Poetry Issue #61

Breathing America

Brown Dad flooded the house with English; 

it swept through the open front and back doors 

and trickled in through drafty windowsills. 

He stored it in the cabinets and refrigerator 

to pour out in the face of want.

Sentences were broken: no English, no eat.

 

Brown Dad understood a human body, like fish,

absorbs its surroundings. He understood the math: 

6 and 8 year-old boys should not be in kindergarten. 

He understood the price of broken English is 

a stack of final notices and treading water, you hope.

 

Brown Dad counted all the time: 

a regular American income, multiple credit cards, 

private school, ten fingers around a Cebuano’s neck, 

4.4 pounds per square inch to choke it, 

his weight, 220 pounds, to hold it down. 

 

Thin throats crush easily 

and there’s nothing thinner 

than a voice in a flood.

 

Like fish, his kids breathed through their skin 

till the difference between water and ocean was lost. 

To breathe in these depths, my family exchanged 

broken dialects for unaccented regrets.

 

Every Other Word Is Silence: A Broken Pantoum

If white is the absence color,

I’m half brown

and half nothing

build an identity with this

 

I’m half brown,

just enough to be passed over

for that date

a job

some happiness

build an identity with this

with the absence of love, stability, and joy

 

just brown enough to be passed over

for that date

a job

some happiness

filled with aspiration to pick up these pieces and build

with the absence of love, stability, and joy

create a vocabulary where every other word is silence

 

filled with aspiration to pick up these pieces and build

and half nothing

create a vocabulary where every other word is silence

if white is the absence of color

Bury It When You Land 

White Mom doesn’t talk about migration. 

When she tries, she punctuates with hopeful 

doom scrolling her work email.

She tells me about coming to California, 

about a working 13-year-old slapping

sandwich layers together during lunch rush,

about a secret account and hidden cash 

in books, about saving for private school 

just to distance from them, 

her voice lowers: Blacks.

The story I want to hear, though, 

the one I press and ply her with drinks for, 

is the why: Why move here? 

The story I want to hear—the one I rewrite 

and revise questions to dig with like

uselessly sharpened shovel blades—

is the story of a fracturing family 

hoping a continental shift would somehow 

make them whole. 

The story I want to hear, 

the one she can’t tell because 

there is no direct White translation 

for the words is how: 

“We were wrong.”

Brown Dad doesn’t talk about migration.

When he tries, he punctuates it in sudden

departures for car repair and swap meets. 

He tells me about entering White countries

about working weeks for free to show his

ability only to be paid under the table. 

About “Sure,” he’d say. “Pay what you can,

when you can.” About how he could count

“what he could earn,” but was silent

“when they didn’t pay.”

The story I want to hear, though,

the one he tells indirectly in chores, 

is the why: Why migrate?

The story I want to hear—the one I ask

only in my head because all tongues

to him are cutting blades—

is the story of a man moving oceans away

with a family on his back, keeping them

together but not whole.

The story I want to hear,

the one he can’t tell because

like any muscle, the tongue needs exercise,

and his doesn’t move is how: “I had enough

strength to carry only us.”

Escape Is a Cradle to Grave Profession

Brown Dad has a bug-out bag,

it’s a briefcase he’s carried 

around from town to town

from country to country

his little black box, 

the thing you need after the disaster.

In this box is all the things that count:

birth certificates, passports, citizenships, deeds,

a document for every important passage

and he has two of each. He told me, once, 

I had another brother, you see, stillborn.

I took his birth certificate and built a life.

I asked “why?” And he answers:

You never know, but he tells me

so much about himself in the parts

that I do know: he is the kind of person

that might need a new identity

with behavior bordering on a shunning

if not the town’s torches and pitchforks.

He’s never needed it, but I know why

he keeps it: there is no room he enters

that doesn’t feel a second from stifling,

no job he takes that doesn’t feel crushing,

no relationship he has that doesn’t feel

close to tragic. He needs the bag

just to feel safe enough to live

and love in his own way. 

Evergreen Bowling Lanes

Construction paper cutouts

red, orange, and yellow leaves 

taped to the wall, signaling fall

in ways that California’s trees don’t.

The walls are painted with Tiki images

and large green bamboo,

all decked out as paradise:

paradise in fall,

paradise in a bowling alley.

The competition was glossy and LCDs.

Here, it was projectors and handwriting,

some paint, and schizophrenic paradises: 

mid-90s paradise rockabilly,

late-90s paradise streaked with red,

celebrating laser tag next door,

but always underneath and returning:

grass huts, hula girls, and surfers.

Here is a struggle to be identified,

different from your expectations,

a declaration: “You cannot know 

me from how I look.” 

The competition,

clean and automated, 

always wins.

The bulldozers come

pushing, crunching,

breaking the evergreen 

paint underneath.

They don’t have to know you

to destroy you.

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