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I, too, sing America. – Langston Hughes
October 28 is the Feast Day of Saint Jude. He is the Patron Saint of Desperate Cases and Lost Causes.
Since the 2016 election, all the poisonous bigotry in the U.S. has been erupting, seeping into our public spaces and the nation’s politics. I’ve gathered here poets of color, some of them immigrants, or children of immigrants, who have a lot to say about life as they live it in America.
Second Attempt Crossing
by Javier Zamora
In the middle of that desert that didn’t look like sand
. . . . . and sand only,
in the middle of those acacias, whiptails, and coyotes, someone yelled
. . . . . “¡La Migra!” and everyone ran.
In that dried creek where 40 of us slept, we turned to each other
and you flew from my side in the dirt.
Black-throated sparrows and dawn
. . . . . hitting the tops of mesquites,
beautifully. Against the herd of legs,
. . . . . you sprinted back toward me,
I jumped on your shoulders,
. . . . . and we ran from the white trucks. It was then the gun
ready to press its index.
. . . . . I said, “freeze, Chino, ¡pará por favor!”
So I wouldn’t touch their legs that kicked you,
. . . . . you pushed me under your chest,
and I’ve never thanked you.
Beautiful Chino —
the only name I know to call you by —
. . . . . farewell your tattooed chest:
the M, the S, the 13. Farewell
. . . . . the phone number you gave me
when you went east to Virginia,
. . . . . and I went west to San Francisco.
You called twice a month,
. . . . . then your cousin said the gang you ran from
in San Salvador
. . . . . found you in Alexandria. Farewell
your brown arms that shielded me then,
. . . . . that shield me now, from La Migra.
“Second Attempt Crossing” from Unaccompanied, © 2017 by Javier Zamora – Copper Canyon Press
Javier Zamora (1990 – ) was born in the coastal fishing town of La Herradua, El Salvador. He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of nine, through Guatemala, Mexico, and then into the Sonoran Desert. He eventually made it to California to be reunited with his parents in California, who had fled during the Salvadoran Civil War. He earned a BA at the University of California-Berkeley, and an MFA at New York University. Zamora was a 2016-2018 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He is the author of the poetry collection Unaccompanied, and a chapbook, Nueve Años Inmigrantes/Nine Immigrant Years, which won the 2011 Organic Weapon Arts Contest. Zamora is now a 2018-2019 Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.
by Lorna Dee Cervantes
There was always fabric in your lap
and a whistle in your heart. A sweet
sap to be sucked waited in the garden.
Nymphs of newts nestled under rock,
your role as She Who Brings the Waters
intact. Between the trilling of the crickets
educating into the night and the sad sack
of cans in the mornings something grew,
flourished in the dark — vines as sturdy
as telephone wire writhed in the breezes.
You patched together a blanket of us,
sewed together the mismatched and lopped
off edges. And anger grew a twin, ripped
through the bermuda grass, something stubborn
and determined: Me, in a leather patchwork skirt,
the bitter lemon song returning to its beginning
over and over on the Howdie Doody phonograph,
a handful of bandages, a faceful of ghosts
delivered from the mirrors. How did you stand it?
All of it. Us crunching through your set life,
kids scuffling through the mounds of leave.
Always making do. Your sunshine eyes,
those stenciled memories where
we still live.
“Stenciled Memories” from Sueño, © 2013 by Lorna Dee Cervantes – Wings Press
Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954 – ) was born in San Francisco to parents of Mexican and Native American heritage. Cervantes was discouraged from speaking Spanish at home in an attempt to protect her from racism; this loss of language and lack of full connection with her heritage fueled her later poetry. When her parents divorced in 1959, Cervantes, her mother, and brother moved in with her grandmother. Her brother had a job at a local library, where she became familiar with Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Byron. In 1974 she traveled to Mexico City with her brother, who was performing at the Quinto Festival de los Teatros Chicanos. Cervantes was asked to read some of her poetry. She read a portion of “Refugee Ship,” a poem about being Chicano and feeling adrift between two cultures. Her reading received much attention, and appeared in Mexican journals and reviews. It was later included in her award-winning 1981 debut book, Emplumada.
The morning after the storm
by Do Nguyen Mai
This is what it means to wake up
the morning after calamity:
to watch the light spill
your dying body dragged
from the comforting embrace of endings;
to know the next season comes
even on the heels of desperation;
to hear newborn children
laugh life into their lungs
and the earth steadfast
beneath a collapsing body;
to watch your home burn at dusk
and set to building another at daylight;
to stand on broken glass
and hell-spun fire;
to taste the prayer
in every meal;
to touch your hand to your stomach,
a pulse pushing back;
to sit, singing
in the belly of the beast;
to raise shelter in the onslaught
of the unforgiving;
to swallow starlight
when night rains upon the earth.
This is what it means to breathe today:
to be heaven-willed,
to be worthy of heartbeat,
to hold Redemption’s trembling hand –
This poem was written for the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California Anniversary Commemoration in 2018. © 2018 by Do Nguyen Mai
Do Nguyen Mai is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, born in California. A poet, political activist, and community advocate/organizer for Vietnamese Americans. She is Courage Campaign’s first Political Fellow, and the founding editor of Ramputan Literary. Her first poetry collection, Ghosts Still Walking, was published in 2016 by Platypus Press. Her second collection, Battlefield Blooming, just published in 2019 from Sahtu Press.
Chinese New Year
by Justin Chin
It is Chinese New Year and I am standing
at the corner of Broadway and Kearny
feeling the warm brush of bodies scurrying
into stores frantic, pleased
and brisk with the glow of celebration.
Soon the gleaming roast ducks,
the carefully spit-turned roasted pork ribs,
the translucent skinned chicken steamed
in sesame oil and the raw fish tossed
in lettuce, mint and peanut sauce
will grace someone’s table:
a feast of richness, a wish
a life of blessing.
No heads will be washed today, no houses swept
& don’t think about death: it’s bad
luck. I cast my numbers,
and as I age another year,
superstitions don’t hold their weight
anymore than voodoo heebie-jeebie
So come take me Year of the Monkey:
witty, articulate, passionate, youthful, vain, immature.
Make me happy with your promises
of luck and life
because it is Chinese New Year
and for a few blocks, the train
of pom pom girls, the Lowell High School band
and sequined Ms. Chinatown will pass
on the same streets where I opened my body
in the rattle of festivities, the creed
of color, the spook of flesh.
You took the uncompromising facts
of my living. Spread it out maplike
as a dangerous game. Spy vs. Spy
like in MAD magazine. You appear to me
as golden frogs. You pour rain water
from pitchers colored with familiarity over me.
I bathe in smells of palm oil, rubber
sap, cannon fodder. Fireworks
grace my feet. I put white
smoke billowing from homemade
crackers on your forehead.
Somehow this might soothe your pain
and mine. Tie ginger in sackcloth,
the tips soaked in kerosene. Suck
illness right out. Strength
nudes itself to my scrawny arms
barely able to throw a good punch
and your life starts unraveling
as mine reveals itself in
this viral flash. A 25¢ peepshow
separated by a sliding opaque
screen flashing ex-lovers,
ex-boyfriends, one night stands, blind dates
and ex-families. Tokens
fill empty jars in our respective rooms.
Candles light the stuff of our
secrets. Sometimes we lie like mad
and civility spurts
like Chinese New Year and I come
festooned with ashes and bones,
hard crumbling and all
too memorable. Miserable. Teal
pours from my mouth. Blood
of every wound, every conceivable
brilliance hides in my hair.
The hard work of walking and waking
ploughs itself in my skull
and I am ready to be brimmed
with the tasks of renewals
I have prepared for my feasting.
I’ve paid my debts. I’ve housecleaned:
updated the address book, keeping
the names and numbers unused
anymore, written in disparate script
each, in its safe place.
The last grounding on memory must be respected.
On the day that I am nothing more
than handwriting in some trick’s
book, I will return to your memory
and the hundreds of others.
I will stand in pink fog.
Cats will breathe silent over me.
Talismans will hang from my chest.
Shiny prophecies will pierce my nipples.
My flesh will be smooth as cold coffee.
I will be a haunting
that speaks across waters, borders
Did I ever think I would make it this far?
Did I make it anywhere at all?
For now, let’s push all that
to the back of our minds like shame,
let’s wave to Ms. Chinatown,
fill our bellies with food and laughter,
entertain our guests, visitors,
families, tell stories — real
and made up, be together, make love, sweat
into each other’s body because
it is Chinese New Year and I’m filling
my trays with candies, peanuts, kana,
sweets, embers, hard, nothing;
and I am looking
for the reddest red, the sweetest meats,
the loudest firecrackers and the hardest
plum blossoms to help me make
“Chinese New Year” from Justin Chin: Selected Works, © 2016 Manic D Press, with permission of the Estate of Justin Chin
Justin Chin (1969-2015), ethnically Chinese, was born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore. He went to school at the University of Hawaii Manoa. In 1991, after attending the first Outwrite Conference, which celebrates LGBT literature, he moved to San Francisco. In 1995 and 1996 he was a member of the San Francisco National Poetry Slam team. In 1997, he published his collection Bite Hard, followed by Harmless Medicine and Gutted, which won the 2007 Thom Gunn Award. In 2015, he died of a stroke, related to AIDS complications. Justin Chin: Selected Works was published posthumously.
by Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
“Facing It” from Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, © 2001 by Yusef Komunyakaa – Wesleyan University Press
Yusef Komunyakaa (1947 – ) was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. His introduction to poetry came from his grandparents, who were “church people,” and “the sound of the Old Testament informed the cadences of their speech.” Komunyakaa was a correspondent during the Vietnam War, a managing editor of the Southern Cross, for which he received a Bronze Star. His poems are a combination of personal narrative, jazz rhythm and vernacular language. His 1988 book, Dien Cai Dau, about his experiences in Vietnam, won the Dark Room Poetry Prize. Komunyakaa is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
“won’t you celebrate with me” from Book of Light, © 1993 by Lucille Clifton – Copper Canyon Press
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) born in DePew, New York. American author, poet and educator. She went to Howard University, then transferred to SUNY Fredonia. A friend of hers shared her poems with Langston Hughes, and he published some of them in his highly influential 1970 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. She was Poet Laureate of Maryland (1979-1985). In 2007, she was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Her work reflects and celebrates her African-American heritage and experiences as a woman.
- Coffee Mug – I.C.E. protest
- Border wall at U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona
- Window garden
- Vietnamese noodle soup
- Chinese New Year in San Francisco
- Vietnam Memorial Wall
- Lucille Clifton