Luther Hughes’ 10 Poems by QPOC that Popped Me in the Mouth & Told Me to Watch What I ****ing Say in 2019
2020 is nearly here, you know what that means: Lue’s 10 Poems by Queer Poets of Color! Enjoy—and share your thanks with these wonderful poets, these wonderful mags, and all the people who made 2019 not only bearable, but joyful.
This past year, for me, in relation to poetry, has been one of rediscovery; I was forced to unlearn what I internalized as Poetry—what it can do and who can reach. To say the least, it has been a difficult year of writing, that is, I have felt as though my own poetry was something I didn’t recognize. I’m told, or more so, I’ve read, that this is common for most. Yeah, yeah. Although, during this year of, dare I say, “self-drought,” I was able to fall in love with, again this year (and possibly every year), Poetry.
This year has brought so many poems that truly popped me in my mouth, and, yes you guessed it, told me to watch what I say. I’m immediately drawn to Justin Phillip Reed’s poem, “When I Was a Poet,” the line, “The poem’s pursuit was apparently to humanize // and the poet’s to petition this universal experience. / I saw the universe. It was black and unbothered,” and I was, am, at a loss for words, because Reed has said what I was thinking so succinctly. There’s the line from moira j.’s poem, “My Safeword is Restless” – “Do you think there is a universe where / instead of rosemary, the garden grows white roses, / & the cottontails turn into salesmen for vacuums? / Could we learn how to hold onto that life too?” – that has me thinking about how much I’ve given myself to desire, to another body in hopes of staying there, in that somewhat liminal space. So much of this year has been given to the questions I continually ask myself: What is Poetry? What is the job of the Poet?
My friends, I do not know. And maybe I’m meant to never know. But, listen, there are 10 poems by queer people of color that I just want you to read, and maybe, just maybe, we can walk one step closer to answering all of our questions.
Please note, this list is not a “best of” list, because who am I to say something is better than anything else. This is, if I’m being honest, a selfish list. A list in which I need you to read, because this poems, these poets, are everything. EVER-Y-THING!
—With peace, Luther
“Flora & Fauna” by jonathan jacob moore (published in BOAAT)
I remember how the red & brown
scorpion orchids inhaled my neck
aroused by the lingering aroma:
familiar. I remember foxgloves
begging to be
Can you blame me for wanting
to burn? For wanting
the gazanias & roses
on my side
for the world to wear
this color of birth?
To be Black Pansy/ to be
was to kill anyone
presumptuous enough to pluck
& pot & watch
as we made their property
our homes watched us make
out of every other
garden variety gone until
Yes, to watch
was to wound.
Yes, to desire
was to speak
of flowers tearing apart
human limbs & burying them
in our gaudy backyards.
“Fish & Duck Skills” by Metta Sáma (published in Academy of American Poets)
Sometimes it pays to go to Bojangles. To drive
out of the parking lot, see the red awning: Fish &
Duck Skills. A man walks out and it is broad
daylight. Back when I was a new adult in Chattanooga
I’d dare myself to go to the Adult Book Shop on
Market Street in the daytime or to the gasoline
station that my parents frequented, the one close
to our old house, where pornography was stored
in plastic. Back then I only dreamt in violence. &
living was an act of deliberate volatility. Likely,
I could trace it all back to Vaughn who laughed
in my face when I told him I’d been molested
that this was the reason having sex with boys
was an act of self-hatred, how Vaughn shared
not his story of sexual assault, but my story,
with any Tyner Junior High teen willing
to listen. So much was going on back then:
the little race riots between us & Ooltewah,
the White gay guy who thought he was Prince
and was terrified of being found out
that he wasn’t Prince & that he was gay,
the boys who would store their guns in our
lockers, my girl friends and I pretending
we were gay, kissing each other in the hallway,
on the lips, in front of the teachers, because
designer clothes were expensive and scandal
was free. I didn’t bother telling anyone
that I was queer and that just about every
single day I didn’t wish I was White, I just
wished that White people weren’t. But
I fished for the Whitest voice and duck tailed
my hair knowing that one day no one would remember
that I put a gun in my locker, that I kissed
Deidre on her lips, that I sang “the freaks
go out at night” at the top of my lungs & thrust
my hips to “Candy” on my way to the pep rally. No,
what people would remember was that I was
Black. The end.
“My Safeword is Restless” by moira j. (published in ANMLY)
We have an apartment with a small patio
& we can hear every inch of rosemary
grow from the herb garden. We watch
cottontails scamper down the cement wall
separating us from “colonial”-style homes.
We stop making jokes about the houses.
We grow tired of ruminating on the same scab.
We know the past is preserved in error here.
We have no children & I start making tea
to make my body feel useful during the long
afternoons where even the breeze cannot fill
such absences. It is early summer & sweat
collects at the back of our knees. We explore
the salt of each other. I share with your mouth
& its wounds. We fuck carelessly, leaning on
the window, afternoon sun nesting on our heads.
We run our fingers through each other’s hair,
scalps warmed, & what we feel takes the place
of want. Do you think there is a universe where
instead of rosemary, the garden grows white roses,
& the cottontails turn into salesmen for vacuums?
Could we learn how to hold onto that life too?
The version where we make comfort from what
we are given? & the one where our want died
& was replanted in the soil? & the one where even if
we try to coax it out, our want feels no need to bloom?
“#to my mother’s dementia #kaze no denwa” by Lee Ann Roripaugh (published in Academy of American Poets)
how do I admit I’m almost glad of it?
the way it’s scraped off
those flash-storms of rage
I grew delicately-feathered
luna moth antennae
to fine-tune your emotional weather:
sometimes a barometric shift
in the house’s atmosphere / a tight
quickening / some hard dark shadow
flickering glossy as obsidian
pulled down like a nightshade
behind your irises / but sometimes
you struck with no warning at all
rattlesnaked fang of lightning
incinerating my moon-pale wings
to crumpled cinder and ash
now your memory resets
itself every night / a button
clearing the trip odometer
back to zero / dim absinthe fizz
of radium-green glow
from the dashboard half-lifing
a midnight rollover from
omega to alpha to omega
I remember when you told me
(maybe I was three?)
I was mentally damaged
like the boy across the street /
said you’d help me pass
for normal so no one would know
but only if I swore to obey
you / and only you / forever
now your memory fins
around and around / like
the shiny obsessive lassos
of a goldfish gold-banding
the narrow perimeters
of its too-small bowl
coming home from school
(maybe I was fifteen?)
you were waiting for me
just inside the front door /
accused me of stealing a can
of corned beef hash from
the canned goods stashed
in the basement / then beat me
in the face with your shoe
how do I admit I’m almost glad of it?
that I’ve always pined for you
like an unrequited love / though I
was never beautiful enough
for you / your tinned bright laugh
shrapneled flecks of steel to hide
your anger when people used to say
we looked like one another
but now we compare
our same dimpled hands /
the thick feathering of eyebrows
with the same crooked wing
birdwinging over our left eye /
our uneven cheekbones making
one half of our face rounder
than the other / one side
a full moon / the other side
a shyer kind of moon
how can I admit I’m almost glad of it
when you no longer recognize
yourself in photographs
the mirror becoming stranger
until one day—will it be soon?—
you’ll look in my face / once again
seeing nothing of yourself
reflected in it, and—unsure
of all that you were and all
that you are—ask me: who are you?
“My hair is falling out” by francine j. harris (published in The New Republic)
So give it to the midnight crows and let them bring it to
a little black girl should she set out seeds of a hungry sunflower.
May they wrap it around a chip of bright amber or tuck
it inside the nostril of a rotting field mouse. Teach her meat;
she needs to know. Though, the pink tendon is worse as we age.
Like a gate at which we like to shut our eyes. Rub the sore
scalp. Sleep to Liszt and catch a snail up off the ground
which they won’t like it’s ok to make a world in which things eat
each other. Make room for believing. Climb down off the world dying
and feed something. Open up the yard.
“My hair is falling out” will be in francine’s forthcoming book Here is the Sweet Hand (FSG, August 2020)
“Antigone 14” by Fargo Tbakhi (published in The Shallow Ends)
antigone says who cares for us but us?
the scattered dirt, our handful of everything.
dronedead. noon, sun, the stink of breath.
who cares? fools’ religion, praying for an op-ed
powerful enough to bring us home.
the barracks emptied and filled again with power.
there’s oral history, and then there’s oral history:
the residue of every meal a person ever ate,
records kept safe in the mouth gone cold.
while the walls shake, every ninety seconds,
we recite: rice. cumin. eggplant. lamb.
mythology becomes our antidote to rhetoric.
a corpse is a stained glass window into living.
i wrap my face in sorrowcloth and ride for death.
“When I Was a Poet” by Justin Phillip Reed (published in POETRY)
For Phillip and for Marwa
Featuring Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, and Alice Notley
Now darkness was not upon but was
the deep’s complete face
and then was roof on the valley that
that which is not valley knocks.
In darkness, mine was not a linear condition.
Mine was the express mission of uncountable spirits
reaching in ceaselessly to relink their fingers.
I was architected like a multidimensional radial hemorrhage.
I dilated on all axes like a dahlia
and was a field of this.
And then fell the fallacy that the dirt
I worked and from which I ate
and into which I was delivered
to be devoured could not possibly
vibrate the notes of my brute living;
so spoke the beast out of the void
in its god costume. In its compass
there was hematite. In my ears
the blood murmured.
The protracted aftermath
expanded as the universe expands—
from all coordinates, from the atomic core.
Among what I abandoned: the belief
that there would ever again be
postwar poetry, or a poet born other
-wise than in the time of war, or an alibi
for where I was if not brutally living
in and off of war. I was impelled
to create in an era of adept destruction.
I had to begin by deconstructing
my creation. I saw the waiting peaks.
I knew what the snow was: overblown,
footloose, excessive, feckless,
not white but a predilection for reflecting
obsessed with possessing spectrum
but impervious to access, and pitifully janused;
occupation was its solitary ache.
I was a poet then. I lamented the lyric’s
optimism for a sympathetic ear.
I tried to puzzle the ear, to jigsaw apart
for the snow the sound of snow, its one tenor
of wind and its monuments to static—
but the ear merely clotted its wax.
Darkness dampened there in the valley bottom.
I had to maculate the gleam in my eye.
On either slope, sheer and utter eroded under
meters of endless nonce determined to condense
a form even blue giants must derive from
but cut it out. I cut a cut of ear and ate of my form
which was not mine but a fashion called humanity.
The poem’s pursuit was apparently to humanize
and the poet’s to petition this universal experience.
I saw the universe. It was black and unbothered.
I smudged the blue from the snow
and the blues from my beautiful jaw,
their need to coax a cheek left to turn.
Cut it out.
Eventide was over. I had chosen
lunar glamour’s ruptured pantoum
as occasion to observe the world
sleeping in the dust of its birth.
Its angsts and clattered growths combing
the trillion distant distant happenings
that spilled into this bone-quiet basin in unison
hummed. One tongue slid along another.
The glimpse of galaxy between the rocky shelves
was the scintilla of a velvet pocket pleasuring itself.
I came to place my voyeurism under black gaze.
How could I stand the pastoral, standing
on stolen land, propped like a rifle?
The idyll was a metropole of violence. Verses from
the vantage point of frost were purely blank, not free.
Suddenly the valley was disaster, every chasm
unconsenting. I could not recover a peace to rest in.
When I was delivered into the dirt from which I ate
I did not lie down with kings nor wise nor good of ages past.
I went down like the quarry-slave at night
and got up like the quarry-slave at night
and, curved as the birch a boy swings,
raided the patriarchs’ rooms for tongues
to put in my head, which was all jaw and beautiful.
When I was the snake I spake in subterfuge.
I rolled out the higher register. It had a trapdoor.
I lined the stanzas of sestinas in trip wire and slippage
but lying fanged on the break
and in the envoi bore no fruit:
I was “a black” “snake. I had” “black sibilance.”
“I was” “built” “like a loco” “motive of” “blackackackackack.”
As long as I shed a legible treasure trail of sufferings
my camouflaged linear contortions were of no concern.
I returned to the valley on my belly, earless,
darkness divining the paper-slit chutes of my pupils
on its way to stake me in the ground.
I coiled around it, asclepic. Ill with trusting
nothing—neither what I had inherited nor
what I had imposed—I inhaled my tail
and devolved into a helix of volta, a Möbius
beast, holding my inertia by the throat.
It was easy to see from there how madness
could afflict the unwitting witnesses of jazz.
What could pause emptily in the core
of this pressing omnipresence and resist
and not be pulverized? Once,
when I was human, I hovered
my pinhead eardrum within tipping range
of a speaker the breadth of two silverback gorillas
and have listened to the will-less
rustle of dead leaves ever since.
I felt it getting in, frenzied as the tremolo
sinuating Coltrane Quartet’s “Inch Worm.”
So receptive was this life and that
of a mite on the back of a rat in an alley
while the planet barreled down
its cosmic corridor, its futured birth canal
—though because theirs simply were not
I had thought mine could not be.
I hissed. I lifted the lock in the neck
to speak the name of my only in and of,
to be named myself:
low highness of sky,
Here was the form: a preponderance
of intersecting improvisation, in each
bereft moment a bequest, every shovel
in my back a new spade head.
I had slithered hungrily after the end of me
to learn that all I’m made of is beginnings.
I am the hydra of I
and soon I will be the next thing.
I was bred in an animal condition.
I am criminal by nation.
I come rabidly available to cannibalize
the traditions of the kings and the wise and good
citizens. Asylum never rested in the lyric.
It is midnight in the bottom and the winter
is an embolism. Coverlets of frigid civility.
I carry the seeds in my beautiful jaws
for the milkweed of malcontent.
There will be no lily here, only venom.
I will sow the music.
Its trumpets, they will ramify.
When I arrive I will be always arriving.
“Your Shadow Invents You Every Time Light Fails to Pass Through You” by Michael Wasson (published in POETRY)
Some days you wake to the sound of smoke pouring through
the keyhole in the room. Open your eyes. This is only a test. The bluing of
your hands can be anything you want. The bruised dawn
like a river rising to your windowsill. A purple forgetting how blood leaves
the body in ruin. A forsaken lip smeared in thirst resting on your lip
as though your skin could salvage the dream of being
so touched. Listen. I know you’re afraid—I am too. I know how the body prays
for beauty but remains a shipwreck you are building in my image. How many
books are enough to tell you you’re alive today? How many days end
up all dark & the monsters of your childhood appear like saints erased
of their mouths? How the mouth cradles a tongue carved by years
in exile until it’s ready to shape a word like a parting hand-
ful of promised wildflowers: Happy Mother’s Day. This is you
at the edge of a paradise growing back after being scorched from the face
of earth. This is us afraid of the men who fail to kiss us goodnight & step through
the walls. Some days you are living a nightmare. Some days a miracle as wide
as a spared life. Listen to me. There will be a day when the world will need you
most—be alive on that day. I vow your father is as American as
the bones your mother grew inside you. The gunshot
in your head is only a shadow puppet, a slow explosion of a field
of qém’es in early June’s bloom. Look. Look at the colors like little gods
on fire—hurdling in & out of each other’s terrified skies. Are you still alone
in bed? Is it morning yet where you are? The smoke turns
to rain as usual. Listen, my love. This year is just a visitor & next year’s
ghost. Take care of it because yes—yes, you do deserve flowers for once
in your life. You will be the only one left. So hold my hand & call me
tomorrow. We are all here. It’s okay—it’s okay to be this
afraid. I am you. Can you feel that? Yes, that is the whole world outside
moving without us. But listen to me. Listen. Here’s the light
an arm’s length away. The ceiling reforming
above you, like another heaven after its own self-
destruction. Here’s my body & you stretching lifelong
toward every hole in the house
left as warm as a father running from
horizon to horizon. Don’t be afraid. Touch me here
where, some days, it hurts. Get up, get dressed,
open the door.
“One Fish, Two Fish, Three Fish Un, Dos, Tres Pescados” by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado (published in The Offing)
Who has been wandering
by my side?
His impoverished hand on wheat, I remember him
in the drying, the humidity:
water from pebbled seas—Woolf’s waves.
I begin. You begin. We begin often. How strange is the Kingdom
Whose noise tracks its own fire? Fifteen birds, plastered
in lemon, in lemon and the poetry of things? I get to negotiate with souls?
Every movement in that world of origin
supposes one same loss.
Let us take honey, take nougat; not for that
I’m innocent. One fish, two fish, three fish in fern
in the cold, bodied in mud, wires and all things lost
but I won’t do, I won’t do more
in my leather shoes. Begin again: seas, red seas, red seas, red seas. Rags of wars, wars, wars.
Have we begun? One. Two. Three by chalk, three
by mineral. But I won’t know, nor I won’t be absolved.
Start over: a femur crooks over rags—red rags, rags of war, rags of the sea.
Rough tree, take count of your heart. Take seven, blue sevens by chalk—
it is winter. Then it was winter, a dampness
¿Quién es ese que deambuló
de mi lado?
Recuerdo su mano pobre frente al trigo de su sol seco
y su humedad,
la humedad, el agua de mar, un mar pedregoso—o las olas
Empiezo. Empiece. Empecemos. Qué extraño es el Reino
de los Cielos.
¿Será que arde en el ruido? ¿Quince pájaros de yeso
y limón, la poesía de las cosas? ¿Con las almas puedo
Cada movimiento en ese mundo de origen
supone su misma pérdida.
Llevemos, pues, turrón y miel; no por eso
quedo absuelto. Uno. Dos. Tres de esos
peces en lago de helechos
un frío poblado de barro, de alambres, cosas perdidas
en su sal—
pero no hago, no hago más
de zapatos en charol. Empecemos otra vez: mares, mares rojos, mares rojos, mares rojos.
Trapos de guerras, guerras, guerras.
¿Ya empezamos? Uno. Dos. Un tres en su tiza, tres
en su mineral. Pero no sé, no sé quedar absuelto.
Empecemos encorvados de huesos de las espaldas con trapos, trapos
rojos, trapos de guerra, trapos de mar.
Árbol de semillas, ya empalmado en rojo su pegamento. Contemos
ya el séptimo en tiza azul, pero árbol—
es invierno. Entonces fue inverno, su rojo
“The night never ended when one of us died” by Joy Priest (published in Scalawag)
this poem is a film ekphrasis after the film Mississippi Damned by the Black, lesbian filmmaker Tina Mabry
The dice and smoke kept rolling. The town we lived in already felt like the end.
When the phone rung, I was the one to answer: someone asking for directions,
but they couldn’t hear my small voice over everyone sighing resolutely together
about where we’d ended up. From the porch all you could smell was the waste
plant, but when they sent the boy to the store for more beer, I ran to it
the way we ran to base, followed him there with my eyes, which saw
what the grown folks didn’t want to see, which kept inside the self
what they could not. My auntie had on gold boots. Lumens. She stood
beneath the wind chime, inside a lightless vacuum, connecting Newport’s
like constellations, the burning fresh to the burning out. The boots being
the only reason I noticed her there. When she sat down at the card table, her belly
was still a perfect globe, just like the poof on her head, the puff exiting her lips
like a life expiring. When uncle’s backhand met her cheek for asking—not thinking
—where he was headed, on his way out the door, she fell from grace like that angel
who knew too much, leaving one boot upright on the linoleum, ownerless,
but luminous, nonetheless. Hadn’t she learned, by her age, you only escape
into yet another paradise to fall from? The party continued under the lights
that washed the poor country of my parents’ kitchen in red. So when the blood
ran down auntie’s legs, we all thought it was her water that had broken.
It is best not to confide, in anyone, your own victimhood.
When a family’s pain falls into a girl, only she can bring it out
of her body, alone—by death or instrument, embryonic
little lyric squeezed out onto the screen or canvas or page.
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal, Executive Editor for The Offing, and Editor-at-Large of Frontier Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.