Know you, winds that blow your course
Down the verdant valleys,
That somewhere you must, perforce,
Kiss the brow of Alice?
When her gentle face you find,
Kiss it softly, naughty wind.
Roses waving fair and sweet
Thro’ the garden alleys,
Grow into a glory meet
For the eye of Alice;
Let the wind your offering bear
Of sweet perfume, faint and rare.
Lily holding crystal dew
In your pure white chalice,
Nature kind hath fashioned you
Like the soul of Alice;
It of purest white is wrought,
Filled with gems of crystal thought.
Reprinted from Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1913.
Dunbar wrote this poem for his wife, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (July 19, 1875 – September 18, 1935), who he married in 1898. She was already a published author when they wed, of Violets and Other Tales (1895). She published one more book, switching to Dunbar’s publisher, The Goodness of St. Rocque (1899). They lived in DC in the early days of their marriage, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood, but separated in 1902. Dunbar-Moore would marry two more times, but always retained her famous first husband’s last name. She remained in the Mid-Atlantic region, working as a journalist, teacher, and activist for civil rights and women’s rights.
He spoke to me in the desert
Outside of Elko, Nevada,
Back forty-some years ago.
Maybe I was asleep
Or maybe I was dreaming.
I don’t remember now.
I was lying on the hard sand,
The billion names of God shining
Above me in the darkest sky.
I was alone there. Not even
A book of poems with me,
When Whitman whispered,
“Arise and sing naked
And dance naked
And visit your mother naked
“And be funny and tragic
and plugged in, and embrace
the silent and scream for them
“And look for me beneath
the concrete streets beneath
your shoeless feet in Chicago
“And ask somebody to dance
The bossa nova and hear him or her say
Sorry I left my carrots at home
“And be a mind-blistered astronaut
With nothing to say to the sun
But—Honey I’m yours.”
That’s the kind of stuff
Whitman was always whispering,
On and on, stuff like that.
And I got up and searched
In my backpack for a candy bar,
Chewed it ‘til there was nothing left
And then I hitched up the road
Out of that silence
Back to the city I grew up in,
Its blocks of blocks of bricks
And its old people in their factories
Who went to Church and got drunk
Who hurt the ones they loved,
Who wondered who made them,
Who lived and died in due time
Who taught me the world is sand
And drifting dreams and clouds
That speak no English.
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) lived in DC from 1863 to 1873. In the Preface to the 1855 edition to Leaves of Grass, he wrote: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in very motion and joint of your body…”
Do you remember? All-male colleges,
want-ads with gender headings,
TV women confined to aprons
or behind a secretary’s desk.
Suffragists won the vote in 1920
but few choices beyond wife and mother.
Women waited for 1963
and Betty Friedan to ask
why changing a diaper
disqualified a woman
from changing the law.
They waited for Betty to see
the problem without a name.
To confirm that conformity
was mistake not mystique.
Betty’s book became a bible,
held against the heart
as women all over the world
untied aprons and demanded
options never offered before.
Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921 – February 4, 2006) published 6 books, but it was her first, The Feminine Mystique (1963), that was her most influential, often credited with spurring the development of the second wave of feminism in the United States. Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women (1966), established the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (1969, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America), and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (1971). She lived in DC from 1994 until her death in 2006.
(for gaston neal)
he strolled in
w/ amiri baraka
decked out in
a long dark
made me think of
only he wasn’t no painter
because he wasn’t smiling
like romare bearden
and he wasn’t no panther
so I was told
he was carrying
were his politics
we all thought
he might read a few
but he didn’t
wasn’t time yet
“mumbo sauce please!
mumbo sauce please!”
dripping thick over deep-
fried chicken wings
served w/o napkins
i met him years later
he told me
about my city
how he was there
on 14th street
when “murder one”
left junkies laid out
in alleys with needles
he told me he talked to
langston hughes over the phone
langston treated him like
they had known each other
for 49 years
like they had grown
up together in
back in the day he was there
on u street with stokely when
word came that the king was dead
and the country would burn
break crack and wail
sometimes i look at him
see my grandfather
on the porch preaching
or willie “the lion” smith
at the piano
reminding young upstarts
that his fingers can
still dance like
other times i look at him
my friends and i are sharing
bragging about dunking
we no longer have time
i finally did hear
now i know why
pennsylvania steel towners
need other neighborhoods to love
down the lazy river to rebel w/
fight off “the horse”
like jack Johnson running from
the mann act
shaking it loose from his body
until the horse finds
no more rides on the horse these days
this body ain’t no amusement park
to washington, d.c., to
write some songs
like billy eckstine
coming here, a second life
but don’t call this
no dickens tale
Reprinted from We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters by Brian Gilmore, Cherry Castle Publishing, 2014
Gaston Neal (1934 – 1999) was active in the Black Arts Movement. Born in Pittsburgh, he moved to DC in the 1960s and founded the Drum and Spear Bookstore, co-founded the New School of Afro-American Thought, and established one of the earliest poetry residency programs for the DC Public Schools, at Eastern High School. He taught poetry workshops at the DC Jail and for the DC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services Administration, and worked as a drug counselor. His writing was strongly influenced by jazz, and for eleven years, he co-ran “The Listening Group,” a monthly salon. He was married and the father of two daughters. His poems appear in numerous anthologies, including Black Fire, Black Power Revolt, and Voices of Struggle.
| the heart beats notes treble clef
|| like jazz
| half beat half time making time
| heart beats 8/8 time
|| fusion scat
| flat whole half clef 5/8 3/16
|| up from the blues
| sharp staccato
|| out of the black
|| beat red
Reprinted from Berkeley Poetry Review by permission of the author.
When freedom is clouds, pearls
& a swamp at the gates,
blood in the veins of three stars
and two stripes, you yank your feet
from the soil of Virginia,
the land of blooming shackles—
Your name is Thomas.
You are tall, lanky, dark.
Eyes, gray brown. You build
a church on F St. in old SW,
marry a big, fine woman &
after 13 free children, you sit
wearily in a wooden chair.
When freedom is shaped
like a diamond with a river
running through, you prick
the spirit and let the vein
along the shore.
You whisper to the shadows
and into the sky, that though there
is no proof you were ever born,
your work, your word,
your blood is your bond
to this and any earth.
This poem honors forebears whose full names are not known. The Southwest neighborhood of DC, especially along the waterfront, is one of the oldest areas of the city that was developed, but most of the original buildings were torn down during massive “urban renewal” schemes, which removed close-knit working-class communities in the 1950s and 60s and forced the relocation of approximately 23,500 residents. Prior to the Civil War, however, a large number of free African Americans lived in Southwest, then known as “the Island” because the Tiber River and James Creek cut it off from the rest of the city. Some of the earliest historically Black churches in the quadrant were: First Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church, Metropolitan Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church, Island Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church.
I buy you a card with a kingfisher on it
to signify flight,
not just the targets you towed
through the wartime air (invisible
from your sporty jacket)
but the earthly flights
you’ve been taking ever since,
making our cautious days
seem dull and riskless,
our usual language too heavy
to lift from the ground.
Perhaps it was beauty
that made you daring,
or the fact that loss
had come so early
you learned to live
with what would terrify.
Tonight on the ground
we raggedly salute you,
we even fly
a little ourselves
on the jetstream of your
Ann Darr (1920 – December 2, 2007) was the author of ten books of poems, and taught creative writing at American University and The Writer’s Center. During WWII, she served in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and wrote often about the experience of flying in her poems. This is the second poem set at the Smithsonian Institution Air and Space Museum by Linda Pastan we’ve had the honor to publish.
1. No Need to Fear Fire
No need to fear fire:
it eats the soft heart hollow.
No need to fear fire:
it eats the pulpy center empty.
No need to fear fire:
it eats the heart to hollow the drum.
No need to fear fire:
it eats the center to empty the cup.
No need to fear fire:
it eats the heart to hollow the bell.
No need to fear fire:
it eats the center to empty the heart hollow.
Fire made the boat for far
voyage to the note of the drum
voyage to the note of the bell
voyage with the empty cup
Elegance of Manhattan, the lost island.
Elegance of neon through green glass.
Elegance of children riding the subway
braced hand in hand with the rocket and racket.
Elegance of the green vine snaking
along the gold anklet and instep
among yellowing Sunday papers.
Elegance of the first dance, her Indian
eyes and citron tongue,
and the night of her hair my starred fingers burned in.
Elegance of her arch and lean,
bend of her citron breast to my palm.
Elegance of the switchable saxophone
filigreeing the lacy smoke over
coconut wine glass splintering the piano’s
plink. Eating up salt peanuts, salt peanuts.
Elegance of the banjo: brass,
mahogany, rosewood, ivory,
mother-of-pearl, the perfect lie
against hand and belly, the perfect line
of the black and brass neck,
the perfect moon mask. To make the music,
the sharp pulse: skin and steel.
Republished from Turn Off or Use Opener, Dog Ear Publishing, 2007 with permission from the author’s wife, Diane Kresh.
Léon-Gontran Damas (March 28, 1912 – January 22, 1978) was the author of seven books of poems, and four books of prose, all written in his native French. He co-founded the Négritude movement in the 1930s, and was a senior advisor to UNESCO. Damas moved to DC in 1970, and taught as a visiting professor at Georgetown University and Federal City College (a forerunner to UDC), before taking a permanent position as Distinguished Professor of African Literature at Howard University. Myra Sklarew wrote a tribute, published in Beltway Poetry in Summer 2008.
He doesn’t tell me to cheer up,
says Zora and Langston
missed me at the rent party.
Langston was sportin’ new
shoes, had wanted to dance.
His zany charm gets me
every time, folds my frowns
like origami, shapes them
into blues-busting laughter.
He stands this way for most
he knows, sometimes for those
he doesn’t, teasing and cajoling
with his outstretched smile.
Somehow, he’s able to widen
his back, carry us on it, though
sadness hangs from his shoulders,
hurt grinds just behind his eyes.
This poem is dedicated to a contemporary DC poet, E. Ethelbert Miller. But it also references two historic residents of the city, Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 27, 1967), who lived in DC from 1924 to 1926, and Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960) who attended Howard University from 1919 to 1924. Miller is the former director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and serves as board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies.
The following are excerpts from a book-length narrative poem, in a series of parts, about a character, a fashion model named Janey, and the covert and illegal projects of the FBI that, under the name COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), surveilled, infiltrated, attempted to destroy the reputations of, and otherwise disrupted various American political organizations, including the Black Panther Party, anti-Vietnam War activists, civil rights activists, feminist groups, and many other groups, beginning with J. Edgar Hoover in 1956, and continuing unofficially, it is generally believed, to the present. Tactics included psychological interference, forged papers, assassination, illegal searches, and other mechanisms, sometimes in cooperation with local police and sometimes not. Ultimately, the Church Committee in the United States Senate investigated FBI abuses. This is a historical fiction, following the contours of activities in the nineteen seventies, with some borrowings from the nineteen sixties, to create a crime story, but also a political story. It is, essentially, a collage.
1. Woman Speaking Distinctly
If you’re flame-licked,
does it mean you like
playing with fire?
All kinds of things
spin out of control;
pyres end in burned
torsos. If you think
to be the country’s
you might be
when you’re suddenly
In that turnaround,
you could make book
on being watched.
And make your plan—
the only way
to avoid the stake
on which you die—
the way to rise
above the blaze.
2. Woman, Recumbent in Car
A car sits in violation
of parking rules, the only car
on the street, and in it,
blond hair peeks out
from a blanket on the seat.
It’s early in the morning,
a tow truck operator, new
on the job. Perhaps
he’s back from vacation,
wonders if he should
have remained on the beach,
the blanket reminding him
of scratchy sand,
his newly minted wife.
Every day, people come back
from vacations to tragedies.
Women are found dead
in their cars or homes.
Sometimes they look
like they’re just sleeping.
Every day, these women thought
about places they might die.
Picture him sitting
in his truck, waiting
for the police, as he plays
cuts from Blonde on Blonde.
Every day, people
listen to these songs.
He’s a Dylan / classic rock
wonders if the dead woman
is a debutante like Edie Sedgwick
in “Just Like a Woman.”
He wonders if his new wife
is full of feminine tricks.
3. Dear Ghia
Dear Type 34 lipstick-red Karmann Ghia,
dear razor-edge Ghia,
styled in Italy,
and, thus, anointed by the gods,
you are the car I would drive
if I weren’t the Volkswagen van type.
Ghia, seemingly more BMW than VW,
finished by 1969, unlike the war,
the surveillance, other things
from the sixties. So fast and sexy,
the wood-grain dash,
so lusciously not a clunky
my car that’s not my car,
that will probably never
be my car.
I will always love you.
Dear coupe that is not mine,
I want to cry
at this deprivation, life so unfair.
Dare I steal you?
There’s so much lust for you,
so much larceny in my heart.
4. The Detective Can’t Sleep
If he smokes too much,
maybe he won’t think too much.
So here are the Marlboros,
and there are the backup
Marlboros. And here are his teeth,
a yellowing, broken-up roadway
of too many cigarettes.
He’s thinking about a pigeon
grazing nearby, a cooing
ruin, how every trash pigeon
in New York City is descended
from a banded homing pigeon
that didn’t go straight home.
Nights, he tosses, sweats.
It’s the D-Bol, steroid
for weightlifting. It’s the rust-
colored stain on his bedroom
ceiling that looks like a fish,
one with no insides,
like the drawing a child makes.
But there are no children
playing here, his woman not looking
at him fondly. It’s the dead
that keep him awake, and a crowd—
like today, at a double feature
of the gorgeous/grotesque—hovering,
noticing something not right.
5. Dear Carol
On TV, when I see a marcher
decked in helmet, body armor,
carrying a gun, demonstrating
in support of the worst president
ever, and a cop shaking his hand,
as if greeting a member of the club,
I think of you, in skinny capris,
your light-brown hair teased
in a crown, so birdlike and so
damn young. Do you ever think
about the doo-wop we listened to
that summer in the Catskills
on my tinny transistor? Back
in the city after vacation, it took
three subway trains to visit you
in Brownsville, the graffiti-
covered halls of the walk-up
where you lived. I was a free-range
teen, savvy about the subway,
but less so about social class,
and I was the one who always
made the trip. Do you remember
when you announced
your engagement? He was a cop,
your voice rising at the end
in excitement, as you offered your
hand to show off your ring.
We were barely adults. By then,
it seemed the police were rioting
everywhere. Oh, I said,
forgetting my manners. Silence.
And the chasm already there
opened up, that last time we spoke.
The other cop is guessing
to go home. Pills on the floor
of the car, and empty
bottles: Valium, Librium,
seltzer water. They’ll know
after the weekend.
maybe a resident who says,
Yes, I saw something.
Or a porter, door fastened
with a wooden bar overnight.
Remember Kitty Genovese,
1964, murdered in Queens?
Nobody admits seeing
anything from apartment
of windows, some curtained,
some not. The dog walkers
hunker down, sullen.
Nobody wants to be accused
of ignoring a dying woman,
not calling the police,
letting her die, right there
in the open, if that’s
what happened, next to
the pretty park, where the first
robin of the season picks
its way through ground cover.
7. Woman, Identified
A Tootsie Roll with arms,
the detective calls Janey,
now that they’ve ID’d her.
She’s skinny with a single name,
like Twiggy; a Vogue spread
and being dead each warrants
consideration by the tabloids,
a close-up of her face that’s not
a death mask, a point of view
that tsk tsks, here’s a sorry chick
who couldn’t hack the good life.
She’s pretty, angles like knife blades,
a torso straight, like a boy. In the largest
image, Janey looks untroubled
and is running in a bold-patterned
dress past a bridge, debris in soft
focus piled off by the side.
The detective laughs about it later
with his buddies, a strange photo
to sell clothes you can’t even
clearly see. Surrounded by rubble.
Painted-on eyelashes—as if
she’s a child’s doll—
she looks as if she could blow
away. Part of her did.
8. Secret Life
The Medical Examiner everyone
has a crush on, who looks
like a bird—long neck,
cap of red hair, blue eyeshadow—
says the dead woman had
toxic injury to the kidneys,
irritated esophagus, from years
of starvation, mixed with eating
and throwing up, the subsequent bloat.
In the toxicology: Librium, Valium,
alcohol in the system—not legally
drunk but possibly high.
Then there is the bruising,
arm and mouth, not consistent
with suicide. Look past the husband
for boyfriends, she advises; regular,
consensual. A cop notes
the stiff’s on the Security Index,
Priority 3, the Feds’ list—potential
pinko, free-love hippie.
The boyfriend in the Panthers
was what helped her make the list,
and the cops have fun with that,
talk slave names
versus names they can’t spell,
how they hate that interracial shit,
but worse, she funneled money,
maybe guns, rented them cars,
introduced them to her celebrity
friends. The cops nod their heads.
Blondes in expensive cars
are dangerous, one of them says.
And now a woman is dead.
If she offed herself though—
which they’d prefer—why can’t
they find the car keys?
How could a housewife with three small children, living in Washington DC, fit the role of pioneer of far-out art? —Clement Greenberg, Vogue May 1968
In a city of spooks and journalists and lawyers
and their furious wives
you lived, a gentle wife,
interstitial between women and men:
where the children are.
You made up your mind, learned to bear up
and endure. And keep your temper. Every day
in the cold studio
you loaded up the brush
and dragged paint across a box’s surface, pulled
its burden till it gave up and went dry. Incense
of gesso and turpentine.
Fine grit removed the traces
of the hand. Then you pulled the paint across the grain.
Repeat, repeat. In pure obedience
we spend ourselves into the physical. Into the column,
the totem, the monument, the henge, the coffin, the child.
The city was on fire.
Your column stood up straight like a woman
holding up the roof,
and the seasons go around it, and light goes
around it recording time.
for Anne Truitt
Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921 – December 23, 2004) was a minimalist sculptor who lived in DC from 1947 to 1949, and from 1960 to the end of her life. She wrote three influential books about the creative process: Daybook (1982), Turn (1986), and Prospect (1996).
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
So the Donald hath sayeth
that when representing America,
we should speak English.
Let’s speak us some English
Let’s talk about some imperialist colonists
Let’s talk about the mo(u)rning breath behind the gunpowder’s kiss
Let’s get engorged with the words of George the Third
The King’s English
Speak, prithee, English
Sweet, sticky English
Sweet like . . the Sugar Act
Sticky like . . the Stamp Act
Townshend Revenue Act
Then the Intolerable Acts
After you react to the Tea Act
Act like you know
Like you be waving the Union Jack
Not knowing Jack about the Union
The King’s English
Like Richard the Third
Kill your family to claim the kingdom
Then offer your kingdom for a horse
Because a horse is a horse
Of course, of course
Crikey, old chap, let’s speak some bloody well proper English
But wait, then
said we should speak American
Now here’s the thing
America has always been called the melting pot
But if every element in the melting pot has a different melting point
Then how does melting Mexican meld with melting WASP?
Now speak American with me as we go over the recipe
First, give me that old-time religion
That old-school Uncle Sam grammar and diction
which mispronounces ‘champion’
when you Cassiuses get all Muhammad
and refuse to fight in Vietnam, ya dig?
Let’s speak American
like Uncle Ben,
I mean, Dr. Ben
From Hippocratic to hypocritical
The oppressed so impressed by their oppressor
That they become pressed
To give their best oppressor impression
Do the due diligence
Show me the do’s and don’ts of our didactic dynamics
Drill me on the deleterious designs of our disaster-prone democratic dictatorship
Feed me tasty tidbits of our innocently intended ignorance
with a side order of kinda sorta snide on the sly
Just bust a rhyme for me
Gimme some more
Hooked on phonics
Hooked on ebonics
Hooked on chronic
If you got green, then you clean
If you white, you all right
If you brown, sit down
If you black, get back
I got you all in check
Then when it get good to ya
Gimme some real raw root American
Gimme some Choctaw Chippewa, huh?
Gimme some smallpox in my linen drawer, now
But whatever you do, now
Don’t go speaking no Spanish
I say, don’t go speaking no Spanish
Who do you think you are?
Who taught you how to play Space Invaders in the first place?
Cual es mi nombre?
Don’t go habla-ing no Español
‘Cause that would be un-American
Like King Carlos the Third
And Bernardo de Galvez
And Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis
And the rest of them 18th century Hispanics
You know, our Revolutionary War compadres,
I mean, companions
who helped America become America?
Donde esta la biblioteca?
Y’all must have forgot!
And we due for a reboot
So let us reinstitute
Let us be reintroduced to the righteous rhetoric of our religious racism
Seduced with the symbolic sounded-out syllables
filling in the symphonic synonyms
of our succulent sexism
Reteach me the p’s and q’s
that patronize queens
and provoke quiet suicides
in the pure quintessence
of our patriarchal queerphobia
Let’s speak American
Hip me to the humor of our hubris, homie
Make me laugh
Crack a joke
I mean joker
I mean master
I mean mister
I mean nigger
I mean brother
I mean motherfucker
You see, I never gets too tongue-tied to tongue-kiss my native tongue
I could go corporate or I could go dumb
I could speak king or I could speak slave
I could kick it in venture capitalist and I could damn sure kick it with some minimum wage
So test my steez and see me score
Like it was still four score and seven years ago, hoe
Was that un-American?
Well how so when the best thing going is still pimping and hoing?
And we still the best at both
See, we the best
All we do is win
Wallow In Negativity
“‘Cause everytime we step up in the building everybody’s hands go up . .
And they stay there . . ”
From George the Third to George Washington
“And they stay there . . ”
From George Bush to George Bush
“And they stay there . . ”
From Geronimo to Guantanamo
“And they stay there . . ”
From Kennedy to Katrina
“And they stay there . . ”
From Boston Massacre to Boston Marathon
“And they stay there . . ”
From Tuskegee to Trayvon
“And they stay there . . ”
From “give me liberty or give me death” to “Gimme the loot, gimme the loot!”
“And they stay there . . ”
From strange fruit to “Hands up, don’t shoot!”…
…And they stay there.
From the Navajo to the Alamo to Sandra Bland to G.I.Joe
From Franklin Roosevelt to Frank Nitty to Frank White
From Fred Hampton to Freddie Gray to Fetty Wap
From the founding fathers to the sons and daughters who can’t find their fathers
From building bridges to building walls
From indentured servants to Japanese internment
From taxation without representation to reparations
From invasion to anti-immigration
From manifest destiny to NIMBY
From the escapists to the elitists
From Tea Party to Tea Party
(But that’s none of my business)
From sea to shining sea
My country, ’tis of thee
A history of hypocrisy
Land of the free built on slavery
World police with the worst police in the world
Neo-Zionist secretly allied with ISIS
You see, to speak American is to speak with diction
They say even a broken clock is right twice a day
But the second the minute hand catches up to (h)ours,
we change faces and claim that times have changed
To speak American is to wonder out loud
whether you have become Captain America
Never knowing that you’re both
Your wholesome ideas frozen so many years
that you keep coming back
Attempting to avenge your own mistakes through reinvention
Only to destroy the world in the name of saving it
Because you never figured out the difference
So the next time some Sarah Palin
or any masquerading bamma comes claiming
some oversimplified explanation
related to the patriotic purity
of our proudly politically-incorrect potty mouths,
you tell them
Tell them that theirs ain’t the only forked tongues
that keep a beef tip
like if it’s a sweet secret
Tell them how the hate that hate made
could make hate hate hate
Even your worstest students
Are most certainly fluent
Yo también soy indomable e intraducible.—Walt Whitman
Intraducible como la maravilla.
Intraducible como la rebellion.
Intraducible como el enterior que respire.
Intraducible el deseo iluso,
el coloquuio de los ojos,
el salvajismo de tu canto,
como el gemido del halcón,
los murmullos de la selva,
como tus sombras que no se callan
y de tu carne, barro,
florecen luego hierbas.
Intraducible como los remolinos
que recogen tu cuerpo,
como la ausencia de no ser,
de las palabras que lo hacen.
Como el deasmor, intraducible,
la falta de copulación,
el sabor del sexo,
el entendimiento del crear
y su presencia.
Intraducible como el laberinto peculiar
de la vida y de la muerte,
como los átomos del Yo
que se dilyyen y reconfirguran,
como ecos de identidades disipadas,
como las olas de los mares que se confunden,
como el sentimiento y los brotes
que te eluden,
aunque supongas haberlos atrapado.
Intraducible como el perfume del suspiro,
el graznido de un latido oscuro,
el recinto de la voz indescrifable,
el aire negro.
El sol se me acerca,
al retroceder del día,
por el otro lado de mi ventana,
con el resplandor de su sonrisa
y en las hojas de la magnolia
me Saluda. Intraducible.
Inútil, pero irresistible,
es el querer traducer,
aunque tú, yo, nosotros
nos reblemos, escapemos
y creamos no ser nada de eso.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable.—Walt Whitman
Untranslatable like wonder.
Untranslatable like rebellion.
Untranslatable like the inner place that breathes.
Untranslatable the deluded yearning,
the colloquy of eyes,
the savagery of your song,
like the falcon’s cry,
forest’s buzz’d whispers,
like your un-silenced shadows
and from your body, your clay,
grass later flourishes.
Untranslatable like the whirlwinds
that upraise your body,
like the absence called non-being,
the words that make it.
Like indifference, untranslatable,
lack of intercourse,
the experience of sex,
understanding the creative act
and its presence.
Untranslatable like the peculiar labyrinth
of life and death,
like the atoms of the Self
which dilute and reconfigure themselves,
like echoes of diffused identities,
like waves of commingled seas,
like sentiments and sprouts
that elude you,
though you fancy having caught them.
Untranslatable like the sigh’s perfume,
like the yowl of a dark throbbing,
the enclosure of an impenetrable voice,
At the fading of day
the sun approaches me,
on the other side of my window,
with the radiance of a smile
and greets me from the magnolia’s
Useless, but irresistible,
is the desire to translate,
even if you, I, we
rebel, escape, and believe
that those things are not the Me myself.
Reprinted from Todos somos Whitman/We Are All Whitman by Luis Alberto Ambroggio, translated by Brett Alan Sanders, Arte Público Press, 2016.
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) lived in DC for ten years, from 1863 to 1873. He is the author of Leaves of Grass, a volume of poems he re-edited and re-published numerous times from 1855 to 1891, as well as Drum Beats, Memoranda During the War, and Specimen Days. None of his boarding house residences still stand, but a bust of him graces the front desk of the Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress, and his words are included in several public art projects: at two Metro stations (Dupont Circle and Archives), at Washington Reagan National Airport, and at Freedom Plaza.
“This can’t be workshopped…it’s a slam poem.” I’ll never forget the moment that phrase was uttered in a graduate school workshop. When a poet is most well known for elevating a piece of writing off the page, lifting it into their bodies and declaiming with all the emotion that drove the creation of the poem in the first place, many audiences have been taught to believe that work is no longer poetry. Now that the piece is memorized, it is a rant, a monologue; it becomes delivered instead of deliverance. The term “Slam” is a politicized and polarizing one.
What interested me about guest co-editing this issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly was to complicate and muddy the expectation that many people have of poets who slam/have slammed. I was honored to give a first opportunity to poets who have been too afraid to submit to journals because they’ve been told their “slam poems” are not publishable, and to provide a space for poets who have successfully published and won literary awards to remind the world they cut their teeth in slam.
Split This Rock’s Ushindi Performance Group, comprised of former members of the DC Youth Slam Team, after performing at the dedication for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016 (standing from left to right, Yonas Araya, Morgan Butler, Ayinde Grimes, Mandla Dunn, and Lauren May; with Youth Programs Coordinator Joseph Green)
This issue pays homage to the spirit of poetic embodiment. This issue is a celebration. This issue is an invitation to sit and snap in the confines of your bedroom. This issue requests you read the poems out loud, and nod your head, and Yasss! and gasp when the words sucker punch you. So you can call this the “Slam Issue.” Because all the poets within it have participated in competition. However, you will find there is no adherence to any one kind of poem. The incomparable poet Angel Nafis said it best in a Facebook status post when she wrote: “Anyway, you can call me spoken word or hip hop or whatever the fuck makes you feel better about the fact that no one falls asleep when I read my poems.” (***snaps***)
The only irrefutable fact that binds all of these poets, besides all having competed in the DC/MD/VA region at one point in time, is that you won’t fall asleep while reading their work.
This issue makes space for some of the most captivating poets the DC, Baltimore, and Richmond metropolitan areas have ever seen: from the city-wide youth slam team members to national slam champions. From DMV Louder Than a Bomb teen competitors to the originators of the slam scene in this region. The poets included represent 23 years of slam in the area — from 1993 through 2016.
Slam does not allow for the experience to be solitary. It demands that the audience participate, be present, and take ownership of the fact that their instinctual love or hate of a poem matters. So, you are welcome here. In fact, you, dear reader, are absolutely necessary here. Because ultimately, we couldn’t have a slam –or in this case, a slam issue– without you.
See also: “DC Slam History” by Regie Cabico, from the Splendid Wake Issue, Fall 2014.
The Poets Respond to Shakespeare series ran at the Folger Shakespeare Library from the Fall of 2013 to the Spring of 2015. The inspiration for the series was based in my firm belief that poetry can respond to any genre. Most know poetry as responding to music and to art, but theatre?
The Poetry Foundation defines an ekphrastic poem as “a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.” The foundation’s website elaborates: “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.”
As poetry coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am surrounded by the work of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. Season after season, I sit through meetings and hear conversations in hallways from my colleagues about the plays that are part of the new season, characters, stage setting, director’s vision, and more. For me, poetry too, could give an in-depth glimpse into a villain’s fleeting moment of self-pity: “There is no creature that loves me,/And if I die no soul will pity me,” Richard III (V, iii 212-13); or a lover’s playful banter, “Sin from my lips?/O trespass sweetly urged!/Give me my sin again,” Romeo and Juliet (I.v 120-21). So why not marry the two?
Each Poets Respond ran on a Friday, a hour before the play, with two poets reading work they had selected in advance to respond to the play. I would begin each reading, and there were six in all, by imploring the audience to allow the poets to take them on a journey of exploration. In preparation for each reading, I met with the theater’s dramaturg, Michele Osherow, for enlivening and in-depth conversations. I passed her observations along with advance ideas of stage setting, costume drawings, and of course, seats at the play of choice, to each of the poets. The readings were conversations, a poetic response from the page to the stage.
The following poems are from that brief series, and only two poets are not represented. With each reading, I was proud not only of the series but of the gorgeous work of these talented poets. I know there will be other opportunities to showcase poetry’s fluidity, its rapt attention to detail, its writerly caress. I am thankful to: Joel Dias-Porter and Paulette Beete (Romeo and Juliet Fall, 2013); Sarah Browning and Brian Gilmore (Richard III, Winter 2014); Regie Cabico and Michael Gushue (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Spring 2014); Hayes Davis and Joshua Weiner (Julius Caesar, Fall, 2014); Gail Danley and Shelley Puhak (Mary Stuart, Winter, 2015); Sandra Beasley, Gaelyn Smith and Zharia O’Neal (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Spring, 2015) for their willingness to work with me on this project. And I am extremely thankful to Kim Roberts and Gowri Koneswaran for this opportunity to showcase the work of these great poets influenced by the muse of theater.
Ideas and vagaries ebb in transient flow with human currents
of time and DC-8’s screaming on the celestial sphere with
muted anhydrous tongues of smoky kerosene like lanterns in
barns in dusty Georgia barns and where is the god arrangement
for poor old Job – on dung with maggots squirming in
ebullient blood and pus and how was he supposed to know about
deoxyribonucleic acid and Einstein’s Hiroshima with critical mass
and the Jordan River and John Glenn seeing four sunsets in
one day while Mr. Pickering moves Orion’s arm and Trieste
sinks seven miles at five thousand psi.
Images of 1963 Ford Thunderbird coming soon doing fifty on the
Appian Way and DC-8’s screaming above the Parthenon and what the
hell is an apocalypse anyway and God Ginsburg in the Charybdis
of Rockefeller Center.
Moloch empties the ashtrays at the White House then takes the
DC-8 to Kremlin – I like the 707 better but only 200 dead
and how many fly each day (and Job didn’t know the uniform and coffee
tea or milk).
In view of the impending crisis this government can only suck
its thumb while Chamberlain waves a white paper invitation to
the Furies – Job Charlie Lindbergh flew in a hard seat for 30
hours and they carried him on their shoulders while the Norns
had already written off his kid but strange enigma the ways of
Him your dung-heap ‘cause Einstein sure showed up Jesus – only
one hundred thousand dead in painless wax-melting of instantaneous
short time except when your hair falls out and vomit vomit vomit
insides out on the seventh level.
And buzzing of clocks to count and devour the never-nows while
Socrates drinks the hemlock on the fourth planet of the seventh
sun of Andromeda; labyrinths of sweaty books that include each
other in desperate leaves that record the never-nows from
never-was to never-will-be.
Yet Job’s page screams nothingness into the abyss.
And Nickles stares with empty eyes at empty eyes of Zeus and
the stare is a straight line – the shortest distance between
nowhere and everywhere.
His light was darkness for the darkness was light and the
firmament was abyss because the atoms were abysmal.
He was not the Creator, He was the Destroyer destroying the
never-was for ephemeral never-nows until the never-will-be
destroying His own oblivion for brief infinities of never-nows.
The clouds break, sunbeams pierce the overcast, the seventh cavalry
arrives and Job is restored – but the film breaks and flows in coils
to the wreathed abyss.
The picture dances on while frames fall dark.
This poem was originally written in 1962, inspired by the play “J.B.” by Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892 – April 20, 1982). MacLeish won his third Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for the play, a verse drama based on the Biblical book of Job. “J.B.” features a play-within-a-play, in which Mr. Zuss and Nickles act out the roles of God and Satan inside an enormous circus tent. When J.B., a wealthy New York banker, loses his children and property, he turns to the two men for explanations and advice. MacLeish was a well respected Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, and was US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from 1944 to 1945. He is the author of 22 books of poems.
after Robert Hayden
What do I know of the mornings you slept in,
the pain in your stomach our cue to keep
our voices low, tiptoe? Awake, asleep,
invisible behind the bedroom door.
If I stayed home, I might see you emerge
mid-morning, holding a mug you’d top
up with coffee when you’d swallowed half.
Shuffling in robe and slippers, reading the paper,
nerving up to go next door, crunch numbers
in the office behind your mother’s house.
Puzzling, part-time work: a factory’s
payroll, tax returns in March, the month
we knew your stomach would flare.
Only the odd names of certain workers lit
your interest: Carmelita Schwartz, you’d say,
that’s funny! Words—you kept them close,
doled out Spanish to me, one word at a time.
When I was sick, you wrote an earache
limerick. There once was a doctor named Wimmer
whose mother-in-law was a swimmer…
And songs. When you died, you were working on
a musical about Odysseus, the man who loved
home but couldn’t seem to get there.
Robert Hayden (August 4, 1913 – February 25, 1980) served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1976 to 1978 (a position now known as US Poet Laureate), and was the first African American and the first person with a disability to hold the office. Okie refers here to his most widely anthologized poem, “Those Winter Sundays,” a love poem to the narrator’s father. The poem states, “No one ever thanked him.” It ends with the lines: “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
Mumble my name over static
and I’ll never charge you a cover
to get into my heart. All my X’s
have wings and they flew
right past my head wild as flags,
shining, cold, and raw, while I could only
walk away. I’ll tell you
what institution I’m from if you
tell me what grows from the dirt
of bad luck. When it comes to making
mistakes, when it comes to loss,
I was a prodigy, honest and broken,
tonguing words like they were love,
running out of room for all
the memories I needed to forget.
Mary Timony (October 17, 1970 – ) is a DC-born singer-songwriter who has released 17 albums with such bands as ExHex, Wild Flag, Autoclave, and Helium, as well as performing and recording as a solo artist. She sings, and plays guitar, keyboards, and viola.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
The bread of her waist, a loaf
we would knead with 8 year old palms
sweaty from play. My brother and I marvelled
at the ridges and grooves. How they would summit at her navel.
How her belly looked like a walnut. How we were once seeds
that resided inside.
We giggled whenever she would recline on the couch,
lift her shirt, unbutton her pants, let her belly spread like cake batter in a pan.
It was as much a treat as licking the sweet from electric mixers on birthdays.
The undulating of my mother’s belly was not
a shame she hid from her children. She knew
we came from this. Seemed grateful.
Her belly was a gift we kept passing between us.
It was both hers, of her body
and ours for having made it new, different.
Her belly was an altar of flesh built in remembrance
of us, by us.
What remains of my mother’s belly
resides in a container of ashes I keep in a closet.
Every once and again, I open the box,
sift through the fine crystals with palms
that were once eight. Feel the grooves and ridges
that do not summit now but rill through fingers.
Granules that are so much more salt
that sweet today. And yet, still I marvel
at her once body. Even in this form say,
“I came from this.”
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
I used to take long walks at dawn in New York,
staying up all night in my roach infested 4th floor walk-up
on Avenue B drinking cheap wine, baring my soul to
the bathroom mirror as I contemplated easy listening music,
having beatific visions of aggressive shoe salesmen
while the angelic rants of harried personnel managers,
brainstorming ad executives, and the insane followers of trends
echoed through the caverns of my vacant unilluminated mind.
Dragging myself through the gentrified streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan
in search of a cheap breakfast special of scrambled eggs and sausage,
looking up to the sky waiting for Pussy Galore to parachute down from
the heavens like in some James Bond movie, my head got dizzy,
not because of the magnitude of the heavens which floated
over the route of every Greyhound bus in America and every desolate
flower in the world, but because the blood was rushing away from my brain.
Expelled from the academy for acting like an asshole,
my copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead remained unread;
Jack Kerouac was just someone I read when I was in high school
because he seemed like a writer who knew how to party;
to me the name William Blake meant as much
as the name William Hurt, just another sensitive guy
who you had to know really well in order to call him “Bill.”
Whether I was dead broke or living on credit,
working a straight job marketing costume jewelry through the mail,
or writing stories off the top of my head
for alternative newspapers to make a few easy bucks,
I was always the con man without a clue,
the pool hustler who always scratched on the eight ball,
the actor who didn’t know how to tend bar or wait tables,
the musician who couldn’t keep time or play in tune,
the poet who hated poetry and poets and pretty much everything else as well.
One of the second best minds of my generation,
I was suffering in a second rate way,
always desperate but never starving,
always angry but never mad.
Sometimes I worked and sometimes I didn’t.
Sometimes I got jobs just by waiting by the phone—
“I want two thousand words, on my desk, Monday morning. Serial killers.”
Other times I lost jobs by coming in on time at nine in the morning
wide awake and smiling as the previous night’s bourbon wafted
out of my pores like a can of air freshener that was packaged in Hell.
New York, city of opportunity, where when my girlfriend
dumped me for the first time I went out and ended up with a twenty-three
year old model/actress who was Steve Buscemi’s brother’s roommate.
Man was I connected, if only I’d had an idea for a screenplay it
would have taken me at least another year before I went broke.
New York, I knew someone there who knew someone who knew Allen Ginsberg.
New York, I knew someone there who knew someone who thought he’d once been
abducted by a UFO.
New York, where the six degrees of separation are cut in half,
where the half-life of radium 226 triples like a human embryo
at a fertility clinic, and where a quart of bourbon
will get you one gallon drunk on any day of the week except Wednesday.
New York, where I was in a band called Lord Burlap,
playing sloppy guitar for a high strung, bald-headed singer who stuttered
when he talked and who was an all around good guy and good friend of mine
until he decided that he wanted to kill me.
New York, where on a day after I appeared on national television
reading a poem I wandered the streets feeling like I’d completely sold out
and gotten nothing in return.
New York, where I ran into my connection for writing a soft-core porn novel
on the corner 14th and 3rd Avenue as the mustard from the hot dog
I’d just gotten from a street vendor dripped to the ground.
New York, where one snowy winter day I watched the smoke rise from
out of the bowels of the World Trade Center as I lay in front of my 12 inch
black and white TV set refusing to answer the phone,
believing that illumination, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, L. Ron Hubbard,
and Dr. Ruth were beyond me,
and hoping that for God’s sake those people would quit calling me on the phone.
New York, where Allen Ginsberg got old and turned into one really creepy, self-righteous
guy who couldn’t go for two minutes without quoting Jack Kerouac.
There’s no time to be connected now,
no time to wander desolately under the starry dynamo of the American night,
no time to follow gurus and scholars and aging hipsters.
Allen Ginsberg died in 1997.
Allen Ginsberg wrote a few good poems back in the fifties,
then starting chanting and taking his clothes off in public at every opportunity
as he bade us to watch and listen.
Allen Ginsberg suffered for his art, then it was our turn.
I left New York in 1993.
I was younger then, but not that much younger.
I too suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
My daughter drinks a lot of water
And I was worried it was because
she’s trying to quench the fiery passion in her belly.
[Or] so concerned about the singe of failure
she prays to countless bottles of Dasani
to drench it.
“My daughter drinks water
like a fish” I’d say in jest,
but I’ve been looking at it all wrong.
She isn’t gills and fins.
She is hydrogen and oxygen.
My daughter drinks water
because she understands this world
will either suffocate you or leave you out to dry,
But nothing evaporates the sea.
My daughter drinks lots of water to replenish.
Sometimes her eyes are Atlantic and Pacific.
Even then, there is a continent’s worth of resilience between them.
My daugher drinks a lot of water
and has become a stream of childish innocence,
And a tenacity that comes in waves.
Her favorite place to be is the beach,
for her it’s like looking at a mirror:
She knows when to push people and when to ebb.
She only bows to the moon
and keeps the same crescent smile.
My daughter drinks a lot of water
after every playground session, ballet lesson, fight, and argument.
The hurricane brewing inside,
needs all the fuel it can get.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Kill Moe: a term in which to agree
Synonyms: coincide, concur
Ji Like: sort of, kinda
Synonyms: slightly, vaguely
This is an ode to Urban Dictionary
For not trying to gentrify my language but for praising it
Holding it high
Putting Ebonics on a mantle and
Emphasizing the sway in our mouths
The cool in our tongues
Letting us urban kids know the slurs in our English mean something good
That this language be a subtle morse code for them white folks
For showing them our black, knowing that they wouldn’t understand it
For creating Something not even Google translator could conform to
Thank you for teaching the kids who judge my speech
They can’t dictate my diction
This in an homage to hood bible
For saying fuck you to everyone who told me to enunciate
To be the only thing in America not stripped from its roots
To be the only black thing not bleached
I love you
Because of the people you’re created for
And the only thing white folks have yet to get their hands on
This is ode to Urban Dictionary
The offspring of English
Raised between our lips
Code switching from literary to vernacular
Thank you Urban Dictionary
For telling us urban youth
Us urban people
That our language
Is just as proper as any other way of speaking
This is regard to you
For showing regard to us
To be the only dictionary to define Deez Nutz
Why because it’s funny
To be the only dictionary of the ghetto
And for the ghetto
To be the only history book
Truly about black history
To be the foundation of a language we built
It’s a twenty minute commute to Silver Spring
some suits but more families, tumbling on
and off with backpacks, braids, barrettes.
I’ve made it to my plastic seat but that’s all
I’ve done; passing a statue of lions, staring at
the hard grey morning.
Rita is wide awake of course, generous
as ever saying I can borrow a couple of books
from the Maple Valley Branch Library, share
a fox trot with her husband, tell her
daughter about womanhood.
She isn’t mean about it, but she thinks
I could try harder. There are buses
in Maryland with a plaque for Ms. Parks,
open seats for her that I haven’t seen
until now. She counts out the beats
for me: look up, look down,
move your pen. One two three,
one two three.
Rita Dove (August 28, 1952 – ) served as US Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, a special consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress from 1999 to 2000, and Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. One of her ten books of poems is On the Bus with Rosa Parks (Norton, 1999). This poem also references Dove’s poem “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” a sequence of poems about dancing from the book American Smooth (Norton, 2004), and poems about mothers and daughters from Mother Love (Norton, 1995).
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
After my grandfather’s funeral,
we drove the four hours
from Marysville back to New York,
my Dad and I blasting the stereo,
and singing Elton John songs
at the top of our lungs.
Night fell and we grew quiet,
as the red moon revealed herself above the mountain,
full of love and promise that it all makes sense.
Everything that day felt like we were in outer space…
it was all so sad and it was all so funny–
the funeral home, the cemetery–
Great Aunt Sally’s stories of Grandpa
eating her out of house and home…
and then onto the giant crater of Manhattan,
magnificent and still,
the new Trump buildings lit up like electric beehives,
one less light in the window.
Falling asleep in my little sister’s bed
with her window to the world,
I felt as though a thousand years had gone by–
as though I had crawled on my knees
to the center of the earth and back again,
and still knew nothing.
A trip that ends with a return to where one started
Ezra Pound tried to hold the doors of the Metro for me
This afternoon at rush hour.
I started towards him, but hesitated—
He withdrew his arm and held my gaze as the doors pressed tight
and the cars on the Green Line rattled away.
The man next to me on the platform shook his head,
“It’s not an elevator, you know,
You can lose a limb doing that.”
Some say Ezra lost much more than that.
What was it that got him tossed as a madman into
St. Elizabeths this time?
Was it his weekly speech against Obama
On Rush Limbaugh’s radio show?
Or those diatribes about
Muslims and Mexicans?
The DC jury ruled he had an unsound mind,
But years before he had his day in court
And came to rest his head on an institutional pillow,
The army made him sleep on concrete
In an outdoor cage in Pisa for his traitorous crimes.
Now he dreams of Gitmo
Where no lawyer can set foot.
There is a difference, he says, between
Cuban breezes and Italian swelter.
There is a difference
Between the baseless accusations against me
And the ones against them.
At the hospital
He has few visitors, only the daughter of Shakespear.
She chastizes him for his self-pity:
Did you expect Walt Whitman to sit here at your bedside
Offering comfort as if you had been the one wounded?
Dr. Olverholser tells him once more
That he is incurably insane, but assures him
That his poetry shouldn’t suffer.
Ezra demands an iPad, receives pen and paper.
What will come of these scribblings, these songs?
His musings from a darkened table
In the Chestnut Ward,
On heaven and earth, esoterica,
Fracking and Game of Thrones,
These will not win him notice again from the Library of Congress
Or his permanent release.
I saw him holding forth a week later, sprung on a day pass.
He was handing out Trump leaflets
At the door of Kramerbooks
From a bundle hidden inside a copy of the Blade.
When a crowd gathered to argue and jeer,
He disappeared down the deep escalator at Dupont.
Half an hour and one transfer later
Ezra’s train stops. He collects his thoughts,
Gets off at the Congress Heights station,
A rainsoaked ghost dodging tree branches,
Bicycles and black citizens along the sidewalk.
He trudges up the hill to a building that has been emptied
Of all but its history.
The train that brought him out this far
Has already left the station.
“Periplum” is a term coined by Ezra Pound (October 30, 1885 – November 1, 1972), one of the towering figures of American modernism, and author of “In a Station of the Metro” as well as the epic poem The Cantos (1917 – 1969). Pound was paid by the Italian government during WWII to make hundreds of pro-fascist, anti-American, anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. He was arrested by American forces in 1945, charged with treason, and spent months in detention in a US military camp in Pisa, including 3 weeks exposed in an outdoor steel cage measuring just 6 x 6 feet. After he was subsequently deemed unfit to stand trial, he was moved to Washington, DC and incarcerated from 1946 to 1958 at a psychiatric facility, St Elizabeths Hospital. He stayed on the Chestnut Ward, and the hospital superintendent, Dr. Winfred Overholser, Sr., protected him from further criminal prosecution and allowed him privileges not shared by other inmates. Congress Heights Metro station is the closest subway stop to the hospital. While at St. Elizabeths, now a US National Historic Landmark, Pound worked on the Pisan Cantos (including the sections “Rock-Drill” and “Thrones”) and controversially won the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry from the Library of Congress, and was visited by his wife Dorothy Shakespear, as well as numerous prominent figures in American letters, including John Berryman, Archibald MacLeish, and Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote “Visits to St. Elizabeths” about the experience.
after lucille clifton
I left the boat
Galilee under me
I walked on water
Only your gaze
Forget about three cock’s crows
I didn’t want to let
I cut off
A man’s ear
To prove it
Forget, I mean really forget,
About a crowing cock
I was there at every trial
(there were six)
When you turned I turned
I watched them tear
Your skin from bone
Your blood dessert
Forget the fucking crows
I was always there
When I wasn’t you told me
I couldn’t be
You said that’s the way
Carleasa Coates writes, “Lucille Clifton deeply, profoundly and forever influenced me and my writing and my world view.” Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936 – February 13, 2010) is the recipient of a National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, a Coretta Scott King Award for children’s literature, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Lannan Literary Award. She was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her fourteenth book of poems, published posthumously, is Collected Poems, edited by Michael Glaser and Kevin Young (Boa Editions, 2012). She attended Howard University from 1952 to 1954, was the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985, and was Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland for two decades.
(face time with Archibald MacLeish)
The first time (he said) was before she died.
I collected the plaque with remarks I thought
funny. We trooped next door to a
fancy-pants grill and wiped our plates clean.
I remember she gazed at me drily
past pink arctic char, her unasked question
Then it got faster (he grunted) –
awards, degrees, girls taking notes.
Professional sheen. Now (he flung
an arm), all that stuff on the wall (and turned):
don’t ask what matters till you get to the
language turns tigers: a toothed spring coiling,
sinewy; dangerous. Danger
Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892 – April 20, 1982) was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Assistant Secretary of State in the fourth Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and Librarian of Congress from 1938 to 1944. His most widely anthologized poem, “Ars Poetica,” states: “A poem should be wordless/As the flight of birds” and “A poem should be equal to:/Not true.”
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
It is prom night and I am one of a million glowing things
A unanimous brilliance of sparkling and laughing
Fulfilling a birthright of beauty
I’m wearing a gift from every woman in my family tonight
They hand me survival skills in encoded strands of DNA and my mother’s teardrop
I wonder if they know how heavy your skin becomes in a beautiful dress
How your body molds itself to armor like it knows what the world has in store for it
Like it knows pretty girls like us don’t get to go home so easily
Not on nights like tonight, full of expectation and innuendo
I’m so sorry i want to sleep in my own bed tonight
It’s just exhausting having to carry this armor around all the time
Having to cut and carve it into something appealing
This skin is only as safe as it is lovely
Only as safe as the boy who sees it as pretty enough to protect
I’m so sorry for the moment where my teeth clenched and my eyes narrowed and I stopped being beautiful
Where all the delicate layers fell away and my body became a dagger
This is what happens when you are the product of paranoia and
I don’t know if it is worse being sexualized or weaponized
Just that I’m only allowed to occupy this space if i look good doing it
If I’m someone’s fetish by doing it
That at the end of the day this meat I live in is nothing more than currency
My hair and skin and eyes all loose change I can’t afford to spend in one place
That this night is a reward for my beauty
This life is a reward for my beauty
Something I trade for existing
It is prom night and I don’t want to be pretty anymore
I don’t want to be dangerous anymore
Neither were my idea in the first place
Just ancient survival tactics passed down like jewelry and dresses
But I am wearing a gift from every women in my family tonight
They are singing beneath the baseline
Women turned optical allusion
Women turned lipstick and wine and loose change passed among the palms of faceless men
Women turned Mona Lisa with a grenade between her teeth
Genesis like perfume on every corsage wrist
I could burn down this entire building
Sell my skin to the highest bidder
But it is prom night
I forget what I look like beneath the flashing lights
Forget my body can do anything but dance
Forget it may ever need to
Já viste pássaro
Já viste árvore
Já viste peixe
Olha pra mim.
Have you ever seen a bird
Have you ever seen a tree
Have you ever seen a fish
with a voice?
Look at me.
Só os auto suficientes
ou anestesiados loucos
torcem a cara ao vento
o beijo da brisa
o invisível abraço
Only the self-sufficient
or anesthetized madmen
twist their head away from the wind
the kiss of a breeze
on the face
and on the body
its invisible embrace.
Nature would rather we rest our psyches in winter.
—Reed Whittemore, “Three Poems to Jackson”
There’s a photo of a poet buried up to her neck in it,
in black and white, of course. She’s screwed her eyes shut
and hillocks on her cheekbones sag against her lids.
Behind her eyes could be finches and forsythia,
even a memory of fast cars and midnights on the avenue.
All danger on ice, boys and booze-blown kisses,
are they lost to her, or just tiptoed like crated sweaters?
She revels in them. She is warp and weft.
The afterlife of wool is dust. What is winter? Who died for it?
Reed Whittemore (September 11, 1919 – April 6, 2012) served twice as Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress (1954 to 1965, and 1984 to 1985) and was Poet Laureate of Maryland (1985 to 1988). He published 13 books of poems, and taught at the University of Maryland at College Park from 1966 to 1984. In “Three Poems to Jackson,” he writes: “I have not/Come to terms with winter but bludgeoned winter/To my terms.”
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Okay, tell me if you know this one: 2 White guys, a Woman and a Black or Mexican guy walk into a reality competition show.
They each come out with their triumphant stories of being chefs and the First White Guy talks about his fiancé and how he works so hard and how he never has time to see her and how the big cash prize will help him get her a better ring and, and then the woman comes out and talks about something, probably her kids, then the Black or Mexican Guy tells his hard luck story about coming to this country with nothing or not knowing his father or not getting to see his kid or all three, and then the Other White Guy comes out and he was taught to cook by his father who’s dead now, so there’s nothing more important in all of life than him winning ten thousand dollars.
Then they cook something. And the judges talk about how the Woman made something really homey, and how the Black or Mexican Guy’s flavors are bold (but maybe too bold), and how the First White Guy is so refined that they didn’t even notice the overcooked chicken and how the Other White Guy just needs one more round to actually follow the rules of the show, and then they bring out the cloche, lift the silver dome and say, “We’re sorry, Chef The Woman, but you are a woman.” so they cut her and she walks off and probably cries or something, and at the end of the next round, the cloche comes back up and the Host says, you ready? Get this…
“We’re sorry, Chef The Black or Mexican Guy, but we already got rid of the Woman last round.”
And maybe nobody laughs, but everybody gets it.
2 White dudes walk into my living room. One says, “You know this is just TV, right? Real life doesn’t work that way.”, to which I respond, “Yeah, in real life, most folks don’t get 10 grand for following some White guy’s rules.
But I’m not great a punchlines.
How about this one: 78 White women and Halle Berry walk into the Best Actress Oscar.
Some White woman looks at Halle and says,
“Shit. The critics are right; Meryl Streep can play anyone.”
The two White dudes in my living room say, “Ya know, maybe there just weren’t any good movies with Black people in them this year.”, to which I respond, “You’re right. If only a director of color would made a biopic about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Clearly that shit would sweep.”
Here’s one more:
Q: What’s the difference between a doctor’s office and an episode of Modern Family?
A: One’s the last place on Earth you’d ever find a Black man,
and the other one’s a doctor’s office.
The White dude in my living room tell me, “But that’s entertainment. It’s supposed to be an escape.” I ask them where you’re supposed to go to escape depictions of rich, White folk.
They don’t laugh when I tell them the one about the Black boy and the cop, or the one about the Black woman and the cop, or the other one about the Black boy and the cop, or the one about the sleeping Black girl and the cop or the one about the Black boy and the cop, or the one about the Balck boy and the cop, or the one about the Black boy and the cop, or the one about the Black boy and the cop. Maybe they haven’t heard this one:
Three White guys walk into a joke. Even if there’s nothing funny, we’re always entertained.
Alice, in your pageant terrible,
Forced to sew the futile seams
Of a society ripped unrepairable
By needle, head nor lucid dreams.
Your intellect beat by stern manly tred
Ambition burdened by shade of coal
The day he forced you down on the bed
Tears bled down the lips of a lesser soul.
Now, though, the renaissance is yours;
Stitches unfurl to unravel the clues
To talents eternal of earthly chores
And wild violets blooming colorful hues.
You are not blood, tears, hurt or bone
But shapes, rhythms – etchings in stone.
This poem references Alice Dunbar-Nelson (July 19, 1875 – September 18, 1935), and her most famous poems (both reprinted in Beltway Poetry Quarterly), “I Sit and Sew” and “Sonnet” as well as her troubled, violent first marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar-Nelson is the author of two books, and worked as a journalist, teacher, and public speaker.
(with a line from Walt Whitman)
Something startles me where I thought I was the safest.
I sit in the solace and silence of my thoughts.
There are intruders here, but of what kind I cannot tell.
I am not known for my housekeeping.
Yet, my thoughts and memories feel disheveled.
I listen for the invaders to give themselves away
(perhaps I can discern a footstep or a shadow).
Are they burglars, creeping on cat feet,
rifling through my brain, upturning memories,
storage containers of words, then stealing
away in the quiet evening hours?
Or do I have an infestation of mice?
A mother who burrows and chews holes
in my mind’s gauzy fabric, shredding thoughts,
to make a patchwork nest to cradle her young?
I could almost forgive her.
What startles me most is what is missing
bits and flecks of language, memorabilia —
the world I have created
over a lifetime of ordinary days.
This poem starts with the first line of “This Compost” by Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892), a poem that contemplates the chemistry of the Earth, that “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.” Whitman lived in DC from 1863 to 1873; in that time he wrote Drum-Taps (1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), Passage to India (1871), and prepared two new editions of Leaves of Grass (1876, 1871). He wrote drafts of material that would eventually become the basis for his books Memoranda During the War (1875) and Specimen Days and Collect (1882). It was a prolific period: Whitman wrote almost 100 new poems and a prodigious number of journalistic essays. Whitman wrote that he considered his years in DC “the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life.”
for David Keplinger
It’s about intrigue and injury and losing one’s way.
But mostly it’s about how beauty sustains us
how in the night we think about it
wrapped up and stashed under our bed
how we can get down on our knees
peer into the dark and retrieve it
untie the twine that binds it, release it
from the layers of fading newspaper
bring it out —ours. Or how
even the belief that we own it
keeps us alive. This
is what you teach us.
Written for a colleague, this poem is dedicated to David Keplinger, a Professor in the MFA Program of the Department of Literature at American University. Keplinger is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Most Natural Thing (New Issues, 2013), and he teaches during the summers at the Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation at John Cabot University in Rome.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
When I was born, my birth ended;
when I was born, my birth ended;
When I was born my father may
or may not have called to prayer.
When I was born they may or
may not have prayed for my body.
My name may or may not be a prayer
for my body. My prayer may or may not
be a name for their fear. My father’s
fear tracked dirt on my birth. My
mother’s fear birthed dirt on my body,
so they gave it a name when my birth
ended. They call to my name louder
than prayer. They pray for my body
for fear that it is dirty. I may or may
not have been born, I may or may not
have been born, I may or may not
have been born wailing prayers.
My wailing throat has no name left.
I may or may not have been born wailing
my name. My wailing may or may not
have singed my throat. My wailing
throat may or may not know my
name. My throat may or may not be
dirty, may or may not have singed
tracks on my body. A dirty body that may
or may not have been birthed from my
name. My name is dirty when it comes
from my wailing throat. I was born
yesterday. My wailings were not prayers.
Yesterday, my birth ended. Everything
after yesterday is a prayer that they may
or may not call. A name that they may
or may not fear. My name is a scab that sits
wailing in my throat. They fear only
my body, never my name, so my name
can track dirt wherever it prays.
After Wallace Stevens
I. When you click “donate” a
cartoon dollar shrinks and
disappears in its after-glow,
I search the FAQ for who
I should thank for making
you, too, shrink and disappear.
II. My body’s sympathetic ache. What
it confused for empathy.
III. This death is thorough. It cleans
up after itself and takes out the
trash 3 days before collection.
IV. Humor’s teeth, white, aligned/
the guttural wheeze of the laugh
V. In Biology, Honors Biology,
AP Biology, Biology 151,
Biology 152, we thumb ripped
textbook pages and pick the dirt
from under our nails. We shift our
weight from one splinter of the seat
in Bascom 272 to the arm rest
commemorating David and Kelly’s
pen heart love and the fine the Bursar
We learn in fragments,
key words, and projector slide glow
of the things that guilt us later:
nerve fibers, central nervous
system, myelin, T Cells.
VI. Are those the stairs creaking
or is that your spine again?
Do you love the new leather
couch as much as you say because
of the matching cream pillows,
or because it becomes a bed
on most nights?
VII. The only family secret that is
not an heirloom.
VIII. The layer of fat that knew you
were hungry and ate itself anyway.
IX. In another part of the house, a room
with less throw pillows and unsigned
paintings hanging off kilter to hide
melted fat under, we whisper and
X. The lonely body. The wind
XI. This is sadness but this is also
I hurt for things of which
I do not know the feeling. I hurt
for people I do not know how to love.
XII. I suck cerebrospinal fluid from
the spines of women whose
names I’ve made certain you’ve
only heard in passing. I have
vowed not to kill you this way.
We singe our throats and buzz
in tandem with your call.
Soil Woman has done it again.
Gone and spilt her skin everywhere,
now she is like rain: falling.
The only way we can tell,
is by the sound.
Soil Woman has bones a different color than her teeth.
The sun darkens and yellows things this way,
and we know her insides: hollow.
Her closed-mouthed body whistles as she passes,
louder and louder, darker and more yellow
until she has no skin left.
Soil Woman does not sweep herself up.
We laugh, heartily, bellies caked in a thick layer of what we call
protection, what she calls: donation.
but never ask out loud,
what a skeleton has to spare.
Soil Woman grows new skin like a rash,
maroon and angry. Born like the babies
of her skin and the ground: still.
Now we choose silence.
Now, we know better than to scorn
a woman who can only grow dying things.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
a di na seba, l’anglais linga na titi
mwende na d’i pa m‘bol pa anglais
l’anglais n’est que ma quatrieme langue
english is only my fourth language,
it is the baby of the family
the one my mouth spoils
favorite by default
who may one day be sold off by its siblings
in hopes to never return
all of my other tongues have grown so jealous
in my country, we have over 200 dialects
that’s over 200 ways
to say love
to say family
to say I belong to something
that does not want to kill me
that does not want to siphon the gold from
my flesh or the stories from my bones
Maritime in Lloum
my grandmother Mami N’toung was a seashell
if you came close enough
you could hear the ocean in her chest
pending you weren’t taken by
the pressure or the drowning
the first time I met Mami N’toung,
there was so much pressure in the room
she didn’t speak much French or English
from what I could make of her reasons in bamiléké
it was something about: keeping the colonizer’s language
in your mouth, is like eating long expired food
still, I treaded in excitement for stories of Lloum
the cooking of the women in our tribe
wide net fishing trips to Kribi,
swallowing pebbles of the sun from the cup of the Atlantic
how everything smelled like the dialects
I never got to learn
she looked at me with foreign eyes –
I was an unrecognizable place – she searched for my mother
in my face, like a light house
that will bring her to a safe shore
when she could only find my father
she grew into tired waves full of salt;
I was a bad decision a mistake
she didn’t want to be forced to love
The son of the man who ruined her daughter’s life
How the room began to swarm with looks
like sharks that could smell the feast of
unfamiliar blood in the ocean of my family
how she quickly reverted to her shell
all I ever wanted was to be her favorite
pearl, the grandson without an expiration date
but ‘til this day when I think of Mami N’toung
all I can do is
hold my breath.
Ode to Anansi
you were my first Black superhero
shaped of an eight legged promise:
little black boys
grow up to become sky gods
or infinite tales
bodies folded into a legend
as vast as the night of our skin
& the wet drops of stars
On her 90th birthday, 1953
From out the South of tyranny and blight
She came, a potent pilgrim with a dauntless tread
To Oberlin, where wisdom’s rays are shed
To gather lore of truth and love and light
From granaries supreme and infinite.
Then straightaway to a hostile world she sped
Unhesitant, unyielding, unafraid,
To fight for justice and for human right.
Custom was holding sable men at bay,
The mighty rules, and arrogance in sway
Issued this fiat to the darker race:
“You may not enter any hallowed place!”
But she with her crusading, valiant band
Shattered the bars that shamed our native land.
Reprinted with permission: Evans-Tibbs Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Thurlow Tibbs, Jr. Estate.
One of the first African American women to earn a college degree, Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954) is best known as an activist working for civil rights and women’s rights. She is author of a memoir, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940). Terrell’s journalism was published widely in both the white and black press, in such publications as the Afro-American, New York Age, Washington Tribune, Washington Evening Star, and the Washington Post. Terrell served on the DC Board of Education from 1895 to 1906, the first African American woman in the nation to hold such a position. She was president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and co-founded the National Association of College Women. In 1909, she became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was an organizer for the women’s suffrage movement after World War I, and, near the end of her life, led the fight to integrate restaurants in DC in 1950, referred to in this poem.
Still are there wonders of the dark and day;
The muted shrilling of shy things at night,
So small beneath the stars and moon;
The peace, dream-frail, but perfect while the light
Lies softly on the leaves at noon.
These are, and these will be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Each dawn, while yet the east is veil’d grey,
The birds about her window wake and sing;
And far away, each day, some lark
I know is singing where the grasses swing;
Some robin calls and calls at dark.
These are, and these will be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
The wild flowers that she loved down green ways stray;
Her roses lift their wistful buds at dawn,
But not for eyes that loved them best;
Only her little pansies are all gone,
Some lying softly on her breast.
And flowers will bud and be
But she who loved them well has gone away.
Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, ‘mid other groves:
And to us here, ah! she remains A lovely memory
She came, she loved, and then she went away.
Grimké wrote this tribute to her aunt, Charlotte Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 – July 23, 1914), in whose house she lived as a troubled and rebellious teenager. Charlotte was a huge influence on her niece; prior to her marriage, Charlotte was an abolitionist who went south to teach newly-freed slaves. Her poems were published during her lifetime in The Liberator and Anglo African, and her essays appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Beginning in 1887, Charlotte and her uncle, the Reverend Frances Grimké, opened their home for a weekly Sunday evening salon where participants could discuss literature, music, and other subjects of intellectual interest, as well as issues of civil rights.
When I think back to days gone by
I write these infinitely simple songs:
But you knew the songs weren’t simple,
For you’d seen all sides of it. Made it
Out of Berlin after it had been leveled
And overrun by the Russians. Made it
Across an ocean to Baltimore, where
You took a position in a factory that
Produced plastic flowers, trimming the
Fake petals ten hours a day. It was, you
Said, the most poetic job you’d ever had.
After Europe, the war, troubles here were
Simple, comical in comparison. A factory
With painted windows and a box of imitation
Lilies were a song you could bear.
Henrikas Radauskas (April 23, 1910 – August 27, 1970) was a Lithuanian poet who resettled in Germany during WWII, before emigrating to the US in 1949, living in Baltimore, Chicago, and DC. He published four books of poems: Žaibai ir vėjai (1965), Žiemos daina (1955), Strėlė danguje (1950), and Fontanas (1935), and in 1986, Wesleyan University Press released his selected poems, Chimeras in the Tower, translated by Jonas Zdanys. He is widely considered one of the major poets of Lithuania. Radauskas was fluent in Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, and English. Despite work experience as a primary school teacher, university professor, radio broadcaster, and book editor, he had difficulty finding work in the US. After many years of factory work, his final job was as a translator and copy editor at the Library of Congress, where he worked from 1959 until his death in 1970.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
A new dance craze
is sweeping the planet.
It has many names
but only one step,
a forward stomp.
Forward means progress.
In the craze of the crush,
there’s only one beat:
the incessant shout of the name
The dance floor is paved
with verminous faces
bearing that name.
Shout. Stomp. Repeat.
It’s endlessly exciting
and endless: no time
to think or clean up, ever.
Dance shoes are evil
unless washed in blood
in the purifying crush of the craze.
Did I say this was new?
I lied, of course.
Minuend, subtrahend, remainder:
Amazing, those words they drilled into Fatslug
that he’d never use again once he reached junior high.
The only real problem was one they never taught,
but that Fatslug encountered in his math book one day,
the authors’ idea of a joke:
10 – ? = ?
But the joke was always on Fatslug.
He learned you never really graduate,
but pass out of school to a series of classrooms
where your boss + ? = ?,
where your friends – ? = ?,
where your family x ? = ?,
where the girl at the bar ÷ ? = ?,
where the guy in the alley = ???
Everyone knew the answers, or said they did,
and made Fatslug sit at the back of the class.
He was the eternal subtrahend—
always subtracted, never added—
dismissed to slink to Detention Hall,
his forehead branded with a bright red F.
Note: “Fatslug, Subtrahend” appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of MiPoesias, edited by Grace Cavalieri.
I wonder how many lies you can fit in a mason jar.
I wonder if you’ve ever tried to count how many you’ve watched me fill, spinning molded glass with my broken teeth. Because I can’t remember all the times I thought I was so convincing. Hold them tight, two hands full at a time, in those fingers you never thought quite as pretty. A jar of teardrop firefly wings has never felt so heavy in the palms. And I don’t know how to take the weight back.
Mamma, you should have never named me noble.
You know, you don’t hear all too often about support groups for pathological liars. And maybe it’s because there’s no way of knowing if the 12-step program really worked. Lies slip butter-like off the tongue, taste like back ally I love yous and leave residue guilt on the roof of your mouth. There’s no polygraph test to etch needle marks onto stamped and weighted paper. And us liars don’t know phrases like congratulations; you’ve earned the right to let people trust you.
Trust, Mamma has always been our tipping point. We fall over cracks in storylines and scrape our knees on upturned roots. Mamma, I’ve never been able to walk straight through forests. My lies scrape against hollowed out insides trying to salvage meaning, hope and what it was like to speak fullness. My chest is concave tree, hard, with a wooden throat that can only speak ghost echoes of a dead voice box.
Mamma you’ve swept my broken shards under hardwood boards and stained carpet tiles so many times I’ve grown accustomed to walking on floors made of cut glass. Arches and bone bleeding I wrapped my toes in stubborn pride to avoid stepping on the self-mutilation.
But these heels have long since callused and this glass doesn’t cut as deep. So put the broom down Mamma and instead, hang these wounded statements above my head like mason jar mobiles so every time I look up to god I can see the glass bottom of every mistake I’ve made.
Breathe, child. Breathe. That’s what you used to tell me when the weight got too heavy. Breathe, child. Breathe. That’s what you used to say when my fingers slipped on the boulders in my chest.
Mamma you didn’t raise a liar, just a daughter who swallows sweaty palms and spits them back up as poems.
So shake these jars off your back, and one by one I will shatter glass mortar to prove I am not a con artist, just a broken promise trying to be whole again, mending old wounds with filth in my bones.
Liar, liar pants on fire, Mamma I don’t know how to say sorry without burning.
I wish I could say baby like my grandmother.
Thick thighs in front of the oven, pies the result of heavy working arms, I learned how to cook sitting on her lap.
See, my grandmother’s soul traveled where her battered knees couldn’t take her – into the freezer, up over the stovetop burners into frying pans and pots. She could make water boil without using her legs, so now the only way I know how to make string beans and mashed potatoes is resting on my backside.
Good food meant I wasn’t allowed to leave the table until everything was gone.
This is how I learned to clean my plate.
Liz Hampton smelled like cheap lavender. Not the kind found in pretty bottles at department stores or boutique windows meant for the wives of rich husbands. No, hers came unmarked, thick and pungent. A heavy lotion in a short, round, off-purple-colored case with a silver top screwed on so tight you needed the Lord’s hands to loosen the lid.
I wonder if my father ever found those containers in that clear box under her bed. Ready for a use that never came one Sunday morning, cluttered with cerulean clips to hide the bald patches and broken pieces of hot combs. The smell of burning still wafting, fresh on their teeth the screams, squirms and calls upon Jesus to make the pain stop.
This is how I learned to be beautiful.
Some people say home is where you lay your hat. But with Miss Liz, it seamed more often than not that hearts should be placed on heads instead because see my grandmother’s home thumped alongside the beat of God’s drum. Low and soulful her chest pumped holy work songs to rhythm footsteps as the almighty pulled trains over far away tracks to the Promise Land.
This is how I learned to pray.
At times I find myself scanning my reflection for the traits strangers say we share, but it never seems as if her teeth smile back. So instead, I peak beneath my lungs. Diaphragm rising I find her there bearing the weight of my inhales. She promises never to hold my breath and tells me go on and speak child; we’ve come too far to be quiet.
This is how I learned to be loud.
Fifth grade is apparently too young to go to funerals so I never saw the church roof sway after they lowered her into the ground. And sometimes I sing Amazing Grace in the shower so I can pretend I held hands with blood and faith family as we opened our throats to saline tributes.
I don’t have the money for brown sugar or sweet potatoes and Sundays are now reserved for lazy limbs and farmers markets. But, when I walk past lavender bushels I see project housing and a motorized wheelchair. I see arms strong enough to hold up babies and bibles, but thick legs too weak to walk into kitchens. I see cooking lessons and a righteous jaw line.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
My name is Amin
everyone calls me Drew
Amin means honest
nobody calls me Amin
In 2008, I went to visit my father’s family in Jordan.
I saw some of them for the first time. They were
interested in this new moniker of Drew I was going by
One morning I took a trip to the grocery store with
my Grandfather. A proud man who shares my first name.
Wears his like the Kuwaiti war medals he keeps in a
drawer with his Quran. Before we entered the store he slipped
a Palestinian flag into my back pocket. As we picked over
figs in the produce section, a man saw the Palestinian flag
in my pocket.
He asked me if I was Palestinian.
La la, uh Amirki, shway Arabia
When we arrived home. My grandfather pulled me to the side.
Looked at me in a way only military men can.
are the son of my son
the bearer of my name
you are Palestinian
You are from where the light at the end of the tunnel is a
check point. Where there are no statues of great men.
Where we write poems because they can’t tear them down
where some men would rather avenge their fathers
than raise their sons.
They may tell you they have stolen this holy land
But God is inside all of us and we walk with our souls
so all the ground we touch is holy.
Hot Supper, Cold Gaze
The chair back draped tuxedo long. I
was underdressed for him, the food too
well seasoned for a policemen’s palette.
Big Carolina man never looked
his beloved in the face. I perched up like a
Mississippi kite, windless, voiced nothing
to avenge the tragic death eating it.
I knew he’d seen a Memphis backroom
hazel visor cap slick cigar drag man
Your step daughter has an eye for my
wink but sweet, or color, it’s about you
and your desire for a boy with a
collar you can tie to a wood post
has God’s shame and red, white despair
bland as that eagle on your heart
If you’re regulating my body, I’m regulating your guns
Because control is dialect of violence,
and control and violence are the currencies
power uses to speak from each pair
of parted lips.
Because there is no one thing my body
was made for, but last I checked,
your guns aren’t paperweights
Because protection is more about fear
than safety; because fear is hate’s
Because we already are each other’s
worst fears: me, a childless lesbian,
and you, an angry white man with
Because the body count rises and
rises of innocent people shot in
schools, at abortion clinics, in
wars we don’t belong in, at
peaceful protests, in the street
by police, in the street by vigilantes,
in the street by transphobic assholes,
in the home, in someone’s home.
Because you can’t be trusted not
to play God with lives you’ve decided
are worth less than your own.
Because mercy is a commodity, too,
but you can’t afford it; because grief
is not and so you can’t value it.
Because loss is a song we both know
the words to– you hollow out the names,
and we keep
filling them in.
Let this be the year my anxiety wrestles
itself to exhaustion and my depression
forgets its name and instead answers
to the honest sadness it comes from.
Let this be the year I remember how
to be my own sanctuary. I once spent
a year watching chemo turn my mother’s
blond hair ghost then gray; a year spent
when I was the sole architect of my own
pleasure; running 13 miles through Brooklyn
til I met the ocean and my wailing body was
my own. When I refuse to translate my grief
into loneliness, I remember that
I already know my own language,
that it would be impossible for me to
mispronounce my own life. I have no
children. It’s okay. I miss everyone, all
the time. It’s okay. One day I will
lose even more people I love. It’s
okay. In my language, that also means
it’s not. It means I owe it to myself
to not strangle my fear into a deadlier
poison but to swallow it straight. I’m
not sorry for being human. I’m sorry
for expecting to win this battle as if
depression were a war and not a
chronic illness. To be cured is to
never be free of danger, but to teach
my cells to sanctuary themselves. Let
this be the year I sanctuary myself.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Gentrification: Part 1
from my third floor roof
without moving my feet
i can turn my body around
and count over eight cranes
poking their long beaks
over the DC skyline
this, with an obstructed view
on two sides
birds of prey
in the morning
twisting and turning
metal and earth
to make and remake
this seat of power
with a footrest and a recliner’s lever
kicking the bottom half out
to lift up rich feet
this capital city
this diamond district
this east coast beast
this occupied territory
split by rivers with indigenous
names and a native population
that speaks another language
go go anacostia
go go potomac
go go red skin
go go black skin
here come them cranes
birds of prey
i can see them
like returning worth
are these birds feeding
or on attack?
the white stomach is fragile
scared of hot sauce and beans
the white ego is fragileer
scared of almost everything
white skin is so sensitive
reacting wildly to commonplace things
as does white fear
a rash on all continents
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
(after Jackson Pollock)
“Stlil Lfie wtih Ariozna Iecd Tea and Siktltes” * Arpil sunrise-RED
smaer on a lihgt blue tlie * GRAMMAR LESSON-The blood of a black
boy lyas in the steret. It deos not lie * Grass clipipngs from the
Mialamn’s botos-more Jnuk Mial * Monring fog-Eral Grey on the
tognue * Oustide the front door a mudrer in broad dalyight-Crows on a
brnach * Pop Art depneds uopn a fuschia wehel brarow glzaed wtih
spring water beisde the pink chikcens * Crcak Feinds-Bewteen the
sidwealk two piegons pekcing * Evneing rian-How quikcly her glass is
refliled * Spirng drizzle the gtuters slosh wtih Cherry blsosoms *
Mirgiane-A thosunad nedeles udner the Xmas tree lihgts * Flahsing
roadside in the cop’s Avitaors-F*r*fl**s * Bonucing off the roit
shelids-Gibobus moon * Hlaf a cryaon-Our son gtes a tatse of the blues *
Tire scpras-The remians of a tern in the road * Brsuhnig off my
Fernch-Croissant flkaes * Frist day of Srping-A roibn pceks crcak vails *
Pryaer’s end-The sihgt of a rilfe in the Pwes * Foruth of Jluy-The pop
pop pop of raindrops * Ancient Cunefiorm-Gosoe trakcs in a muddy
feild * Jnue atferonon-The Italain Ice man shvaes smlies * Brick
wlal-Wrtiten in cusrive his pee * When doevs cry-Leanring puprle as a
shade of bule * Deecbmer moon-Autumn laeves thruogh a crakced
widnow * MODERN ART so mcuh depends uopn a white poreclain
“Foutnain” sinegd by an R. Mutt beoynd the plae cirtcis * Nihgt
Flal-The trcaks of a tear gas canitser * Black ice-silpping into soemhting
less cofmortbale * The fianl edit in RED-paepr cut
THE DUMAS IN YOU
And from Virginia Ave.
(as far as Chelsea)
why do I pretend
to be deaf
as if open ears
in the Spring shift
of the dunes,
in the swaying
the lilt of
that lilac song
that buckles even
of the most natural man?
Even in Brigantine
the soak of
darkens the beaches
with root song.
Doesn’t all stock
in one store
still fund obsession?
of gray ash
I won’t draw petunias
or the idea of other blooms
which aren’t your perfume.
punctuate my ankles
Mini cars are all parked,
yet the side lights caution
that the color
of crushed petals
My lips part
for ribbons of wind
to tongue their thin edges.
Seabirds, like clouds
fold their wings
and caw mono-eyed,
their beaks of asphalt
and feathers of chalk,
claws of dusk gloaming.
But here even Adinkra myths
have no merge.
These hands slick
unlike these boots
which are merely spotted
with symbol shaped drops.
Beloved, how do the bells
of your budding lilacs
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Black Girls Dance on Fire
A black girl dances on fire like slave ships in the pit of the Sahara
Determined to burn out the negativity society has placed on her name
A black girl has her slave name
And then the name she gave herself
The name used to define her own identity
Despite them claiming her “a mad black woman”
See us black girls, are made to shake what mama gave us
And no that is not an invitation to become susceptible to cat calls and attention
No we twerk
A symbol of freedom to let it be known that we own this
A sense of entitlement and control of what is done with our bodies
This is our form of healing
Place all aggression and pain into our hips
Cuz we know the strength it took
To build a woman out of a broken black girl
Know the fear and fight it took
To ward off master before day break despite our tears
So this is us taking back our bodies
Using the way you sexualize us to draw attention to our voices
We are forced to walk on egg shells anytime we speak
Must be aware of your sensitivity to our uncensored language
Or be deemed a B-I-T-C-H
We dance on fire to protect our black girl magic
Our melanin holds too much spark for them
So let us burn
Let our flames illuminate the darkest of skies
And bring joy, peace, understanding
Our savior complex works against us at times
We will stand on the front line
For the same men who will watch them make a martyr out of us
From the sidelines
They still have yet to Say Her Name
We are still trying to convince them that a black woman’s life
Matters just as much as a black man’s
We are still trying to rally together to get them to Bring Back Our Girls
Even at a young age we are taught to be strong
At a young age some girls are forced into marriage
Never knowing childhood without submission
At a young age girls are missing, and stolen, and sold
Like property with no value
Us black girls, must teach each other how to love ourselves
Will knock knuckles with men to try and protect our boys
Will knock knuckles with men to try and protect our girls
Excuse me if my fire have too much spark for you
We are more than angry black women
Than being classified as baby mamas with drama with no place in this world
But to birth babies
But to be object
But to bring life to the same men in this world
Who don’t aim to protect us but slut shame us
Silence the struggle we have become desensitized to
This is for the black girls
Who back then
Rocked beneath the tide and ran with the wind when Tubman sent for them
Held onto the bit of freedom we had and made lemonade for both us and our children
Us black girls
Have mastered the art of dancing, on fire
How to move hips and bend beneath open roads in honor of celebration
How is it, we are the most disrespected neglected human beings?
But will still wrap arms around our enemies to make sure we all eat
Our backbones are built from welts by whips
Sun kissed skin that comes with consequences
We are made of good home cooking, long nights, and early mornings
Curves, love handles, skin, and bones
The boom in our voices is used to speak authenticity
Reveal things about yourself you’d rather not see
At the click of our tongues
We will aim and ruin you with that death stare mama always gave
Us black girls know pain all too well
Black girls be missing in the mix and they won’t even search for our voices
Don’t even care to give us something to hold onto
Cuz they ain’t got nothing to miss
Us ladies is what makes this world go round
Are the very soul and heartbeat of a real movement
Black girl dances on fire cuz grandma say you got to make the devil mad sometimes
We’ve mastered the art of running with the wind before day breaks
Don’t ask for no handout from no man cuz they don’t give a damn about us in the first place
Give us babies then rape us
And take back the nation we raised their children on
See a black girl dances on fire
Cuz otherwise they will try to hang us
We like slave ships in the belly of the griot
Like Mother Nature being forced to rock her children to their deaths.
Mom, I keep hearing stories about boys who look like me
I keep seeing boys who look like me flash across the TV screen
Mom, what’s the name of that gang that keeps killing boys like me?
Mom, why did God make me this color if it’s what makes me a target?
Mom, why are you crying?
Mom, why won’t you answer me?
Mom, please, save me…
My son died the other day
Died right there in the middle of the street
And I can count on one hand the amount of time that officer will get
The amount of time my baby’s body lay casket sharp against the pavement
Can’t compare to the amount of fucks they give
Somebody murdered my baby last night
Left me with nothing but an embroidered uniform
Of bullets plastered across his canvas
He bled once, sacrificial lamb for his band of brothers
Better yet, target practice for that gang against brothers
They said he be thug
Said he wear criminal like his complexion
Said he be criminal cuz of his complexion
Last night, last night they announced that officer Darren Wilson
Would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown
And all I could do was cry
Cuz counting sheep permanently was never Mike’s idea of chasing dreams
And when you ask a young boy what they wanna be when they grow up
Most would say alive
Most would say alive
No most would say they wanna breathe
Most would say they wanna believe there’s a God
But its hard when all you know is blood
And bloody Jesus is starting to resemble our sons nowadays
Bloody Jesus is plastered across our streets nowadays
Bloody Jesus is being crucified by gold badges and blue uniforms
And, his rights
Officer, if a boy has their hands up in surrender
Is that an invitation for you to display your authority?
If a boy is walking while black is that considered a legit reason for suspicion?
I am sorry, that that bulls eye, resembles black guys
Which is why blacks die and are forgotten
Why we’re unarmed, yet used as weapons for mass destruction
It looks like our suns are dying right before our eyes
and we’re blinded by our own darkness
Our pigment, is the reason for this procession
We are all dressed in black for a reason
Casket sharp with iron fist cuz we must fight to get to the kingdom
See last night someone murdered my baby
Every 28 hours, someone murders our babies
Forget abortions, black sons are living just to die anyway
Bloody Jesus, was born just to die anyway
Emmitt Till, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Antonio Martin, Eric Garner
See somebody murdered my baby last night
Somebody murdered my baby last night
And got away with it.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
what the cathedral said to the black boy
come inside child
it’s okay to want to be held
ain’t we all just trying to be
some type of sanctuary for someone?
for every year we are not destroyed
do they not remind us what a miracle
it is to have lasted this long?
amid this plunder
amid all this wreckage
take a breath and call it prayer
take a step and call living
what that ocean tell you child?
that they’re frightened of you?
they fear you because they ain’t
ready for your type of holy
close your eyes
those stained-glass shadows
all we got is what we name ourselves
otherwise I am just a room
you are just body
& we know how wrong that is
When Mom Braids my Sister’s Hair
Oprah usually plays on the TV in the background. Jess sits crisscross
applesauce in front of the couch, Mom sitting above her, legs
wrapped around either side of my small sister’s trembling frame, her
hair two hemispheres of Afro puff, a vertical equator of scalp running
its way onto the unseen side of her head. Two minutes in, and tears
are already streaking down her face, each circumnavigating freckles
before falling to the carpet below. The comb is a contestation of
plastic and naps, hair as uncooperative as it is remarkable. Jess keeps
crying and Mom despairs over the heaving child, You’re just as tender-
headed as your Auntie was. Mom wipes the wetness from her face,
leans over to kiss her forehead and stroke the nape of her neck.
Jess’ sobbing slows, and she smiles as Oprah gives a woman a new
house or a new car or some other shiny thing. Mom grabs three
pieces of hair, uses the magician in her fingers to slip the strands
between one another. She asks me to go stir the beans on the stove,
the crackling of the comb between hair indistinguishable from the gas
fire brewing beneath our Sunday dinner. I step onto the kitchen stool
and move the spoon slowly inside the pot, peeking over the counter
to watch the procession of thumbs and tresses continue, unsure how
such transformation is possible. Alright, you’re done. Jess hops up from
the carpet and runs to the mirror beaming as if the pain was never there.
Her new braids swinging from her head, a wreath of calla lilies in the wind.
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Michelle Obama’s Easter Dress Speaks
What’s it to you if she wears me more than once?
More than twice? Three times?
She likes me. The First Lady of the United States
of America likes me. Do you know how hard it is
to get a repeat gig ‘round here? There’s not one imposter
in her closet. They all in there braggin’
they “one-of-a-kind” but you know that tho’.
Know they names better than her degrees.
They designer too. From Princeton and Harvard,
not Gurung, Feith, Kors or Wu.
If you must write her as worst or best dressed,
least give her a red carpet to walk on
cause she regal. Got no June Cleaver
hidden in her hips. No back to cave
to your critiques.
She don’t get dressed to make silence look pretty.
Silence costs too much in shades of brown.
Why her bare shoulders offend you?
Don’t you know women with definition
ain’t never scared to show they muscle?
And her bloodline’s got too much labor in it
to adorn herself with anything but strength.
Why you always comparing her to Jackie O?
Like the title she carries is some knock-off,
dangling too tacky from her bare arms.
Hanging yo’ stale compliments ‘round her neck
as if they are the finest of borrowed pearls,
as if all the character she owns
was handcrafted by Jackie herself.
You. You score First Ladies high only when
they smile wide enough, consent to baking
their way to the White House with Family
Circle Magazine, wear “wife” like a vintage garment
best worn in the kitchen.
Michelle ain’t the help.
Don’t have one apron to wear no how.
You see grace on her dark skin and call it dingy.
See power of heritage wrapped in the feminine and call it mismatched.
Well, you can keep your too small set of assumptions.
Mattafact, fuck you and the rest of your nosey friends!
Where I’m from we all just happy to hang near her spine,
hug to the contour of her words, sway to the fabric
of the smartest woman we know. The curve of her courage
is always in season, always makes a dress like me look good.
But we know your headlines turn tabloid
So when they start to sayin’ her skirt’s too short,
the wrong color or just right, we in her closet
will comfort ourselves knowing
she a grown ass woman, been dressin’ herself
her entire life and never once needed permission.
The Dolezal Affect
dear rachel you know
your people have history
dressing in our things
calling it a good time
or Hallow’s eve
or a team mascot
or a discovered land
or a reality show called history
or whatever y’all not calling
your whiteness today
rachel your people have a habit
tricking the trust out of us
your people have a habit
bending brutalities into
I’m here to help you
you helped yourself
didn’t you rachel
colored your self
right into a community’s
other side of the fence
painted your skin
with your own shade
braided your hair
with a twisted heritage
picked up at half price
shoved your personal blend of blackness
in the face of every mirror that dare
call you racist
you know rachel
Vogue thinks you wear our pretty
better than we do rachel
your brand of blackness
is the only costume jewelry
this country ever wears without shame
I think I get it rachel
my people know erasure
when we see it rachel
my people know the robbery
of white wash
you tried to erase
your own white wash
didn’t you rachel
took a reserved seat
in the “colored” section
just to prove you weren’t invisible
we see you rachel
all loud and covered up in your privilege
we see you rachel
speaking on our behalf without our permission
we see you rachel picking up the habit
laying your well-intentioned hands
on Blackness to be used to be possessed
just like your people rachel
just like ‘em
Volume 17:4, Fall 2016
Anne Frank Offers Justin Bieber A Lesson In Humility
In April 2013, pop singer Justin Bieber visited the home of Anne Frank.
In the guest book he wrote “she was a really great girl. I hope she would
have been a Belieber.”
If there is a God worth praying to
that lives in someone’s skin,
I have already found her
inside of me.
I don’t need
your wind-up toy
to pray to.
I am the girl
inside the music box,
the only ballerina
who pulled a dance
from her own captivity
and painted the walls with it.
Don’t enter my home
and demand it care
about your name.
I’ve already plucked a tune
from the gaping wound
of each crack in the paint,
sang a lullaby to the rhythm
of the soldier’s boots pacing outside.
One night before bed
I gathered all the air inside my lungs.
When I woke up still breathing,
I named this moment my symphony.
Great girl might be legacy
enough for you
but nobody wanted this girl
sitting next to them in school.
Nobody wanted to write about
what it’s like to become girl.
Nobody wanted to keep me
quiet in their cupboard,
nobody wanted my hands
to hold their children’s hands,
but now everybody wants
a piece of my bones.
My hanukkah bush celebrates the freedom of my people and the defeat of men.
My hanukkah bush doesn’t so much like men.
My hanukkah bush does not need ornaments.
My hanukkah bush already tinsel as shit.
My hanukkah bush says amen before she prays.
My hanukkah bush knows the Hebrew words for bitch, get free.
My hanukkah bush quotes Roxane Gay and Taylor Swift in the same breath.
My hanukkah bush knows every song from Pitch Perfect.
My hanukkah bush’s theme song is Beyonce’s Countdown.
My hanukkah bush, flawless.
My hanukkah bush is sometimes perfectly trimmed
other times perfectly wild and you will deal with it.
My hanukkah bush is not here for your entertainment.
My hanukkah bush is its own gift.
My hanukkah bush can warm the planet for eight whole nights.
My hanukkah bush is on fire
but never consumed by the flames.
My hanukkah bush is holy.
My hanukkah bush speaks to g-d,
is g-d, makes people scream for g-d.
My hanukkah bush thinks your face is real, real cute
If you lean in close, she might just sing you a prayer.
“Anne Frank Offers Justin Bieber A Lesson In Humility” originally appeared in Again I Wait For This To Pull Apart, edited by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (FreezeRay Press, 2015).
Bandages swaddle him.
Blanket stains curdle.
Wails lift to the crowded-room ceiling,
spread to the hospital walls
that enclose fever.
An orange, please.
I will get him an orange.
Tomorrow. I will squeeze it
into a cup, will hold the zest
to the boy’s nose, let him smell
the leaves, bark, the pulp of it,
sun of the south. I will cup
the boy’s nape into my hand
and hold a tin vessel to his lips.
Delirious, he wants liquorice.
Liquorice or horehound
or rock candy.
I’ll bring him something
for his parched mouth,
something for him fevered
to suck that will
increase his saliva
into the sweetness of infant,
motherless, unable to walk,
guttural in his cries
for the comfort
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) lived in DC from 1862 to 1873, working as a clerk at Federal agencies and volunteering as a nurse in Civil War hospitals. Some of his notebook entries have been reprinted in Specimen Days (1882). He wrote in a letter to his brother Jeff, “I cannot give up my hospitals yet. I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys—I get very much attached to some of them, and many of them have come to depend on seeing me, and having me sit by them a few minutes, as if for their lives.”
after Oliver Baez Bendorf’s “Call Her Vincent”
| sore from sleeping too much
|| or not enough
| stretching to be limber
|| or pulling a muscle while fucking
| breath slows when dreaming
|| or sinking into a flashback
| groceries for self care
|| or wasted money
| bike rides are mood enhancement
|| are dying in the road
| days off are seduction
|| or feeling inadequate
| family boundaries are growth
|| or mounting guilt and avoidance
| internet research & connection
|| or porn, shame & FOMO
“sounds / the same whether born of ecstasy or darkness”
only the double-edged sword of the passage of time will tell
Oliver Baez Bendorf is a queer and trans poet, cartoonist, teacher, and librarian. He is the author of The Spectral Wilderness (Kent State University Press, 2015) and co-founder of the Mount Pleasant Poetry Project in DC.