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Uncle Ben: What the Number Said

I’m five years old.
We’ve just been buzzed into Aunt Miriam’s house.
Uncle Ben’s office is to the right, off the hall.
Before walking upstairs to the second floor,
I look to the right and see dark.
Mother holds my hand while I peak in:
Equipment. The kind the Nazis used?
No, for taking x-rays.

Overheard: Once, he gave me medicine
to abort my baby but it didn’t work
and the baby was born with an extra thumb.

I’m thirteen years old now.
Uncle Ben’s been dead eight years.
Daddy says the only good German is a dead German.
That was 1946 and Uncle Ben can’t practice medicine
at Johns Hopkins hospital. No Jews allowed.
Is that why he doesn’t smile?

I don’t know how to like him.
He doesn’t look at me.
He has a Doberman Pinscher named Prince.
When women come to the house,
Prince looks under their dresses.
Men laugh. Women are embarrassed.

In the basement of Aunt Miriam’s house,
a ping pong table and knotty pine walls.
Once when I was nine
a cousin played ping pong with me.
He was sixteen. Now I’m sixteen
and I read about a man the Nazis put in a freezer.
to see how much cold a human being can withstand.
When the man’s testicles turned blue, he collapsed
and guards dragged him out. A doctor records
how much time it took for the man to die,
but I don’t remember what the number said.

Damage Control

keep me safe
keep me safe from those who want to cut
keep me safe from those who want to cut me
keep me safe from those who want to cut me open
keep me safe from those who want to cut me open me and crawl inside

keep me safe from me
keep me safe from my own
keep me safe from my own hand
keep me safe from my own hand if it is me holding the knife
keep me safe from my own hand it it is me holding the knife

On the Subject of Transformation

Last night I became a flock of birds on the eve of their descent.

Last night I was a murder of crows.
To be a murder of crows is to not know
              if you are magic              or dreaming,

                            a flask of ring tones              or a canvas of teachers
                            a worship of poets                or a cashbox of planets.

I did not know body or the hungering scratch for permission.
I was at once a marriage of galaxies, a shining glory of mistakes,

                                                        a lumbering storm of shoelaces,
                                                        and a cinema of head turns.

I walked like a torso of regrets heaving a crease of love letters,
              written in blue, flowing downstream.

I chose to live as a river of ripped journal pages,
                            a sprain of tears, spilling
                                          into a spectacle of wringing hands.

In the pitch, I became
a dictionary of guitars, strings taut and out of tune
I had forgotten what a migration of fingertips
                                          feels like on the landscape of the skin,
I had forgotten I am not the strings
                                          but the articulation of sound when they are played,
how forcefully we pour out of our bodies              to be formless,

                                                        how even in a foreign wrapping,
                                                                      our bodies break
                                                                                    free of the stilled silence.

Family Tree

After Natasha Marin’s Red Lineage

my name stumbles ups the stairs
climbing towards grace, an ascending arc of red and gold

my mother's name mends shards back to glass
melts them down with the heat of a thousand hearts,
an aged and forgiving red

my father's name lives in a spoonful of shadows
hungering for a cloud that will rain red

follow the seedlings and you will see
my name become a little kite dancing in the wind,
stand still under the cicadas’ summer song
and see my mother's name strut
to a living and slowly dying beat of red
breathe in the fire’s flicker and my father’s name
tending to the embers collapsing red.

I come from a people known for speaking without saying,
for spitting the shine on their boots & stomping blackness
into the heavens.


I guess it’s easy to want to be                                black,
when everything is the new black,

shiny as LP spinning at 33 rpm
                in the hipster owned record store
                                on the formerly black block
                                                in the formerly black neighborhood

but do you know what comes back
around for        black? that needle scratch
leaves grooves
                                deep                as the river

don’t nobody want the old                black —
people want the Jimi Hendrix black,
the psychedelic star spangled banner by your own rules black

the sparkled glove, moonwalking, grammy winning black,
not the dark skin, big nose self hating                black

not the Jim Crow                black, segregation                black,
poll tax payin, separate but equal                black,

the happy smile shuffling tap dance black,
not the minstrel show, burnt cork black-face                black,
not the yessir boss                black,

not the whistle at a white girl
and end up cautionary tale                black

when black folks all around you fought
to gain a piece of the real estate
that’s been redlined
and sold off
and sold off
and sold off                for centuries

when the folks that lay claim
to its legacy got that shit on layaway,
but don’t ever get to put more than a bit
                of change down each month
                                and interest rates ain’t no joke
                                                cuz don’t nothing change

then I guess being                black
is like putting on a pair of snow pants
to brace against the cold when
you’re already fully dressed

and you just love your accessories,
                been sliding on                kimonos and                dashikis
                                and                headdresses and                dreadlocks
                                                for Halloween and theme parties

like characters
you can switch                in                and                out                of
like accents,

like a downpour
of a storm

except you get to decide
when it’s time to come in
and take shelter out of the rain


Said the prayer to the dream
I don't believe you want to hear me

Said the dream to paper
I don't believe you want to hold me

Said the paper to the wind
I don't believe you want to help me

Said the wind to the man
I don't believe you see me

The man felt the wind whisper in his ear and swatted the dream
that sounded like a prayer that was held by the paper

In one breath, the wind became an answer
no one ever asked the question to

In one dream, the wind forgot its voice, in another dream the paper
was torn before it learned how to say its own name

In the first dream, the prayer learned what walking through
blackness feels like — it is the opposite of abandonment

In the last dream, all the names are written on the paper
in the form of a prayer that sounds
like the wind and feels like the breath
of a flower across your cheek


like a heavy freight train
    is headed towards you,
but you are running, tripping

over its tracks. You hope luck
    is the taxi ready to pick you up,
but luck’s the subway, luck’s

the bus with the accordion
    middle. You wait
for luck, thought you bought

a ticket, thought the cab
    would stop. At the airport
you hold a sign, Welcome

Luck! But everyone passes,
    luck passes, doesn’t stop,
and you are left

with your sign and a moment
    of hope when you think
you’ve found luck

in your pocket, but luck is down
    the street in the Horseshoe
Tavern, so you peek inside

and see it — luck, in its shy suit
    drinking a beer
with your best friend,

and they are taking selfies
    with their smartphones,
and you holding

your paper map,
    hoping luck would travel
long distances to find you.

Poem Where We Apologize For Being Human

There is a part of me that doesn’t understand longing.
And yet, with my hands full of daisies, forget-me-nots,

I walk into a field of wildflowers and ask for more.
This is how I feel when you touch my shoulder.

There are nights of only so much moonshine
and I want to bathe in more than my share.

Saltwater, you’ve said. The oceans calms. Sometimes
I lose myself and want to go under. Part mermaid.

Part riptide. There was a time when every beach
was a room I would undress in. Now, I forget to live

that openly. Now, I hold back what I want to say.
There’s a belief we each have to live flawlessly.

I rip off the roots of flowers and place them in a vase.
Forget the fields where you could kiss me hard

and instead, call the florist, close the door.
Because we can’t say what we want, we write

a confessional poem where every sentence is true,
except one. Tell me again how often you think about me.

Tell me again how the drowning man finds himself
dreaming how one day walk he’ll walk on land.

Present Tense

My friend on the couch trembles.
She’s crying because someone in her family

has died/is dying/is dead. She has stopped
speaking in future tense and only says, Now.

The clock speaks in abstract sentences
and she says, We need more wine.

A corner of her life is being rebuilt
by a construction company she hasn’t approved.

A corner and her driveway is being paved.
With gravestones. When she cries, I pour her

a glass of minor relief, another glass
of lessen, and still one more of forgetting, a refill

of liquid assistance. There are too many days
to wait, she says. And there are days

when the world’s veil is so thin, she feels God
in the wind between the buildings.

She is almost mourning, but
knows how close we all are

to being remembered. She is haunted
by leaving, by the ones who already left,

all those doorways swinging open.
A breezeway to loss is where we are headed

no matter how hard we drag our feet.
She says she hates that she can’t stop wishing

for all of it to end, though sometimes in the blues
of the curtain, she still sees hope in hospice.


Because there’s a sparrow outside that appears to be dying.
Because I carry it with me, not the bird, but the emotion.
Because its feathers are wet, almost drenched.
Because not knowing what to do is my own purgatory.
Because nothing in the house is sugarcoated.
Because if you position yourself at the window you will see things
       you don’t want to see.
Because there is a forest of coyotes and we keep finding the bones of fawns.
Because sorrow has embroidered itself beneath my ribs and I can’t unstitch it.
Because even when I’m wrapped in a blanket, I’m not warm.
Because we all keep dying.
Because it’s really not a bird, but our country.
Because the rain won’t stop, the rain won’t stop, the rain won’t stop.

The Cuckoo Clock

When I was a girl
I wanted to live
inside of one.

A wooden, small
place to hold me.
I was in love

with its bird
face. I imagined us
married. The dream

of domesticity. Keeping
house à la bric-a-brac
or conversation piece.

But time has told
what makes them tick.
More machinations

than magic. Dark
pastoral scenes
and a stiffness

crowns the eaves.
Clockmakers all carve
the same male game

in their overhang.
Reared buckhorns
and alpha beasts —

They rule the ornate
roost. And it’s a heavy
pull on me. Those two

coniferous strung
weights dangling
their gonadal hang.

Reading Rousseau at the Seattle Women’s Clinic

Henri had ‘no other teacher
but nature.’ I recalled that factoid
from an art history class while peaking

thick with narcotics in the clinic bed
then they scotch-taped me to the ceiling
in his poster-sized jungle print.

The safe place for banished PYTs
ripe with uglifruit, there I learned
a woman leaves The Virgin Forest

much the same way she came in.
I laid across the forest’s plush green
canvas. My own foliage, shorn

the night before. Smooth palm leaves
split open in jungle book narrative
where the shadow doctor conflicted

beneath uterine sun —
part man part beast.
Then the thunder.

And it was broken asunder.
And then it was over.
Blood orange fruition

of the smallest, wild hope
crawled out of me for five days
in broken shells and poked yolk.

Summer of Boys

In the beginning, it was innocent. Just play. Let’s mess with Mrs. Flowers’ mailbox! Fisher and Price asked me to spy on an old witch they believed lived alone in the woods. Is her husband dead? Or does she just hate men? I wondered. I wondered if she would ever come out of her shack. They tried everything to catch a glimpse of her. Sometimes they fisted worms and mud inside the black hole of it, then pushed the hard red flag up in high salute. Special delivery. Sometimes they didn’t erect it at all. Instead I took long walks with those two leading me through the woods in the heavy heat of curiosities. We built camps. We arranged rocks. We smoked cigarette butts. We lit twigs on fire. We lit trash on fire. We broke brown beer bottles against old trees. We pretended to be married. In a navy blue cotton shirt with a loose ruffle along the bottom edge, I was the bride, marching toward them. In the warm August air, my veil lifted off so easily.


The tulle veil
was bone china
white and thin.
A breakable wisp.

It was fleeting.
Mother snapped
shots of it
on Sundays.

I sat in the family
rocking chair
in the unused room
with ankles crossed.

Swirl feel
under the skirt
of my church dress.
It lived there.

A lace sash
tied off
access to
the pure me.

My holiness
as an eyelet.

Diaspora Sonnet 18

The workers hum to wile away
the afternoon and tenants chide
their sons to sweep from room to room
last night's dust motes — stirred dreams
entangled in wide streaks of light

that, in the daytime, bloom,
unsparing, bright — like operatic
high notes. Pierced and round,
the clouds of sleep fill us with
sound. A loss. A tune so deep within

the brain we cannot help but weep
as sons push brushes past door after door
locked tight like eyes and tombs.
Our quiet. Our heavy score.

A Story Problem #3

A cart carrying a metric ton of apples leaves the city at four meters per second. Another cart leaves the city carrying a boy, in love with an idea. Consider the swirl of laughter and personal tragedy at 6 meters per second. Say the idea does not love him back. Say he will lose his life in a maze of regrets. What can be said about the dust caked on the wheel spokes and the precarious sway of the chasse crossing over ruts and the staggered pavers knuckled together side by side. At four meters per second is there enough time to sample what is carried? Say the apples find their way into the basket of a family a dozen miles away before the boy gets there. Where did he stop? Did he consider the essence of the problem? If the distance of love is coupled by the weight of an apple cart bound for the markets or bazaars of a city as far away as autumn, then what can be said about the horses who will never taste their burden? Where will his cart pass the adenoidal fruits along the road? Where will he know the plurality of his blood?

A Story Problem #2

There is 100 yards of string laid out in a straight line and every ten yards a flower sprouts from stone. The flowers are A. Red. B. Fuschia. C. Yellow. D. White. E. None of the Above. If a boy walks down this path and it is summer and he hums a song from childhood will he pick A, B, C, D or choose E? Will he smell D's metallic hook and think of how gardenias are loudest in the heat? If the string were to tie back the scent could it? Could the string hold back whatever fire rises from A? The split hearts of B? Would there be enough string left to get the boy from X to Y to Z which are not flowers but points like pinpricks on a map. And would someone be waiting for him at Z with a bouquet of gardenias and marigolds? Is there a field at the end of the street, wild with flowers and vines? And what of the map with names like forgotten flowers? What about E and how these are all bad choices? How the names in front of us are never right?

Prince Credo

I believe in the dearly beloveds,
        in the temple of the power chord, and
        for years in the early 80's,
        that Prince was Filipino.
I believe in acting my age and not
        my shoe size. In never being
        a weekend lover, and in the hard work
        of a voice stretched into a silk bag
        filling fast with silt.
I believe in paisley and purple.
        That a kerchief is manly.
        That sexy is in the word and
        in the way that every guitar
        has its own ghosts to love.
Believe that the interval between
        the chorus and the solo is holy
        and that darling Nikki would happen
        one day in the ethereal dance of adolescence.
Forgive me if I go astray.
        Forgive me, but I believe
        in Apollonia, Apollonia,
        and Apollonia.

That the fastest way to heaven
        was across a Graffiti covered Bridge
        into the neck of a Stratocaster.
Believe in the litany of amplifier.
        In the hiss of feedback.
        In the bite of the lower lip. Beloveds,
        I believe in eyeliner.
        In androgyny and in the sylph-like tease
        of an upturned collar.
I believe in frills and crop tops.
        In the hard jab of a note
        between shoulder blades. I believe
        in smoke and the cherry red
        of the moon and trying
        to be quiet when the parents are home.
I believe in the gospel of summer
        and in the car parked sideways.
        And goddamn, I believe in the party,
        and that it was meant to last.

Diaspora Sonnet I

I walk the narrow pedestrian passage
illumined so its girdered ribs show
like names on a ledger. Every step
sudden and trochaic — the beginning
of facts. Of being here.

I look up and see the moon
is brandishing its ghosts. What is
here and not here. What is
a face in the sky. What breaks
the shape of the known and obvious.

If I could say it, I would say
"I was broken and I took him in."
I would ask, "Do you trust me?"
I would point to the landscape.

For Theodore Roethke

The poet who was my teacher said we must rewrite.
It was a warm afternoon. Sun dabbled in the greenhouse.
So now I revise and revise until I think the real writing
is rewriting. First drafts are small forays into the hills
from which I bring back a pail half full of unripe
blueberries that may, on closer look, be
some other kind of fruit entirely. I remember
he leaned back in the chair and waved his hand
and said my poem describing salmon was really about sex.

We stood facing the faded paint of Parrington’s walls
each Friday, memorizing lines of a poem we chose to recite —
to learn the sound of the words together and the little spaces
between the sounds. Each of us quaked.
Inside the classroom he turned to the ravishing co-ed on his right,
the one with the throaty voice and said,
Play that for us on your bazooka, will you, honey?
She nearly fainted but she spoke the lines.
No one has ever made Louise Bogan sound like that.

He brought a straw hand basket belonging to his wife.
It was stuffed with books. “She’ll kill me,“ he said,
heaving it down on the table, the one who taught him
Turn and Counter-Turn and Stand, who taught him Touch,
that undulant white skin. We leaned to see what rivers
might pour forth, what three-beat lines, what metaphysical
poets hidden between the spines, what rose, what sorrow.
Later, in my car beneath the flagpole, he said to kiss him on his cheek just once. In the rearview mirror, there she was.

Who, sitting in the tea house, doesn’t know he died too soon?
Beyond the posts and beams, a roof of glass.
the swimming pool is sculptured sand. Five rocks
(the five-beat line?) mark where his breath last sighed
to any bird: the anniversary of his death day.
The last thing he said to me was,
There’s going to be a special graduate class next fall
and you’re in it. Years passed and one by one
we learned he said that to all of us.