21st Century Poets-1

POETS ON THIS PAGE: RAFAEL CAMPO * NATASHA TRETHEWEY * RACHEL HADAS * THYLIAS MOSS * CATHERINE JAGOE *  TRACY K. SMITH * MARTIN ESPADA * KEVIN YOUNG * JUAN FELIPE HERRERA * TERRENCE HAYES

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Physician Rafael Campo reads his poetry:

What the Body Told

Not long ago, I studied medicine.
It was terrible, what the body told.
I’d look inside another person’s mouth,
And see the desolation of the world.
I’d see his genitals and think of sin.

Because my body speaks the stranger’s language,
I’ve never understood those nods and stares.
My parents held me in their arms, and still
I think I’ve disappointed them; they care
And stare, they nod, they make their pilgrimage

To somewhere distant in my heart, they cry.
I look inside their other-person’s mouths
And see the wet interior of souls.
It’s warm and red in there—like love, with teeth.
I’ve studied medicine until I cried

All night. Through certain books, a truth unfolds.
Anatomy and physiology,
The tiny sensing organs of the tongue—
Each nameless cell contributing its needs.
It was fabulous, what the body told.

by Rafael Campo



Natasha Trethewey reads a poem about having a cross burned on her family’s lawn:

Incident

We tell the story every year—-
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—-
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

by Natasha Trethewey

From Native Guard (Mariner Books, © 2007)

Scenes From a Documentary History of Mississippi

  1. 1. King Cotton, 1907

    From every corner of the photograph, flags wave down
    the main street in Vicksburg. Stacked to form an arch,
    the great bales of cotton rise up from the ground
    
    like a giant swell, a wave of history flooding the town.
    When Roosevelt arrives—a parade—the band will march,
    and from every street corner, flags wave down.
    
    Words on a banner, Cotton, America’s King, have the sound
    of progress. This is two years before the South’s countermarch—
    the great bolls of cotton, risen up from the ground,
    
    infested with boll weevils—a plague, biblical, all around.
    Now, negro children ride the bales, clothes stiff with starch.
    From up high, in the photograph, they wave flags down
    
    for the President who will walk through the arch, bound
    for the future, his back to us. The children, on their perch—
    those great bales of cotton rising up from the ground—
    
    stare out at us. Cotton surrounds them, a swell, a great mound
    bearing them up, back toward us. From the arch,
    from every corner of the photograph, flags wave down,
    and great bales of cotton rise up from the ground.

    2. Glyph, Aberdeen 1913

    My bones cleave to my skin and to my flesh. . .
    for the hand of God has touched me.

    —Book of Job, Chapter 23

    The child’s head droops as if in sleep.
    Stripped to the waist, in profile, he’s balanced
    on the man’s lap. The man, gaunt in his overalls,
    cradles the child’s thin arm—the sharp elbow, white
    signature of skin and bone. He pulls it forward
    to show the deformity—the humped back, curve
    of spine—punctuating the routine hardships
    of their lives: how the child must follow him
    into the fields, haunting the long hours
    slumped beside a sack, his body asking
    how much cotton? or in the kitchen, leaning
    into the icebox, how much food? or
    kneeling beside him at the church house,
    why, Lord, why? They pose as if to say
    Look, this is the outline of suffering: 
    the child shouldering it—a mound
    like dirt heaped on a grave.

    3. Flood

    They have arrived on the back
    of the swollen river, the barge
    dividing it, their few belongings
    clustered about their feet. Above them
    the National Guard hunkers
    on the levee, rifles tight in their fists,
    blocking the path to high ground.
    One group of black refugees,
    
    the caption tells us, was ordered
    to sing their passage onto land,
    like a chorus of prayer—their tongues
    the tongues of dark bells. Here,
    the camera finds them still. Posed
    as if for a school-day portrait, children
    lace fingers in their laps. One boy
    gestures allegiance, right hand over
    the heart’s charged beating.
    
    The great river all around, the barge
    invisible beneath their feet, they fix
    on what’s before them: the opening
    in the sight of a rifle; the camera’s lens;
    the muddy cleft between barge and dry land—
    all of it aperture, the captured moment’s
    chasm in time. Here, in the angled light
    of 1927, they are refugees from history:
    the barge has brought them this far;
    they are waiting to disembark.

    4. You Are Late

    The sun is high and the child’s shadow,
    almost fully beneath her, touches the sole
    of her bare foot on concrete. Even though
    it must be hot, she’s takes the step; her goal
    
    to read is the subject of this shot—a book
    in her hand, the library closed, the door
    just out of reach. Stepping up, she must look
    at the two signs, read them slowly once more.
    
    The first one, in pale letters, barely shows
    against the white background. Though she will read
    Greenwood Public Library for Negroes,
    the other, bold letters on slate, will lead
    
    her away, out of the frame, a finger
    pointing left. I want to call her, say wait.
    But this is history: she can’t linger.
    She reads the sign that I read: You are Late.

 by Natasha Tretheway

From Native Guard (Mariner Books, © 2007)

Domestic Work, 1937

All week she's cleaned
someone else's house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper-
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she'd pull
the lid to--that look saying

Let's make a change, girl.

But Sunday mornings are hers--
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.

Cleanliness is next to godliness ...

Windows and doors flung wide,
curtains two-stepping
forward and back, neck bones
bumping in the pot, a choir
of clothes clapping on the line.

Nearer my God to Thee ...

She beats time on the rugs,
blows dust from the broom
like dandelion spores, each one
a wish for something better.

by Natasha Trethewey



Rachel Hadas reads her poem “The Red Hat”:

The Red Hat

It started before Christmas. Now our son
officially walks to school alone.
Semi-alone, it's accurate to say:
I or his father track him on his way.
He walks up on the east side of West End,
we on the west side. Glances can extend
(and do) across the street; not eye contact.
Already ties are feeling and not fact.
Straus Park is where these parallel paths part;
he goes alone from there. The watcher's heart
stretches, elastic in its love and fear,
toward him as we see him disappear,
striding briskly. Where two weeks ago,
holding a hand, he'd dawdle, dreamy, slow,
he now is hustled forward by the pull
of something far more powerful than school.

The mornings we turn back to are no more
than forty minutes longer than before,
but they feel vastly different–flimsy, strange,
wavering in the eddies of this change,
empty, unanchored, perilously light
since the red hat vanished from our sight.

by Rachel Hadas

from Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1998

BENEFIT NIGHT, NEW YORK CITY BALLET

Once in its mannered mode
the dance appeared to me
a dusty stiff brocade
of faded mystery.

But this was years ago.
Later it came to seem
a vain if gallant blow
aimed at the cruel regime

of time and gravity
by beauty to defy
the merciless decree:
we grow old, sicken, die.

The years that press us down
carve sullen masks of age.
Eyes fixed on the dim ground,
we creep across our state.

Now sitting here with you
in the enchanted dark
I still hold to this view.
The sweating dancers work

lightly to life a great
somber collective pall--
mortality's dead weight--
from you and me and all

who, separate, doomed, and dumb,
can drink in nonetheless
our share of the sublime.
The dancers dance for us:

our grief, love, vanity.
Their bodies form a screen
between humanity
and the pull of the unseen.

The burdens we all bear,
great or small, find ease
this evening in the sheer
radiance of disguise.

For as we raptly gaze
at limbs in cool blue light
sculpting a carnal maze
of intricate delight,

of passions sketched on air,
it is ourselves we see,
divested of despair.
You turn and smile at me.

by Rachel Hadas

from Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 1998

SHOULDERING

The dream bird father sitting on my shoulder
is singing in my ear: Now that you’re older
than I was when I left the rocky road,
it is your turn to shoulder the load,
answer questions students need to ask.
You are an elder now. You wear the mask
of wisdom. So you tell them

Tell them what?
The song breaks off. In somebody’s back seat,
a baby. Whose? More babies on the border.
Terror, desperation, rage. Disorder
of crowded house, tap leaking, family,
students leaning in to question me:
Where should we go now? Tell us what to do.
The road’s uphill, and that is all I know,
borrowing, burrowing, stirring the dark stew,
blended broth of night visions and day,
instructions garbled, watchmen standing tall
and menacing at gates along a wall.
Gaps in the rampart: raw red border zone.
Children wake and cry along the line.
The students’ questions pound relentlessly.
Dream father, bird of omen, oh tell me—
the lost, the hungry, the abandoned—who
will take care of them? The grownups knew
the answers to these questions. And now
we are grown up, whose job is it to know?
The reassuring elders, where are they?
The dream bird looks at me and hops away.
Always uphill     the steep road      poetry
Scattered syllables still in my ear
when I sit up and the red world is here.

by Rachel Hadas

c2019 by The Hudson Review



Thylias Moss reads her poetry:

RUSH HOUR

He boards the train downtown,
same time I get on in Lee Heights.

Eastbound passes westbound.
Can't pick him out,

square-shouldered every one of them,
under 40 years old, over 40 thousand a year,

never glancing up from their papers
till they pass Quincy, Central Avenue’s

gutted brownstones, record and head shops,
Joe D's Tavern where I rent the back room.

He's ashamed of what we have in common.
I just left his house.  Spotless.

by Thylias Moss, 1954-




First Family Portrait

Here is a close-up of the moment after
your body slithered in a sudden rush from mine,
white frog on my chest. Giddy laughter
illuminates the room, release from nine
long hours of labor. Sweaty and sunken-eyed,
I look delighted--a surprise, since at the time
I just felt stunned. Your mouth is open wide,
your father's face alight; we three a pantomime
of the Nativity--but look how many nameless arms
are twined around this mortal scrap, look how
you landed in this woven limb-nest, caught by luck
in the one safety net the human race can offer,
the net you leapt into at birth, far stronger
than your parents, stumbling numb toward love.

by Catherine Jagoe

THIS STATE

of motherhood is splintered, frenzied, but struggling to sound calm,
it’s soy beans on the door mat and raspberry jam on the baseboard,
it’s relinquishing utopian desires for quiet and cups of tea,
it’s never finishing a meal but eating scraps of your child’s food
after he has chewed it thoughtfully and you believed gratefully only
to disgorge it into your outstretched hand, his saliva your saliva,
it’s him reaching for your face in the dark and sinking back relieved,
it’s that first, longed-for kiss, slow and premeditated, laying aside
his things and walking up and kissing you full on the lips with his
tiny, soft, wet mouth, completely by surprise, total abandon,
it’s thinking that your mind will never have sharp edges or straight
lines again, it’s being beaten and kicked by a screaming, back-
bending, contortionist, hair-pulling dervish who later subsides into
swollen-eyed, red-faced, runny-nosed calm in your arms,
it’s the sink full of dishes, plastic cups, bibs, tea-leaves, peach-peel,
pasta shells and peas, it’s ketchup at every meal and wondering
how a body can survive on no meat or vegetables, ever,
it’s the way his body curves into yours and how your arms are
strong enough to lift all twenty-six pounds of him over and over
again at all the wrong angles, it’s shocking wide awake each time
he murmurs in his sleep next door, it’s the invisible rubber band
between you, the pain in your belly and chest when you’re apart,
it’s seeing your life upended, its contents strewn around as if by a
tornado, and picking your way through the wreckage with no time
to care because something like passion is driving you on.

by Catherine Jagoe

from Rattle #21, Summer 2004



Wade in the Water

           for the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters

One of the women greeted me.
I love you, she said. She didn’t
Know me, but I believed her,
And a terrible new ache
Rolled over in my chest,
Like in a room where the drapes
Have been swept back. I love you,
I love you, as she continued
Down the hall past other strangers,
Each feeling pierced suddenly
By pillars of heavy light.
I love you, throughout
The performance, in every
Handclap, every stomp.
I love you in the rusted iron
Chains someone was made
To drag until love let them be
Unclasped and left empty
In the center of the ring.
I love you in the water
Where they pretended to wade,
Singing that old blood-deep song
That dragged us to those banks
And cast us in. I love you,
The angles of it scraping at
Each throat, shouldering past
The swirling dust motes
In those beams of light
That whatever we now knew
We could let ourselves feel, knew
To climb. O Woods—O Dogs—
O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run—
O Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—
Is this love the trouble you promised?

by Tracy K. Smith, 1972

Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?

1.

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.

2.

He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours

Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.

Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?

The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.

3.

Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel
The way you’d think he feels.
Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.

I’ve lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He’s got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions

When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
Go ahead.

 by Tracy K. Smith



Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper

At sixteen, I worked after high school hours
at a printing plant
that manufactured legal pads:
Yellow paper
stacked seven feet high
and leaning
as I slipped cardboard
between the pages,
then brushed red glue
up and down the stack.
No gloves: fingertips required
for the perfection of paper,
smoothing the exact rectangle.
Sluggish by 9 PM, the hands
would slide along suddenly sharp paper,
and gather slits thinner than the crevices
of the skin, hidden.
The glue would sting,
hands oozing
till both palms burned
at the punch clock.

Ten years later, in law school,
I knew that every legal pad
was glued with the sting of hidden cuts,
that every open law book
was a pair of hands
upturned and burning.

by Martín Espada

Four Sandwiches

     -—Washington, D.C.

JC was called the Rack
at the work farm,
aluminum milk pails
dangling from his hands.
Once a sudden fist
crushed the cartilage of nose
across his face,
but JC only grinned,
and the man with the fist
stumbled away.

JC sings his work farm songs on the street,
swaying with black overcoat and guitar,
cigarettes cheaper than food.
But today he promises
four sandwiches, two for each of us.

The landlady, a Rumanian widow,
has nailed a death mask
over JC’s bed,
sleeping plaster face
of a drowned girl
peaceful in the dark.

As the girl contemplates water
and pigeons batter the window,
JC spreads the last deviled ham
on two slices of bread,
presses them together,
then slowly tears four pieces.

“Here,” he almost sings,
“four sandwiches.”

by Martín Espada

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

       for the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees 
       Local l00, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who 
       lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head   
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,   
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,   
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.   
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle   
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.   
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap   
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane   
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,   
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.   
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked   
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish   
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,   
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.   
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen   
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:   
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,   
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.   
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,   

where the gas burned blue on every stove   
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,   
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs   
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.   
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.   

Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher   
who worked that morning because another dishwasher   
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime   
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family   
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.   
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.   

After the thunder wilder than thunder,   
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,   
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,   
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,   
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in 
     Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us   
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,   
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations   
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.   
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.   

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul   
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,   
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:   
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:   
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

by Martín Espada

from New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2003 by
Martín Espada

AUNTIES

There’s a way a woman
            will not
relinquish

her pocketbook
            even pulled
onstage, or called up

to the pulpit—
            there’s a way only
your Auntie can make it

taste right—
             rice & gravy
is a meal

if my late Great Aunt
            Toota makes it—
Aunts cook like

there’s no tomorrow
             & they’re right.
Too hot

is how my Aunt Tuddie
            peppers everything,
her name given

by my father, four, seeing
            her smiling in her crib.
There’s a barrel

full of rainwater
            beside the house
that my infant father will fall

into, trying to see
           himself—the bottom—
& there’s his sister

Margie yanking him out
           by his hair grown long
as superstition. Never mind

the flyswatter they chase you
            round the house
& into the yard with

ready to whup the daylights
            out of you—
that’s only a threat—

Aunties will fix you
           potato salad
& save

you some. Godmothers,
           godsends,
Aunts smoke like

it’s going out of style—
             & it is—
make even gold

teeth look right, shining.
             saying I’ll be
John, with a sigh. Make way

out of no way—
            keep they key
to the scale that weighed

the cotton, the cane
            we raised more
than our share of—

If not them, then who
           will win heaven?
holding tight

to their pocketbooks
            at the pearly gates
just in case.

by Kevin Young, 1970-

Eddie Priest’s Barbershop & Notary

                              Closed Mondays

is music    is men
off early from work    is waiting
for the chance at the chair
while the eagle claws holes
in your pockets    keeping
time    by the turning
of rusty fans    steel flowers with
cold breezes    is having nothing
better to do    than guess at the years
of hair    matted beneath the soiled caps
of drunks    the pain of running
a fisted comb through stubborn
knots    is the dark dirty low
down blues    the tender heads
of sons fresh from cornrows    all
wonder at losing    half their height
is a mother gathering hair    for good
luck    for a soft wig    is the round
difficulty of ears    the peach
faced boys asking Eddie
to cut in parts and arrows
wanting to have their names read
for just a few days    and among thin
jazz    is the quick brush of a done
head    the black flood around
your feet    grandfathers
stopping their games of ivory
dominoes    just before they reach the bone
yard    is winking widowers announcing
cut it clean off    I’m through courting
 and hair only gets in the way    is the final
spin of the chair    a reflection of
a reflection    that sting of wintergreen
tonic    on the neck of a sleeping snow
haired man    when you realize it is
your turn    you are next

by Kevin Young, 1970-

from Most Way Home. Published by Zoland Books, an imprint of Steerforth Press of Hanover, New Hampshire. Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Young


MARIA DE LAS LUZ KNOWS HOW TO WALK

she ambles toward El Norte she remembers as she steps
wasps & spiders webbed in between the corn in Fowler
her mamá Concha’s story the fire she fanned to clear
the path through the thick burned stalks all this
she almost-touches the blueberries in Skagit Washington
& the line of men wrapped as cocoons and dark as amber
flecked honey at the line the only store in Firebaugh where
you can cash your check shirts twisted & whispered & upright
down in Illinois in Cobden you go through the back door
of Darden's bar to buy drinks for the foreman El Cuadrado
María’s coming home after returning to Atizapán de Zaragoza
where she works at la Tortillería next to la Señora Muñóz
it is an abyss smoked & metal flat and deep with nixtamal
“Good pay in South Georgia” she says “I’ll work the
cucumbers” feet in water skin see-through peels & peels
off & off then on Saturday bussed to Walmart bussed back
to camp season after season the crossing higher alone
or with groups of three the coyote says “I am leaving you
here at the bottom of this mountain you Indians know how
to climb” she remembers Guadalupe Ríos say from the edge
of Santa María Corte in Nayarít “Nosotros los Peyoteros
sabemos caminar We know how to walk” María de la Luz
with an address in her net-bag her son who was taken many
years ago 1346 D St. San Diego will she recognize Juan
is the street still there who is he now who am I now who
will he remember you this ancient trail of grandmothers &
deportadas “I know how to walk” María de la Luz prays
as she ascends the black mountain as she moves her body
tiny as she listens to the sudden rush of things fall among
thorns & hisses María de la Luz notices a band of light

by Juan Felipe Herrera, 1948-

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