Make a Poem Cry
“I can’t see ‘em coming from my eye, so I had to make this poem cry.”
—Jimmy McMillan, an incarcerated poet in California’s prison system.
You can chain the body, the face, the eyes,
the way hands move coarsely over cement
or deftly on tattooed skin with needle.
You can cage the withered membrane,
the withered dream,
the way razor wire, shouts, yells, and batons
can wither spirit.
But how can you imprison a poem?
How can a melody be locked up, locked down?
Yes, even caged birds sing,
even grass sprouts through asphalt,
even a flower blooms in a desert.
And the gardens of trauma we call the incarcerated
can also spring with the vitality of a deep thought,
an emotion buried beneath the facades
deep as rage, deep as grief,
the grief beneath all rages.
The blood of such poems, songs,
emotions, thoughts, dances,
are what flow in all art, stages, films, books.
The keys to liberation are in the heart,
in the mind, behind the cranial sky.
The imagination is boundless,
the inexhaustible in any imprisoned system.
And remember—we are all in some kind of prison.
If only the contrived freedoms
society professes can flow from such water!
The peace of death in life
Heroin’s soundtrack—bitches brew.
Trumpets like trains squealing around a bend,
the way rainwater murmurs along a concrete river.
Skulls whispering you to sleep.
Pain awash in glows from the tip of the toes,
through legs, streaming through the pit of a stomach,
coloring the whole body in hazy blue wash.
Miles knew the chords to blow.
I chipped to soften the edge when things got bad.
When it did, I didn’t want to be around anyone,
stashed among my own ere and score, loitering
inside my own high, in my own morose pose.
Yet Micaela and homie Sharky often joined,
even a jaina or two, and strangers, as rain drops fell.
I recall the headstones of Evergreen Cemetery,
where I leaned back to nod,
and scribble in torn pieces of papers
poems tracked with collapsed veins.
I recall my small garage room,
with no running water or heat,
and feeling the peace of death
cover me as a white sheet in my collapse.
The shadows felt so compelling.
Even when I stopped breathing,
and homeboys forced me up,
ice in pits and groin,
milk injected to un-sing the song.
To quit, I had to accept
never ending ache—
numbness only meant demise.
Now constant pain
is constant reminder—
a holy surrender—
life is pain. Pain is life.
When the pain’s gone, so am I.
TWO LOS ANGELES POEMS
For the thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles who we can't forget
Songs Over Sidewalks
Every summer when Santa Ana winds scatter around dry leaves and dead
tree branches, and droughts make kindle out of the formerly green,
a human hand or lightning strike can awaken the fire in all things,
fire that also burns inside each of us, becoming the searing
soul-birth of creativity—and of dirt, seed-ground for new plants,
flowers, regeneration. Wildfires are metaphor and reality for our internal
and external terrains. Things come back, but not always like before.
There’s a natural order to life, a rhythm we often miss, but the tones
persist despite our lack of hearing, of paying attention—or just ignoring.
Tempos and beats come at us every day, every hour, in dark and in light,
as drops of water or gust-hands on our faces and backs. Los Angeles is music
but also muscles, a rain dance often with no rain, neon glare and smog-tinged
skyline, held together in a spider-web called freeways,
a place where even Jacarandas and palm trees are transplants.
This city gives and takes away, but in nature whatever is removed is returned,
even if in surprising ways, unexpected, with a twist.
The human way is too chaotic, nonsensical, although laden with inventiveness.
Buildings are bricked, stuccoed, and nailed together with stories,
survival stories, war stories, love stories, the kind of harrowing accounts
Los Angeles exudes at 3 am, when ghosts meander the upturned pavement,
rumble by on vintage cars, and all night diners convert to summits for
the played out, heartsick, and suicidal—fodder for Hollywood scripts or L.A.
noir novels. There’s a migrant soul in this rooted city, Skid Row next to
the Diamond District, waves of foam against barnacled piers,
cafes and boutiques next to panaderias and botanicas. Ravines and gulleys
turn into barrios; rustic homes with gardens dot bleak cityscapes;
and suburbs burst with world-class graffiti. Fragmented yet cohesive,
Los Angeles demands reflection of ourselves, and the unstable ground
we call home. As in nature, the inequities can be breached, the gaps bridged,
for home is also an invitation to care, to do whatever
balances, whatever complements, whatever unites and clarifies,
as poverty, violence, and uncertainty shake up safety and sanity.
The key is for human law to align to natural law, for people to proclaim
“enough is enough” and “what I do matters,” with deep
examination, proper adaptation, full cognizance. No persons should die for lack
of a roof or food or compassion. As John Fante would say,
they are “songs over sidewalks,” imaginations on the interchange,
humanity that deserves connection, touch, breath. These roads, bridges,
alleys also contain concertos. Breezes over ocean’s darkest depths are rife
with harmonies. And a howling moon and red sunset serve as backdrops
for every aching interlude, soundtracks to revive the inert. Los Angeles is
where every step rhymes, where languages flit off tongues like bows across
strings, skateboarders and aerosol spray cans clatter as daily percussion,
and angels intone “we can do better,” while haggling at garage sales.
Grime and Gold
Soft wind curling dust.
Cars & trucks lend rhythm
to a Pacoima viaduct dance
with plastic bags,
fast food cartons,
leaves and scrap paper,
trapped in a milky way
on the ground.
Under the roadway, as tires and engines growl above,
a houseless man among an enclave of weathered tents
sits on a bucket, his arms splayed
over a splintered plywood board
on a makeshift desk of boxes.
Next to him, an illustrated book of birds,
dirt crusted into cracks of spine and cover.
Using a pencil, the man carefully
incisions the lines,
methodically shades in
a spectrum of black to grey,
on a torn sketchbook page
—his most valued asset—
in a place of no assets
except for what sings in his bones.
and the city breathes with him:
no rumbling soundtracks from above.
The birds the air,
On that blank paper
the man designs another landscape
with no poisons,
with new roads
that curve toward new homes.
He draws birds,
yet I witness in his hand what launches
where everyone belongs,
where nobody has to stake a claim,
because all are claimed,
where no one is blocked from flowering
so birthings appear all the time,
of a clock’s seconds hand.
The drawn birds polished from grime
How the more you excavate,
the finer things become,
how the lines
in a vortex of dust and cartons.