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FOLKS: "Many Rivers to Cross"

Somewhere the sky
touches the earth — and
the name of that place is
the end — in between
is the journey.

— African Saying

History Lesson: Diaspora

They love Africans in museum cases,
so they left African cultures intact.

— Ezekiel Mphahlele
"Remarks on Negritude"

First they stacked us
in the holds of their dark ships

Then they feasted on our mothers
our names      our blood      our shadows

They routed and captured our masks
our thrones      our bronze carved doors

Now in museums we discover our masks
their ancient eyes track us

We shiver

Discrete signs announce our origins
other signs caution us      Do not touch

Do not touch      Alarms will sound

Something shakes our memory
we encounter our shadows

Something crosses and recrosses
the danger water

We recall Praise Songs
Our ancestors touch us

Our names come home

for Pam McClusky (Seattle Art Museum)

Horn Men

hey
you ever wonder
how they survive
these quote unquote black
men jazz jiving they tenor
saxes
in the up-to-date badlands
of South Africa
Johannesburg to be
precise

some
say they be bad
they be up from the bush
long time out of the
bush these brothers be
watch they
pull music from spots
of leopards
from deep river beds
some say they music be
ancestor masks carved
from water trees

these bad brothers
what they know
be awesome
our essence
uh huh

what they make
be true as rain
see how they sweeten
this parched earth
welcome these brothers
hear them
move us into freedom

and beyond

Song

1.
fresh off the
boat
they break you
in barbados

they split for you
you tounge
they slice for you
you ear

they dig for you
a hole of dirt
for you big child
belly

they whip you
make you belly
lie down

they put on you
you neck
the ring of
iron

they say no
to no eat the
sugar cane

they put on you
you mouth
the mask of
tin

they tie you
man to
four green tree

they make you
man fly to
all four wind

they say you
you sing

2.
sing calypso sky
sing soka wind
they ship you
to they home

all ways
they break you
in barbados

3.
salt
all ways
salt

4.
our bones be
ocean floors

our bones be
masts of ships

our bones be
coral reefs

our bones sing
of salt

Alien Dance Hall

Here a glittered stocking shimmers
here a severed pair of eyes
jams the blues

Everywhere
desire flaps its tentlike arms

Legs slow drag in the pockmarked dust
embrace suns blackened by ancient storms
clawed birds scream
perform a rag      a cakewalk      a stomp
a tango

Observe
this needle wind delivers
imported fragrances of old blood
and fetal bones

Stay here if you wish
Settle here if you wish

Remember while you can
somebody called
my ancestors cannibals

Dance with me
Dance with me

Invocation

And God said "… I'm lonely
I'll make me a world."
— James Weldon Johnson
"The Creation"

Tell us your stories
August Wilson

Remind us
of the voices you hear
Boy Willie
Ma Rainey
Aunt Esther's children

Bring forth for us
the visions you hear
King Hedley
Fences
Two Trains Running

Conjure up for us
Langston's words
"Life for me ain't been
no crystal stair, but
I's climbin"

August Wilson
keep dippin' your fingers
in the waters
Tell Freedom
We'z ready
Take our love
with you
Take our love

for Constanza
& all of us

Am I not an immigrant?

(After Soujourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a woman?)

There is so much turmoil in our country of late, something must be terribly wrong.

There is a man over there, who occupies the highest office in the land, who says immigrants are rapists, criminals, the worst kind of people.

I have never committed a crime, have paid taxes every year of my adult life, and have worked to earn an honest wage! And, am I not an immigrant?

He says, immigrants take away from everyone and for this they should be rounded up by the millions and deported; they should be banned and blacklisted for worshiping in a way that differs from his. I studied hard to obtain an education and worked to educate children in public schools and everyday commit to lead a life worthy of my parent’s sacrifice, who knew this country was by no means perfect, but it offered us refuge and hope! And, am I not an immigrant?

That man over there may well say, “you are an exception,” but let me tell you, all of us in my immigrant family, my immigrant friends, and many immigrant brothers and sisters, none of us lead our lives to cheat, deceit, take advantage of anyone or any system. We love our kin like everyone else and aspire to a fulfilled life.

The immigrants I know are nurses, teachers, doctors, day laborers, professors. They own businesses, clean school buildings, compose music, make sculptures, write poems. And all are dreamers.

From its dawning where did the majority of this country’s population come from? Where did it come from?

From other places, other countries! The exceptionalism of this country resides in that very fact! In the respect and wonderment of difference.

Let her, let her who can produce a birth certificate immune to the waves of immigration to this county, speak to the grandeur of this land before it was bound to western laws.

Otherwise the road has been/is made by walking — together. Juntos. Together. Todos Juntos. All together.

Deep in the Heart

Let me tell you about the place I come from, the ragged-road Texas
where every gas station means hot breakfast tacos wrapped in foil,
and every summer means brisket cooked so slow it falls apart,
because everything worth doing is worth doing slow
unless it’s driving, or sex,
both of which we do young and fast until someone stops us,
except for me, who starts driving late and starts dating never
because the only boys who talk to me do it to get good
at talking to girls. This is how I learn to fall in love
with people who will never want me back.

Where I come from there is Spanglish at every table.
We talk about my grandma’s diabetes and my grandpa’s
Little Debbies, the Evil Eye and the ways you can get it,
my uncle’s ex-wife lighting candles in their closet
to make him love her back. It is not a place for being right;
it’s for walking together over parking lots rainbowed with oilslick,
for the good music, and palm trees, and air that is so heavy.
We grow up playing war in woods trying to strangle us,
no diplomacy allowed. The peaches on the peach trees
can’t be eaten and the open grass is littered with cutting burrs,
which is how we learn nature is a trap and crank the AC.
You are amazed that anything can bloom here.

We grow up drought-season baths in two inches of water,
battered by the metronome of parch and storm.
We grow up penance for our bodies and the things they need;
there is never moisture when we want it but always poison ivy,
a sky looming with tragedy. This is how we learn to fall in love
with things that will never love us back.

In the Texas I come from, my Nandi is smiling at me for the last time.
Mijita, you’re getting so pretty, the boys will never leave you alone.”
Her compliments are hand-me-downs you’re embarrassed to be seen in;
you are astounded that I managed to grow here. But I am a rosebush
from drought country, breathing chicken feather and snake guts,
letting thorns teach me to love my own blood. I’ve been nourished
by the crooked prayers that came before me, lifted by the lunatic cries
of white doves and the fan-blade wings of cockroaches.
There is one place in town to get a milkshake, and the exit signs
are the only green for miles. This is how we learn to let love find us
when it’s looking, how we soak it in like bread.

That Awkward Moment When He Says, “You’re So Sweet,” And All I Can Think Is: “Nah, Man. I’m a Velociraptor.”

Velociraptors and I have faces for the movies.
We have learned how to open doors: We scrape talons
across the knob, sneak out middle of the night
leave fading indent in the bed. He calls asking where I am.
I’m in your blind spot.
I’m watching heat radiate off you
as you stumble through the woods. I am attracted
to movement, meaning I only chase something when it runs.
Like a velociraptor, I will not text you back.

He kisses me like he doesn’t even know I have teeth,
like I don’t mouth his neck carotid and catastrophe.
He still thinks the parts of him I’ve swallowed are pieces
he’ll get to keep. When he looks into my eyes, I try to seem
like a warm-blooded girl, but I am a fucking velociraptor;
I trace my lineage back to birds.
He doesn’t understand how I can be so lizard-distant,
why I don’t want to kiss him outside the restaurant;
chalk it up to Cretaceous differences.

Squishy mammal boy, I don’t hunt in packs;
I have hooks for hands and very limited patience for bouquets.
If you wander into my woods, don’t be shocked when you call
and I don’t answer. Check your periph; don’t ignore that rustling.
You might have time for one last “clever girl” before you die.

Tips for Surviving the Saw Franchise

The only way out is not through (bone).
When in doubt, don’t just meat or martyr.

Before cutting off your hand to spite your captor, see if you can tip the jar.
Sometimes, shoot it; when you do, aim for the gears.

If there aren’t any scissors, start a fire. If there’s room in the well, sardine.

Not every number is an incision, and not every rule is a law.
The people who call you imprisoned are begging dilemma, so recognize
when dismantling traps requires you to think like a needle
and when you’d be better off thread.

Think outside the bear trap: Cinderella would smash her glass slipper
and birdsong a key from the shards; James Bond martini a fast car
from razor wire and the last olive. Joan of Arc would put on the wrong clothes,
take her own advice, call it God; there’s an exit for you. I promise.

Ways of Devouring a Man

Selene and Endymion
Snooze-button darling,
I’ve been up all night:
scrubbing the pans till they star-shine,
making the mirror a gleaming lake.
When I come to you
you don’t wake.

Atalanta and Hippomenes
I have a meat-eater’s heart,
and baby, you’re the whole buffet.
You’re ribs slick with smearing sauce,
midnight ice cream
too tempting not to eat —
you sugared cheat.
You thump between my teeth.

Eos and Tithonus
What hurts most is your thick
summer song, buzzing dew into dust,
lifting its fingerprints from the leaf-blades.
No. What hurts the most is
that the song isn’t for me.
No — what hurts most
is the wasted wish of you,
how I can’t remember you supple,
fresh, under my tongue.

Revenge

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.

But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

The Body Mutinies

When the doctor runs out of words and still
I won't leave, he latches my shoulder and
steers me out doors. Where I see his blurred hand,
through the milk glass, flapping goodbye like a sail
(& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how
words and names — medicine's blunt instruments —
undid me. And the seconds, the half seconds
it took for him to say those words). For now,
I'll just stand in the courtyard, watching bodies
struggle in then out of one lean shadow
a tall fir lays across the wet flagstones.
Before the sun clears the valance of gray trees
and finds the surgical-supply shop's window
and makes the dusty bedpans glint like coins.

Pharaoh

In the saltwater aquarium at the pain clinic
lives a yellow tang
who chews the minutes in its cheeks
while we await our unguents and anesthesias.

The big gods offer us this little god
before the turning of the locks
in their Formica cabinets
in the rooms of our interrogation.

We have otherwise been offered magazines
with movie stars whose shininess
diminishes as the pages lose
their crispness as they turn.

But the fish is undiminishing, its face
like the death mask of a pharaoh,
which remains while the mortal face
gets disassembled by the microbes of the tomb.

And because our pain is ancient,
we too will formalize our rituals with blood
leaking out around the needle
when the big gods try but fail

to find the bandit vein. It shrivels when pricked,
and they'll say I've lost it
and prick and prick until the trouble's brought
to the pale side of the other elbow

from which I turn my head away —
but Pharaoh you do not turn away.
You watch us hump past with our walkers
with the tennis balls on their hind legs,

your sideways black eye on our going
down the corridor to be caressed
by the hand with the knife and the hand with the balm
when we are called out by our names.

"Dona"

Many of the Girl Scout songs
extorted a smile, our servile mugging —
but this one we loved best.
Starring a calf being hauled in a minor key,
its refrain two mournful syllables: dona.
First came the long o — in induction/seduction
to join the animal's cargo cult, then came
the short a, when the calf turned to beef
with no last meal and no reprieve.
The gist of the lyric: that we could choose
to be the calf in the cart or the bird in the sky;
the idea was simple, but also a lie: dona.
Bird is small and can fly where it wants
but it'll never be Miss Teen USA,
whereas the word abattoir was a chic French Kiss
our tongues would enter willingly.
Let that bird flitter off
like a dry dead leaf: this was a hymn
that we sang on our knees
on the dais by the flag, dressed in our sashes
and green berets like irregulars planning
a suicide mission: there was glory ahead
when we signed on, clambered into the wagon,
and let the future hitch up its horse.

Monorail

Seattle, at the old World's Fair

He stands by the helm, his face full of blue
from the buildings at twilight, his hand
knuckled around a metal pole that keeps him
from falling, as he flies past the vaults
of startled mannequins, the red ohs of their lips.
Christmas lights are also falling
through the windshield, onto his chest:
right side green, left side red —
dark then back again.

Wait…my father is not moving yet:
no one has claimed the worn leather throne.
But his thoughts are moving, wondering
whether movement is the same as growing old
in the province of space, not time. Inside his shoes,
his toes are as blue as the city streets,
and the drum in his chest, his red-lit chest,
is growing dim. He knows the train he's about to ride
has one rail: no steering, no turns.
And the only skill is in the brake.

The brake. His lips roll over the words:
the dead man's brake. And a small boy
— come to ride up front — hears him,
tugs my father's coat and asks:
Hey mister, are you the driver of this train?

House

after Alison Prine

I was here before the house came down.

I ran up its carpeted stairs,
my feet bare; I stood dripping
in a towel just outside the bedroom door;
I daydreamt of making a mural
of the hallway wall,
my hands full of tacks and yarn.

I came along the backcountry road,
its tar hot and melting in the August sun.
I passed a boy playing crow
in a cornfield, daring a rifle to shoot.

I was here before the house came down.
My feet wore holes in the carpeted stairs.
I wanted this place to remember me,
though I didn’t know I’d leave it — or rather, it left me.
I was the one calling out its name.

Did They Even Exist

If a tree falls in the woods
And no one is there to hear it
Does it even make a sound?

Alternative version:

If a police officer shoots a black kid
and no one saw the bullet
Is the black kid really dead?

If a white man goes on a killing spree is he a terrorist?
Or mentally ill?
Or a wolf in white skin?

If the black kid does not get a hashtag
were they really killed?
Are they worthy of mourning?

If no one knew the black kids name
were they even a person
or just a target?

If no one comes to the black kids funeral
Is their mother still crying?

If the black kid does not make the evening news
did they even
exist?

A Filipino Restaurant

A Filipino restaurant is bone marrow
and vinegar boiling
perfectly over the sound
of the most dramatic Tagalog
soap opera you’ve ever been forced to watch.

I come here, when I can afford it,
when my homesick can only be cured
by my mother’s hands

The server is a young woman,
possibly in her 20’s with a posture
that’s been carrying the weight of her father’s expectations.

She calls me, “Ate” every time I come in.
It means older sister in Tagalog.

I can tell by the way she responds
to her mother that she still lives at home,
because Filipino women without husbands
have no business being out on their own,
she wears a crucifix on her necklace
to remind her a man died for her once,
her priest, her mother,
her father, and her aunties
won’t ever let her forget it.

And she doesn’t know.
But I’ve been there.
Wanted to believe that
I could behave and sit still.
Find a nice boy to marry
to shut my mom up and wear tradition
and religion on my wedding day,

but I needed to be free.

And I wonder what young women
like this know about freedom.
What it’s like to not have a predetermined destiny.
To not always have to say the right thing,
and dress the right way
and be the dream
that someone else dreamed for you.

But this glass house
contains a boy
with too many stones
and not enough heart to tell his mother he’s trans.
Because I swore I would never tell my mother.
Because she wouldn’t understand.

Because this is will make the pot boil over.
And this young woman could’ve been my mother in past life

The woman behind the counter says,
“Hi Ate. how are you today?”

I smile.
Hold back my painful desire
to tell her I’m different now.
I went and got free.
I am not your sister,
but I’m still part of the family.
But the smell of this adobo
is whispering my mother’s name
and I can’t unclench.

My mother grips tradition
and Catholicism so tightly
she has no more knuckles for this.

I do not correct her.
Continue this transaction like we normally would.

Do not try to axe at the root
of this family tree we swing under
I decide to never tell my mother
I can’t be her daughter
Do not throw these stones from your glass house, boy
the only chain you have left
Don’t anger your ancestors
Don’t shame this family anymore
Do not come out again
Don’t do this to us

So, I do not correct her.

Instead I settle into this excuse
rather not uproot this tree from the ground

Rather not show her that she might be the one who is free

and

not me

We complete our business and she says, “Thanks Ate”
But I’ve been used to being free for too long.
My jaw shakes loose of the weight it’s been holding
dislocates from my mouth
and drops into the young woman’s hands

“Kuya” I say.
which is a respectful title for
“older brother”.

I do not expect her to catch me.
My muscle memory braces itself for the shatter
for the shards of stained glass
church windows I’ve just smashed.

She says, “Have I been saying it wrong this whole time?”

And this is where I have to come out again.
A decision to make to erase the history we’ve created together in our connection
to erase my own history
or to be loyal to who I’ve been

I choose to be loyal.

I say, “no.”
Wait for the confusion, the hate, the back turned that I know so well

She says, “Oh, Sige—Kuya

I smile.

And wonder how I will tell my mother that I am still her child.

Allure

She was perfect pitcher,
Cooled glass and ice center,
Crystal all her own bounty:

Solid hammer, extended bat broken
Cam, when is delicate fist
Worth more than peacock tailed

Beauty fanned against face?

She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.

Her grandmother was a witchdoctor
seafoam green eyes and muddy skin
the earth shook when she spoke

islands out of the sea, a place called home.

She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.

The sun perched between her thighs
A gown of silk and spit sways against
The winds exhale, she asks the sky

To return her purple labia in exchange
For the low hum she remembers rattled
At moon once the sun burned out, but now

All she can hear is the whir and click of
Her unhinged ribs stringing themselves back
Together in the shape of an open mouth:

she will devour each star until rendered black.

She is not safe.
No one is safe
From the break.

Her daughter wears a crown around her neck
one lone dove in the palm of her hand
she names it after her father's fallen eyelash.

A bundle of sage burns at her feet
smoke twists towards her gathered ten,
she stops listening to her mother chewing heat

long enough to catch the birds last breath.
A copper leash patterned after still
heart of her grandmother’s dust swings

in mimic of smoke, proven ancestry.

She is still not safe.
We are still not safe
From the ache.

We form ourselves indigo diamonds
Anyway.

Kishotenketsu for Mars

On Mars, water once flowed. Where
did it go? Some froze, but scientists

suspect a cosmic cue ball — a comet
etc. — knocked Mars so hard

the planet escaped
its own atmosphere, just

left it there, jumped its own skin
like an anime cat

leaving his pajamas spread-eagle
in space. And now, goddammit,

David Bowie is dead.
I worshipped him like a flower

twists its dewy face to the brightest,
prettiest star. He asked us,

decades down, “Is there life on Mars?”
Once, perhaps. There once was life

in Bowie too. Stars glitter,
planets don’t —

an atmospheric parlor trick,
but neither titan ceases

to exist just because
a little air escaped.

The Cult of Iuvenis Invictus

(for Abbey, Belle, Circa, Fiddleback, Fritz, Oscar, Sideway, Toast, and Zan)

The Vixen pinks his way through whiskers,
strikes a nice plié,
then knocks a shot of Jäger back,
and drops some Fourier.

The shaven Lion shyly strides
beside his own conceit:
a guileless wilding
twice defiled, but innocent and sweet.

Mama Panda and her Pup
(wily as Montaigne)
splay their limbs in slick abandon,
rolling through the rain.

She's a powder-hounded faun
with talcum in her eyes —
he's Dauphin of Malcontrites:
: the locus of surprise.

The Kangaroo who used to wear
a Fox's gold lapel
casts himself on infant seas
and rides each roll and swell

Rainbow Rat, the dayglo champ
of pan-harmonium
wriggles in a bedsty tizzy,
nursing at his thumb.

The Folf-cum-Husky's snugly tucked
and tangled up in blue
and white and glows so bright
he turns the old moon new.

Even Wolves, who play at stern
and sober countenance,
lose themcells in padded selves
and capillary dance:

though shadows blaze through every day
and coruscate the night,
we learn to see beyond the darkness
by each other's light.

Fir

Polygon tufts
kitely incurved
hood the fir cones from
rainfall. They respond
by closing tight
like the armadillo married the ent
and gave birth to
convex reflections of skylight
bursting chrome.
No slither for the deluge
the fir cones may now ripen
a living piece of architecture.
And when the branches shed,
the needles burn in captivity,
in ceremony,
to bless and protect
continuum.

Five Alarms

Vancouver has an
approved fireworks
competition.

But here the
only permitted explosions
are gas leaks.

Through Greenwood’s
skeleton
(this neighborhood
always burning down)

with my sister, the arted-up
boarding for windows of still open
businesses.

Block long fenced off gravel
pit where I once ate gyros

with my nephew. (this neighborhood
is always coming up) The
Cyclery, the reading center are Causes,
rally points, easily raised funds to move

ahead. The family
owned coffee shop
not so much, just another,

plus,

they live a few miles south and
their house is being destroyed
to make way for an oncoming train
station.