Poison of Choice

Let’s talk, before the layers,
the peeling back—the sound it makes when
you put a knife to the comfort responses
and expose raw will to the questions,
when you pick apart the abstract constructs
like semantics and “cultural nuances”
and the past distorting the present,
what didn’t you have enough of in life,
or what was on TV when you were most
impressionable. Can we call it what it is,
you know there is power in naming things.
Or will that make you feel “personally
attacked”? Is it desire? If it’s the most
irrational kind, I can try to understand that.
Vindictiveness? Like one of those soap
opera villains who spend all their energy
trying to destroy someone?
Is money involved? A quid pro quo?
What’s the sun your world revolves around?
What book might you take a right-hand
oath on that would make you think twice
about perjuring yourself?
Where’s your line in the sand?
I mean you might as well be judged
for who you really are, right?
If you don’t care, you don’t care.
Maybe other people’s currencies don’t mean
anything to you. So maybe just say that?
So they can stop haggling and everyone can
move on. I don’t have all day to stand here.
Describe for me the method of hurting when
you coerce from behind the briar the one
or two actual motives that would be
otherwise unclothed, pungent like screams.
Let’s talk about the kind of conversation
it takes to draw the truth out like blood.
Away, away from emotional rhetoric.
We are not our vulnerability, our
exploitability. We are the evils we choose
to fight for, emaciated and god-like,
on the other side of the needle’s eye.

Nights of Tokhang

(As of posting this, at least 13,000 people have been killed in the Philippines under Operation Tokhang, including minors, children and infants, most of them from low-income residential communities.)

Like a blunt knife falling,
the way uncertainty is torture
and torture is death
suspended from a string,
the layers that stand
between the heart and the blade,

night falls again on those uncertain streets.
Spirits crouch in fear with strained ears
where they had taught themselves
to fall asleep on empty stomachs.

These nights they listen for sounds of the end,
ominous gap in the arid hush,
the brief commotion of a will ensnared
like a helpless bird in the span
of a final intake of breath,
the screech of tires and the spending of bullets
ripping open the telling silence,

having brushed against the possibility of it
so many times they’d recognize the air
in its lungs as it starts dropping names
in the dead of night.

These nights they toss and turn on beds
of the nails intended for their own coffins
with cold palms pressed against the grimy walls
wondering how many hours they have left,
touching the inert limbs of their children
to check if they are still breathing.

Too late to dream, too late now
to hold the stillborn promise of change.
Too futile to change.

And in the mornings they rise
on nerves with burnt off edges
and inhale from the stench the tattered stories
of those who have been purged the night before.
An ounce of weeping, quickly drowned out
by too many empty words. A sustained
cacophony of secondhand rage.

Tell themselves it’s just ulcer from hunger.
And death will come anyway, one way or another.

(The streets have never been safer.)


For one of our Humanities II discussions in the summer of 2001, our professor, a burly, bespectacled man with geometric tattoos on both arms, talked about classic Oriental literature being adapted into productions intended for Western, and westernized, audiences. The most glaring difference in the translation, he said, was how some major characters who died in the original text got to live to the end, in the rewrite. He said Eastern cultures were more comfortable with the idea of death, so that being on the other side of the veil still meant a happy ending was possible. That it was part of our heritage to subconsciously regard the afterlife as a beautiful place, and the crossing over as a non-tragic, natural process.

I don’t know what I think about that now.

So much grief in the streets now.

So many deaths.

So many abrupt endings.

It’s like they’re paying someone to keep the veil parted and just unceremoniously throwing bodies across the threshold.

And the only thing transcending the divide is the profoundness of our rage.

Weaponized Frailty

I’ve seen that blind devotion many times,
like butterflies drunk on the summer heat
unique and unforgettable in their sincerity,
their earnest devotion to something that
feels like free will on a slope made
slippery by vague memories of being
motionless in the winter and afterwards
finally breaking out of the cocoon of
knowing nothing, being nothing and
feeling so good from the beating of wings,
world and consciousness simultaneously
opening, that small taste of power let
loose around the garden where the
pattern of bright colors was architected
to elicit responses timed to the second,
down to each nuanced flutter, where
emotion is a commodity and motivations
like thirst can be curbed to fit an agenda
without compromising the purity of the
source, the nectar means different things
to different creatures but the need to
care for something and define ourselves
by the things we care about is universal,
open source, almost inviting exploitation,
it’s inevitable, a matter of time run out,
we’ve been found and figured out, what
a thing of mimicked beauty, this illusion
of choice, this capitalism of blissful
ignorance, to be distracted from the big
picture where greed wears no masks
and everything can be collateral if the
price is right, and be seduced instead
by synchronized vibrations of neurons
masterfully plucked like guitar strings
where we are deaf to the song except for
the individual notes we get so caught up
in, our one thousand eyes entranced by
one maddeningly exquisite flower at a
time, fed an airtight script we unwittingly
translate into our own words, stamp with
our own culture, our own hurts, and it
feels like a beloved creation worthy of
sacrifice before we realize what’s
happening, we’ve been infiltrated, and
soon we’re lost in the swarm, each
hexagon in the hive a different story,
half authentic, half synthetic honey
ready for harvesting for purposes beyond
our most vigilant dreams, we’ve hatched
a generation of prejudices and identified
a common enemy, and become the
contagious pain, the parrot voice of
propaganda in twelve dialects and they
start calling us names and pride, finally,
does the rest.

Our shared humanity is the final frontier.

The Night Trumpcare Passed in Congress

The blue-black sky looms heavy
over the orange city lights
phantom claws of Lake Michigan
rip through wind tunnels paved
with cantilevered fluorescence
and smattered with common lives
like flea market jewels.

Was it something like this,
the first passover, when death
swarmed the mud-and-straw streets
coldly marking the firstborn
of each damned household?
A beleaguered nation watching
the future being eaten away
by plagues brought upon it
by the Pharaoh’s impudence,

the most scarring of the blows
being borne by the lowest of them,

until the casualties started mounting
and even the most powerful
had to realize they were not
impervious to grief?

Springtime in the South Side

The sky is a stray bullet
and the buses are late

night in broad daylight
a witness
an accomplice
about to stand trial
or slaughtered,
whichever comes first,
whoever gets their hands
on whom first

eight-legged non sequiturs
and ad hominems
with fangs
spill out of the open
mouths of mourning

emotions a dime a dozen

weather beaten vigilance
pauses at the shrine
of rebirth:

bruised magnolia
violent wind choking
on cuss words
and the body count that
restarts each weekend

it’s getting warmer again
in Chicago, drawing out
the taste for blood
Pied Piper with
concealed carry and
trigger finger itch
stretching the meaning
of the word
until it snaps

it makes the sound of
deep fried chicken bones
and gravestones

dance with pieces of trash
from the blissful haunts
along 79th and down
the blocks of Chatham
and Auburn Gresham
and get stranded in some
emaciated lawn
of a home where elephants
in rooms whisper the names
of the recently lost

or where
mothers harboring monsters
cover the stench of denial
with dollar Febreze and
stuff their desecrated wombs
with fistfuls of silence

Not On Our Watch

And the thing is, this is not
some nightmare we could
wake up from, and find
that things are back
in their tidy places.

The longer we stay still,
the more time we give them
to take our curated memories
and smash them against
the breakwater, where they
will flail against the murk
and slime of undoing, before
their limbs, tired and entangled
in algae and spun lies,
give up the fight
and mournfully sink

to the dark bottom of being
a people without identity
and with but a discredited
recollection of what brutal
past we once survived.

The people who are counting
on the consummation of our
love affair with forgetting
understand that timing
is everything. They’ve crouched
in wait for decades, exhaling
smoke screens from their
gargoyle mouths and moving
their cheating chess pieces
all across the board while
we were not looking.
Setting the stage for an ambush.
Their fingers and alligator greed
itching for their turn to flick
the switch back on and
watch the whole world burn.

Like scavenger rats, they scurry
over the filed-away documents of
the heroism that used to bind us,
emboldened by the way we get
preoccupied by the commonness
of our pains, by how little it takes
for us to fall into being rabid
instruments of what has been
designed to destroy us.

They do not rest.
And neither should we.

Plunderers standing at
the palace gates, flanked by
their attack dogs.
Victims weeping over
piles of spat-on bones.

This is not some nightmare
we could wake up from.

Every day we fail to act will
be swallowed by prickly weeds
where facts are buried
in unmarked graves.
Every gap in the page will be
filled with forged testimonies
supporting the version
that paints them as saviors.
Every unarmed child will be
made fair game and turned
into an echo chamber for
their prized revisionism.
Every ounce of apathy
they will alchemize
into corrupted gold.

We need all hands on the table.
All voices. All channels
of righteous indignation.

We are not sleeping, but please
make sure we are awake.