain
With no one
In the mailbox
In the fall smoke tree
Waiting it out
In the untouched
Not my father
Gone since June
His voice a message
On my phone
Sounds like rain
In the living room
Of his greeting
When I rewind
Or fast forward
Or gather in stillness
In a hummingbird’s
Who would listen
Like the rain listens
Like late season
Apples fallen into
The middle of
This week polishing
Their green disbelief
So the candidate
Is less than candid
And the office holder
While the Senate
Dabbles in senility
And the city feeds
When fact is fiction,
Should the tribe exact?
Few words follow
Veni vidi vici veto.
Stuffs its face with Cheetos
Gnawing at a rostrum.
The Social Wars —
Now there’s a custom
Any pleb can get behind.
Time again to face the nation.
One in ten
Let’s practice getting under the desk.
Let’s practice barricading the door, turning the blinds
in our eyes. Shhh now. Let’s demonstrate
in utter silence. Every desk is a bunker in disguise.
I must have walked a hundred miles
in a single afternoon. No one followed,
pacing myself. Sunlight stained the leaves like glass.
Vine maples tangled in an avalanche of shine.
The protocol is not what you think.
The protocol is run hide fight. Step by step
the trail cut from granite
bleached and gleaming, strewn like the bones
of old calamity. Varied thrush
or rush hour radio, call note drowsy like a long fuse,
like pure denotation. Sometimes I hear guns
in the valley — pick-up trucks, tin cans, shattered bottles,
trigger trash. Sometimes I hear bullets
marching down the hall. Today there is no question
and answer. Today is only multiple choice —
the field trip wire lying in wait, mare’s tails combing the ridge
like movie weather. Crescendo of mountain.
Is this a classroom or a mortuary? Who can catch
a bullet in the mouth? Bullet points for extra credit.
Bullets for teeth, for the all above.
We drank too much.
Stayed up too late
watching elephants disappear.
The beer was flat. The ice
receded. The moon
tracked its footprints into the house.
Bases loaded, the batter struck out looking.
The kicker shanked the field goal wide
to the right. The wide receiver took a knee.
The drone strike found its target.
The drone strike missed its target.
The drone strike turned the village to dust.
We stood in line for hours
waiting to vote.
We stood in line for hours
to procure a gallon of gas.
The hurricane struck out looking.
The hurricane stripped our limbless roofs.
The car swerved into oncoming traffic.
Traffic thickened in our veins.
The DNA test came back negative.
The DNA test came back positive.
The father never came back.
The father started smoking again
after the heart attack.
We ate too much red meat.
We ate too much corn syrup.
Our vote wasn’t counted after all.
Our vote was packed into safe districts.
We lost track of the days
we didn’t have to work overtime
to make rent. The rent woke up.
The rent went up in smoke.
We ignored the lump in the lymph node.
Doctors hit the lymph node hard.
Not our doctors. Too expensive.
Someone brought us a pot pie instead.
The dog ate it. The printer jammed.
Dandelions took over the yard.
Smoke took over the sky.
We drank too much. The world was flat.
Poachers took out the last rhino.
Few understood the news.
and sink into her smooth white hollow
run the pads of my hands along
her cool slopes admire the curves
that cradle my naked skin
as the water runs I’ll stick my toe
into that brass faucet and accept
a spray of water sifting
over my thighs and shins like sugar
the heat a rising redemption
misty and heaven-bound as water
folds over my hips my belly
the rising and falling of my chest
buoyant with each exhalation this rest
quiet above a porcelain body
I tell my therapist that I do not want to cry
because it’s two in the afternoon
and there’s a turtle
sunbathing on a felled tree
in the marsh outside of her office window.
A Great Blue Heron hobbles close,
and it’s probable that the two are holding
a silent confessional barred in by a community
of water lilies that are tethered to mire.
She asks, how I feel when I talk
about home — I hold my rib cage close
to her ear so she can hear the wind howl.
Let’s begin with bark beetles, sugar pines and sap. I am twelve,
and as high as I can get in the tree behind our double-wide
mobile home. I’m peeling bark back by my bare hands
to see bug tracks, small iris-like engravements canyoned
into the tree’s meat like a secret message or a promise
from the maker of trees: Your eye will not purple
like your mother’s. Her cries are faint from this lofty height —
breezy, though more shrill than moan. My aunt has a soft whine
when she’s dragged by her hair down a hallway. I don’t cry
for her or for my mother. I’m too scaly to know
that the tree’s diseased, that these gnawings are evidence.
It’s summer in Sanger, California,
and there’s a volcano
between my mother’s lips
as she stuffs me
into tiny shoes and a cotton dress.
Ashes powder my pointy bits —
nose, elbows, training bra.
Instead of running in grapevines,
I sit in mahogany pews
at a Methodist church and stare
at the heavily blushed face
of my grandmother —
her gray head juts
out her coffin
like a matchstick from a box.
She used to force relish
into tuna — I said
I didn’t like it, she said
I didn’t know
how to brush my hair
and even if I did
it wouldn’t brush right.
I want to strike her face
and ash her body into a jar —
cover the condolences of strangers
with I never liked Nona
and she never liked me.
To make the banana naked, crack
its neck and peel its jacket. To make
the bed naked, throw back the sheet
and the cotton blanket and the down one, too,
along with whatever's been whispered to
them in the damp minutes around midnight.
To make the dog naked, let the mange
rake and ravage, the tiny mites like
humpbacked handmaids, plucking a hair,
dropping it overboard, scraping away the skin.
To make the moment naked, take a look
right at it: Under your gaze, the wrapping
of what might happen slides down
its shoulder and slumps to the hardwoods,
drowned in a pool of shadow. Nakedness
means now, the very is-ness of being. Time
is nippling toward us and we dare not
glance aside, dare not toss the subject
out the window, flip the page to stop
the topic of how to bear so much to bare.
Branches in January are naked.
The inside of eggshells is naked.
Wrong notes on the cheap guitar
when the child is tired and sad are naked.
The bike, bound to the stop sign
by a spiral of steel, shorn of its tires,
stricken by the nightglow: naked.
The man's face at the graveside
of his child, a nakedness sheer
enough to tear the fabric of everyone
nearby and leave them dangling there,
threadworn and bleeding out memory,
skinned by the minute that is now upon us,
shaved of everything but the we that are in it.
The cantaloupe sits
on the counter like
a little moon
off its course.
and modest navel,
inside, a wall
of pale orange fruit
and inside that
a child's night terror
of seeds and guts and string.
It is no matter:
The kitchen has
its own astronomy.
The instant the cutting edge
pierces the rind — flesh
yielding to steel —
the gig is up.
We simply eat.
Outside the rain
arrests itself. A false sun
flourishes for the afternoon.
Inside his bus
the busdriver sighs
ignoring if just
for an hour, the terrible
pair of pants
the empty seat.
How to hold it
all together: the violence
of the harvest, the embarrassment
of the blade. In his heart
of hearts, the buzzard
knows he is digestible.
He scans the plain:
Too much wild life.
He shakes the daylight
off his wings
and waits for the earth
to cough up the fruit,
for the night to bring
Once upon a time
an accountant there was
who numbers loved
And every day
numbers flew in
and numbers floated away
and days were numbers
and also gloves and boots and
numbers counted the noodles
in his soup as he ate it
Until one day began
the numbers to slip
their shapes, to stand
up off their stools, to spool
into nests of number
and start to nap
And grew afraid the accountant
and strung up by elbows
the numbers and
to their chairs
he tied them with garden
twine and wire
And could not move
the numbers now or wave
or cartwheel their dance,
their fountaining over
each other all over, forgot,
the way they rose to the top
and tumbled down
began to be a dream
Until at last sneaked out
the accountant from his corner
to cut with nail scissors
the bonds, to filch
from the window an inch of air
to nudge a number, struggling,
to the sill and watch it, gasping,
toss itself out over into
the hedge. And then its brother.
And then its mother. And then
its son. Each number went.
Except for one.
And since that day ever
holds he the zero
to himself, at center chest,
hand over its open mouth
so hear he cannot
the tiny ringing cry: alone,
It was hours and then the end is almost over.
Velvet curtains all in rustle at the borders
of the stage. Our eyes are dry, our knees numb,
our temples dull. Nothing is left to be begun:
No tearing at the breasts of hairdoed birds,
no smooth unscrolling of the Italian words
for love and loss. No garden froth, no castle wall
to knock the sword against, no impossible
extension of the slenderest ankle in its arc.
The lights on stage will dim and so we feel the dark,
feel how the real — real sex, real pain, real meat —
awaits us in the car. We feel the purses at our feet.
Onstage the voices call but we are half-
way back to home by now, numbering the claps,
saying the bravos that we hope are minimum.
We are adding up the babysitter's sum.
We are watching for the last breath of the lover.
We forget to be the ones who don't recover.
I go out to smoke but first
To get my lighter from the Jeep &
Walking past I see a lady
Leaning against a silver car in front of the bldg
She’s on the phone
& leaning is that her car
A crow is very upset
Calling & cawing & gargling it seems
A branch in the tree the lady
Does not notice me I see
Her pink hood & black hair her
Yellow bag leaning against
The silver car OK
That sounds very good to me
She says & leans fwd toward
The thread between her
& another lady it must be
On the other end a thread
Stretched like the two plus
Hundred years of silence
Btwn Emily & the shepherd
Begging live with me come be
My love the silence
Is the most important element of
Any poem according to Allen
Grossman she’s discussing the
Details of meeting somewhere else if
I’m not there then
No I cannot