It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15,
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
Did you ever see stars? asked my father with a cackle. He was not
speaking of the heavens, but the white flash in his head when a fist burst
between his eyes. In Brooklyn, this would cause men and boys to slap
the table with glee; this might be the only heavenly light we’d ever see.
I never saw stars. The sky in Brooklyn was a tide of smoke rolling over us
from the factory across the avenue, the mattresses burning in the junkyard,
the ruins where squatters would sleep, the riots of 1966 that kept me
locked in my room like a suspect. My father talked truce on the streets.
My son can see the stars through the tall barrel of a telescope.
He names the galaxies with the numbers and letters of astronomy.
I cannot see what he sees in the telescope, no matter how many eyes I shut.
I understand a smoking mattress better than the language of galaxies.
My father saw stars. My son sees stars. The earth rolls beneath
our feet. We lurch ahead, and one day we have walked this far.
The backyard apple tree gets sad so soon,
takes on a used-up, feather-duster look
within a week.
The ivy’s spring reconnaissance campaign
sends red feelers out and up and down
to find the sun.
Ivy from last summer clogs the pool,
brewing a loamy, wormy, tea-leaf mulch
soft to the touch
and rank with interface of rut and rot.
The month after the month they say is cruel
is and is not.
Redwinged blackbirds in the cattail pond—
today I kicked and flipped a wing
in the sand and saw it was a sheared
off flicker’s. Yesterday’s rain has left
snow on Tesuque Peak, and the river
will widen then dwindle. We step
into a house and notice antlers mounted
on the wall behind us; a ten-day-old child
looks, nurses, and sleeps; his mother
smiles but says she cries then cries
as emptiness brims up and over.
And as actions are rooted in feelings,
I see how picking spinach in a field
blossoms the picker, how a thoughtless act
shears a wing. As we walk out
to the car, the daylight is brighter
than we knew. We do not believe
flames shoot out of a cauldron of days
but, looking at the horizon, see
flames leap and crown from tree to tree.
My mother forgets to feed her animals
because it’s only fair.
She rushes to them when
she hears hoarse roosters crowing
and billy goats butting
over a last straw.
This month the moon becomes a princess.
The stars fan her,
Jupiter pours cups of wine,
Mars sings melancholy mawals.
Bearded men holding prayer beads
and yellow booklets stare at her
and point aching fingers at her waist.
In our house we break a fast
with dates from Huun
and glasses of buttermilk.
Then on to bowls of lamb soup
flavored with mint, trays
of stuffed grape leaves,
spiced fava beans drenched
in olive oil and lemon juice.
And that is only the beginning.
The spirits of Johnny Walker and gin
hide in the trunks of white Peugeots.
In the nightclubs of my city, waiters
serve only non-alcoholic beer
and belly dancers cover themselves.
Father of sixteen children, our neighbor
visits bringing two kilos of baklava.
He washes them down with a dozen
demitasses of sweet sage tea.
Before dawn he runs to one
of his two wives, both named Salma,
and loves her hurriedly,
his hands barely touching a breast.
Notes: A Mawal is an unaccompanied improvisarional vocal solo regularly performed by singers of traditional Arabic music to show their poetic as well as singing prowess.
The first thing I learned was to look wide
at the darkness
and not want anything. He’d say, Just look
at the darkness
and tell me what you see. I’d say, I see stars or
Just the stars, Dad.
And he’d say, Don’t call them that yet. What do you see?
Just the stars, Dad.
But then I’d be quiet and let my eyes go and look wide
at the darkness.
It was like a dome. I think it frightened me to stare
at the darkness.
I see light. I see a million little lights. And he’d say
They aren’t all stars.
Some were planets and some were planes and I’d say, Yeah,
they aren’t all stars.
But not really believe it. But say it so not to feel stupid out there
in the darkness.
My mother says:
When Mama tried to teach me
to make collards and potato salad
I didn’t want to learn.
She opens the box of pancake mix, adds milk
and eggs, stirs. I watch
grateful for the food we have now—syrup waiting
in the cabinet, bananas to slice on top.
It’s Saturday morning.
Five days a week, she leaves us
to work at an office back in Brownsville.
Saturday we have her to ourselves, all day long.
Me and Kay didn’t want to be inside cooking.
She stirs the lumps from the batter, pours it
into the buttered, hissing pan.
Wanted to be with our friends
running wild through Greenville.
There was a man with a peach tree down the road.
One day Robert climbed over that fence, filled a bucket
with peaches. Wouldn’t share them with any of us but
told us where the peach three was. And that’s where we
wanted to be
sneaking peaches from that man’s tree, throwing
the rotten ones
at your uncles!
Mama wanted us to learn to cook.
Ask the boys, we said. And Mama knew that wasn’t fair
girls inside and the boys going off to steal peaches!
So she let all of us
stay outside until suppertime.
And by then, she says, putting our breakfast on the table,
it was too late.