Have I spent too much time worrying about the boys
killing each other to pray for the ones who do it
with their own hands?
Is that not black on black violence?
Is that not a mother who has to bury her boy?
Is it not the same play?
The same plot & characters?
Winter After the Strike
if you cast wide enough
your net of want and will, something meaningful
will respond. Perhaps we are the response—
each a cresting echo hesitating, vibrant with the moment
before rippling back.
But you’re steadfast as Odysseus strapped to the mast, as you were
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
The Border: A Double Sonnet
The border is a line that birds cannot see.
The border is a beautiful piece of paper folded carelessly in half.
The border is where flint first met steel, starting a century of fires.
The border is a belt that is too tight, holding things up but making it hard to breathe.
The border is a rusted hinge that does not bend.
The border is the blood clot in the river’s vein.
The border says stop to the wind, but the wind speaks another language, and keeps going.
The border is a brand, the “Double-X” of barbed wire scarred into the skin of so
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
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.
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,
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.
I watched the flower of Bronx youth be shipped off to Vietnam,
some returned, some didn’t, and some who returned were never the same
The public schools stayed open
I saw the Bronx burn from the 4 train and the 3rd Avenue El
when I first started teaching at Fordham
The public schools stayed open
This is for Amal, whose name means hope,
who thinks of each tree she’s planted like a child,
whose family has lived in the same place
for a hundred years, and when I say place
I mean this exact patch of land
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)
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
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