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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
i remember hurt… end
This next poem is sort of random, but certainly speaks to traumatic experiences:
santa cruz radio
two faces at the window of the parked van
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
women are paid twenty cents per pair
to stitch your forty dollar jeans
hundreds were fired
for asking for eight cents more.
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.
all have borrowed against their futures
at least a few have borrowed against their pasts.
he put back the dollar ninety-nine shirt
on the thrift store rack
a gift for his lover
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:
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
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
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.
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 –
keep bright, eager children
from their true, unleashed selves –
(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
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
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
the jazz was like sex
three hard, young brothers
served up lattes
wearing baseball caps
and the jazz was wet
the jazz was sweet
the jazz was lyrical
the jazz was frantic
the jazz was… ahhhh
even the wind paused
when the sax man
made that serpent howl
the drummer echoed the sax
beat a melody
god damn if the drummer didn’t beat
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
On Family Dissolution:
“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?”
“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.
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