#NationalPoetryMonth 17/30

Shopping bags, pulverized by branches, contort into a new
nation of black flags. Our block was our island.

— from “We Used to Call it Puerto Rico Rain”

Today’s read: The Crazy Bunch by Willie Perdomo – Penguin Books – 2019

It has been a pleasure to read varied poetry collections that have taken me to some unexpected places. Today, I decided that I wanted to return back to New York. And not just NYC but the barrio of my teenage years. So I took a ride on the #4 train from Mt Eden Ave down to 125th St via The Crazy Bunch.

Even fifteen years in Oakland and I still feel like I am taking that subway ride every morning. I have so much Bronx in my speech and approach that it comes through both in English and Spanish. Mexicans routinely mistake me for Puerto Rican. Anglos often imagine that I am Italian-American and by that they really mean that I must be a New Yorker but they can’t quite figure out what to do about my light skin tone.

In this collection, I don’t need to worry about that. I can walk through as a visitor from Uptown. I can get off by Lexington Ave and be sure to walk down with the supermarket to left because if I start heading in the direction of the Mickey D’s then I may not find my way. You definitely don’t head down the direction of the Metro North because it”s the 80s and every other empty door is a crack house.

You follow Lexington and watch the street numbers go down and the street narrow until you find my favorite tostones across the street from the museum that looks like a school but there is a real school down two more blocks but not the best habichuelas but not-so-good is still better than anywhere else.

This is how you navigate this island in the middle of an island. You go by memory and swear to the legitness of your experience without the need for rubrics. Though I do know that any time I visited El Barrio I was doing exactly that just walking through and hearing project whistling in the background knowing it wasn’t my business.

#NationalPoetryMonth Day 16/30

Once we leave a place it is there

— from “And Sing We”

Today’s read: Under Flag by Myung Mi Kim – Kelsey St. Press, 1991

When I go to poetry readings I am always listening for variance in tone, diction, pace of the spoken word. When this combination happens then my next thought is to wonder how this looks on the page. I imagine poets as musicians who follow the sheet music of the page to let their voices be an orchestra.

Under Flag is full of space for the lines of poetry to breath. This also gave me a chance to respond to some of the stanza blocks. The place this collection brought me to was that space of migration I have questioned before.

Why was I migrated?

Is it ok to be disappointed in migration?

Is it ok to be disappointed in my parents for migrating me?

I am not going to get these answers from any one poem or collection of poems. But a good collection that knows how to work silence and space as a poetic tool can begin a ritual of asking and then leave you to a find a place to practice waiting.

#NationalPoetryMonth 15/30

The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
“We aren’t giving the children a chance to live.”

Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.

— from “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans”

Today’s read: Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca – New Directions Publishing – 1990

The last time I read this collection was in 2010 during the activism protesting Arizona’s SB 1070.

‘Senate Bill 1070 was passed by the (Arizona) Legislature and signed into law by (Gov) Brewer in April. It made it a state crime to be in the country illegally and stated that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.’

There was incredible fear that this law would erase any brown person’s civil rights in Arizona. To date, the law still stands. There have been challenges and interpretations but it stands.

I am still shaken by how this poem predicated SB1070 and then summarized the 45th President’s entire campaign statement.

Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from a nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
“They’re taking our jobs away.”

The most disturbing part is how the poem’s last stanza warned about the persecution that would come to the children of Mexican immigrants. It’s a line so jarring that I couldn’t shake it after I initially read it.

It was in August 2001. A few weeks later, the Twin Towers would fall and New York would go in lock down. Everything felt like a disaster movie and that we had experienced the lowest point in the nation’s history. Back then, there was still toilet paper and you could walk the Bronx in quiet. We didn’t think this would happen again or that it could feel worse. We didn’t.

#NationalPoetryMonth 14/30

Little did I know I was accruing I was amassing itness striving for allness

— from “Accruing”

Today’s read: Clap For Me: That’s Not Me, Paola Capó-Garcia – Rescue Press – 2018

I will always be drawn to a collection that brings me to a familiar place. The first section of poems in this collection was tightly packed, overlapping, coded language in landscaped containers. It gave me the feeling of the 1/9 line which starts in (for all intents and purposes) Yonkers then maneuvers through Riverdale, Inwood, the Heights, CCNY, Upper West Side, Central Park, Times Sq, Penn Station, Wall St, ad then the Staten Island Ferry. You can just imagine the concentration of vernacular encased in a small space that becomes rant and koan.

Capó-Garcia brought me back to that sound chamber and the importance of listening through the noise.

#NationalPoetryMonth 13/30

“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead.

— from “The Boy Died In My Alley”

Today’s read: To Disembark, Gwendolyn Brooks – Third World Press – 1981

To Disembark is another great used bookstore find. I hope that these shops can survive the pandemic. City Lights has had a successful pledge to help keep its doors open and Marcus Books in Oakland is also trying to gather funds to stick around. These are not new problems. The pandemic is only highlighting that physical media shops are in danger of going the way of the typewriter and the fax. It would be devastating to live in a digital world that only gives shine to popcorn media.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some good popcorn media in the form of food shows, sci-fi, and pro wrestling. But not in my poetry. I like my poetry to be honest and true to its time. This means a collection like this one from Gwendolyn Brooks. It may not be preserved in the anthologies like “We Real Cool” but it still speaks in that genuine Brooks voice. It also highlights for me that a poem written almost forty years ago can have such strong resonance.