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
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:
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. 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.
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
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:
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
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
-—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
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