If you can simultaneously hold these truths in your mind:
that America has always been one of those people who doesn't listen so much as it waits for its turn to talk,
that America is one of those parents who only breeds for the chance to demand respect,
that America has always torn brown babies from the arms of their mothers,
that the past 250 years have taken place entirely at gunpoint,
that America could -- if it tried -- someday become what it already tells itself it is,
then you are possessed of a wisdom I envy even as I write this, and
it is your job to convince the rest of us.
*then you have already mastered the simple practice of benefiting from the work of terrible men without condoning their terrible actions. It is possible to hold that a creation is good and the creator is partly or entirely bad at the same time. These concepts do not contradict one another.
do we denounce
the art of artists
who do bad things?
What is the word for
the lone woman in
a group of men, the one who
does not receive a handshake and who
is not asked the questions?
I don't know but
in the language of the island where
my foremothers lived:
in a room of a thousand women
makes the group masculine.
why aren't the flags
up all the way?
she considers responding with the truth
to honor the woman
who birthed the man
who sent your father
to meet his death
but she like the dead woman is a mother,
a gentle liar:
hers is a world of fairies and phantasms
crafted to keep the peace
what do you think baby?
could it ever be for
the thousands dead in syria
or 40 dead in gaza
or 17 dead in a florida school
or seven dead in a south carolina prison
or four dead in a waffle house
come to think of it why are the flags ever allowed to fly at
a height that hints at freedom
but she like the dead woman is a mother,
a gentle liar:
she is smiling down the sun behind her
no shadows from the flagpoles
is stating with quiet confidence that
the men who raise the flags
called out sick today
Last weekend, I visited Baltimore to check out a street art festival. By pure providence I happened to catch a show by Grandmaster Flash. It was bizarre and uncomfortable, as is often the case when visionaries pass their prime. He took a condescending tone with the crowd, splitting his set about 50/50 between spinning records and lecturing about the roots of hip-hop. It was a free show and the crowd wasn't especially invested in his uninvited didacticism. At one point, Flash began to project images from each of New York City's boroughs, playing clips from songs emblematic of that borough, and rattling off the names of the O.G.s with roots there.
As a recovering Long Islander (I take it one day at a time), I immediately felt the chip on my shoulder begin to itch, and self-righteously began listing all of the seminal hip-hop acts from Long Island, confident that they would be ignored. No sooner had I said "De La Soul," than I saw the words "LONG ISLAND" appear on the screen and the first beats of "Me Myself and I" vibrated beneath me. The images Flash chose to illustrate my ancestral homeland, unsurprisingly, were street signs. Without warning, I was confronted with one of the great hates of my life: Nicolls fucking Road.
I was immediately reminded of a poem I composed in 2011, during a summer spent largely in traffic on Nicolls Road, traveling between my neurosurgeon's office, the insurance agency where I worked, the university where I took a summer course in French, and the illegal basement apartment I'd prefer to forget. In the quintessential American suburb, an island defined by traffic, it is easy to think of everything in terms of roads. Nicolls Road meant a standard of living so high it can only be explained by a Billy Joel song. It meant brain surgery after brain surgery. It meant treading water until the next setback. It meant nothing out the window worth looking at.
Here in its entirety is the Ginsberg ripoff I crafted in its honor.
Nicolls Road: A Hate Song
O Nicolls Road, sisyphean circle jerk of exhaust fumes and ennui
stretching eternally northward through vast expanses of withering deciduom
and blaring car horn silences
toward the promise of gentle-wave-lapping-against-pebbled-shore-SOUND,
why must you toy with me so?
Paumanok Path of horror,
plunging deluges of people people people into perfect ordinariness on all sides,
did you know that my car radio was stolen in Albany the day before my birthday?
And now each arduous three ton step in rush hour on your sad arboreal thoroughfare –
the battered white mass of the car a pregnant dog trudging panting in summertime –
is taken in ear-shattering silence, and the sheer mundanity of it all
forces unwanted introspection and extrospection:
what were you before all of this? (Whitman stirs in his shopping mall mausoleum)
what am I?
WHERE ARE WE GOING, NICOLLS ROAD?
But that’s for a different poem.
The one about the big questions.
I don’t have time for that now, Nicolls Road, I’ve got to get somewhere.
And so I hydroplane
suspended in the center lane, between suburban sedation and bestial fury,
all the way to my little slice of arrested development (where to grow is to immediately be mowed)
thinking that in the future this will all become nature
and plastic pink flamingos will have to be neutered and spayed to control the populations of strays.
And highways and sidestreets will debate microeconomics and the growing social problem of lawn gnome migrant workers
and be free to toy with the emotions of the young.
Ants in the shower,
where I keep exactly the
least food in the house.
Slipped in the bathtub.
Life flashed before me.
Pleased to report no regrets.
The worse you feel, the better you will look.
On the worst days, go all out:
the pain yields to ritual
(if you force it hard enough.)
The mind learns what it is taught --
the body is a dumb animal.
(Of course it’s exhausting,
that’s how you know it’s working.)
Hopelessness, too, is a sickness.
So don your body armor
and a white rose in your lapel
and pump a fist at the disinterested sky
and pack down the bad air inside
like so much gunpowder.
for Sherman Alexie
My people are dying.
Our brains float turgid in our skulls taking on more and more water
Our thoughts capsize
and must be fished with a net.
Our chieftain is a man.
Our chieftain is the only person who speaks the language of the outsiders.
Our chieftain is our only hope.
Our chieftain is a rapist.
It is with a heavy head that I must report
that no one is coming to save us
because our chieftain has failed.
No tears are shed
(all the water is inside us)
At the very least
we will soon forget.
You read my blog.