From the editors: Jeanann Verlee’s first full-length poetry collection, Racing Hummingbirds, from Write Bloody Publishing, is an imminently rereadable book, rife with startling imagery and vibrant language, guided by a an artistic vision that’s often brutal and uncompromising. But while Hummingbirds is marked by a sense of defiance in the face of violence and privation, there’s also an immense vulnerability in the writing, and an eye for finding beauty where it seems none should exist. Verlee handles the dichotomy with stunning grace and delicacy, wringing empathy even for the monsters that loom in the book’s shadows. It’s that compassion and fearlessness that rings truest in her work, that makes her work truly vital reading.
By Jeanann Verlee
I was born of the fist. The hot Irish temper.
Trailer parks. Pabst Blue Ribbon. Men in work boots,
crusted wifebeaters. Fire ants. Weevils. Moth wings on window sills.
Rheumatic fever, scoliosis, lengthwise cesarean scars.
I was born of the hunt. Antlers and tanned hides. Antelope, Elk,
White-tailed deer. Meat and bone. Jack Daniels, Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam.
Born of thistle. Rattlesnakes. Flat bed pickup trucks. Asphalt.
Murals on cinder-block walls. Vandals and graffiti. Smoking weed
in the girls bathroom, the alley behind the dumpster, out the library window.
Backseat, abandoned warehouse, basketball court. Born of weed. Acid.
Paint thinner. Rail yards. Sucking homeless dick for a nip of vodka.
Homeless. Runaway. Welt. Shut your face and take it.
Born of Rum and Coke, Marlboro Reds, adultery. Rolling pins.
Flour-dusted aprons. Green pork fat chili and hot peppers. Tequila.
Shaved pussy. Thigh-highs. Pink mohawk. Steel toes.
Bar fight. Cut lip. Face-grind. Elbow-to-sternum. Wrist-pin.
I am from no. From please. From stop. Hush. Hiss. I-will-cut-you.
Born of morning glories, rose thorn, dirt yard. Splinter, oil pan, rusted engine.
I was born of hand-me-down, foreclosure notice, electric company
shut off the power. Budweiser and wiskerin’s. Where creek is crik,
wash is warsh, and no one can pronounce February. Born of buckshot.
Cannon fire. Smooth aim. Bull’s-eyes and beer can crates.
From Push, woman! Don’t be a sissy. From I didn’t raise some cupcake,
now quit yer cryin’ or I’ll give you something to cry about.
I’m from having something to cry about but biting down hard –
‘til lip bleeds salt through the teeth. Wrench and gear and gristle.
Born of hillbilly backwoods, knitted doilies, tobacco stains. Gridlock traffic.
Gang fight. Homicide. “The Projects.” Mustard-and-cracker sandwiches
‘til a paycheck comes through. Reused tinfoil, washable diapers,
coffee tins full of pennies. Born of when the bottle won’t break,
use your hands. I’m from use your hands. Sound it out. Try harder.
Never settle. Born of callus. Hammer. Knuckle scar. Flesh wound.
Working hands. I was born of working hands. Keep swinging.
Kick hard and leave scars. Born of curse. Diesel fuel. Powder keg.
Move, rise, gallop. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.
Over my dead body. I dare you.
Writes Verlee: “I was first introduced to the work of Roger Bonair-Agard several years ago upon hearing him read at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I was completely overwhelmed. Far surpassing his well-honed performance skills, his poems independently were dense and alive. Rich with imagery, music, narrative – speaking with an intrinsic pulse, consequence, and weighted by unflinching sincerity. I later learned of The louderARTS Project where Roger serves as Artistic Director. Alongside many of the curators at the time (Rachel McKibbens, Marty McConnell, Lynne Procope), Roger’s work continued to impact me. Over the course of many years, through countless discussions of poetry and art, Roger has become not only my primary editor, but my mentor. Still (and regardless), the work does the most work. Beyond edits and debate; beyond the number of books he has gifted me, commanding simply, “Read this!;” beyond any amount of instruction, Roger’s own poetry has been the single most impactful tutelage. His dedication to craft; his attention to language, technique, movement; and his commitment to risk and experimentation challenges me to continually work harder and take ever-greater risks. Roger’s poems are among the most compelling of contemporary poets. I am grateful for his time and energy, and I remain awed by his poems.”
A Time of Polio
By Roger Bonair-Agard
My uncle Edmund had polio. That’s what
I’m saying. I’ve lived in a time
of Polio. Of Malaria. Of Yellow Fever.
Uncle Edmund was my grandfather’s brother.
My grandfather loved him dearly. He looked
after him with the duty of a beloved.
This is what it means to love
in a time of epic infection, to tend
after the inflicted with the understanding
that we’re all mandated to live
through massive trauma.
Uncle Edmund lived in Tunapuna.
We lived in Arouca. Sometimes
my grandmother sent me to take
food to Uncle Edmund in metal
food carriers. It was 4 miles away.
Sometimes I’d walk and spend
the taxi fare on beer on my way back.
I was 10. I lived in the time
of walking places. I will tell
my children this. I am 42.
I will probably not have any.
It is Sunday morning at a lover’s
house and I am on the verge
of weeping as I say this. The food
was always still hot when I got there.
It was a tropical country. You could
walk 4 miles with a tray of hot
food and have it stay hot. I lived
in a time of heat. Uncle Edmund’s
house smelled dank, cool. I remember
it as always dark. This might be a lie.
I unhinged the trays from the carrier
got an enamel plate from the cupboard
and dished the food out for him, so
I could take back the empty carrier. So
I could bring him food next day. I’d poor
him juice made from reconstituted oranges
and mixed with water and sugar. He talked.
The polio made it hard to understand him,
but I nodded, asked him if everything
was to his liking. I’ve lived
in a time of duty is what I want
to tell my children. I’ve lived
in a time of love. My lover
brings me the hottest, bitterest
coffee. I am grateful for this
but I am weeping for my non-children.
I never lingered at Uncle Edmund’s,
never waited until the end of his meal.
My grandfather waited until the end
of his meals, when he went. I went
once with my grandfather. He spoke
to his brother in low, almost dulcet
tones. I’d never heard him speak
like that before. My grandfather
loved my mother dearly. She was
his adopted child, but he held us both
closer than blood. I tell you I’ve lived
in a time of miracles. I’ve lived
because of miracles and I want
to tell my children this.
Whatever we do, we’re going
to have to consider immense
loss. That is all. That is the magic
of old age – immense loss held
side by side with love. How amazing
to be Uncle Edmund, to be loved
in a time of Polio and Malaria
and Yellow Fever and Dysentery.
We all lived in a time when you could send
a ten year old on a 4-mile walk
and have him complete a task
and return on time, with a beverage
to boot. My grandfather buried
Uncle Edmund in the family plot.
He lit candles on All Saints’ day.
I think we were the only ones
at the funeral. This is also what it means
to live in a time of Polio, to be buried
unknown, but not any less loved
than the Pope or the President. I want
to tell my children this. We are
all worried about not being good
enough for love. Imagine all we have.
Imagine all we love and live through.
Imagine what a chance we have
to endure the very worst
that might come our way.
Writes Verleee: “Much like Roger Bonair-Agard, I learned of Adam Falkner upon being gobsmacked by his work. A few years ago, I caught him at a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. Adam’s poetry was thick with imagery; underscored by rich, dense language and propelled by an almost intangible urgency. Also in attendance that evening was fellow poet, editor, and friend, Jon Sands. Together, we rushed Adam afterward, eager to learn more about this remarkable ‘new’ voice. I don’t know what he must have thought of two strangers gushing at him like this upon hearing only perhaps six minutes of his poetry, but whatever we said has sparked a remarkable relationship. In the years since, Adam and I have developed a unique bond in the crafting and sharing of new poems. Reading Adam’s work is one of my truest joys – his capacity for imagery is astonishing: an uncanny ability to freeze a moment of time with visceral detail. When I read an Adam Falkner poem, I feel like I’m standing inside it. From unearthing, recounting, and examining his own stories to depicting a singular moment witnessed on a Brooklyn street corner, clear as a photograph – Adam’s craft is enviable. I am excited about everything this young man is generating and cannot wait to see his next courses of evolution.”
Everything I Love
after Philip Shultz
By Adam Falkner
The glove compartment in my grandfather’s `98 Escort
holds everything I am tired of surviving. His body
just two years yellowed into the earth, the green four-door
passed on to me like a tired sweatshirt with too many
remember when’s to scrap – its paint job peeling, wipers
clunked down to their marrow. Now, days before my 25th
birthday, it is a magnet for everything I refuse to apologize for.
Parking tickets squeeze out the sides like stomach fat.
The picture of an old girlfriend I thought I stuffed in a shoebox,
bent around a rubber-banded spool of ball points.
A crumpled list I wrote in second grade about
things I wanted to accomplish before I died –
“president of the United States,” the only thing scratched off.
Students’ poems I promised to edit two years ago. Pencils
dull as butter knives, teeth marks nibbled around
their necks from twisting cassette ribbon back
into the same broken Curtis Mayfield tape. A letter
from the same former girlfriend I thought I’d thrown away.
Gutted catsup packets, a ticket stub to a Ghostface show.
Frayed road maps to places I haven’t been since I was ten.
A letter from my mother about not calling enough.
A loose cigarette. An empty inhaler.
The fist of papers I pretend to fumble through
and “forget” are not car insurance every time I’m pulled over.
A crumpled post-it note that reads I love you in pink highlighter.
My best friend’s obituary sleeved in a baseball card hard case.
An unfinished poem on an oil change receipt: the first time
I realized I wasn’t over her, sitting beneath a burnt out streetlight
on Fourth Avenue, crying in the dark, shaking my head about
a thousand different things and the size of New York City;
how my grandfather’s temper clawed from his hungry drunk body
like an aimless arrow, how he could silence my grandma for days
with a glance across the table, how that legacy is the real reason I am
terrified of birthdays like this one. Another unfinished poem
about days like this when I feel myself becoming a packrat
for everything I’m too proud to let go of, how I want to drive
over the George Washington Bridge with the windows down,
click open the stubborn jaw of that glove compartment like a grenade pin,
watch the pathetic scraps of everything I’ve been holding in my chest
like a cannon catapult out over the river, laugh and swerve
as it all flies into the wind like ash.