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Jericho Brown

I think revision is all about knowing when you’re talking and knowing when you’re singing…and understanding you’re not done with your poem until all of it sings. I usually get rid of the ideas I already knew and keep the ideas writing the first draft allows me to discover. It’s a good idea to delete any point you find yourself making. I’ve gotten more positive feedback on this poem than I have on any other. That’s probably a reason not to show you that it didn’t spring from my head fully formed. But only our honesty is what progresses poetry.

The Tradition

 
Aster.  Nasturtium. Delphinium.
  We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us.  Star Gazer. 
Foxglove.
  Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks.  Cosmos.  Baby’s Breath. 
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford.  Eric Garner.  Mike Brown.

2014

That summer we learned the names
Of flowers strong enough to take
Heat and light and all elements
Classical philosophers thought
Could change us.  They seemed to bloom
Against the will of the sun, which was—
According to news reports—warmer
On our planet than the sun guilty
Of sweat our fathers once wiped
From their necks and foreheads.
Baby’s Breath.  Bird of Paradise.  We
Had nerve enough to say names
As if our fingers in the dirt meant
It was our dirt.  Cockscomb.  Cosmos.
Earth hotter than ever, men like me
And my brothers took daily video
Of the garden we planted and sped
It faster to see blossoms brought
In seconds.  Star Gazer.  Foxglove.
Names like prophecy on our tongues
All summer.  Eric Garner.  John Crawford. 
Mike Brown. 
Such color bright before
Our weeping eyes:  orange, lilac, red,
And black.  Then, to hit our lessons
Home, somebody showed us how
Simply, a dark flower—because it is
A dark flower—can be cut down.

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C. Bain

The poem originates with a crush/admiration/desire (ugh I know, so easy, so preDICtable.) So we are already in that weird space of artist/”muse”— objectifying a person as part of a desire or act of courtship. I have a lot of ambivalence about that, but anyway. This person, in the real world, has been working on a treatment of the Narcissus myth, so in addition to stealing their likeness, I stole that bit of their vocabulary, that mythological space where they were already locating themselves. As to revision, that is really not a strength of mine, honestly. I am pretty good at generating work, but revising it is much harder. People’s self-loathing/self-doubt kicks up at different junctures in the process, and I get through the first door, the generative door, pretty easily, but have much more trouble getting through to completion, tolerating that intimacy of remaining with my own thoughts. All of that said, some concrete things which I tried to do: make it less self-indulgent/self-deprecating and do SOMEthing about the punctuation/lineation that created more space, that was less about constructing the reader’s experience.

1/30 narcissus i.

[parking lot/cut lines]

You’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so fucking hot.
You’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so fucking hot.
You’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so you’re so fucking hot.

//

like wanting to marry the wind crying past the opening of my cave, like wanting to marry the moon

 

How can I ever stop
looking at you.
We agree. The mirror.
The camera’s eye. I want
And want. Each phalange
brushing at your lips
like some insect is bothering you.
There is. Me. The white gaze
buzzing at the form of your
mouth, inescapable, replicated
across my compound eyes. Stamen.
Pistil. Drown me in you. Honey.
A seeding blossom, I am. A rotten fruit. Can I
borrow some sugar?
I already have. I’ve already
eaten it.

That’s the riddle, how to get your heart back
once it’s been consumed.
The world is dead again, covered in brown leaves
water that freezes as it tries to run.
Under the ice-cover whispering to itself, your name, your name,
the other world, me larval
under the ice and me watching myself crawl.

I know why you can’t love me.

You watching yourself in the clear melted pool,
you melting, meaning you aren’t you anymore either.
You are not you when you want me. You see
what I’ve done. Mirrored ceilings. A drowning pool
where you can love yourself. Through me. That’s all
I’ll try to do. Your perfect mouth repeated. Your hundred
fingers, each with a sharp and gleaming edge.
We both keep saying we’re alive.
Hundreds of sad boys have written you poetry,
haven’t they? Haven’t they? I’ll drown them all.
Here’s the panic. It doesn’t matter how much I want
something good to happen to you. The water stilled.
It’s still me doing the wanting.
A boatman who won’t take you back.
A mirror that’s more real than me.

Narcissus

How can I ever stop              looking
            at you

We agree                                The mirror
The camera’s eye                              I want
and want
Each phalange brushing at your     lips
like some insect is bothering you
There is          Me                  White gaze
buzzing at the form of your
mouth             replicated
across my compound eyes

You’re watching yourself in the melted pool
you’re melting           meaning you aren’t you
anymore either         You see what I’ve done

Mirrored ceilings                   A drowning pool
where you can                                   love     yourself
through me                            Your hundred
fingers            each with a sharp and gleaming edge

We both keep saying we’re alive

Hundreds of sad boys have written you poetry

haven’t they              Haven’t they
             I’ll drown them all

ice caps melting         the flooded earth
Stamen           Pistil    Drown me in you     Honey
A seeding blossom    I am               A rotten fruit

Can I borrow some sugar
             I already have           I’ve already
eaten it                                 I know
                why you can’t love me
The water stilled
A boatman who won’t          take you back
            A mirror         that’s more real than me

 

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Destiny O. Birdsong

I was raised Christian, but I strayed away for a long time, mostly because what I had been taught to believe about God didn’t leave a lot of room for myself: my complicated sexuality, my imperfections, and my beliefs about love, marriage, gender roles, and self-care. In the middle of my return, I’ve also had to watch other Christians use biblical scripture to promote homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and Trumpism. In the process of reconciling myself to my faith and unraveling my own subjectivities and desires, I’ve become fascinated with taking scripture back—at least for myself anyway. “ode” is one of a series of poems that uses the Bible to discuss physical intimacy. There’s some great material about sex ad masturbation in Song of Songs, but that felt like the path of least resistance for me. Also, as an assault survivor, I’ve been thinking about masturbation as a form of self-healing. I’d love to say that the last lines—which allude to one of Jesus’s miracles in the New Testament—were deliberate, but they really came to mind because I’d heard a sermon on the text a few months before. I was as surprised as any reader when they appeared, but they felt like such a perfect ending, and they speak to my own work of divorcing satisfaction from the presence of men—or of anybody else for that matter. The title was also an afterthought. I felt that “ode to my hand” was so squarely on the nose, but the final title speaks to my belief that I am responsible for my own joy; furthermore, anything can be penetrative and, under the right circumstances, transformative. If I believe in the Immaculate Conception, or in being filled with the Holy Spirit (or other, less divine entities), then I can believe this to be true for other things. The poem poem was originally published by The Shallow Ends on March 1, 2018

ode to my hand


pill crusher // needle pusher
scalpscalp greaser // coconut oiler
of legs and the untouched space
beneath breasts // butcher //
baker // dishwater maker // 
and if ten thousand ever fall
at my side //
hitching post
of God’s great
grace
bottle shaker // signal-taker
everything that has ever ruined us
passed through // so too
have the cures // you raised me
from the dead // sinister digits
there’s no single right way // 
to push
deep into me and pull honey
from the lioness’ mouth //
your
palm grazing
her grizzle //
how the swarm
quiets for a moment //
the swollen
areolas
spread their own vein-
webbed fronds // oh girl // who else
rides me
safely through the Jerusalem
unsaddled //
on her simple back
or massages my slippery feet with her
whorled hair //
every gland exhaling
hosannas // I’ll never let
your tunic drag
the ground of want again
we can have each other
and live // Lazarus
unraveling
his spool
of silences
as the sisters blush like nipples
seaspray wetting the gauze
of lonely // savior // leading me
always & over water
to shore

ode to my penis

 

pill crusher // needle flusher
coconut oiler of legs
& the untouched space // beneath
breasts // butcher // baker //
bathwater maker
and when ten thousand fall
at my side // & the phone
goes dry // you are //
my hitching post
of God’s // great // grace //
bottle shaker // chalice faker
everything that ever poisoned us
passed through // so too
have the cures // you raised me
from the dead // sinister digits //
if there’s // a right way //
to stroke raw honey from the lioness’s
mouth // you stumble // but find it
every time // palm // grazing
her grizzle // how the swarm
quiets // for a moment //
the pupiled areolas
dilate // their vein-
webbed fronds // oh girl // who else
rides me safely // through // Jerusalem
// unsaddled //on her simple back
or massages // my slippery feet with her
whorled hair // I’ll never
let your tunic drag //
the ground of want // again //
we’ll have each other //
and live // like Lazarus //
unraveling his spool // in the sisters’
stunned silence // death oils slipping
from his skin // savior // you track
mirrored light into // my
wilderness // a little spit //
a little mud //
at the first touch
i saw men // monstrous //
as marching trees //
then // after a second touch //
// just // trees //

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Cameron Awkward-Rich

In doing research for my dissertation, I spent some time wandering around in digitized newspaper archives, looking for traces of lives we might now call trans. Many of these traces didn’t add up to a full story, or fell outside the frame of my argument; in any case, I have a haphazard collection of articles about people who were caught—by the law, by post-mortem exam—living as “the other sex” that I could not make use of in a more disciplined, scholarly way. Thankfully, as a poet, I am more interested in and able to explore the kinds of questions and speculations that such an archive prompts than I am in getting at the facts of the matter. For example: What are the ethics of making use of material that only exists because a violence occurred? What are the resonances between past and present, what are they made of? How can I speak with the dead?

One of the traces of a life I haven’t been able to let go of, or adequately follow up on, is this story about a black person named Lawrence Jackson who was arrested in late 19th century Chicago for wearing a dress. It’s a strange account, even stranger than many similar stories, because apparently Jackson offered to self-exile from Chicago, in lieu of having money to pay the fine. Even though Jackson’s solution made sense within the logic of anti-crossdressing laws, which were all about removing “problem bodies” from public space, the judge threw them in jail anyway, because he felt “a little punishment would be beneficial.” I wrote this poem because I couldn’t get this story out of my head.

Most of my poems begin in my notebook, so this is actually probably the second draft, the text from my notebook but with a shape. In revising, I first took out much clunky/unnecessary language. But most of the work of revising was deciding how many of the details of the story needed to be in the poem, the right balance of transparency for the reader and intimacy with Jackson. I took out what was the third line (“the papers called you…”) because it seemed to abruptly interrupt that intimacy – Jackson, probably, already knows what they were called. Same thing with what were the first three lines of the last section. I think those lines were just my way of getting myself back to my present and “I draw a frame around the frame” already does that. But, also, this boring meta-commentary about how I feel about finding the Jackson story interrupts the intimacy (and, if the poem is working, shouldn’t be necessary). I suppose I re-shuffled the sections because I wanted to emphasize the parallel between the first and second sections, between the representation of Jackson and the representation of me, and to introduce the idea of the potentials that lie just outside of any frame earlier. Also, it felt important that the poem be in all couplets—again about doubling between me and Jackson, past and present—except for that one line which is just a list of mechanisms by which a gender nonconforming person can find themselves trapped. I got rid of that bit at the end about birds, because I don’t know what it was doing there… I guess I was trying to explain how the body could be “not a question,” but it becomes a question again in that attempt at justification. So, no birds. Finally, the word “room” in the first line became “frame” after I inserted this poem into my manuscript, because “room” in that book takes on an overdetermined meaning that doesn’t make sense in the world of this poem. Oh! And “//” became “…” I don’t know why!

(The poem was originally published in Indiana Review, though this final version is slightly different than that version.)

still life

to Lawrence Jackson, arrested in Chicago for wearing a dress, 1881


A figure in the frame. Black dress slit
up the thigh, a voice issues from the seam.

I sit in the dark & watch your hips.
Your practiced walk.



Somewhere, there is a photograph
of me in strapless dress. Me, flexing

my grin, my skinny arms. An image
won’t show you the fight

at its edges—my girlfriend shining
like a pearl, her father’s finger

on the shutter, the compromise
beneath the skirt.



If I can see you only in this moment
you are caught, what kind of we

does that make? Rows of dark bodies
hunched against the page, above

the page. In the archive of ink
& yellow trees, there you are

before the judge, offering to leave
the city, to walk away with nothing

in your pockets. No pockets.
This, you think, is what they want

from you. To look & not see you
standing.



What happens after that?
The trail ends with you, framed

by dark. They don’t want us to leave,
exactly. Instead, to not have to look

to know we’re there. Anything
can be made into a cage—

garment, sentence, cage.



I draw a frame around the frame,
a bright afternoon in Indiana

on your shoulders, dress
black & spun in a field of gold,

dress a knot of brazen black
birds, the body not a question.

still life

to Lawrence Jackson, arrested in Chicago for wearing a dress, 1881


A figure in a room. Black dress slit
up the thigh. A voice issues from the seam.

The papers call you an almost woman.
I sit in the dark & watch your hips,

your practiced walk.

//

If I know you only in the moment
you were caught, what kind of we

can that make? Rows of dark bodies
hunched against the page, above

the page. The strangest thing
is that you offered to leave

the city, to walk away with nothing
in your pockets. With no pockets.

This, you think, is what they want
from you. To look & not see you standing.

//

Somewhere, there is a photograph of me
in strapless dress. Me, flexing

my grin, my skinny arms. What an image
won’t show you is the fight at the edges

of the moment—my girlfriend shining
like a pearl, her father’s finger

on the shutter, the compromise
beneath the skirt.

//

They built a room & locked you in it.
The problem is they don’t want

to not see us, exactly. Instead
for us to adhere where they can’t

see, but know we’re there.

//

Already, you are queen of Chicago.
My head shakes somewhere

in the future—Envy? Disbelief?
I draw a frame around the frame,

a bright afternoon in Indiana
draped on your shoulders,

dress black & spun in a field
of gold, dress a knot of brazen

black birds, the body not
a question. Birds eat & birds fly

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Nicole Sealey

Originally, I’d envisioned writing six “Clue” sestinas, each accusing a different character of Mr. Boddy's murder. After writing the second installment, however, I realized that six murder/mystery sestinas would be overkill — pun not intended— and one alternate ending was enough.

I conceived of the idea for "Clue" at either the 2009 or 2010 Cave Canem retreat, where the first stanza of the sestina pair was first workshopped. I didn't have much time with the idea/poem then, as I had to write a new poem each day. When I returned home, however, I hit the ground running. I knew I wanted the telutons or end words to be variations of the characters' names, so I scanned the dictionary for variants of green, mustard, peacock, plum, scarlet and white. My search yielded little for peacock and scarlet, but much for the other four words. I was restricted by both the results of my search and by the conditions I had set for the poem. One such condition: I limited my use of the characters' proper names as telutons to only eighteen times per sestina. The overuse of and over-leaning on their proper names, I suspected early on, could limit the trajectory of invention — in terms of mystery and surprise. I couldn't have that.

 Initial notes for "clue"

Initial notes for "clue"

 "clue" draft -- not done, despite note

"clue" draft -- not done, despite note

Clue

i.  

“Hands down, mustard
is the tastiest condiment,” coughed Professor Plum—
his full mouth feigning hunger for the greens-
only sandwiches Mrs. White
laid out for Mr. Boddy’s guests. Miss Scarlet
hadn’t time to peel off her peacoat

before the no-frills food, which she declined, and a pre-cocktail
cocktail, which she accepted. Colonel Mustard
refused all fare, citing the risk of sullying his scarlet
and gold Marine Corps suit, then ate the sugarplums
that happenchanced his pockets like lint. Mrs. White
funneled the motley crew into the green- 

house, where Mr. Green
was rumoring—his hand bridging his mouth to Mrs. Peacock’s
ear in an effort to convince the white-
haired heiress that the sandwich-making maidservant must’ve
poisoned their plum
wine. Mr. Boddy’s award-winning scarlet

runners initially amused Miss Scarlet,
the way one is amused by another with the same name. Mr. Green
thought it odd Mr. Boddy didn’t show, told Professor Plum
as much. “Here we are, pretty as peacocks,
and our host is nowhere to be found,” twirling his mustache
like the villain in a silent black and white.

Minutes into the conservatory tour, Mrs. White
introduced Mr. Boddy, who lay facedown in a scarlet-
berried elder. “This man,” Colonel Mustard
said, “is dead. I know death, even when it’s camouflaged by greenery.”
The discovery proved too much for Mrs. Peacock’s
usual aplomb—
           
she fainted into the arms of Professor Plum.
When she came to, he appeared to her the way a white
knight would look to a distressed damsel. Semiconscious, Mrs. Peacock
pointed to the deceased’s pet Scarlet
Tanager perched on a lead pipe between the body and a briefcase gushing green-
backs. Right away, Colonel Mustard

mustered up an alibi about admiring Mr. Boddy’s plumerias.
Mr. Green followed suit with his own white-
washed version involving one Miss Scarlet and a misdemeanor plea copped…

ii.

“Dinner is served,” said Mrs. White,
inviting Mr. Boddy’s guests by their noms de plume
into the dining room for a precooked
reheated repast. Miss Scarlet
passed the pickings, which didn’t pass muster,
to a rather ravenous Mr. Green.

Nobody faked affability better than Mr. Green,
waving his napkin like a white
flag, acting out the conquered in Colonel Mustard’s
combat stories. Here was Professor Plum’s
chance to charm a certain lady, catching what he called scarlet
fever. “I’ve seen more convincing peacocking

from a tadpole,” quipped Mrs. Peacock,
retiring to the library, green
tea in hand and a tickled Miss Scarlet
in tow. Mr. Boddy’s absence was so brazen it bred white
noise not even tales of exemplum
heroism, narrated by and starring Colonel Mustard,

could quiet—his presence, by all accounts, as keen as mustard
and showy as a pride of peacocks.
Like a boy exiled to his room, Professor Plum
excused himself, giving the others the green
light to do the same. Mrs. White
was in the kitchen scouring skillets

when she heard who she thought was Miss Scarlet
scream. Mr. Boddy’s musty
old library was a crime scene, his final fall on this white-
knuckle ride towards death. “For the dead,” Mrs. Peacock
said, “the grass is greener
on the side of the living.” While plumbing

Mr. Boddy’s body for clues, Professor Plum
found no visible wound—the would-be host appeared scarless,
despite blood haloing his head on the shagreen
rug and a bloodstained candlestick Colonel Mustard  
recognized from dinner. Mrs. Peacock
avoided the sight, turning white

as the sheet with which Mrs. White covered the corpse. Plum
sick of the “poppycock” accusations, she sped into the starlit
night in a ragtop mustang belonging to Mr. Green.