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.
and spy whole lifetimes on the undersides of leaves.
Jazz intrudes, stank clogging that neat procession
of lush and flutter. His eyes, siphoned and dimming,
demand that he accept ardor as it is presented, with
its tear-splashed borders and stilted lists, romance
that is only on the agenda because hours do not stop.
Bless his sliver of soul. He's nabbed a sizzling matron
who grays as we watch, a thick-ankled New England
whoop, muscled to suffer his stifling missionary weight.
Earth-smudged behind the wheel of her pickup,
she hums a tune that rhymes dots of dinner trapped
in his beard with twilight. Is it still a collision course
if you must lie down to rest? Bless her as she tries
on his name for size and plucks hairs from her chin.
Bless him as he barrels toward yet another wife
who will someday realize, idly, that her only purpose
in this dwindling novella of his days is to someday
lower his heralded bulk, with little fanfare, into a grave.
My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with her broad, practical tongue
until it sounded like an instruction to God, not a name.
She wanted a child of pressed head and knocking knees,
a trip-up in the doubledutch swing, a starched pinafore
and peppermint-in-the-sour-pickle kinda child, stiff-laced
and unshakably fixed on salvation. Her Patricia Ann
would never idly throat the Lord's name or wear one
of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees.
She'd be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,
jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes.
My four downbeats were music enough for a vapid life
of butcher-shop sawdust and fatback as cuisine, for Raid
spritzed into the writhing pockets of a Murphy bed.
No crinkled consonants or muted hiss would summon me.
My daddy detested borders. One look at my mother's
watery belly, and he insisted, as much as he could insist
with her, on the name Jimi Savannah, seeking to bless me
with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name
of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars.
He wanted to shoot muscle through whatever I was called,
arm each syllable with tiny weaponry so no one would
mistake me for anything other than a tricky whisperer
with a switchblade in my shoe. I was bound to be all legs,
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
When I sent up prayers, God's boy would giggle and consider.
Daddy didn't want me to be anybody's surefire factory,
nobody's callback or seized rhythm, so he conjured
a name so odd and hot even a boy could claim it. And yes,
he was prepared for the look my mother gave him when
he first mouthed his choice, the look that said, That's it,
you done lost your goddamned mind. She did that thing
she does where she grows two full inches with righteous,
and he decided to just whisper Love you, Jimi Savannah
whenever we were alone, re- and rechristening me the seed
of Otis, conjuring his own religion and naming it me.
Interviewing Nelson Mandela, April 1994
I want to scream into the hearing aid nestled in his ear,
Where is your fist?
Thick-throated men in black coats scurry to the windows of the suite,
scour the landscape with slitted eyes, estimate the arc of bullets.
They move me from one chair to another to another until I am sitting
so close his breath sparks moisture on my skin. The pink contraption,
imitating another flesh, fills his ear and I want to startle, to prickle his
composure, but I see that he is not nearly the vapor I imagined.
I assumed his body would be temporary, with fingers, an ear,
an arm misting into nothing at odd intervals, a leg folding into dust,
his smile its own backdrop, the repeating escape of the recently caged.
He smooths a wrinkle in his gray suit, grins sheepishly,
leans forward waiting for a question.
I stare at his fist resting on the table, ask with my whole mouth.
He hears me perfectly.
When my grandma got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandpa does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis. That's love. —Rebecca, age 8
She preferred frosted mochas, whispering blood wines,
hues that burst against her skin. It was all the color
she could manage, brash dollops of the lostago dribbling
their borders, smashed still wet into stern and sterner
lace-ups. Now, behind a bathroom door swollen shut,
she gasps and bends, prays light into her arms. The effort
breaks her, the clockwork of body stunning in wretched
loop. To drown her panting, she flushes, flips loose all
the faucets, whimpers beneath flow. After an hour, still
vaguely hooked but craving sashay, she limps to him,
unfurls on the couch and buries all of her fail beneath
the nappy chenille throw. No, there is no gorgeous here.
Patient for my dinner of cream and meat, I grumble
caress toward the still, defeated bloom of her, brush
my mouth against the wisps escaping her silver braids.
Then, because I was born during a war and I am a man,
I grab the remote, disappear for a beer. I know so well
the wreckage to the south of my woman. I know her
ravage, her stilted muscle, the pain that roars through
her like the verb of something feral, I know the night
silence. So I lock into Bringing Up Baby, insane frolic
on the flickering Philco, and I steel against the fetid
blasts of sleep from her open mouth. She has given up
on so much of her engine. Reaching beneath the blanket,
I trace and re-trace the arch of a fat, unfinished foot.
I am a stranger here. Faced with gummy bottles of coral,
ice, scar, fire engine, grape, redberry, carnation and earth,
I suddenly realize that being a man has siphoned away
the exploding in how I see. I am not privy to this stark,
these raucous pinchings upon a woman's dead flesh.
Envious of its blooming, I choose an improbable pink,
and move back to where she sleeps, spittle and whimper,
her body smalling. I work her toes like I am conjuring
the new—massaging, molding, drenched in her dim
disbelieving. I dip the brush deep and lift a thick bubble
of awkward spring, then sweep until she throws back her
head and weeps an O. The clock in my hand is kindled,
furious with this, but I am careful not to break my rhythm.
I stay to my task. Her hand rests on the back of my head.
In 1995, an employee of the Willard Asylum for the Insane, a mental hospital in upstate New York, discovered 400 suitcases left by patients between 1910 and 1960. The average stay was 30 years; most people who entered never left.
In her brown valise, gently aligned—a spurting
pen, shuttered throat, shreds of rose-rhythmed
lace, one blue important shoe pointed north.
A rusted canister of talcum had opened, and flat
redolence sugar-howled. Behind an unsnapped
lock cowered the sound wife—yes, the last time
she had giggled was the only reason for the lace.
He had carefully chosen dull medals, god-edged
and boastful, earned in the service of murder,
and photo booth snaps of rollicking hi-town gals
with Hair-Repped crowns and mouths rumored
violent. Just there, barely secured in a yawning
silk pocket, was his young son, crisply folded
and screaming. The packing had gone well.
Following directives from the light in their hands,
they prepared for holiday, for pledged sun and river
edge, while men in blooded coats barely squirreled
away scalpels, aching for quick path into the head's
looping lyric. Lashed to beds, back-floating down
shimmering headwaters, our travelers spit-shined
brass latches, sniffed sachet, and never wearied
of yesterday's faint explode, just there, just ahead.
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.