underwater | poem

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emerald isle

i wrote this poem last year in my english class, for an assignment about describing the culture of a specific area at the time of an important historical event. i chose chicago, 1919, during the race riots. it’s very different from the poetry that i usually write; those are typically about my own experiences, while this one is based on research & the life of eugene williams. even though it was a little bit out of my comfort zone, i enjoyed working on this because i think experimenting with different kinds of prose helps me grow as a writer.

so with the backstory out of the way, here’s the poem!


my mama said she feels like her head is being held underwater.
she’d just lost her job preparing italian beef sandwiches in a diner downtown.
the day she was fired, my mama slumped over the kitchen table
with a cloth dripping cold water pressed against her flushed cheek,
which sported a shameful red handprint.
a white customer had spotted her dark, plastic-gloved hands in the kitchen,
slicing rolls, tucking in meat, folding sandwiches shut.
she told me that the white woman who had pitched a fit
had been sipping a milkshake through plum-painted lips.
that pursed pout spoke venomous words into the ear of mama’s boss,
who told mama that white folks felt the hair stand up on the back of their necks
whenever people like us were in their spaces.
he kicked her out of the shop with a slap to the face,
telling her to search for a job in the black part of chicago.

wise men believe that nothing is black and white.
there is only gray, an area where both sides can be right.
the gray tells us that mama deserved to keep her job because she’s a hard worker,
but it also says that the white woman’s discomfort was valid.
in my mind, the world is divided into black and white.
white cops, white stockyards, white neighborhoods.
black prisoners, black schools, black slums.

my mama shooed me out of the house one day in july.
she was looking for a new job sewing glitzy flapper dresses in a sweltering factory.
my friend eugene and i spent the afternoon together,
cooling off in the cerulean water of lake michigan.
we buried our callused feet in the warm sand of the beach.
eugene and i joined some sweet girls from the ghetto, splashing in the water on the make.
summer was perfect that day, in the heat with our new dolls, not a care in the world.
i figured my mama had gotten the job and everything would be back to normal.
when the sun was hanging low in the sky, eugene and i
kissed our girls on the cheek and set off to our black neighborhood.

we took a shortcut through the beach on 29th street, wading through the surf.
the people lounging on the sand were made paler
by the zinc oxide streaked on their bare, outstretched limbs.
eugene and i trudged along the shore, our feet covered by gentle waves.
he hummed the song i’m forever blowing bubbles to himself.
a white man yelled at us in a throaty voice that rattled through my skull like thunder.
dark dots showered down from the sky — gnats? polluted rain?
they struck my naked chest, shaking arms, horrified face.
dull pain rose up in my skin wherever they hit.
stones sailed from the heavens and pelted eugene and i as we began to run.
howling white boys raced along beside us, pebbles flying from their hands.
“get out,” they hollered, “this is our beach!”

i saw the shadow before it happened: dark and eager, searching for its target;
a lion chasing its prey across the savanna.
the rock, as big as my fist, smashed into the back of eugene’s head.
he stumbled, his feet slipping in the shifting sand.
then he pitched over and landed facedown in the surf with a thud that stopped my heart.
the splash from his fall sprayed the back of my legs as i fled.
over my shoulder, i urged eugene to pick himself up and get the hell out of there.
eugene stayed in the water, still as a statue, letting the waves lap up over him.
the hunting white boys halted their pursuit to gather around his quiet body,
crowing and and circling like buzzards.
“he’ll drown,” i screamed at them, scratchily,
as though i was speaking through a mouthful of sand.
they hurled stones and slurs whenever i tried to get close.
eventually, my wailing drew the attention of a scowling white cop.
the hunters scattered; the man whose voice shook the earth approached.
calmly, as though the world was not collapsing in on itself,
he explained how two “suspicious-looking boys” had violated the segregation of the beaches.
“the bigger, more criminal one,” he told the officer, while gesturing at eugene’s limp form,
“fainted in the water for unknown reasons.”
i crouched in the lake beside my best friend, praying for him to lift his head.
salty tears rolled off my chin and puddled in the dip of his back.
anger seethed under my skin, burning and all-consuming.

if there is only gray, the policeman would have arrested the white boys
for murdering eugene as he strolled innocently along a beach.
if there is only gray, someone would have listened when i accused the thunderous man
of shouting at us and setting the crime into motion.
those girls from the ghetto, who kissed eugene and me in the lake,
had watched us go, their expressions dizzy and light, then shocked and drained.
they saw the commotion and the rocks in the air.
if there is only gray, folks would have believed those honey-voiced girls
when they took our side and called the white killers sick.

when i got home, mama was at the scuffed kitchen table again.
she must’ve gotten the job: a new striped dress hung on the nail in the wall.
worn and faded, it was the uniform workers wore in the clothing factory.
with her tired mouth, she asked how my day had been, and how was eugene?
“mama,” i told her, “eugene feels like his head is being held underwater, too.”

xo apollo

eye for an eye as long as yours ends up black

three cheers for sweet revenge

 

i have been told that i am being dramatic or too violent
that i need to be brave and let it go
i have even heard the word forgiveness
maybe my bravery is bloody knuckles, angry tears
and making myself impossible to ignore
i will not back down until you get what you deserve

i am sick of being ashamed
i do not care anymore if i ruin your life
i swear that i will scream my head off if i hear
but he’s such a sweetheart
one more time

here’s how this game works:
a girl, crying and shaking, is brushed to the side
because the cherub-faced, dimpled boy
says she’s making it up; he would never do such a thing
everyone forgets because how could those soft hands ever hide claws?
i have not had the pleasure of forgetting
i see him when i am awake
when i am asleep
i am tired, i am tired, i am tired

i could have sworn that i was over it
i didn’t shake from the dread of waiting and remembering
i didn’t flinch at a longing hand on my skin
i was learning how to be close again
i could have said that i didn’t daydream about hurting him
and almost have meant it

so here’s why i’ve been practicing my right hook again:
you spread a fire fueled by your hatred for me
twisting the story so that i was the crazy one
but isn’t manipulation what you do best?
i close my eyes and see your fake tears
you need to make it up to me echoes inside my head

yesterday you laughed and said spiteful things to my face
it felt like a knife slashing across the cheek
like venom burning my veins
if we still spoke, i would have two things to tell you:
who the hell do you think you are
and sorry about your eye
i think you’ll look better with a shiner, anyway

xo apollo

 

pyres & pills, hell & his hands

pictures by my mom

you are standing in a curbside graveyard on a foggy morning
it is ten days before christmas
you have never been so cold in your life
so that cold that you can feel the frost creeping over your fragile bones
you forgot your gloves so your knuckles are stained
the same pale, icy blue as the winter sky

rain from the heavens that mourns your innocence drips onto your cheeks
a murmured prayer of thanks to whichever ghosts or angels
are listening for disguising your sorrow from your best friend
she meanders through the rows of worn marble graves beside you
her fingers brush the wet headstones
as you walk through the downpour
she whispers the name of the departed as you go
when you ask why, she tells you
that people die twice
once when their heart stops beating
and again when their name is spoken for the last time

you can’t say that you agree
you feel as though you died that night one month ago
amidst the frigid mountains and fresh snow
yes, your haunted heart still forces blood through your veins
but have you truly felt alive since?
paranoia has made a home in your aching head
glancing over your shoulder and searching crowds
for that dimpled face that stalks you
in the nightmares that are more like memories
have become second nature
oh, how fear makes prey of us all

you imagine that you can feel his hands
under your rain jacket, and shiver
at your best friend’s imploring look, you say
i thought i felt a ghost, on my skin
and then, as you tremble once more like a tattered white flag in a storm
i think i’m getting hypothermia

the two of you leave the dead, but the past follows you home
i never felt safe with you


i’m over it, i’m over it, i’m over it, i’m over it.

xo apollo

lion pride | poem

the lovers, the dreamers, & me

here is love, laid out like a picnic blanket on a summer day:
it is putting all of your parts, all the puzzle pieces that make you up
into the cupped hands of someone else
praying that no matter the weather, they don’t drop them
and here is the truth about love:
you did

lion-hearted, lion-maned
you are fierce over everyone but yourself
how many times have you bared your teeth and flashed your claws
for someone who didn’t deserve it?
and how often have you let others rub salt into that painted red wound of a mouth
when i know you are itching to speak your mind
spitting out biting words like hot coals?
i myself am meek
i do not have the heart to draw a knife on anyone but myself
or to kiss another man’s girl, no matter what you have been told
but i believe that i could be courageous for you


inspired by rumors and on/off relationships and wanting you since last october. i know you said that you don’t want to be anything like your mother, but darling, between the neglect and the haircut, i see no difference.

xo apollo

you look like hell | 7.20.18

this was taken the day before

q: what defines you?

a: july 20, 2018. it was a friday
& the end of week five.

q: what happened?

a: i told the truth.

q: you’re sure?

a: the truth burned everything to the ground.
those ashes are not made from lies.

q: what else happened ?

a: i cried like the world was ending.

q: was it?

a: sometimes it feels like time stopped
& everything past that day is a nightmare.

q: who else was there?

a: no one who is here now.

q: what happened to them?

a: time kept turning for them
& they moved with it.
i am alone now with the memories.

q: do you dream about it?

a: all day & all night.
it is in my bones & my veins & my mind.

q: what do you remember?

a: i remember everything;
i wish to remember nothing.

q: can you give me some details?

a: he told me that i looked like hell.
i couldn’t stop retching.

q: what else?

a: there was blood on my shirt
& in my mouth. it wasn’t mine.

q: whose blood was it?

a: . . .

q: were you hurt?

a: there were bruises around my neck
& knife wounds on my hands.

q: did they leave scars?

a: they blend in with the heart line on my palm.
sometimes i get phantom pains.

q: who hurt you?

a: that’s what they wanted to know.

q: what would you change about that day?

a: i would have never answered the phone.

q: who called?

a: the wrong one.
i could smell him through the phone:
strawberry smoke & disinfectant.

q: who was supposed to call?

a: he was in arizona. i think he was drunk.
it’s not fair. i needed his help
& he was in the desert.

q: let me circle back.
you’re sure you told the truth?

a: i believed everything that i said.

q: that’s not an answer.

a: everyone thinks i’m a liar.

q: are you?

a: i don’t know.

q: where’s your conviction?

a: i’m sorry.
i feel sick when i think about it too much.

xo apollo

a psalm for the day you leave him

dear god, i ruin every pure thing i touch
i took something young and tender as a peach bud in spring
and made its hands and teeth yearn for flesh
almost kissing, almost killing

i was as white as the pages of my mother’s bible
before he showed up
now i only pray to the satin-clad goddesses on the dance floor
and communion means french kissing under streetlights

being loved is like cupping fresh summer berries in your palm
it’s warm and it tastes sweet but when you hold on too tight, it bursts
and your skin, once so clean, is stained with juice like blood that never washes off

father, forgive me, i should have stayed in heaven
you can love a mortal, but you’ll have to go to hell to keep them
and is it worth it, for one night of peace? well —
i’ll tell you when the sun rises

xo apollo