Richard Blanco: One Today and Other Poems about Belonging and Fitting In

Introductory Essay

Kent L. Boyer

With an unexpected phone call one day from the White House, Richard Blanco recently became the newest of just four Inaugural poets in the history of America. In the exquisite company of the likes of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, he is the youngest, the first Latino, and the first openly gay poet to have this honor.  His poem, One Today, sets out to remind us that we Americans share with one another the very essences of life: the same today, the same light, the same ground, the same sky, the same moon, and figuratively, even the same breath.  In Inaugural poem tradition, Blanco’s poem paints an image of a unified people of America gently turning our faces together to look forward to the future with hope and expectation.  On Inauguration days, a great tradition of our democracy, we are often reminded and we sometimes believe that we are each equal participants in America.

Richard Blanco was born to Cuban parents in Madrid who moved soon afterward to New York, and then settled in Miami where he was raised.  He became a registered civil engineer and later earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University.  He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Central Connecticut State University.  Blanco is the author of four books of poetry and has contributed to dozens of publications of poetry and non-fiction writing. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards for his creative writing.

In choosing Richard Blanco, President Obama (himself a “first” in many important ways) struck a chord with LGBT Americans just months after he had publicly opined that gay marriage should be legal here.  In fact, Blanco read his poem that day just minutes before the President’s Inaugural speech where he stunningly (and unexpectedly) equated Stonewall with Selma and Seneca Falls. The President went on to say, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

This volume, One Today and Other Poems about Belonging and Fitting In, features the full text of the Inaugural Poem as well as the re-publishing of a few carefully selected previous Blanco works on the themes of belonging and fitting in.  If One Today is successful in its attempt to convince us that we each are a part of a larger whole, than surely that great umbrella has room enough for every gay boy and man, lesbian girl and woman, transsexual person of either gender, and all queer people who, in 2013, still often wonder where they belong and how they fit in.  Blanco’s poem – One Today – and Obama’s subsequent Inaugural speech, both point to an America where “otherness” of any kind – race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national ancestry – can be celebrated by America’s belief that we are all equal and may participate; where we acknowledge our shared lives and commitment to  democracy.

“All of us as vital as the one light we move through…” Blanco writes in One Today, expressing that broad theme of equality and shared experience.  Later in the poem, in a really lovely passage, he paints the picture of us holding doors open for one another, saying hello in “the language my mother taught me …. into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice.”  Blanco’s experience as a first-generation immigrant brings a very personal perspective to the inauguration.  The poem concludes with “…one country—all of us—facing the stars hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.”  He has said in media interviews that after he read the poem at the podium and returned to his seat next to his mother, whom he brought as his guest, he whispered to her, “Finally we are Americans.”

Blanco’s poetry is often about just those themes –belonging and fitting in – expressed in writing about his home and family. He often writes about the assimilation issues common to otherness. At once deeply autobiographical and yet surprisingly universal (considering he grew up an immigrant in exile) his poetry is a sometimes just a celebration of growing up and surviving.  

America is a delightful poem about Thanksgiving, which Blanco’s Cuban immigrant family celebrated with pork.  His writing about orchestrating their first turkey Thanksgiving – with less than stellar results – is tender and funny.  When he writes that he translated the candied yam recipe from the marshmallow bag for his mama, we clearly understand the bridging role of a first generation immigrant child who wants his family to fit in – to be like everyone else.

Another frequent “fitting in” theme in Blanco’s work is an introverted and sometimes painful look at the growing-up of a gay boy, including the derision of his abuela and the emotional distance of his padre, both now deceased. While it is true that all children must negotiate their identities in an attempt to fit in and find their way, young homosexuals like Blanco have an extra burden in these negotiations – not only are their awakening selves unlike the vast majority of the people they know, but in many cases, the same people they love and from whom they expect love in return show them instead utter disdain, whether wittingly or unwittingly.  Too often these loved ones remind the queer child with words or actions that they disapprove of who the child is.  Blanco writes about this phenomenon (a universal one for homosexuals) honestly – sometimes uncomfortably honestly – but without self-pity.  His poems unapologetically say, “this is what it was like to grow up in a family who lacks the skills to shepherd or even support the complicated identity struggles of a gay child.”

Many of us – immigrant or not, gay and straight – can relate to that silent relationship that can develop between a boy becoming a man and his distant father.  Blanco writes about a summer spent riding with his dad in the car to and from work in What’s Love Got to Do? “All summer I wait for him to say something – anything,” he writes, but in the end he got at least some satisfaction in just agreeing with his dad about their mutual like for Tina Turner.  His relationship with his grandmother wasn’t so benign.  Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother is the grandmother’s laundry list of ways to hide your emerging homosexuality, no doubt compiled over a dozen or more painful years for Richard.  The message in this poem is very clear: his grandmother didn’t approve of who he was and was very vocal about that disapproval.  In fact, she sets herself up as his moral compass and watchdog in the repeated line, “I’ve seen you…”  The last four lines of the poem, written in his grandmother’s voice, betray the magical and accepting relationship we’d all wish for between a child and his grandmother.  “I don’t care –  / you will not look like a goddamn queer / I’ve seen you… / even if you are one,” he writes her saying.  

Abuela’s Voice: A Chronicle reveals more about his troubling relationship with his grandmother.  It begins with her sneering, “I'd rather have a granddaughter who's a whore / than a grandson who's a faggot like you.”   Blanco goes on to describe a relationship in which he is constantly trying to please his grandmother by being the little machismo she wants him to be, but is unable to succeed because of who he actually is.  Presumably later, perhaps when he was a teenager, he writes her offering him a deal:

I'll give you and Tania $1,000 if you get engaged 

this year: $3,000 for the honeymoon, and $2,000 

for every year or child together, up to $10,000. 

She's worth it - a strong woman who knows 

how to handle you - and she's so pretty too. 

As damaging and hurtful as this must have been, Blanco’s relationship apparently continues with his abuela to the end of her life as the poem goes on to describe her in her failing years.

The next poems, Playing House with Pepin and Afternoons as Endora are two delightfully autobiographical pastime poems that reveal how Blanco’s childhood imagination occupied him and the world to which he retreated in order to be himself. Pepin is Blanco's pretend husband, with whom he imagines a happy domestic life on Cucamonga Street with their son Succotash, who acts out inappropriately by barking and licking his father’s fingers.  In this poem, Richard (the wife) has to set Pepin straight on man-woman roles and, unfortunately, verbally abuses little Succotash like his grandmother does him:

I yell at him like my grandmother does:

Sit up like a man! Eat or no dessert for you!

Succotash runs away – he’s a big sissy.

In the final lines of the poem, he's forced out of his domestic fantasy as his dad comes into the room, "…real angry: Who you talking to? What’s going on?"

Afternoons as Endora is a delightful autobiographical poem about Blanco's identification with Endora from the television show “Bewitched,” and his antics every afternoon as the 60s comedy reruns air on TV.  The poem begins, "I'm a boy who hates being a boy…" as he schemes with Endora, who has the power to turn "…boys at recess into ants I can squish …. and trick my mother into signing me up for art classes."  (His grandmother said art was for sissies.) In one of the few references in his poems in which he reacts to grandmother's verbal and emotional abuse, he writes, "We turn my grandmother into a mute so she can’t scream me: Go play outside! Don’t be such a sissy! Talk Like a man, will you?”  By the last line, the episode is over and Endora has left him, "alone in my room again, the boy afraid of being a boy, dressed like a witch, wanting to vanish too."

In our final two poems, Blanco writes soulfully about his personal coming-to-terms with his family as an adult.   Although very personal and autobiographical, these poems are, in their own way, another one of those shared experiences he reminded us of in One Today. Who hasn’t had to re-evaluate their childhood as an adult in order to understand their adult selves better?

Burning in the Rain begins, "Someday compassion would demand / I set myself free of my desire to recreate / my father…"  He decides that today is the day he will set himself free of this and other past relationships that bind him.  He writes about these troubles as sheets of paper, which he takes outside to the patio and attempts to burn.  Perhaps the sheets of paper are a metaphor - perhaps they are poems he's written in order to try to understand these troubled relationships.  Whatever they are, ultimately his resolve to free himself will not come today:  as he tries to light the pyre, the rain comes and prevents the pages from burning.  One gets the sense this isn't the first (or last) time he'll try to set himself free from these lives.  In Since Unfinished, Blanco gives us a rare look at his grandfather with a tender scene of his grandfather teaching him to make grass whistle.  This, he tells us, is how long he's "been writing this."  He goes on to describe a moment where he learned that living things die when he finds and buries a dead sparrow, a time he watched his dad shave and their eyes connected, a moment where his mother removed a splinter from his thumb and kissed it.  He's also been writing this, he says, "since / my grandmother first called me / a faggot and I said nothing," and since his early feelings of sexual interest in boys and "men I knew couldn't love."  The final lines take us back to perhaps the one childhood relationship that signaled that he belonged, he fit in, he was OK - the one with his grandfather.  The poem concludes:

I sit to read and watch the sunset

like my grandfather did everyday,

remembering him and how 

to make a blade of grass whistle.

Here, then, is Richard Blanco’s One Today, President Obama’s Second Inauguration Poem, and a small collection of the wonderful poetry of Richard Blanco.

(all poems copyright Richard Blanco)

One Today

(read by poet Richard Blanco at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 21, 2013)

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies. One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.

America

I.

Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered

at least half-a-dozen uses for peanut butter--

topping for guava shells in syrup,

butter substitute for Cuban toast,

hair conditioner and relaxer--

Mamà never knew what to make

of the monthly five-pound jars

handed out by the immigration department

until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.

II.

There was always pork though,

for every birthday and wedding,

whole ones on Christmas and New Year's Eves,

even on Thanksgiving Day--pork,

fried, broiled or crispy skin roasted--

as well as cauldrons of black beans,

fried plantain chips and yuca con mojito.

These items required a special visit

to Antonio's Mercado on the corner of 8th street

where men in guayaberas stood in senate

blaming Kennedy for everything--"Ese hijo de puta!"

the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue

filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;

clinging to one another's lies of lost wealth,

ashamed and empty as hollow trees.

III.

By seven I had grown suspicious--we were still here.

Overheard conversations about returning

had grown wistful and less frequent.

I spoke English; my parents didn't.

We didn't live in a two story house

with a maid or a wood panel station wagon

nor vacation camping in Colorado.

None of the girls had hair of gold;

none of my brothers or cousins

were named Greg, Peter, or Marsha;

we were not the Brady Bunch.

None of the black and white characters

on Donna Reed or on Dick Van Dyke Show

were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.

Patty Duke's family wasn't like us either--

they didn't have pork on Thanksgiving,

they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;

they didn't have yuca, they had yams

like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.

IV.

A week before Thanksgiving

I explained to my abuelita

about the Indians and the Mayflower,

how Lincoln set the slaves free;

I explained to my parents about

the purple mountain's majesty,

"one if by land, two if by sea"

the cherry tree, the tea party,

the amber waves of grain,

the "masses yearning to be free"

liberty and justice for all, until

finally they agreed:

this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,

as well as pork.

V.

Abuelita prepared the poor fowl

as if committing an act of treason,

faking her enthusiasm for my sake.

Mamà set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven

and prepared candied yams following instructions

I translated from the marshmallow bag.

The table was arrayed with gladiolus,

the plattered turkey loomed at the center

on plastic silver from Woolworths.

Everyone sat in green velvet chairs

we had upholstered with clear vinyl,

except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated

in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.

I uttered a bilingual blessing

and the turkey was passed around

like a game of Russian Roulette.

"DRY", Tío Berto complained, and proceeded

to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings

and cranberry jelly--"esa mierda roja," he called it.

Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie--

pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.

Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee

then abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,

put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family

began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,

sweating rum and coffee until they remembered--

it was 1970 and 46 degrees--

in América.

After repositioning the furniture,

an appropriate darkness filled the room.

Tío Berto was the last to leave.

What’s Love Got to Do?

All summer Papa holds a cigarette out the window of his laser- 

green Buick, points his lips left to blow the smoke into the mirage 

of exhaust between rush-hour cars. All summer he listens to La 

Cubanisima on AM radio exploding with accounts of how Castro 

took everything we had, how we'd get it back someday. All sum- 

mer he wears polyester ties and his over-polished loafers. All 

summer I float my arm like a wing out the window as we glide 

down Coral Way, past storefronts and memories: the 7-11 stops 

for Blow-Pops and Slurpees, the square pizzas at Frankie's, the 

birthday dinners at Canton Rose. All summer I want to ask if he 

remembers what I remember, but I don't, so he just drives, all 

summer, keeping a safe distance in the right lane, from our 

Miami suburb to my uncle's bodega, where all summer I price and 

rotate, mop and bag and save for my own car. All summer I don't 

want to be me. I don't want to be my father either, eleven years in 

his windowless office adding and subtracting, wishing and forget- 

ting he could be more. All summer he picks me up at 6:00 and we 

drive back on the same road, the same mix of cigarettes and pifia 

colada air-freshener, the same visors eclipsing our faces, the same 

silence. All summer I wait for him to say something - anything, 

like: I hate grapefruit juice, or I can’t stand the Navarros, or I’ve 

cheated on your mother, or I hate this life. What he did say was:

love Tina Turner, every time I took control of the radio and 

tuned in to her FM hits. All summer he sang along in his thick 

Cuban accent (waus love gotta do /gotta do wis it) and whistle 

through the words he didn't know. Then he'd say something 

about Mama and him in the sixties dancing to Ike and Tina in 

Cuba, and pick up the refrain again (waus love but a secon' hand 

emoshun). He embarrassed me with his singing all summer, that 

summer before his throat swelled, before the weekly visits to Dr. 

Morad, before the mitomycin and Hail Marys failed, before he'd 

never sing again. That summer, when all I managed to mutter 

was: Yeah, I love Tina, too.

Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother

Never drink soda with a straw-

milk shakes? Maybe.

Stop eyeing your mother’s Avon catalog,

and the men’s underwear in those Sears flyers.

I’ve seen you…

Stay out of her Tupperware parties

and perfume bottles – don’t let her kiss you,

she kisses you much too much.

Avoid hugging men, but if you must,

pat them real hard

on the back, even

if it’s your father.

Must you keep that cat? Don’t pet him so much,

Why don’t you like dogs?

Never play house, even if you’re the husband.

Quit hanging out with that Henry kid, he’s too pale,

and I don’t care what you call them

those GI Joes of his

are dolls.

Don’t draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets.

I’ve seen you…

Don’t draw at all – no coloring books either.

Put away your crayons, your Play-Doh, your Legos.

Where are you hot Wheels, 

your laser gun and handcuffs,

the knives I gave you?

Never fly a kite or roller skate, but light

all the firecrackers you want,

kill all the lizards you can, cut up worms – 

feed them to that cat of yours.

Don’t sit Indian style with your legs crossed – 

you’re no Indian.

Stop click-clacking your sandals-

you’re no girl.

For God’s sake, never pee sitting down.

I’ve seen you…

Never take a bubble bath or wash your hair

with shampoo – shampoo is for women.

So is conditioner.

So is mousse.

So is hand lotion.

Never file your nails or blow-dry your hair -

go to the barber ship with your grandfather –

you’re not unisex.

Stay out of the kitchen.  Men don’t cook – 

they eat. Eat anything you want, except:

deviled eggs

Blow Pops

croissants (Bagels? Maybe.)

cucumber sandwiches

petit fours

Don’t watch Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.

Don’t stare at The Six-Million Dollar Man.

I’ve seen you…

Never dance alone in your room:

Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain

and Tennille, Bette Midler, and all musicals – 

forbidden.

Posters of kittens, Star Wars, or the Eiffel Tower – 

forbidden.

Those fancy books on architecture and art – 

I threw them in the trash.

You can’t wear cologne or puka shells

and I better not catch you in clogs.

If I see you in a ponytail – I’ll cut if off.

What? No, you can’t pierce your ear,

left or right side – 

I don’t care – 

you will not look like a goddamn queer

I’ve seen you…

even if you are one.

Abuela’s Voices: A Chronicle

I: I'd rather have a granddaughter who's a whore

than a grandson who's a faggot like you. 

In the empty parking lot of St. Jude's Church 

in Westchester, on a summer day, she lets go 

and falls to the gritty pavement while I pedal 

and pedal and glide without training wheels 

for the first time. At last, in perfect balance, 

I'm the perfect hombresito she wants me to be, 

which I guess means needing nobody's help, 

being in total control, and going where I want. 

I want to look back at the clapping I hear, see 

her standing 4-foot-10, never prouder of me. 

On the way back, I'm a knight riding my bike 

alongside her, the dry blood over her knees 

reminding me of the scratches on her forearms 

from the guinea hens she strangles every year 

in the backyard for Noche Buena. But tonight 

she sautes chicken fricase with extra drumsticks 

just for me. Manana, she says, while dribbling 

sauce over my rice. Tomorrow we’ll try the skates. 

II: Higher, higher! The ripe ones are on top. Arriba! 

I need at least ten more. Can't you reach them! 

The leaves filter out her hollers into whispers 

at the top of Ms. Pikes's mango tree where I am 

perched above all the neighborhood's rows 

of rooftops, fence lines, and telephone poles. 

I'm almost a little god, my body suspended 

from my left arm hooked around the trunk, 

and my right armed with a broom, hunting 

through branches for ripe-colored mangoes: 

one-third emerald, a third ruby, a third gold 

falling from the sky down to Abuela below me, 

scuttling like a hen after every rolling mango 

that lands unscathed. Hours later we return 

with full buckets swinging on my handlebars. 

All afternoon she'll lean over the kitchen sink 

skinning mangoes, whistling fifties boleros off-key, 

pausing every few minutes to remember love. 

All afternoon she'll force pound after pound 

of sugar into her mangoes, making her famous 

mermelada for her sisters and sisters' friends, 

to show off her sweet-thumb and how high 

I climbed, how strong her machito is getting. 

III: I sold bras, soap, batteries - anything I could – 

door-to-door en Nueva York. I worked for a year 

like una perra, but saved enough to buy this house. 

So the legendary story goes on those afternoons 

she'd spend stationed at the head of the table, 

her Napoleonic legs swinging short of the floor, 

while dishing her medley of gossip and sermon 

over the telephone to her sisters and neighbors, 

interrupting herself to moisten her fingertips 

with saliva, thumbing through her lotto tickets. 

Or the tale of how she was accused en Cuba 

by los comunistas of conspiracy with la CIA, 

(which I thought was Sears mispronounced) 

because everyone was envious of her house, 

the first one in Hormiguero tiled with mosaico. 

Decades later, I visit the old house, step over 

the tiles, moldy and broken. She hadn't lied. 

IV: Que? Those sort of things are not for boys. 

Every day after lunch Mrs. McNulty reads 

from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 

while the class keeps their hands busy with 

color-by-number, crochet, popsicle-sticks, 

or latch-hook rugs like the kit Abuela made 

my father and me return to Kmart because 

I was not a girl and I'd never be an artista. 

I sit every afternoon at my desk, conscious 

of my empty hands, listening to the story 

of the magical world behind the wardrobe: 

I'm the noble lion. Abuela is the witch. 

V: You'II never be anything unless you have money. 

Put twenty-five cents in your waquita every day, 

and see how rich you'll be in a few years. 

She empties a half empty can of Cafe Bustelo, 

peels apart a brown paper bag, and wraps 

the can with it. I print my full name, draw 

dollar signs and stars with a black marker, 

then glue the lid on and cut a slip on top 

large enough for quarters and folded bills. 

I follow her through the house snooping 

underneath everyone's beds and closets 

until she decides the best hiding place 

for my waquita is her underwear drawer. 

I can't tell anyone, not even my mother, 

she says, dropping the first quarter in for me. 

VI : I'll give you and Tania $1,000 if you get engaged 

this year: $3,000 for the honeymoon, and $2,000 

for every year or child together, up to $10,000. 

She's worth it - a strong woman who knows 

how to handle you - and she's so pretty too. 

VII: Your Abuelo used to write me beautiful poems 

when we were enamorados. You got it from him. 

Reaching to just above my elbow, I hold her 

by her elbow, steer her through the labyrinth 

of supermarket aisles. She looks up to me 

from her steps over the beige linoleum tiles, 

her eyes occluded sapphires, like a newborn 

she repeats herself: I need frijoles/frijoles negros; 

repeats how I once loved her and what/what 

happened? I mumble nothing/nada, rehearsing 

the talk where she is supposed to apologize 

and I accept she didn't know any better. But 

it's not the right time. All she needs today is 

to find pan/pan, leche/leche, and amor/amor. 

VIII: I don't want to be hooked up; not like those 

viejos who can't eat or even shit by themselves. 

Ay no! And all those crazy machines tracking 

my this or my that with those bleeps and dials, 

that electric thing scribbling out my heartbeats 

like love letters, and everyone crowded around me 

crying like fools, feeling sorry, and not knowing 

what to do with the poor viejita already the past. 

Que va! My hands tied by the wrists to the bed? 

My fingers motioning like scissors to cut me off? 

All those tubes down my throat drowning me 

with air so that I can't even speak? I want to go 

quickly - but not quietly - / want to go talking 

as I have talked all my life, with what I've said 

as I've said it. Can you still hear me? Listen 

I want to die living, not like this. Not like this. 

Playing House with Pepin

He’s the man and I’m the girl, Beba,

though I’m not supposed to be.

We live in Poghsquishy, in New York

where my cousin is from.  It’s pretty 

and snow a lot up there, like he says.

My room is the house with a pink roof,

the most biggest one on Cucamonga Street.

I make Pepin pancakes on the dresser

and strawberry Pop-Tarts in the lamp

I give him a kiss just like my mom does

to my dad and he goes to work like him

in a gigan’ic building in the living room.

But he ain’t got a car.  He drive a horse

named Charlie Horse with purple spots.

Our son’s name is Succotash, he barks,

licks Pepin’s fingers when he gets home.

Hi sweetheart, I make him say and kiss me

like on the black-and-white TV shows.

He wants to cook us dinner; I tell him no

he can’t – only the girl is supposed to.

How come? Just ‘cause, that’s all I say

and go into the kitchen in the closet,

come out with cups of Kool-Aid wine

slices of blue and red Play-Doh pizza.

It’s deewishes, but Succotash won’t eat.

I yell at him like my grandmother does:

Sit up like a man! Eat or no dessert for you!

Succotash runs away – he’s a big sissy.

Pepin in tired. We brush our teeth

with my pencils and jump into bed.

I turn off the lights like he asks me.

I ain’t afraid of the dark or his eyes,

or when I put his arm around me.

Good night, honey, I say, give him a kiss

on the lips just like in the soap operas,

but he doesn’t say nothing.  He likes it

when we play house, hates it when

my dad comes in my room, real angry:

Who you talking to? What’s going on?

Afternoons as Endora

I’m a boy who hates being a boy who loves cats and paint-by-number

sets. She’s a witch who loves being a witch who hates mortals. Every

afternoon she pops in on channel six on top of a lampshade or a

banister, and I disappear behind the locked door of my bedroom. I

paint my fingernails crayon-red, wrap a towl around my head like

her bouffant, tie my sheets around my chest into a chiffon muumuu

just like hers, the bedspread draped over my shoulders like her

mauve cape. We give Derwood cat-eye scowls and scoff at Samantha’s

patience with mortals.  In our raspy voices we cast spells turning

Mrs. Kravitz into a Chihuahua and the boys at recess into ants I can

squish.  With a flick of our wrist we puncture the milkman’s truck

tires and conjur up thunderstorms to rain our baseball practice.

With a wave of our billowy sleeves we give Larry Tate amnesia and

trick my mother into signing me up for art classes.  We brew bat’s

wings with eyes of newt into potions to make me like girls and my

father a little more.  We turn my grandmother into a mute so she

can’t scream me: Go play outside! Don’t be such a sissy! Talk Like a man,

will you?  For thirty minutes we sit on clouds, drink bubbly brews

from cognac glasses, gaze into crystal ball at my wonderful future

until – poof- she disappears into a cloud of smoke, leaving me alone

in my room again, the boy afraid of being a boy, dressed like a witch,

wanting to vanish too.

Burning in the Rain

Someday compassion would demand

I set myself free of my desire to recreate

my father, indulge in my mother’s losses,

strangle lovers with words, forcing them

to confess for me and take the blame.

Today was that day: I tossed them, sheet

by sheet on the patio and gathered them

into a pyre. I wanted to let them go

in a blaze, tiny white dwarfs imploding

beside the azaleas and ficus bushes, 

let them crackle, burst like winged seeds,

let them smolder into gossamer embers – 

a thousand gray butterflies in the wind.

Today was that day, but it rained, kept

raining. Instead of fire, water – drops

knocking on doors, wetting windows

into mirrors reflecting me in the oaks.

The garden walls and stones swelling

into ghostlier shades of themselves,

the wind chimes giggling in the storm,

a coffee cup left overflowing with rain.

Instead of burning, my pages turned 

into water lilies floating over puddles,

then tiny white cliffs as the sun set,

finally drying all night under the moon

into papier-mache souvenirs. Today

the rain would not let their lives burn.

Since Unfinished

I’ve been writing this since

the summer my grandfather

taught me how to hold a blade

of grass between my thumbs

and make it whistle, since

I first learned to make green

from blue and yellow, turned

paper into snowflakes, believed

a seashell echoed the sea,

and the sea had no end.

I’ve been writing this since 

a sparrow flew into my class

and crashed into the window,

laid to rest on a bed of tissue

in a shoebox by the swings, since

the morning I first stood up

on the bathroom sink to watch

my father shave, since our eyes

met in that foggy mirror, since

the splinter my mother pulled

from my thumb, kissed my blood.

I’ve been writing this since 

the woman I slept with the night

of my father’s wake, since

my grandmother first called me

a faggot and I said nothing, since

I forgave her and my body

pressed hard against Michael

on the dance floor at Twist since

the years spent with a martini

and men I knew couldn’t love.

I’ve been writing this since

the night I pulled off the road

at Big Sur and my eyes caught 

the insanity of the stars, since

the months by the kitchen window

watching the snow come down

like fallout from a despair I had

no word for, since I stopped

searching for a name and found

myself tick-tock in a hammock

asking nothing of the sky.

I’ve been writing this since

spring, studying the tiny leaves

on the oaks dithering like moths,

contrast to the eon-old fieldstones

unveiled of snow, but forever

works-in-progress, since tonight

with the battled moon behind 

the branches spying on the world – 

same as it ever was – perfectly

unfinished, my glasses and pen 

at rest again on the night table.

I’ve been writing this since

my eyes started seeing less,

my knees aching more, since

I began picking up twigs, feather,

and pretty rocks for no reason

collecting on the porch where 

I sit to read and watch the sunset

like my grandfather did everyday,

remembering him and how 

to make a blade of grass whistle.