self-portrait as a child in america
you wash your hands slowly, in daydream and water.
lost in the clouds ((of soapfoam)). *pop* The class waits
in a line behind you, as you liquid again & again.
as if to peel off your own skin. as if absolution
can wait. you still see time as endless.
*pop* you barely exist. look around, Esther. you’re here
& you don’t have a clue. but the miracles. like the berries
you picked from the chain-link fence [a steel necklace around
your school’s throat]. they were bright. & hard. & ruby
as blood. you peeled off their skin to eat:
it was so easy then to be friends with white children as well as with
[people of color]. did you know you were person of color? because
by white you meant clouds, by brown you meant earth
by yellow sugared lemon & sun
your favorite teacher was a white man who laughed like the sun
in simplicity, splendor. he said, Esther, you’d keep reading
if a bomb dropped beside you. & you carried those words
all your life. you said, yes I would. *pop* I would try. you say,
if a bomb dropped beside me, I would pick up the wreckage,
reread it against endless time,
bombs as soap bubbles, red meaning eat. clean water
as hope & right here.
for my friends the black and beautiful
measure your loss
by headcount alone.
the raw grief
of lost weddings
as well as new funerals,
so many things
a childhood unsplintered
by gunshots, a night drive
untouched by fear.
it is the feet stilled, the hands
slack, the kiss that remained
the prayers curdled
unsaid in the lips
of silenced mouths.
i am crying
i want to say:
you are more
than the promise
you have been
the radiant English teacher in elementary school
who gifted me with college books
told me to stand up to the bullying
& first believed in my writing you were
the family friend who took us tenderly in your arms,
cupped my mother’s tears, paid for our groceries
watched us tumble & dance on your bed you were
the friend & mentor who wasn’t afraid
to let words run wild & bright, held onto kindness
like a shining flame in both music & life & your smile
you were the roommates brilliant beautiful
with music in your throats & such love in your hearts
when you exhaled the world became melody
i want to say:
thank you. thank
you. thank you.
my friends, black & brimming
& breathing: we love you.
we see you. we hear you.
& just in case you’re too tired
or numb or frustrated for speech,
i’ll say it
again & again,
as you’ve so often done
we love you.
we see you.
we hear you.
we will never stop fighting
for your lives.
ESTHER RA is the author of “book of untranslatable things” (Grayson Books, 2018) and the founding editor of The Underwater Railroad, a literary reunification project. Her work has received numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the 49th Parallel Award for Poetry. Esther currently works in Seoul to support healthcare for North Korean defectors. In writing, as in life, she is deeply interested in the quiet beauty of the ordinary. https://www.instagram.com/esther.haelan.ra/