Week 7

In roughly a ten year period from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, I was engaged in some social activism.  I protested police brutality after the Rodney King beatings, participated in anti-war and homeless rights activism and joined a group of progressives seeking justice for Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier and others.

As a part of this activism, I wrote and read poetry.  I spent some time with a poetry group called Frontline Poets/Soulvision led by Sunji Ali.

Much of my poetry addressed issues of bias and social justice.  While even the most recent of these poems are now a decade old, they complement the readings that we did this week.  I hope that you enjoy them:

Homelessness Issues:  I wrote a few poems dealing with homelessness.  This poem is in response to the Disney  empire buying up budget hotels in Anaheim as it prepared to build a new theme park and “lean up” the neighborhood around Disneyland.   This was reported in our local paper.  The anaheim motel poem was filled with real life, personal experience, as it was written at about the time I was living in a motel with a friend and her daughter.

anaheim motel

i.

eight o’clock each night, they sent the youngest one down the street to the motel with the free ice machine.  by then they knew the desk man was inattentive.  she filled an old, clean margarine tub with ice and skipped home.  on the round table in room 54 warm cokes and cheetos waited.  grainy grey light from silent television illuminated opposite wall.

ii.

the woman drifted to sleep, the book, reclaiming medusa poured across her fingers.  the youngest one, poured across her lap, shallow breath from her mouth purring sleep.  the two boys scratched the last of their homework at the small round table, then laid out tomorrow’s clothes.  the man washed dishes in the bathroom sink.

iii.

the woman and man slept in one bed with the youngest child.  the two boys took the next bed.  at three a.m. the woman woke up, if she had slept at all.  she took a long, hot shower, her one luxury.  the steaming water cooked her beige flesh.  she slapped tres flores on her shortest hair and kisses the three flowers and the man in the midst of their dreams.  she crossed the parking lot diagonally, running.  the bus didn’t wait so she walked the mile to work.

iv.

the youngest sat up, half asleep, called for her mother, scratched the nervous gooseflesh rash behind her knees.  the man lay her back down, covered her with favorite, threadbare bedspread.  she smacked her lips and muttered.  something that sounded like, ‘it’s not fair’.  she held his hand as it was the one available.

v.

he sniffed the air.  the scent of the woman’s pomade lingered in the room. the clock radio caught half a radio station and static played softly.  outside the window, a full moon held its own against the streetlamps.  three fist sized, carved pumpkins sat on the window ledge, smiling, streaks of rain dried on the torn, clean window screen.  he listened to the children purring sleep, night siphoning away their breath, sound of pump, valve, whistle, respirator.  sound of his dead father, still on the hospital bed, his breath not his own.  sound of life changing and safe draining away and falling.

vi.

he wrapped his arm around the youngest one, turned away from the window and the open curtains, almost smiled, set his lips roundly against his memory, still, hours to sleep.

anaheim motel part 2

on page 23, the newspaper announced that disneyland had purchased several blocks of motels.  a man, woman and three young children were reportedly seen catching a bus to tomorrowland.

Cumulative Risk:  The following poem, hurricanes 2000 – fugue 4, describes what might be called “cumulative risk” factors.  It features references to actual hate crimes, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse, and corruption.  The no-sleeping zone is an actual public policy that some cities use to “discourage” homeless people from spending the night.

hurricanes 2000 – fugue 4

give and take – take stock – stock market up – up against the wall = wallboard townhouse, ten percent down – downsized, downtrodden, downpressed, down – down across the border maquiladoras exhaust smoke and blood – blood drips from my lover, my child, but never my conscience… hunger, only two breasts at thanksgiving, only two legs, the rest gravy and rice, and i with the short, weak grasp

homeless woman killed by cops in el ley – labor figures fill legislator’s eyes with the promise of re-election – shun the homeless, they really own mansions beneath blue skies – eyes never adjust to isolation- isolation – indifference is the key word – keyword emptiness… despair, blood blister beneath leather skin, i remember two weeks rain, broken jacket zipper, one pair of shoes, walking

rampart scandal – scandal in the capitol – tolerate – eight hour shift, no paid overtime – time and place – time and date – date rape drug – drug- drug him down the highway by his feet, his feet… oh my fuck, drug him by his feet… hatred, ash-covered memory, scared, sleepless orange scars streak insides of eyelids, i hurt you first, hurt you hard

presidential recount – count the number of women and children coming off of welfare – fair to me?  fair to you?  fair to my bright-eyed, well fed, honor student child – children tried as adults – adultery in the white house, did i mention that twice?  Okay – O.J. – y2k… selfishness, no paradise, just another swell suburb with fences, lots of fences, i walkthrough no-sleeping zone enforced dusk to dawn, keeping my hands in my pockets

children kill children, kill unborn children, kill murderers, kill innocents, kill dolphins, kill old folk, kill man, kill, man, kill, man, kill… death, i practice dreaming blacjness until all i hear is robin trower – bridge of sighs, and i am sixteen and can’t breathe

supreme court justice – just us – us against them – them, dummy, is shotgun shells – hell is waking up each day – daylight savings – saving state quarters, new dollars, and big-head, dead presidents – residents – incidents – increments – incriminate – hate you – who owns whom – who sees me, touches me, desires me – me myself and i – i – i – i remember her

her

hurricanes

i remember hurt… end

This next poem is sort of random, but certainly speaks to traumatic experiences:

santa cruz radio

i.

two faces at the window of the parked van

moaning

ahhhhhhhhhhhhh

children, neither of them old enough to be school

sometimes taking turns

sometimes their brown moon wails side by side

calling to their mother

who walks the picket line across the street

she blows kisses and coos to them

through the dry winter sky

their faces are smudged with the honesty

of snot and tears

no chocolate

no lollipops.

ii.

in nicaragua

women are paid twenty cents per pair

to stitch your forty dollar jeans

hundreds were fired

for asking for eight cents more.

iii.

in a motel room in the rough part of town

three friends hunker down

in their heatless december

they take turns sleeping two together

to fend off the desolation

they do this so one can complete college

one can complete first grade

and one can teach preschool

there is no natural brightness left in the room.

iv.

all have borrowed against their futures

at least a few have borrowed against their pasts.

v.

he put back the dollar ninety-nine shirt

on the thrift store rack

a gift for his lover

gold

like sunflowers, yes

like hope, umm

like happy but

it would have to wait a handful of days

he would stop in

now and again

to make sure that it was still there

… saturdays are one third off.

Poverty, Dayworkers, and assumptions about people based upon our -isms are a recurrent theme in my city.  The following poem speaks to these things:

northwest corner

i.

she stands on the northwest corner of the street

her lips pursed to keep the taste

of her children’s kisses

in the broken-dream part of town

near amusement-for-tourists and old motels

not because that’s where the telephone is

not because she can see her 7 year0old peering out the window

of room 54

not because that’s where her pimp will be picking her up

to collect against his conscience

not because this is the corner with the cozy bus bench

or fairest drug dealers

or handsomest propositions

not because she’s waiting for the the liquor store to open,

it’s already open and a half dozen women and men

beside her are slurping on microwaved cup-o-soups

she stands on the northwest corner of the street

a tear belies her her practiced gaze of forgetfulness

bright light glinting off her smooth face speaks

memory and longing

and in this moment

sharp as the crack of coffee on my icy lips

i desire her

ii.

we’re all waiting on this corner

because it’s november

not yet 7:30 in the morning

because the paralyzed cars camped along these streets

piled high with blankets and containers

filled with forgotten wants

have frost on their windows

because this corner is where we wait each day for work,

because for every score of cars that passes

in the next half hour

one will stop

and yes,

because

this corner that casts us in the day’s longest shadows,

is the corner where the sun strikes the sidewalk

and we are cold.

Dangerous Neighborhoods:  Researchers talk about the impact of parenting skills in conjunction with dangerous neighborhoods.  This next poem is based upon my experiences as a public school teacher in the housing projects of Watts… where children really die.

indifferent god

on the corner of 103rd and wilmington –

the old drunks,

empty eggshell men,

smile yellow smiles,

drink night train and king cobra,

2 for a bone + thirty-nine

hang wistful gazes

upon women-girls with basket weaves

and iron countenances

or broken laughter.

a stone’s throw

from dry, perspiration-scented housing projects

on the east –

the blue line on the west,

school playground, church’s chicken, community center

and the yellow-toothed greetings.

on the corner of 103rd and wilmington –

terrence meets raul

to sell candy ‘cross town out front o’ the record store

to successful, guilty folk

never look you in the eye,

“wanna help kids like me stay outta gangs and off the street?”

or oranges at the offramp –

marisol grows breasts and red lips –

marvin looks at some gangsta’s bitch,

gets his brains tossed ‘cross

legs, thighs and wings –

while yellow vamonica learns to love her blackness –

on the corner of 103rd and wilmington –

our best and worst selves meet,

rub tender, swollen bellies,

birth dream and despair,

desire and pain,

ice cold sodas and white bitch ‘caine –

wrought iron,

cardboard fences,

and violence

keep bright, eager children

from their true, unleashed selves –

impose destinies.

(but even yesterday’s newspaper clings to chain link fence,

rather than be tossed by exhaust and wind

of “our” indifferent god).

on the corner of 103rd and wilmington –

everything we might have been

burns beneath

that which we have become –

keeps warm newborns and yellow smiles.

but grey candle bleeds ancient amber,

drowns its wick –

i burn my wings – on the corner of 103rd and wilmington.

Protective Factors:  Before I totally depress myself, I wanted to include a poem that looks at protective factors provided by progressive and strong community members.  I read and listened to poetry and jazz at this black-owned business in Inglewood, CA.  Warning, their are inappropriate words in this poem that I have not edited out.

jazz nite at east ellis coffee house

even the rain stopped to listen

almost jealous

of the drummer

and the jazz was like a rainforest

the jazz was like syrup

the jazz was like a poem

the jazz was like a train

like a train

a train

a train

the jazz was like sex

three hard, young brothers

served up lattes

and cobbler

wearing baseball caps

and the jazz was wet

the jazz was sweet

the jazz was lyrical

the jazz was frantic

frenetic

electric

the jazz was… ahhhh

even the wind paused

when the sax man

made that serpent howl

the drummer echoed the sax

beat a melody

a melody

god damn if the drummer didn’t beat

a melody

and a pulse so strong

a peckerwood could find it

the espresso machine waited

while the hard young men

came around the counter

to see what they were hearing

and the jazz became the rain

became the wind

became the soil

damp and black

cool and pungent

the jazz became the storm

in the earliest morning

the lights went out

in the coffee house

the clouds and wind and rain returned

though gently this time

and they sounded like

… jazz

On Family Dissolution:

separation

“mother”

“yes”

“when father comes home in two days,

will he take us to the store?”

“your father will not be home in two days,

but he will take you to the store with him sometime”

“when father comes home in two weeks,

will he take us to a movie?”

“your father will not be home in two weeks,

what movie would you like to see?”

“will he take me to see Home Alone?”

“perhaps”

“when father comes home in a month,

will he take the training wheels off my bike?”

“your father will not be home in a month

but he will take the training wheels off when you are ready”

“when I am almost six and father comes home,

will he sing me a happy birthday song?”

“your father will sing you a happy birthday song,

and so will I”

“when I am not too brave and it is raining

will he read to me until I am asleep?”

“perhaps he will be frightened and will need to hear a story from you”

“then I will read him a happy book”

“when father comes home in a year,

will we fly kites at the park?

“your father will not be home in a year

but he loves windy days just like you do”

“where is father?”

“he has a new home,

and when you are there it will be your home too

and he will always be your father,

and he will love you in two days,

and he will love you in two weeks,

and he will love you in a month,

and he will love you when you are almost six,

and he will love you when you are not too brave,

and he will love you when the wind blows,

and will you love him too?

when he is frightened?

when he is lonely?

when his kite is caught in the climbing tree?”

“I will hold his hand,

and tell him not to cry,

and I will buy him a new kite,

but only after I am six”

“why only after you are six?”

“because I will be a big boy then

I will be at the big boy school

and I will save my money then to buy him a new kite

and in two days when he comes home,

I will hold his hand,

and tell him to leave his kite in the garage,

and just to take me to the park,

and we can watch the black birds fly,

so we won’t have to cry”

This final piece that I am sharing is a joint effort with my dear friend, Greta.    It imagines the final moments of someone who had faced a series of setbacks.  Over our lives we ride waves of good luck and misfortune, many of which are beyond our control.  Cumulative risk factors can overwhelm our friendly neighbor or family member who we one day learn has taken her or his own life or succumbed to illness and despair.  While living for a period of time in Santa Cruz, CA, I heard of a neighborhood homeless man who died during one particulrly cold night.  The character, Amante Suzuki, populated a number of my poems during this period of my writing.

away from home (uba)

amante suzuki coughed, rolled onto his side and pressed his face into the warmth of her back.  he draped his left arm over her, suddenly aware of the curve of her breast.  she took his hand and drew it tightly to the center of her chest.  no other moment but the gentleness of breath.

the cotton of her shirt reflected his breath with the scent of her.  and he was a dog with a littermate, a child clutching his mother, a possum baby in a leafy nest.

tiny bare twigs nicked the window.  tick, tick, tick.  dusty, streaked windows.  tick, tick.  the scent of changed.  earthy now.  tick.

he was a baby rabbit burrowed against the winter.  cold fanned his cheek.  amante coughed again.  he searched for the woman’s back.  tick, tick, tick.  cold swept through his clothes.  tick, tick.  he reached for a blanket.  tick.  none.  tick.  so windy.  scent of staleness, wet asphalt.

“wake the fuck up already.”

amante’s bones ached.  he opened his eyes.  tack, tack, hollow tack.  the officer was annoyed… tired of tapping the bench with his club.  tack, tack.  tired of of leaning over and waiting for this dream to end.  tack.

“move on, you can’t sleep here.”

amante gathered his plastic bags.

dream already forgotten.

hobbled down the icy street.

the officer returned to his car, the engine running gently, he held his gloved hands to the heater vents, then pulled a u-turn and went to breakfast.

a stranger found amante later that day.  cold and still.  on a sidewalk in the industrial part of town.  clutching an armless plastic doll.  clothes sponging water from grey puddles.  a world washed clean, the only scent in the air was the aid smell of wet streets after the first real rain of the season.  the stranger felt an ache deep inside… an ache of fear.

but amante was as he had always been.

harmless.

breathless.

but now at last, smiling.

A Home (Greta Smith)

amante hit the pavement so hard in contrast to the softness he felt in his body just seconds before.

there was a lifting

there was a nakedness

there was a relief

and his mouth did not taste like cigarettes

and his insides did not feel rejected

and if he still had his own brown skin it would have been soft and warm

but he had wings

jet black and shiny

supporting what could only be described as something he had never had

and smelled like his dreams

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3 thoughts on “Week 7

  1. Leslie says:

    Beautiful. I was there in that room. I felt the hot shower. I only read the first poem and I enjoyed it till the end. Thanks

  2. Alicia says:

    These poems are amazing! Thank you for sharing these with us! These poems bring to light, the struggles that exist in our world and the little thought that others give to those in need.

  3. Wow. I am not an artistic person except in my dreams. Reading your poetry is beautiful, you have a way of pulling people into the reality of the world you weave together. It was wonderful to read and I appreciate your talent. Thank you!

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