Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.
Aloft between heaven and them,
I babble the landscape—what staunch, vicious trees,
what cluttered roads, slow cars. This is my
country as it was gifted me—victimless, vast.
The soundtrack buzzing the air around my ears
continually loops ditties of eagles and oil.
I can't choose. Every moment I'm awake,
aroused instrumentals channel theme songs,
what I cannot.
I don't ever have to come down.
I can stay hooked to heaven,
dictating this blandness.
My flyboys memorize flip and soar.
They'll never swoop real enough
to resurrect that other country,
won't ever get close enough to give name
to tonight's dreams darkening the water.
I understand that somewhere it has rained.
This is not morning. There is a nastiness
slowing your shoes, something you shouldn't step in.
It's shattered beads, stomped flowers, vomit—
such stupid beauty,
beauty you can stick a manicured finger
into and through, beauty that doesn't rely
on any sentence the sun chants, it's whiskey
swelter blown scarlet.
Call this something else. Last night it had a name,
a name wedged between an organ's teeth, a name
pumping a virgin unawares, a curse word.
Wail it, regardless,
Weak light, bleakly triumphant, will unveil scabs,
snippets of filth music, cars on collapsed veins.
The whole of gray doubt slithers on solemn skin.
Call her New Orleans.
Each day she wavers, not knowing how long she
can stomach the introduction of needles,
the brash, boozed warbling of bums with neon crowns,
She tries on her voice, which sounds like cigarettes,
pubic sweat, brown spittle lining a sax bell
the broken heel on a drag queen's scarlet slings.
Your kind of singing.
Weirdly in love, you rhumba her edges, drink
fuming concoctions, lick your lukewarm breakfast
directly from her crust. Go on, admit it.
You are addicted
to her brick hips, the thick swerve she elicits,
the way she kisses you, her lies wide open.
She prefers alleys, crevices, basement floors.
Hell, let her woo you.
This kind of romance dims the worth of soldiers,
bends and breaks the back, sips manna from muscle,
tells you Leave your life. Pack your little suitcase,
flee what is rigid
and duly prescribed. Let her touch that raw space
between cock and calm, the place that scripts such jazz.
Let her pen letters addressed to your asking.
New Orleans's, p-please. Don't. Blue is the color
stunning your tongue. At least the city pretends
to remember to be listening.
She grins with glint tooth,
wiping your mind blind of the wife, the children,
the numb ritual of job and garden plot.
Gently, she leads you out into the darkness
and makes you drink rain.
Arlene learned to dance backwards in heels that were too high.
Bret prayed for a shaggy mustache made of mud and hair.
Cindy just couldn't keep her windy legs together.
Dennis never learned to swim.
Emily whispered her gusts into a thousand skins.
Franklin, farsighted and anxious, bumbled villages.
Gert spat her matronly name against a city's flat face.
Harvey hurled a wailing child high.
Irene, the baby girl, threw pounding tantrums.
José liked the whip sound of slapping.
Lee just craved the whip.
Maria's thunder skirts flew high when she danced.
Nate was mannered and practical. He stormed precisely.
Ophelia nibbled weirdly on the tips of depressions.
Philippe slept too late, flailing on a wronged ocean.
Rita was a vicious flirt. She woke Philippe with rumors.
Stan was born business, a gobbler of steel.
Tammy crooned country, getting the words all wrong.
Vince died before anyone could remember his name.
Wilma opened her maw wide, flashing rot.
None of them talked about Katrina.
She was their odd sister,
the blood dazzler.
i. the old marrieds
But why the moon rose so cruelly, neither of them would say.
Though a listless jazz buzzed obediently beneath their day,
and he had seen the hand-in-hands dotting the dim streets.
And she had heard the morning skillet scorch its Mississippi sweets,
its globs of fat. Now, time to be closer — here, on the verge of May.
But why the moon drooped so cruelly, neither ventured to say.
ii. kitchenette building
We are soft-caged behind streaked windows, our someday plans
grayed and siphoned flat. "Faith" is simply a church sound, not strong
like "factory," "scrubbing the chitlins," or "keeping that man."
But could faith be a blatant gold blasting through dinner's fatty fumes,
its perfumed lure tangling with the smell of twice-fried potatoes
and twist-tied bags of reeking rubbish lining the dark hall?
Fluttering beneath florescent sputter, could faith warm our rooms,
even the walls scrubbed raw with Baptist chill? If we let faith in,
had the mind to carve it a space, keep it Sunday clean,
anticipate its slow glories, beg it to begin?
We can't spare the time faith needs. We don't have that minute.
Since silly wants like hot water require we be practical now,
we wait and wait on the bathroom, hope the warm stays in it.
iii. the mother
Murders will not let you forget.
You remember the children you had — suddenly quarry, target —
the daughters with gunfire smoldering circles in their napped hair,
the absent sons whose screams still ride the air.
You knew the ways of bullets, prayed your child run, outrun, beat
them in their race toward the heart of your baby, your sweet.
You imagine another child cocking the hammer with his thumb,
or blazing the blade forward, harkening the dark that will overcome
you. Never again will you look at a bright, upturned face and sigh,
returning again and again to drown your baby in the mama-eye.
I hear on Kilbourn, on Christiana, the not-there of my children.
I have pushed them flail and wriggle from my tired body, eased
my babies into a world of growl and gun. The breath-suck,
I wailed and prayed, my loves, as rougher mothers seized
you. Now I am newly barren, drained of mother luck,
and you are suddenly far beyond my futile reach.
If I let these frantic streets deny the tender in your names,
if I relinquished you to this city and its unrelenting games,
your end is all I own. If I dared let others govern your deaths,
if I wasn't there to mourn your final blurring breaths,
believe that my loss of you to this was not deliberate.
Though I have no right to whine,
whine that none of the blame was mine,
since, in every world I'm rooted in, you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
you are so much a hollow of the children I made.
But now you are scar on the pavement. I am afraid —
is that the you there is now, how the story of you will be said?
You were born — a gunshot, a swift blade — then you died.
It's too much this way — even the child who killed you cried.
Believe. I loved you all.
Be. Leave me the sounds of still-thudding hearts. I grieve you
iv. a song in the back yard
I've wallowed in the back yard all my life.
I want to slide 'round front
Where it's gold-splashed and guarded and spined fragrance grows.
A girl gets a craving for rose.
I want to go in the front yard now
and far away from these nappy weeds — this alley
too. I wanna see where the well-off children play.
I want some proper fun today.
They do some miracle things.
They have that secret kinda fun.
My daddy says They're uppity, but I think it's fine
how they're tucked in their beds by a quarter to nine.
My mama, with her country ways, try as she may,
will never turn me into a weeds and wildflowers woman,
that's a fact. I only stay up late
on account of all her party folk flooding our back gate.
But that's OK. I think front yard folk are perfect. Really, I do.
And I'm gonna be a righteous woman, too.
And wear a soft cardigan, cashmere trimmed in lace.
And stroll 'round all of Lawndale with this righteous on my face.
No one skated. Of course we couldn't.
We had very specific ideas about blades,
and our feet were never involved: My mother
absently sucked the loose gold that framed
her left front tooth while slicing into the thickness
of some pig for the necessity of supper. Daddy
carried a quick-flick razor in the side pocket
of pencil-legged pants, just waitin' for some
fool to get wide on whiskey, slyly palm the ace,
and get cut. In my room off of other rooms,
I danced slowly around the edges of paper dolls,
scared to slip and slice recklessly into blonde flips
or perfect pink legs. The idea of chilly dance,
of a snowy felt skirt with flouncy curled hem,
of lacing up in stiff white leather and scissoring
gracefully on dirty ice past storefront preaching
and gin mills, of lifting up one leg and spinning
like a hot whisper and not even falling, the idea
was hurtful because one more time I had to reach
so far outside my own head to even think that way.
But from the layered gray greenness of the park,
a recorded monotone kicked in, 10 p.m. every night,
droning until dawn: Danger. Do not go on the ice.
Danger. Do not go on the ice. Oh, that's left over,
daddy said, from the days when young Jews twirled
gleefully into and out of the arms of one another,
passing time while their fathers coaxed thick music
from bulky phonographs and their mothers fiddled
with perfection of place settings. At night, the ice,
suddenly more water than anything, impenetrable
beneath the moonwash, would lure them back.
The recording was a monotone lullaby mean to lull
them to sleep. Because sometimes a starlit skater
would crack the lying surface, flail beautifully,
scream into the pocket of dark, and drown.
During the day, I'd scurry past the line of swings
singing out their rust. Boys leaned toward my
running to whisper a symphony of the word pussy,
and frightening manless mothers arced like rooftops
over their ashy screeching children. I searched hard
for the lost rink, a golden gleam beneath the napped
weeds and slush. One time I thought I sensed a faint
outline, a soft bean-shaped impression, muted and
glamorous, but there was nothing to be resurrected,
no water to freeze and glisten and beckon. The metered
frost of the nightly warning rode uselessly on the air,
continuing to fracture the ghosted dreams of Negroes.
But deep in the thump of December, some of Garfield's
ice circles turned to mirrors. I was obsessed, standing
then stomping on them, pounding with my full weight,
jumping then smashing down, tempting the fate I'd
been warned about, one more place only beauty could reach.
Let me tell you why it never occurred to me to be afraid.
You took off your glasses, and you were perfect, eyes bluer
than any prince written, reachably gorgeous, no hiccup
of light when you stretched for me. No discussion of why
we shouldn't tangle and pump against your locker between
periods, why I shouldn't wrap yards of yarn around your
class ring, wear it dripped between new breasts. We snuck
around and about and pretended normal, lying to parents
about meetings and committees, entering the junior prom
through separate doors, boy, damn decorum, I loved you
I know I did because I know some things by now. I know
that your body was a wizened and ill-advised battlefield
against mine, that your mouth was razored, that "I love you"
was a huge and unwieldy declaration, the kind of blue you
immediately unforgive. My parents weren't yours. They
considered you the naptime-sized American dream, a rung
on the stepladder, the climb every white-capped mountain.
Just be careful, they said, while your father spat blades, said
(these are the words I've imagined, slapped with the wide-eye)
I'll throw you out of my house if I hear about you seeing
that black girl again. Joe, I loved you then, and I love you
still. We are drama born of the truth tell, our tongues so stupid
and urged they continually reached the back of our throats.
Who hates me for actually knowing this? There are hundreds
of songs written about all the things you can't do at sixteen.
There are a million songs written about what I didn't do with you.
for Otis Douglas Smith, my father
The recipe for hot water cornbread is simple:
Cornmeal, hot water. Mix till sluggish,
then dollop in a sizzling skillet.
When you smell the burning begin, flip it.
When you smell the burning begin again,
dump it onto a plate. You've got to wait
for the burning and get it just right.
Before the bread cools down,
smear it with sweet salted butter
and smash it with your fingers,
crumple it up in a bowl
of collard greens or buttermilk,
forget that I'm telling you it's the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head
when he taught me.
Mix it till it looks like quicksand, he'd say.
Till it moves like a slow song sounds.
We'd sit there in the kitchen, licking our fingers
and laughing at my mother,
who was probably scrubbing something with bleach,
or watching Bonanza,
or thinking how stupid it was to be burning
that nasty old bread in that cast iron skillet.
When I told her that I'd made my first-ever pan
of hot water cornbread, and that my daddy
had branded it glorious, she sniffed and kept
mopping the floor over and over in the same place.
So here's how you do it:
You take out a bowl, like the one
we had with blue flowers and only one crack,
you put the cornmeal in it.
Then you turn on the hot water and you let it run
while you tell the story about the boy
who kissed your cheek after school
or about how you really want to be a reporter
instead of a teacher or nurse like Mama said,
and the water keeps running while Daddy says
You will be a wonderful writer
and you will be famous someday and when
you get famous, if I wrote you a letter and
send you some money, would you write about me?
and he is laughing and breathing and no bullet
in his head. So you let the water run into this mix
till it moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
which is another thing Daddy said, and even though
I'd never even seen a river,
I knew exactly what he meant.
Then you turn the fire way up under the skillet,
and you pour in this mix
that moves like mud moves at the bottom of a river,
like quicksand, like slow song sounds.
That stuff pops something awful when it first hits
that blazing skillet, and sometimes Daddy and I
would dance to those angry pop sounds,
he'd let me rest my feet on top of his
while we waltzed around the kitchen
and my mother huffed and puffed
on the other side of the door. When you are famous,
Daddy asks me, will you write about dancing
in the kitchen with your father?
I say everything I write will be about you,
then you will be famous too. And we dip and swirl
and spin, but then he stops.
And sniffs the air.
The thing you have to remember
about hot water cornbread
is to wait for the burning
so you know when to flip it, and then again
so you know when it's crusty and done.
Then eat it the way we did,
with our fingers,
our feet still tingling from dancing.
But remember that sometimes the burning
takes such a long time,
and in that time,
poems are born.
Upon their arrival in America, more than twelve million immigrants were processed through the Ellis Island Immigration Center. Those who had traveled in second or third class were immediately given a thirty-second health inspection to determine if they were fit to enter their new country. A chalk checkmark on their clothing signaled a health problem and meant a stay in the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, where they either recovered or, if deemed incurable, were kept until they could be sent back home. Even if just one family member was sick, that person's entire family was turned away.
Hide the awkward jolt of jawline, the fluttering eye, that wide
brazen slash of boat-burned skin. Count each breath in order
to pacify the bloodless roiling just beneath the rib, to squelch
the mushrooming boom of tumor. Give fever another name.
I open my mouth, just to moan, but instead cluttered nouns,
so unAmerican, spew from my throat and become steam
in the room. That heat ripples through the meandering queue
of souls and someone who was once my uncle grows dizzy
with not looking at me. I am asked to temporarily unbutton
the clawing children from my heavy skirt, to pull the rough
linen blouse over my head and through my thick salted hair.
A last shelter thuds hard, pools around my feet on the floor.
I traveled with a whole chattering country's restless mass
weakening my shoulders. But I offer it as both yesterday
and muscle. I come to you America, scrubbed almost clean,
but infected with memory and the bellow of broiling spices
in a long-ago kitchen. I come with a sickness insistent upon
root in my body, a sickness that may just be a frantic twist
from one life's air to another. I ask for nothing but a home
with windows of circled arms, for a warm that overwhelms
the tangled sounds that say my name. I ask for the beaten
woman with her torch uplifted to find me here and loose
my new face of venom and virus. I have practiced standing
unleashed and clean. I have practiced the words I know.
So I pray this new country receive me, stark naked now,
forearms chapped raw, although I am ill in underneath ways.
I know that I am freakish, wildly fragrant, curious land. I stink
of seawater and the oversea moonwash I conjured to restart
and restart my migrant heart. All I can be is here, stretched
between solace and surrender, terrified of the dusty mark
that identifies me as poison in every one of the wrong ways.
I could perish here on the edge of everything. Or the chalk
mark could be a wing on my breastbone, unleashing me
in the direction of light. Someone will help me find my clothes
and brush the salt from my hair. I am marked perfect, and
I hear the word heal in a voice I thought I brought from home.
The city's streets are densely shelved with rows
of salt and packaged hair. Intent on air,
the funk of crave and function comes to blows
with any smell that isn't oil—the blare
of storefront chicken settles on the skin
and mango spritzing drips from razored hair.
The corner chefs cube pork, decide again
on cayenne, fry in grease that's glopped with dust.
The sizzle of the feast adds to the din
of children, strutting slant, their wanderlust
and cussing, plus the loud and tactless hiss
of dogged hustlers bellowing past gusts
of peppered breeze, that fatty, fragrant bliss
in skillets. All our rampant hunger tricks
us into thinking we can dare dismiss
the thing men do to boulevards, the wicks
their bodies be. A city, strapped for art,
delights in torching them—at first for kicks,
to waltz to whirling sparks, but soon those hearts
thud thinner, whittled by the chomp of heat.
Outlined in chalk, men blacken, curl apart.
Their blindly rising fume is bittersweet,
although reversals in the air could fool
us into thinking they weren't meant as meat.
Our sons don't burn their cities as a rule,
born, as they are, up to their necks in fuel.