by Malcolm Friend
The ocean breeze
used to dance to the barriles’ bomba,
my machete cut cane
to its cadence—
hell, even my father’s horsewhip
swayed against my back to its swing.
No one’s heard of bomba
This Steel City
moves at an industrial pace,
its tune a clockwork nine-to-five—
keep up, keep moving, keep up…
If you move too fast,
you’ll miss the drums
initiate Caribbean mating calls:
co-quí, co-quí, co-quí.
My mother called me “Momen,”—
a name made for bomba.
Here they call me “Bobby,”
a name fit for rigged steel
and cold concrete;
their footsteps sound less
like a beating drum
and more like the march of soldiers—
Maybe I will shape my own song—
Infield hit: tu-cu-tú.
Home run: tu-cu-tú.
Throw from right to third: tu-cu-tú…
In un momentito,
I will teach Pittsburgh
to dance bomba.
by Malcom Friend
—after Martín Espada
My abuela’s thoughts
On Puerto Rico’s political status
Swayed like Caribbean waves
Back and forth on the island’s shores.
When we won World War II,
Proclaimed freedom victor in the world,
She sang the Star Spangled Banner
Throughout the streets of New York:
You know, Puerto Rico should be a state.
We’re already citizens.
Yet when my father—fifth of seven children—
Was drafted to fight in Vietnam
She became fervent as Albizu,
Her tune changing to Lola’s Borinqueña:
Fucking imperial yanquis!
Puerto Rico should be independent.
Now you may think my abuela unpredictable
As a tropical hurricane, but, according to my dad,
She never once expressed pride in the stagnant status quo.
She never once praised the Commonwealth.
There is no warning rattle at the door
nor heavy feet to stomp the foyer boards.
Safe in the dark prison, I know that
light slides over
the fingered work of a toothless
woman in Pakistan.
Happy prints of
an invisible time are illumined.
My mouth agape
rejects the solid air and
lungs hold. The invader takes
seeps through the plaster walls.
It is at my chamber, entering
the keyhole, pushing
through the padding of the door.
I cannot scream. A bone
of fear clogs my throat.
It is upon me. It is
sunrise, with Hope
its arrogant rider.
My mind, formerly quiescent
in its snug encasement, is strained
to look upon their rapturous visages,
to let them enter even into me.
I am forced
outside myself to
mount the light and ride joined with Hope.
Through all the bright hours
I cling to expectation, until
darkness comes to reclaim me
as its own. Hope fades, day is gone
into its irredeemable place
and I am thrown back into the familiar
bonds of disconsolation.
Gloom crawls around
between my toes, at my ankles,
and it sucks the strands of my
hair. It forgives my heady
fling with Hope. I am
joined again into its
greedy arms.-Maya Angelou
RIP Maya Angelou
after Gwendolyn Brooks
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight.
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing,
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I sould die
before I wake, Da said to me, it will be too soon.
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plateof we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
by Aaron Samuels
Ayo Aaron, where you from? Where your parents
from? Hola, como estás? Why does your skin tan quicker
than mine? I overheard you saying the N-word so…do
you believe in god? You’re not really black…you can’t
rap? You can rap? Did you learn that from your father?
I thought you would be better at basketball. Wait,
you’re not Spanish?
You don’t even speak Spanish?
You shouldn’t send a picture to your scholarship program.
But is your MOM Jewish? What was the theme
to your Bar Mitzvah?
or Do you believe in god?
My daddy says that all the Jews are gonna go to hell
but I like you so can you come to church with me?
or Kike, don’t get offended by the word kike.
Nobody uses that word anymore. or
Langauge is evolving
It’s ok, there were black kids in my high school;
they told me it was ok.
They don’t care about a nigga; them mothafuckers jewed us
out the projectcs to build an Urban Outfitters.
THAT IS THE BLACKEST JEWISH STAR
I have ever seen. or
Jewtard Jewey mc duck
Jewey mc Jewface
You’re not really Jewish are you?
You’re not really black right?
Are you you? Are there others?
Are you others
like you? Is there anyone else?
Anyone in the world?
Is there any world like you?
Is there any world that likes you?
Pájaros preocupados sin costumbres de vuelo
aprenden a deletrear sus cantos
en el buche de las circunstancias:
alas de preocupaciones ágiles en los aledaños del sonido.
Pájaros de interrupciones asombradas
cantan en la garganta de la interrupción:
espacio entre dos besos afortunados,
que rechazan la presencia hiragana
de la conveniencia estéril de la duda.
Sonidos en bandas agrian la dulcedumbre
de la quietud de auroras estancadas;
ortigas escarlatas de silencios baldíos
recobran melodías que asumen
la posición de gritos;
y cantos desvestidos de sombra de hojarasca
amarran con rumbos claros aortas impalpables
que impulsan a la razón a ser fuego en las aguas.
Pájaros—las playas—quieren volar
sobre mares alborotados
de épocas encontradas;
y mares de abstracción saltan de gozo
porque saben que las bahías de la conclusion,
entretenidas en las discusiones de sus vuelos,
son su cuerpo y su palabra.
El canto de los pájaros
de estremecidas épocas
cambia el color de la melodía,
rompe la forma agónica de las modulaciones;
urge que se levanter la emoción enjaulada;
salta por encima de los trinos
del viento florecido de urgencias
que amarran y sueltan horizontes,
atiza la perplejidad arrugada del contenido;
y zumbidos de estrellas ponen luz en los nidos
sombreados de relámpagos.
Y aquí, donde lo caduco
quema el aire sin fuego,
el estremecimiento de lo nuevo:
lo nuevo estremecido,
abre de par sus puertas,
sin temor al perfil ruminate de lo viejo.
-Clemente Soto Vélez
Really, what good is a nearsighted thug?
For sure, this is no problem
when the task is merely to cap the dude
who’s spilled a drink on the Air Force Ones.
Issues arise, however,
when you have to pick a nigga off at some distance,
one who, as circumstances would properly warrant,
is in flight.
Think of those manifold times when the homies ride
on those bitch-made sets.
Not only does a bespectacled thug
lose a little something in translation-
he just isn’t a straight-up menace.
How does he break the news to his connect
about his myopia
and even if he goes with contacts,
can a thug who must always be at the ready
really be encumbered by the patience & dexterity
it takes to properly insert them?
If a thug has the presence of mind
to forgo rims for Lasik, is he really a thug at all?
He is of little good but for the humdrum,
low-level brandish & threatening of the vengeance
others must properly see carried out,
or the generic, stupor-driven licking of shots in the air
out in an unkempt Section 8 backyard.
Generally utilized when precision
isn’t a must, nearsighted thug
might be called upon when the crew executes
your run-of-the mill senseless shooting
into a crowd, as one might find at the club
gathering for the post-party
parking lot pimpin’ ritual.
But anyone could pull this off.
This is thug life for dummies.
That old saw, the one about
dressing for the job you want,
must keep nearsighted thug awake at night.
Suppose you’re a junkie-
They day after your dealer gets glasses that aren’t shades
Isn’t he, for all intents and purposes, a fed?
“What a ho ass nigga he must be,”
his customers will say aloud with impunity,
“comin’ his switch ass around this muhfucka
looking like a gotdamned schoolteacher.”
There is a certain comfort level the average shermhead
should expect to have with his weedman—
and if you’re a crack fiend,
how disconcerting it must be
to buy drugs from someone who looks like
They know better.
Even a gold-rimmed Gucci bifocal is a detriment
to the persona that is par for the thug course, and
how calloused we are to the quality-of-life concerns
of young men who can only see
what’s immediately in front of them.
If you aren’t black, be her man,
or a friend since childhood.
Preface the request with I know this
is weird and calls to mind many
crazily embedded racial histories
If her hair is dreaded
rethink the request.
Preface the request
with the honorific “Sister”
only if you are black.
Make sure you’ve seen
her smile first. Make sure
you know what kind of day
she’s been having.
Make sure you’re the only
two people in the room.
Have a well thought out
response for when she asks
The word fascination should not
be a part of the response
especially if you are not Black.
Have more than one
Do not bring up how much
you know about black culture.
If she doesn’t answer you
do not assume she didn’t
the first time.
There’s a story my father likes to tell.
Never mind. My father’s never been good
At stories, and I wouldn’t want you calling me
A gossip. Besides, this is about my mother.
I wouldn’t want you calling her a fool. How
Might you have handled things? You see
Your man approached by a girl whose hair is longer
Than her skirt. Well, Mama was nicer
Than you. She simply moved from her place
Behind the college cafeteria counter
And stared for a long time, first the foreign
Hands that held my daddy’s elbow, then
Right into that poor girl’s eyes.
You know it—the look
A neighbor gives when, during a visit,
You bump and break a perfect
Piece of crystal the shape of a dove.
I guess you can tell why Daddy loves
This story so much, he, a one-eyed prize
With a woman on each side of him.
To the left, a miniskirted Sapphire
And ready to risk her work-study,
A woman you might mistake for Jemima
If her eyes weren’t fierce enough to push
A harlot away in whimpers. Betty Jo
Jackson, I think, was the girl’s name. Ask
My daddy. He won’t forget: my mother
Calm, but close to violence, she-wolf set
To claw and devour. I guess you can tell
Why I’m so jealous of Betty Jo. She got
To see my mother back when she still
Wanted a fight. I wish I had known Mama
Then. I would have loved her that way.
I love you like barbeque,
the beauty of good sauce.
Will you speak to me now bedeviling, sweet muser?
Come: I’m greasy for you—
I am writing this so it will stay true.
Like thunderbolts in a fiery desert
we know we are electricity, we know we are a sun.
People must be doing naked flips and juggling;
be mindful of them as they stand and wait,
swaddling their heads, peasant not priestly hands,
the festivals of Renaissance of rhythms.
O.K.—I won’t scream
I hope it touches the house before we die.
There are too many funerals.
Bow our hearts beneath our knees.
There is only one danger for you here: poetry
coming from a black man’s soul.
I am a kind of diction.
Memories are smoke,
drops of blood on the corn, as dew from heaven.
There is more to heaven:
if you can’t be free, be a mystery.
There isn’t a place I’ve slept:
just as people who have lived in snow so long
I wanted to reflect the sun.
In the first of rage, we garlic your edge
(regulations require an e be at the end).
Where was God when they called?
You have forgotten me well.
That’s all that I remember.
*“I Am Writing This So It Will Stay True” is composed of lines from 30 different poems, with punctuation and minor word changes. The poems in which these lines appear, in order, are “Short End Blues” by Kevin Young, “Harold’s Chicken Shack #35” by Nate Marshall, “A Form of Sexual Healing” by Terrance Hayes, “To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street” by Franny Choi, “Willed in Autumn” by Tracy K. Smith, “Mambo Love Poem” by Sandra María Esteves, “bomba, para siempre” by Tato Laviera, “Tact” by Cedric Tillman, “Miracle” by Seamus Heaney, “Tabula” by Garrett Hongo, “A Poem for Sterling Brown” by Sonia Sanchez, “Poems de Amor” by Miguel Algarín, “Mars” by Michael Longley, “Cartoons & Cereal: Snap/Shots of Keef’s (Child)Hood” by Kevin Coval, “Listen, Lord—A Prayer” by James Weldon Johnson, “The Soldiers in the Garden” by Martín Espada, “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes, “Dressing the Parts” by Lynn Emanuel, “Prelude” by Kamau Brathwaite, “Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection” by Elizabeth Alexander, “Back Home Contemplation” by Grace Nichols, “Canary” by Rita Dove, “Playlist for a Striptease” by Kendra DeColo, “love” by Gwylyn Cano, “Track 4: Reflections” by Jericho Brown, “Ode to the cutlass/machete” by Roger Bonair-Agard, “Left” by Nikky Finney, “Ocean Song” by Yona Harvey, “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and “Incident” by Countee Cullen.