The Rear View

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When my daughter asks about my childhood
My heart becomes a crow eating glass crumbs
At the scene of a car crash

The memories’ brilliance and their jagged edges
Compete for the preeminence in the story.

I hesitate to answer.

Sometimes, it was a bedroom
full of ropes and rusty bicycle chains
used for everything but to escape.

Sometimes, it was a cold, blue tile bathroom
With an electric cord stretched from wall to wall
as a winter’s clothesline, with rags
dripping water over my head as punishment.

Then there was the smell of burned out fuse
In my mother’s dresses, abandoned in a hallway
Full of tornado departures and quicksand come backs.

And the man, so full of love
he couldn’t help being mean.

The living room was small enough to die in it
And my favorite game was to travel its perimeter
From couch to chair to couch and back
without ever touching the floor.

My first savior was a transistor radio
And my original sin was to steal a book.

I am unfair to my story, I am sure,
Now that I have travelled from world to world
Without ever needing to touch my soil again.

I judge it with the knowledge of things
I was never supposed to see
Or have them be mine

Bright feathered opportunities
and plush soft support systems
Wrapped up with pink bow sentences
beginning with “I feel”

Their brilliance overshadows the primal love
Of steep cliff arms, whose devotion
Taught me how to embrace the fall
And always land on my feet.

My unemployed father didn’t smoke for three months
To buy my first bicycle,a rattling old thing,
with as much power as a rodeo of tired horses.

My mother, the librarian, gave me the key
to the jailhouse of forbidden books.

My grandmother taught me to tame the mammoth
of the mechanical sewing machine
so I would never have to be naked, or go hungry.

She taught me to spin the wheel of patience
and never cut any corners
Until I arrived at something beautiful

My grandfather, the beekeeper
Taught me to walk through a swarm of enemies
Without getting bit.

I come from people with jammed hearts
Who did not believe in God or childhood magic
Whose love was not supposed to lift its neck
in the presence of a flock of preying strangers

For fear of making its offspring the target
of wars and dictators

their devotion never unfurled
Until I drove away from the scene of the story

And met their eyes in the rear view mirror
Following me with the longing
Of a middle-of-nowhere gas station
The “come back” sign flickering in the dusk
a tireless heartbeat, a brilliant reminder

Love is an object always closer than it appears

Men Like Trees

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For Jesus Christ, the Risen.

The first time a splinter bit my flesh I was 13 years old.
My hands were not yet fully grown
to master the rage of tools
against the bare back of the cut down tree.

When that splinter hit my palm,
right at the intersection of eternity and purpose
my heart reverberated with the echo
of something strangely familiar.

I stared at the ruby spot of blood in my hand
growing into a slithering river
as my stepfather, the graceful mountain of a tender man
tried to pull it out of my hand
saying, there, there, child,
one day, your hands will grow to their purpose
they will learn to embrace the pain
each time something you are trying
to shape into beautiful
decides to be stubborn and fight you back.

By the time I was 23,
my hands had already grown strong enough
to carry the weight of my whole body;
the tools, more like extensions of my extremities,
moved gracefully to purpose from morning to sundown,
as my stepfather’s wisdom had already run its simple course.
Each day, working in the shop,
carving things into useful,
I felt in the way the saw met with resistance
as it caressed the spine of the naked tree
that the wood was keeping score,
and one day it would come back for me,
with vengeance.

The sting of sweat rolling down my back
would make shiver the man in me
but my heavenly Father would whisper in the backyard trees
there, there, Son,
remember why you chose to wear their skin
how much in love you are with all of this, and them;
how the barrenness in their bleak branches
and the blood thirst of their dry bones
beckoned you down from our heavenly home.

You said it was worth it,
no matter how often they’d slap away your hand.

Days shy of my 33d birthday,
on a scorching afternoon in a wretched street
in Bethsaida, I cooked mud with spit and dust
to restore sight to a blind man.
When he received my gift,
moved with gratitude, he pointed
behind my back, in warning:
I see man as trees, walking.

How those words echoed in my skull that night in the Garden
my friends, slumbering like tired children,
the bite of the kiss still fresh on my cheek
at the intersection of betrayal and surrender,
the river of sweat and blood on my forehead
stinging like a bed of bees and pine needles;
I saw you coming out of the trees,
wearing so many familiar faces,
like beavers with mean sharp teeth,
a forest of hands stretching out angry branches,
armed with swords and crowbars tongues,
and though you moved with the tornado’s fury,
the beauty in the design was still worth dying for.
So take me,
here I am.
No man can take my life from me
I lay it down of my own willful heart.
See my hands, resolved to their purpose.
I am the man-God
In love with you beyond all reason.
Grind my skin with the teeth of your sin.
Let the anger of the cross saw through me
inch by inch of its rough embrace
until our spines meet in the bloody kiss
of righteousness and peace.
I offer no resistance.
I offer myself.
Let me take upon me your tools of rage.
Let me make something of you worth being.
Let me take you back home.
All I want is for you to love me
like you did when we were in Eden.

How your eyes lit up the day I unclenched my fist,
and showed you right in the center of my palm,
at the intersection of eternity and us,
the first tree seed, full of promise.

Remember how I hid it in the earth, like my body,
how it burst it open with new life.

Remember my body;
the empty tomb is my promise:
death will no longer hunt your bones.

I am the resurrection and the life,
the Author of all things beautiful,
the Lover of all things mine.

Do not mourn me like I did not intend this.
Do not shun me like I am not enough.
Take me as I am,
I will take you back to our home.

These days, I am once again in my Father’s shop,
carving the beauty of worlds to come.
Wait till you see what I’ve been making;
I have built you a house of forever windows.
My love is the porch light, always on.
There’s a garden of trees with clapping hands
their spines dance to the will of my hand
they sing our song:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lamb, who was slain,
the Rose of Sharon, the Bridegroom, the I Am,
the Lover, the Carpenter, the Darling of heaven.
His heart is set on his beloved, forever.

My beloved,
Do not miss me like I am not returning.
when the trumpet sounds in spring,
and the fig tree give forth its blossoms,
I am coming to take you,
Our home awaits us.

Love Thy Neighbor, or, The Juvenile Delinquent Brothers of the Third Floor

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Brass knuckle Amnon and crooked jaw Cain were Irish twins, fifteen and sixteen years old, the spitting image of their mama. She was a young, black widow, a venom sharpshooter, a thirty year draught. They were my neighbors. We lived in the third floor of the same concrete apartment building. Our doors stood at a perpetual face-off. Cain’s bed and mine were barely separated by a timid wall he often bruised with the sound of my name punching through his teeth as he abused himself; the sound was so wretched, there weren’t enough songs written in the entire world to drown it out.

When walls were not present Cain became a shifting shadow with a clamp heart, squeezing the life out of anything he loved. He would hide in the rafters and kidnap old man Methuselah’s doves, press them between brick and jaw until he heard their lungs crack like glass. He would then stick their bloody feathers under my door like love letters.

He wrote me so many love letters. He made sure I found them everywhere. Snatched from my hair ribbons inside my slashed bicycle tires. Guillotined butterflies in the hinges. A rabbit’s head thrust in the threshold.

One time he climbed up the rain gutter like a draught, just to push my only dress to suicide, plunging it wet with fear from the third floor clothesline down into the dusty courtyard.

He only knew how to love a thing when it was dead like a father.

Amnon was a mute mountain of mean, with hands twice the size of his body, brass knuckle snares where I once got
caught in the no-man’s-land between our doors. One time, he pressed a nine millimeters’s tongue on my neck as
he tightened his left hand around my green plum chest. I had better sense than to fight him. I fixed my eyes on
a curious crack on the wall, growing with each bang of Cain’s head on the other side, weeping like a trapped beast. It made me feel less alone to know he was torturing us both.

The day war broke out and all the men and boys in the neighborhood rushed to kidnap rifles and guns, brass
knuckle Amnon and crooked jaw Cain came riding through the neighborhood on a stolen army tank, like serial killer cowboys, high on blood thirst and sniffed glue, playing marksman’s games with my humble window.

Through the war years I survived them by the grace of God, with a King James Bible and an old typewriter. I punched keys with crooked jaws to the rhythm of their weapons writing poems about love, forgiveness, and things too much alive to die at their hands. I fortified the wall between Cain’s bed and mine with pages from the book
of Psalms.

“Great peace have them which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them”.

The day I left to come to America, Cain shot every single flower pot on every window ledge in the neighborhood, howling like a betrayed wolf. I did not turn around to look at him. I wished them both dead.

Years later, when word of their simultaneous death reached me in America in a stifling hot Southern afternoon, the son in my womb churned, as I went running in the backwoods, weeping ferociously at the thought of them, before brass knuckles and crooked jaw. I thought of when they were two naked infants on a cold tile floor. How they begged with lament for the breasts of a mother shrouded in death and anger. How she concealed milk and love beneath a heavy, black dress, locked fanatically by an unforgivably long line of bone buttons, running from her venomous throat all the way down to her bare feet. How she murdered them to avenge her loneliness. How they loved me mean, like a mother.

“For as a man hath destroyed his enemy; so hast thou lost the love of thy neighbor.”

Coin Toss

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Her mother gave up the ghost at the edge of thirty years
in the street facing room of their matchbox apartment.

Her father turned it into liquor store. He was a man
too swift to be caught in a promise or be bound to rigid grief.

Magdalena slept in a tornado bedroom
no longer believing in his eggshell roof.

Not much can be expected of a shadow father
with a new, prickly-apron wife, and two useful sons.

Behind the liquor store there was a torn
chicken coop fence we’d climbed over

to sit on the docks and meet every train
like a clumsy first lover.

Her dress, thin as a dime and short as summer,
yanked the chain on the neck of every train yard worker.

I think of Magdalena every time I put on lipstick;
how I never thanked her for making me invisible,

her flesh and skin an armor about me
against the junkyard men’s thorny whistles,

and their oily, calloused hands
rolling the hems of her second skin

like dimes, dug out of thrift store couches,
never enough to buy anything.

At fourteen I did not understand
how cruel the coin toss can be:

I, the fish-thin and book-plain girl 
climbed over the fence all the way to America,

while pretty Magdalena lost two fingers
working at the weapons’ factory.

For Ema (reprise 2012)

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Daughter,

you come from a long line
of against all odds.

You were conceived in your grandparents’ bed
in our old, and tired country,

Albania.

It was years after wars had ceased to be fought
but wounds still oozed the rust of thick, mad blood,
making our people, more than ever,
suspicious of kindness.

That winter
your father and I took a brief flight back,
stirred by the grief in the mouth
of a language we’ve lost.

It was a purple cold, and bitter.
The kind the body never forgets.

The first night in that worn apartment
there was no electricity or heat.

Your grandparents,
silhouetted in grey by the empty moon
spoke softly into the room’s blindness
with the voices of saints who had seen,
and forgiven everything.

Your father and I went to bed early.

Our limbs fought all night long
against the current of sore memories
until we sparked; like stone
striking against stone, causing the heat
to burst into light.

We rested content in the curious illumination;
felt the heat unravel from our souls
and cocoon into you.

By the time I flew back to America
my womb was the size of a grapefruit.

Rare and precious seed,
I smuggled you through US customs,
carefully tucked in the pink folds of my flesh.

In the lime tile bathroom
of our fist size home in Georgia,
I waited a three-minute eternity
for the results of a pregnancy test;

I spoke a “slam poem” to my image in the mirror,
praying for your scarlet thread to appear
in the lonely, plastic window.

When it did, I believed in God and grace.

My heart flickered like a buzzing neon;
light rushed through my bones like forgiveness.

When I first felt you,
you moved a silver river joyous,
a flesh and blood poem woven in two tongues,
with nothing lacking in context,
and no language barriers to overcome.

Daughter of mine,

tenacious odd-breaker, sudden daylight,
I pray you live a life of words well kept.

Earn a name that is not misspoken.
Give until there is nothing left.

Love all souls the same,
and owe nothing to none.

Smile to the ones with unknown topographies of tongue,
pilgrims and strangers in a world unworthy of them.

They are your first country.

Never despise their robust hands and honest sweat;
do not forget, they are all citizens of the womb.

Speak up for who doesn’t speak English.
Stand up for the weak in the playground.

To the widow be a daughter.To the orphan be a sister.
May your anger be barren and your grace abound.

Pray when you lack wisdom.
Sing when you are afraid.

Love at all costs.

Listen to prophets and poets.
Let books blaze your way to the truth.

Open the door when God knocks on your heart.
When in doubt, His blood will lead you home.
Trust in the kindness of the Unknown.

Live for what matters.

Die for what is right.

Be a poem all will know by heart
even long after you are gone;

a life resonating like a sustained note;
the hum buzz of your heart’s neon
still echoing in what you have touched,

the scarlet thread, still flashing
in your children’s window after every storm,

and against all odds.

The Eastern European Girl’s Closet

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deconstruct the closet of her anger.
examine the wardrobe of her broken expectations.
 
Pry open the wounds of her dresses:
ask them why they hurt when pressed against her skin.
 
They will tell you
her body is the grief in the mouth of language,
the last round of ammunition
for a heart that does not believe in ceasefire.
 
Coerce the little black dress
to navigate you through the evacuation plan,
ask it to brief you through the drills
for deportation or an abrupt funeral.
 
Run your fingers on the green card number
carved in ink inside its collar.
It will tell you she still believes in being found.
 
Ask her wedding dress why some days
it sings an ice cream truck melody
and some days it screams a tornado siren.
 
It will ballad you through the legend
of predisposed calamity;
synthetic fear blended in the same weave
with the certainty of loss.
 
Ask the skirts to chart the topography of loneliness
in rooms full of coral women in sparkling gowns.
 
They will tell you of the slavery her skin cannot claim,
the wrong color dialect of her timid Braille scars.
 
When you stumble upon the red dress you will know,
by now she has mastered the art of fitting
into tight foreign languages, and other women’s shoes.
 
See how the neckline plunges fearlessly into another culture,
perfectly matched by her stylish survival
a versatile accessory, a must have for all seasons.
 
Examine carefully how it armors her body,
how it fools a room into becoming her ally.
 
Do not mistake this dress
for an elaborate surrender.
 
Note how its ignition temperature
equals the fury of gunpowder;
 
this dress is her last bullet,
and she, the apt soldier
knows when to reach for it,
 
in days she finds herself surrounded.

January 21, 2011 – a Poem in Three Parts

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For Albania
The brave 200,000 protesters of January 21,2011
The four innocent victims
And my brother

1.

My teething seven month old son
rubs his raw gums against my shoulders
the very instant I spot on live Albanian TV
among 200,000 protesters
the hoodie I bought my brother last month
at little five points in Atlanta, Georgia

even in a crowd that size it’s hard to miss:
oversized, red, and with Bob Marley’s big grin on it

I spot him seconds before another woman’s brother
standing next to him, shatters by the sharp bite
of a sniper bullet to his head.

There are no words to describe my baby’s shrill
as I jump, as snakebitten, at the sight of Bob Marley’s portrait
on my brother’s chest, soiled with the blood and brains
of another woman’s brother
whose head my brother cradles in his palms
the way he once held two stolen pomegranates
from our next door neighbor’s orchard
juice running down his elbows.

I am late for work.
In America, I make my living as a seamstress
so, unlike me, my children will be able to turn off the horror
with the TV; I want them to be American like that.

Today I sew a crimson dress for an old actress
starving herself back into youth.
In the fitting room she keeps fidgeting in front of the mirror
complaining about her body.
Something inside me unsnaps.
I am unable to grab a hold of myself or the hem of her garment
I prick my fingers again and again with a sharp, steel needle.
The blood sprouting from my fingertips dampens her cloth
the tears collapse in the square of my face
as her words scatter like empty gun shells.
She says to me:
“Don’t worry, sweetheart.
It’s just red on red.
No one is going to notice it”.

2.

After hearing on TV
names of Albanian poets and journalists,
my four year old daughter wants to know:
” what is a coup d’etat?”

I tell her, just like Kim Kardashian
some people are famous for all the wrong reasons.

3.

Dear brother,

the next time the tyrant aims his bayonets
to the sky’s abdomen
and empties his guns in the mouths of dissidents
until the heels of God bleed the bodies of the innocents
on our barricaded doorsteps

the next time you are reporting live on air
and they storm down your radio station,
drag you out by Bob Marley’s dreads on your favorite hoodie
limbs snapping down the hallway like old vinyl records
as the cop, your childhood friend curses you out
Using your sister’s and mother’s real name

The next time you are in a public square
when 2,600 rounds of live ammunition are fired on the crowd
and one of those bullets gets tempted by your chest
bellowing like an accordion, singing redemption songs

sweet brother, darling of my soul, remember:

We
Are
Not
Egypt

We
Are
The
Forgotten.

The fuzz on the edges of static.
We are red on red.
No one’s going to notice.

The following video contains graphic images from the events of January 21, 2011.

 For more info or to get involved visit  www.actalbania.org