Category: Poetry & Arts

Poem: Drone

…Let this be the Body
through which the War has passed.
—Frank Bidart

somewhere I did not learn mow down or mop up • somewhere I wouldn’t hear your father must come with me or I must fingerprint your grandmother can you translate please • the FBI has my cousins’ computers • my father says say whatever you want over the phone • my father says don’t let them scare you that’s what they want • my mother has a hard time believing anything’s bugged • my father and I always talk like the world listens • my father is still on the bus with contraband papers under his seat as uniforms storm down the aisle • it was my job to put a cross on each home with dead for clearing • it was my job to dig graves into the soccer field • I wrote red tracksuit • I wrote Shahida, headless, found beside Saad Mosque • buried in the same grave as the above • I wrote unidentified fingers • found inside Oldsmobile car • I wrote their epitaphs in chalk • from my son’s wedding mattress I know this mound’s his room • I dropped to a knee and engaged the enemy • I emptied my clip then finished the job • I took two steps in and threw a grenade • I took no more than two steps into a room before firing • in Haditha we cleared homes Fallujah-style • my father was reading the Koran when they shot him through the chest • they fired into the closet • the kitchen • the ninety-year-old standing over the stove • just where was I • uno a uno tu cara en todos los buses urbanos • Here lie the mortal remains of one who in life searched your face • call me when you get home • let’s miss an appointment together • let’s miss another flight to repeated strip searches • that Haditha bed • magenta queen sheets and a wood-shelved headboard and blood splattered up the walls to the ceiling • they held each other • they slept on opposing ends wishing one would leave • mother doesn’t know who I am anymore • I write Mustapha Mohammad Khalaf, fifteen months old • I write Here lies an unknown martyr, a big security guard with a blue shirt, found near an industrial area with a chain of keys • Martyr unknown, only bones • they ask if I have anything to declare then limit my response to fruits and nuts • an American interrupts an A and B conversation to tell me you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do • he strikes me as a misstep away from she was asking for it • what did you expect after fishing Popov from a trash bin • what did you expect after accepting a marbled palace • they drag the man who killed my uncle out of a hole • they inspect him for ticks on national television • no one in my family celebrates • when the FBI knocks I tell them I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do; they get a kick out of that • she just lay there and took it like a champ • she was dying for it • at a protest a man sells a shirt that says My dick would pull out of Iraq • my mother tape-records my laugh to mail bubble-wrapped back home • my mother records me singing Ye shabe mahtab mah meeyad to khab • I am singing the moon will come one night and take me away sidestreet by sidestreet • sitting on a pilled suburban carpet or picking blue felt off the hand-me-down couch • the displaced whatnots • I practice the work of worms • how much I can wear away with no one watching • two generations ago my blood moved through borders according to grazing and seasons • then a lifeline of planes • planes fly so close to my head filled with bomblets and disappeared men • scaffolding sprouts nooses sagging with my dead • I burn my finger on the broiler and smell trenches • my uncle pissing himself • shopping bags are legs • there is half a head in the gutter • I say Hello NSA when I place a call • somewhere a file details my sexual habits • some tribunal may read it all back to me • Golsorkhi, I know the cell they will put me in • they put me onto a crooked pile of others to rot • is this what happens to a brain born into war • a city of broken teeth • the thuds of falling • we have learned to sing a child calm in a bomb shelter • I am singing to her still

Poem: Safe House

SANCTUARY where we don’t have to

SANITIZE hands or words or knives, don’t have to use a

SCALE each morning, worried we take up too much space. I

SCAN my memory of baba talking—him on

SCREEN answering a question (how are you?) I would ask and ask from behind the camera, his face changing with each repetition as he tried to watch the football game. He doesn’t know this is the beginning of my

SCRIBING life: repetition and change. A human face at the seaport and a home getting smaller. Let’s

SEARCH my father’s profile: a moustache black and holding back a

SECRET he still hasn’t told me,

SECTION of the couch that’s fallen a bit from his repeated weight,

SECTOR of the government designed to keep him from flying. He kept our house

SECURE except from the little bugs that come with dried herbs from Iran. He gives

SECURITY officers a reason to get off their chairs. My father is not afraid of

SEDITION. He can

SEIZE a wild pigeon off a Santa Monica street or watch

SEIZURES unfold in his sister’s bedroom—the FBI storming through. He said use wood sticks to hold up your protest signs then use them in

SELF-DEFENSE when their horses come, his eyes

SENSITIVE when he passes advice to me, like I’m his

SEQUEL, like we’re all a

SERIAL caught on Iranian satellite TV. When you tell someone off, he calls it

SERVICING. When I stand on his feet, I call it

SHADOWING. He naps in the afternoon and wakes with

SHEETLINES on his face, his hair upright, the sound of

SHELLS (SPECIFY)—the sound of mussel shells on the lip of the Bosphorus crunching beneath his feet. He’s given me

SHELTER and

SHIELDING, shown it’s better to travel away from the

SHOAL. Let them follow you he says from somewhere in Los Angeles waiting for me. If he feels a

SHORT FALL he doesn’t tell me about it.

 

Poem: Theater

I dropped down against the mosque wall

curled my shoulders in

let my feet fall apart

tilting toward the rubble-dusted floor

tried to still my lashes

as rifles came clanging in

their muzzles smelling out fever

heated off a pulse

I was playing dead

between the dead

a beast caught sight of my breath

blew off my face

he said:

“Now he’s fucking dead”

The City in which I Love You

And when, in the city in which I love you,
even my most excellent song goes unanswered,
and I mount the scabbed streets,
the long shouts of avenues,
and tunnel sunken night in search of you…

That I negotiate fog, bituminous
rain ringing like teeth into the beggar’s tin,
or two men jackaling a third in some alley
weirdly lit by a couch on fire, that I
drag my extinction in search of you…

Past the guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches, swastikaed
synagogues, defended houses of worship, past
newspapered windows of tenements, along the violated,
the prosecuted citizenry, throughout this
storied, buttressed, scavenged, policed
city I call home, in which I am a guest…

a bruise, blue
in the muscle, you
impinge upon me.
As bone hugs the ache home, so
I’m vexed to love you, your body

the shape of returns, your hair a torso
of light, your heat
I must have, your opening
I’d eat, each moment
of that soft-finned fruit,
inverted fountain in which I don’t see me.

My tongue remembers your wounded flavor.
The vein in my neck
adores you. A sword
stands up between my hips,
my hidden fleece send forth its scent of human oil.

The shadows under my arms,
I promise, are tender, the shadows
under my face. Do not calculate,
but come, smooth other, rough sister.
Yet, how will you know me

among the captives, my hair grown long,
my blood motley, my ways trespassed upon?
In the uproar, the confusion
of accents and inflections
how will you hear me when I open my mouth?

Look for me, one of the drab population
under fissured edifices, fractured
artifices. Make my various
names flock overhead,
I will follow you.
Hew me to your beauty.

Stack in me the unaccountable fire,
bring on me the iron leaf, but tenderly.
Folded one hundred times and
creased, I’ll not crack.
Threshed to excellence, I’ll achieve you.

But in the city
in which I love you,
no one comes, no one
meets me in the brick clefts;
in the wedged dark,

no finger touches me secretly, no mouth
tastes my flawless salt,
no one wakens the honey in the cells, finds the humming
in the ribs, the rich business in the recesses;
hulls clogged, I continue laden, translated

by exhaustion and time’s appetite, my sleep abandoned
in bus stations and storefront stoops,
my insomnia erected under a sky
cross-hatched by wires, branches,
and black flights of rain. Lewd body of wind

jams me in the passageways, doors slam
like guns going off, a gun goes off, a pie plate spins
past, whizzing its thin tremolo,
a plastic bag, fat with wind, barrels by and slaps
a chain-link fence, wraps it like clung skin.

In the excavated places,
I waited for you, and I did not cry out.
In the derelict rooms, my body needed you,
and there was such flight in my breast.
During the daily assaults, I called to you,

and my voice pursued you,
even backward
to that other city
in which I saw a woman
squat in the street

beside a body,
and fan with a handkerchief flies from its face.
That woman
was not me. And
the corpse

lying there, lying there
so still it seemed with great effort, as though
his whole being was concentrating on the hole
in his forehead, so still
I expected he’d sit up any minute and laugh out loud:

that man was not me;
his wound was his, his death not mine.
and the soldier
who fired the shot, then lit a cigarette:
he was not me.

And the ones I do not see
in cities all over the world,
the ones sitting, standing, lying down, those
in prisons playing checkers with their knocked-out teeth:
they are not me. Some of them are

my age, even my height and weight;
none of them is me.
The woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked,
the ones who don’t survive,
whose names I do not know;

they are not me forever,
the ones who no longer live
in the cities in which
you are not,
the cities in which I looked for you.

The rain stops, the moon
in her breaths appears overhead.
The only sound now is a far flapping.

Over the National Bank, the flag of some republic or other
gallops like water or fire to tear itself away.

 

If I feel the night
move to disclosures or crescendos,
it’s only because I’m famished
for meaning; the night
merely dissolves.

And your otherness is perfect as my death.
Your otherness exhausts me,
like looking suddenly up from here
to impossible stars fading.
Everything is punished by your absence.

Is prayer, then, the proper attitude
for the mind that longs to be freely blown,
but which gets snagged on the barb
called world, that
tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer

would I build? And to whom?
Where are you
in the cities in which I love you,
the cities daily risen to work and to money,
to the magnificent miles and the gold coasts?

Morning comes to this city vacant of you.
Pages and windows flare, and you are not there.
Someone sweeps his portion of sidewalk,
wakens the drunk, slumped like laundry,
and you are gone.

You are not in the wind
which someone notes in the margins of a book.
You are gone out of the small fires in abandoned lots
where human figures huddle,
each aspiring to its own ghost.

Between brick walls, in a space no wider than my face,
a leafless sapling stands in mud.
In its branches, a nest of raw mouths
gaping and cheeping, scrawny fires that must eat.
My hunger for you is no less than theirs.

At the gates of the city in which I love you,
the sea hauls the sun on its back,
strikes the land, which rebukes it.
what ardor in its sliding heft,
a flameless friction on the rocks.

Like the sea, I am recommended by my orphaning.
Noisy with telegrams not received,
quarrelsome with aliases,
intricate with misguided journeys,
by my expulsions have I come to love you.

Straight from my father’s wrath,
and long from my mother’s womb,
late in this century and on a Wednesday morning,
bearing the mark of one who’s experienced
neither heaven nor hell,

my birthplace vanished, my citizenship earned,
in league with stones of the earth, I
enter, without retreat or help from history,
the days of no day, my earth
of no earth, I re-enter

the city in which I love you.
And I never believed that the multitude
of dreams and many words were vain.

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 (www.orionmagazine.org)

Queer

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

scenario

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.

Notch

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.