Category: Poetry & Arts

The Family Solid

We were barely out

of middle school

when Stuart showed me the scar—

an S branded in his brown arm.

Solid, Stuart said,  fresh

from his initiation.

They held him down

in a basement, seared his skin.


He wanted another family.

One that encouraged his want

for the blood of possibility,

that heart-pumping rage

that wraps us in a noose,

impossible to untie.


We have ties to Bloods.

I didn’t need that family,

had heard enough stories

about my father,

how when I was seven

months old, three men came to his home

in Inglewood. He pleaded

with them to let his mother,

girlfriend and son go before

they did whatever

they were going to do.


When Stuart told me

My niggas can hold me down,

the image of him in darkness,

pinned by three strangers,

burned into my mind.

Like the white-hot needle

as it pierces skin.


The ending, I no longer

remember, but the desire died

and he escaped. Surprising,

I know, but black kids

find a way out without

getting locked up or put down.


Years later, he’d absently rub

his scarred skin like an itch.

The S on his bicep

lingering above the blood.

Juneau Spring

In Alaska I slept in a bed on stilts, one arm
pressed against the ice-feathered window,
the heat on high, sweat darkening the collar
of my cotton thermals. I worked hard to buy that bed,
walked toward it when the men in the booths
were finished crushing hundred dollar bills
into my hand, pitchers of beer balanced on my shoulder
set down like pots of gold. My shift ended at 5 a.m.:
station tables wiped clean, salt and peppers
replenished, ketchups married. I walked the dirt road
in my stained apron and snow boots, wool scarf,
second-hand gloves, steam rising
off the backs of horses wading chest deep in fog.
I walked home slow under Orion, his starry belt
hung heavy beneath the cold carved moon.
My room was still, quiet, squares of starlight
set down like blank pages on the yellow quilt.
I left the heat on because I could afford it, the house
hot as a sauna, and shed my sweater, my skirt,
toed off my boots, slung my damp socks
over the oil heater’s coils. I don’t know now
why I ever left. I slept like the dead
while outside my window the sun rose
low over the glacier, and the glacier did its best
to hold on, though one morning I woke to hear it
giving up, sloughing off a chunk of antediluvian ice
that sounded like the door to heaven opening
on a badly hung hinge. Those undefined days
I stared into the blue scar where the ice
had been, so clear and crystalline it hurt. I slept
in my small room and all night—or what passed for night
that far north—the geography of the world
outside my window was breaking, changing shape.
And I woke to it and looked at it and didn’t speak.

—reprinted from the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine (


Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.

Everybody already knows everything

so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.

But lie to yourself, what you will

lose is yourself, Then you
Turn into them.


For each gay kid whose adolescence

was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial


forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.


Involuted velleities of self-erasure.


Quickly after my parents
died, I came out. Foundational narrative
designed to confer existence.

If I had managed to come out to my
mother, she would have blamed not

me, but herself.

The door through which you were shoved out
into the light

was self-loathing and terror.


Thank you, terror!

You learned early that adults’ genteel
Fantasies about human life

were not, for you, life. You think sex

is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.

The Aureole

(for E)

I stop my hand in midair.
If I touch her there everything about me will be true.
The New World discovered without pick or ax.

I will be what Brenda Jones was stoned for in 1969.
I saw it as a girl but didn’t know I was taking in myself.

My hand remembers, treading the watery room,
Just behind the rose-veiled eyes of memory.

Alone in the yard tucked beneath the hood of her car,
lucky clover all about her fee, green tea-sweet necklace
for her mud-pie crusty work boots.

She fends off their spit & words with silent two-handed
twists & turns of her socket wrench. A hurl of sticks &
stones and only me to whisper for her, from sidewalk far,

break my bones. A grown woman in grease-pocket overalls
inside her own sexy transmission despite the crowding of
hurled red hots. Beneath the hood of her candy-apple Camaro:

souped, shiny, low to the ground.

The stars over the Atlantic are dangling
salt crystals. The room at the Seashell Inn is
$20 a night; special winter off-season rate.
No one else here but us and the night clerk,
five floors below, alone with his cherished
stack of Spiderman. My lips are red snails
in a primal search for every constellation
hiding in the sky of your body. My hand
waits for permission, for my life to agree
to be changed, forever. Can Captain Night
Clerk hear my fingers tambourining you
There on the moon? Won’t he soon climb
The stairs and bam! On the hood of his car?
You are a woman with film reels for eyes.
Years of long talking have brought us to the
land of the body. Our skin is one endless
prayer bead of brown. If my hand ever lands,
I will fly past dreaming Australian Aborigines.
The old claw hammer and monkey wrench
that flew at Brenda Jones will fly across the
yard of ocean at me. A grease rag will be
thrust into my painter’s pants against my
will. I will never be able to wash or peel
any of this away. Before the night is over
someone I do not know will want the keys
to my ’55 silver Thunderbird. He will chase
me down the street. A gaggle of spooked
hens will fly up in my grandmother’s yard,
never to lay another egg, just as I am jump-
ed, kneed, pulled finally to the high ground
of sweet clover.

“The Aureole” from Head Off & Split. Copyright @2011 Nikky Finney. Reprinted by permission of Northwestern University Press.


I came into the shop quietly.
With the bright sun outside,
it was like entering a cave.
He called it a shop—
table saw, wood plane,
two walls hung with tools.
Women didn’t come in here.

His back was to me,
something broken on the workbench.
He was singing, almost a croaking,
old frog-throat gear screaking
something something Red River Valley.
He swayed a little who never danced,
the man who was model of how to be a man.
I backed out into the blinding sun
and never told him I heard him sing.

Working Graveyard

Once, at the end of his shift,
he came out
and in the first slant light
the parking lot glittered
like the one time he’d seen the sea.
The machines still roared in his-ears.
There’d been no breakdowns the whole night.
His sandwich in its brown bag
had warmed and the cheese melted a little.
He had eaten around midnight.
For some reason that night
the aisles between the looms,
had seemed church-like
and his shift-mates like ushers
taking up the collection.
And now the morning sun
sprang off the asphalt
and he had the morning to putter
and then the afternoon to sleep.
People were leaving the parking lot,
breaking up the group slowly,
the way you do at the end of a service.

Blast Mat

The blast mat was made of old tires,
cut in half and strung on steel cable,
all those trips—to Iowa, the grocery,
the hospital, and orchard in the fall—
cinched together like a bracelet of travel,
and the bracelets, six of them,
were joined with more cable to make the mat.
It took a crane to lift the thing
We had to drill into the rock,
dog-work with the pneumatic drill,
first the four-foot bit, then the six,
then the eight, grinding the hole deeper in to the rock.
You could taste the chalk of the rock dust.
We threaded sticks of dynamite
into the holes, the last one with a blasting cap
and then the frilly wires to the detonator.
The crane operator would drape the mat
over the rock like a blanket on a bed:
with the thump of the blast the mat jumped
but held down the shards and chips,
not much of a fireworks payoff after all that drilling.
But one day the foreman had to go bid a job
and we drilled and loaded the holes.
We were blasting out a foundation
for a house at the lake.
A blistering day and we’d worn
bandanas bandit-style to not breathe the dust,
and when we were ready,
we said, what the hell, no mat, forget it.
We crimped the wires to the detonator
and got behind some trees.
When it went, we heard the shrapnel
nicking the trees and one chunk
the size of suitcase hurtled
in almost slow-motion catapult
toward a sailboat moored on the lake.
A direct hit would sink the boat sure,
but it ca-choomed to the right side,
water spouting up four or five feet
and all of us releasing the breath we’d held.
A couple came from below deck,
scrambling up, waving and shouting,
and Bill, who most wanted payoff after labor,
shouted back. “Wake up. Wake the hell up.”

Three Poems by Natasha Trethewey

Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata

—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619

She is the vessels on the table before her: the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand. She’s the stain on the wall the size of her shadow— the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her: his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.

—from Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), reprinted with the permission of the poet


History Lesson

I am four in this photograph, standing on a wide strip of Mississippi beach, my hands on the flowered hips of a bright bikini. My toes dig in, curl around wet sand. The sun cuts the rippling Gulf in flashes with each tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet glinting like switchblades. I am alone except for my grandmother, other side of the camera, telling me how to pose. It is 1970, two years after they opened the rest of this beach to us, forty years since the photograph where she stood on a narrow plot of sand marked colored, smiling, her hands on the flowered hips of a cotton meal-sack dress.

—from Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), reprinted with the permission of the poet


The Southern Crescent

1 In 1959 my mother is boarding a train. She is barely sixteen, her one large grip bulging with homemade dresses, whisper of crinoline and lace, her name stitched inside each one. She is leaving behind the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film of red dust around her ankles, the thin whistle of wind through the floorboards of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

Ahead of her, days of travel, one town after the next, and California, a word she can’t stop repeating. Over and over she will practice meeting her father, imagine how he must look, how different now from the one photo she has of him. She will look at it once more, pulling into the station at Los Angeles, and then again and again on the platform, no one like him in sight.

2 The year the old Crescent makes its last run, my mother insists we ride it together. We leave Gulfport late morning, heading east. Years before, we rode together to meet another man, my father, waiting for us as our train derailed. I don’t recall how she must have held me, how her face sank as she realized, again, the uncertainty of it all—that trip, too, gone wrong. Today,

she is sure we can leave home, bound only for whatever awaits us, the sun now setting behind us, the rails humming like anticipation, the train pulling us toward the end of another day. I watch each small town pass before my window until the light goes, and the reflection of my mother’s face appears, clearer now as evening comes on, dark and certain.

—from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), reprinted with the permission of

the poet


By Ishle Yi Park

One day I will write a poem
about my father as a mountain,
and there will be no shame for the dynamite
and the blasted hole, the pickaxes and steam drills
paving their own resolute path,
for the railroad ploughed through his core,
for shattered rocks, for pungent scent of pines.
My father will be a mountain surrounded by wind
that wears him down as slowly as marriage,
as America, as time. But he is still
a man and a mountain: drilled, hammered, alive,
unaware of all who love him from the far track.

reprinted with the permission of the poet


Ode to the Picnic Singers
(Flushing Meadow Park, 1984)
By Ishle Yi Park

…And then at dusk the woman
climbed atop the picnic table
and belted out a Patty Kim hit,
plastic spoon a clutched mic in her fist!

And the galbi spit and bubbled dark
as azalia and crushed black diamond,
meat soy-sauced and sizzling in the July heatwaves
that hummed like the yellow frisbee flung

over tiny Youna Ean, kneeling among clover and dandelion.
Ay, the sky flapped above us like a soiled workshirt
on a clothesline while we twisted our ankles over Chinese jumprope,
then flew by on flowered banana seats, wind teasing streamers

and the black whips of our hair, past
our brothers in visors and cut-off football tanks,
lost in long switchgrass and dewy goose shit.
And our mothers raced! Piggybacking frilled babies

over grass to catch butter cookies
strung on a white finish line with their teeth,
to the slow butterfly thighs of their men.
Far from the dented Volvos and Hyundais

bereft in the parking lot, these husbands whorled and spun
like dervishes around that imported leather rugby ball
from Seoul, bathed in a halo of their own sweat
and kicked-up dirt. Our parents gathered,

shook loose the workday, their hangook tongues
like wild geese skimming over a cool lake.
They popped open barrel-shaped Budweisers
and let the foam spill over.

My father tilted the can to baby Sarah’s mouth
and laughed at her sputtering, a laughter so serious
I think I forgive him, his hungry rough cheeks stilling
to the woman’s hungry, rough songs. And Jung Yun’s uma

sang like a torn-up hymnal. She sang until we dropped
the twigs and pigeon feathers from our hands
to sit cross-legged in the nest of our mothers,
she sang like a yanked-out phonecord; shrill,

cut, ringing, 70s pop ballad fervid
with religion so unlike our Sunday falsettos,
she sang and we believed in a smaller,
gruffer, chip-toothed god: she sang the dusk down.

And we, staring up at her knees,
rested in the blue fall of each others’ shadows
while the bab and ban chan, paper plates and water coolers
were left, for once, gratefully unattended.

from Century of the Tiger, Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing (Winter 2002)

New Labor Forum 19(1): 122-123, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000018