Bruised Breath


Still I’m not used to these days where the sun can’t even lift

her head above the blanket of clouds

’cause where I come from

storms don’t last long

even tornadoes are come and gone quick

like a hit and run fleeing the scene before

the red light’s even turned green

leaving the wreckage behind

like the bruised purple green and gold

on her face after he leaves, the black eye

she got by accident–or so she

told the story


It was no accident,

what happened there, no natural disaster;

we’d been warned what would happen after

the big one hit and the water rose

they did nothing, though

and the storm passed

and the eye of the hurricane looked down and saw

people perching like pigeons on rooftops or

waving white sheets like wings to carry them up

to the helicopters—if only

Icarus hadn’t died in the water

if only we had wings here, instead of in the hereafter

and long after the winds had faded and rain dried

on skin, the shadow of death

loomed over the valley of that city

a bruise too big to hide, still tender

after the rest of the body

had forgot

about the terror


I’m still not used to this ache

between my shoulders

where my wings once sprouted, I’m not

used to eyes clouded

by cataracts of hate

like waterfalls spilling from the sky’s

black eye to the pavement

flooding attics as if

they was basements

I’m not used to asking for help

prefer cursing to praying for charity, grace, mercy

like the names folks used to give girls

back when they were likely to die

in childbirth or fever, or before their first kiss—see

I know too much history, it weighs me down

sinks me to the bottom

the way Icarus’s wings drowned him

and all I can see looking up

is clouds brooding overhead

bruising the sun’s face and cutting

her gold light to shreds—maybe if I wave my white feathers

they’ll come down and beat me up



Maybe if I keep quiet

won’t nobody hear my heart pounding

with dread

thump—see the lightning flash

thump—count the seconds passed

thump—between light and thunder

thump—between alive and going under

thump—then divide by your breath, what’s left of it

one mississippi

two mississippi

three mississippi



can you hear it

the wind is rising again


This is even better than that trip to Vegas

with your frat brothers–here they’ve got casinos

too, and you

You’re blowing all your cash in one go

got a daiquiri in one hand

hand grenade in the other

You feel like a cool motherfucker

despite the humid heat slicking

your skin

Got white powdered sugar round your mouth

and down the line of her back

dress unzipped, you bent her

into a crescent–you ain’t got the spine

for that yourself–

you used her, your plaything

feed money in like a slot machine ching!

and pull the lever; you

jack off tonight to bright lights and peepshows ’cause

tomorrow you’ll leave her

today you’re James fucking Bond

tomorrow you’re Ward Cleaver

But when morning comes you’ll wake

with tongue swollen

like canals drunk on storm surge,

your head drumming like a jazz funeral

the second line beat of a dirge

that comes from fists pounding through attic roofs,

from Congo Square drums

waves against the hulls of black ships

crammed with molasses and rum on the way

back from this shore


Tonight she’s your lover in diamonds shinin

tomorrow a cubic zirconium whore

You’ll pray forgiveness for your sins, barter

with the father for ten hail Mary’s

to one Magdalene–the lady you used up

and left, on the riverbank, for someone to carry

home and fix up again.


Meet me at the border.

There where little girls use

yellow crime scene tape to play jump-rope

where moms learn the ropes of food stamps,

jump though the hoops

of social security; where their boys

play hoops and shoot from three-point-crown-lines

and insecurity tapes record the noiseless scenes

of convenience stores at nighttime

better not make a scene or you’ll lose

loose your rope or you’ll make a crime scene

zip code encoding your chances of survival

as you take your last breath

(wheezing from the asthma)

take your chance and let feet jump at the end

of your rope, pray you’ll sink

This is the valley of the shadow of death and

we are right on the brink.

Meet me at the border.

Meet me at the edge of your neighborhood

and mine, that thin red line where angels fear to tread

and latin kings quick-draw the line between the quick and the dead

with 9-millimeter lead pencils

Meet me there and we’ll stencil

a new border, sketch with incense and dreamcatchers

zig-zag the edges til the marginalized

becomes the center and we’ll devise

a whole new urban legend to match

this map of yours and mine.

this morning I wake to jackhammer birdsong

and the smell of burnt rubber and coal

the street near my home narrows, then cracks

into a patchwork of turtlebacked pavement

scales of asphalt layer like skin under

a magnifying glass with

tar-colored scabs where the patches

don’t quite fit

in the summer, birds and mosquitoes

divebomb the water where potholes pucker

in the winter, frost traces the fissures

(split by temperature, and ice)

like ashy skin on an elbow


this month they’re resurfacing

ripping up layers with a huge metal-toothed comb

shredding the surface til it’s

a danger to feet and bike wheels, revealing

what lies beneath: gravel and sand

blackened as soot, a metal grate

brick cobbles, a squashed aluminum can

two more layers of asphalt

this city likes to cover its history up

spackling bullet holes, filling in marshes

taping together broken laws

tearing down burned buildings, concrete masses

leaving only weeds and parking meters along blocks

where homes used to be


this year they’re fixing roads

calling it recovery

but what the city covers still

remains, a scar gone deep beneath

shining new skin

a story silently sleeping, waiting

for the next winter to pass and spring to

melt away pavement like ice


for us to leave

and weeds to spring up, crack

gravel skin and metal bones

spread seeds where we used to

patchwork roads, where we covered the city’s body

with a shroud stitched of smoke.

Dear Chicago,

I love the afternoon light glinting off your teeth

grinning down the length of your lanky streets

and winking.  Or I love the Sears tower

ugly as an electric plug but dauntless, daring

to poke the sky in the belly

’til she laughs thunder

all the way to her toes.  I love

the summer haze over your lake, blurring the

line between sky and water

a faulty mirror to show us only your best Side

distorting the cracks and potholes

I love the sunsets

even though I know they burn brighter from

slowly accumulating death

from the  smokestacks breathing coal over the places

where you keep your poor, your immigrants.

I eat breakfast today of elotes or leftover dosai

before rushing along to work on a

silver zipper down your sprawling spine, alone

with thirty other people and the skyline at my elbow.

I love snow on the boulevards, thick and white

a motherly blanket you wrap around me before

warming it to slush–for now though

you’re making up

for the litter and the boarded buildings

you’re promising to do better, next time

For now I believe you, I

forgive you Chicago

and your gleaming glass smile

your sunsets, your chlorine water

I forgive you

with this postcard, a letter from a lover

who hasn’t left you yet.


He looks crazy.
Red lightning bolts of blood
shoot through his eyes
the whites gone yellow like sour milk
while dark pools peer out holding
shadows within
the shadows he sees from the corners
of his eyes
He’s clearly insane.
Hair matted and locked
like Dred Scott in the prison
of his mind–he’s a slave
in a free state of this nation
while the State of the Nation applauds another year
of liberty, indivisible,
he’s an outlaw
he’s the invisible man
the shaking cup in his hand and his hand-me-down cloak
work like magic, make eyes slide
away from him, guiltily
til he becomes just a ghost to avoid
while we
annoyed by the brief interruption of our
comfortable lives, don’t stop walking
don’t stop to realize that he belies
the national myth of prosperity;
in these mean streets where we
daily ignore our fellow man
don’t give him a glance, much less
a helping hand, we
look away from the shame
of our acclaimed democracy

And he becomes crazy
–so we can look away–
–so he can take the blame–
–he’s a threat for us
the man who doesn’t have a name
the man we call crazy
when really
we’re the ones who must be

“Quartz countertops

Smart web-capable apartments

Designer hardwood flooring”

gushes the ad on the side of a recently renovated condo building.  This neighborhood was born rich, the grand landscapes of the park considered a suitable sight for upper class eyes, and it stayed rich.  The carriage houses where residents’ steeds used to stand now hold those of the Lexus and Mercedes breeds.  The soft, gold-tinted glow of track lighting spills from windows onto the sidewalk, and I can’t see anybody living inside.

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