March 18, 2008

Last Saturday night I was eating barbecue and peach cobbler
square dancing around hay stacks and letting off steam after an incredible
five days of training with teachers.

It turned into a personal celebration for Andrea Gibson and Tara Hardy
as I listened via cell phone from the men’s room while Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
presented the top four Women of the World Poetry Slam live from Detroit.

Jumping up and down, yelling and wall clapping in the men’s room
looks awkward to guys who don’t plan on that happening
when they open the door to go pee.

Here’s the eighth and final poem Andrea used
to win the tie-breaking last round:

BIRTHDAY

at 12 years old I started bleeding with the moon
and beating up boys who dreamed of becoming astronauts
I fought with my knuckles white as stars
and left bruises the shape of Salem
there are things we know by heart

and things we don’t
at thirteen my friend Jen tried to teach me how to blow rings of smoke
I’d watch the nicotine rising from her lips like halos
but I could never make dying beautiful
the sky didn’t fill with colors the night I convinced myself
veins are kite strings you can only cut free
I suppose I love this life

in spite of my clenched fist
I open my palm and my lifelines look like branches from an aspen tree
and there are songbirds perched on the tips of my fingers
and I wonder if Beethoven held his breath
the first time his fingers touched the keys
the same way a soldier holds his breath
the first time his finger clicks the trigger
we all have different reasons for forgetting to breathe

but my lungs remember
the day my mother took my hand
and placed it on her belly
and told me the symphony beneath
was my baby sister’s heartbeat
and I knew life would tremble
like a prayer on a dying man’s lips
like the first tear on a prison guard’s hardened cheek
like a vet holding a full bottle of whiskey like an empty gun in a war zone
just take me just take me

sometimes the scales themselves weigh far too much
the heaviness of forever balancing blue sky with red blood
we were all born on days when too many people died in terrible ways
but you still have to call it a birthday
you still have to fall for that pretty girl on the playground at recess
and hope she knows you can hit a baseball
further than any boy in the whole third grade
and I’ve been running for home
through the windpipe of a man who sings
while his hands playing washboard with a spoon
on a street corner in New Orleans
where every boarded up window is still painted with the words
We’re Coming Back
like a promise to the ocean
that we will always keep moving towards the music
the way Basquiat slept in a cardboard box to be closer to the rain

beauty, catch me on your tongue
thunder, clap us open
the pupils in our eyes were not born to hide beneath their desks
tonight lay us down to rest in the Arizona dessert
then wake us washing the feet of pregnant women
who climbed across the border with their bellies aimed towards the sun
I know a thousand things louder than a soldiers gun
I know the heartbeat of his mother

don’t cover your ears
don’t cover your ears
there is a boy writing poems in central park
and as he writes he moves
and his bones become the bars of Mandela’s jail cell stretching apart
and there are men playing chess in the November cold
who can’t tell if the breath rising from the board
is their opponents or their own
and there’s a woman on the stairwell of the subway
swearing she can hear Niagara Falls from her rooftop in Brooklyn
and I’m remembering that Niagara Falls is a city overrun
with strip malls and traffic and vendors
and one incredibly brave river that makes it all worth it

I know this world is far from perfect
I’m not the type to mistake a streetlight for the moon
I know our wounds are deep as the Atlantic
but every ocean has a shoreline
and every shoreline has a tide
that is constantly returning
to wake the songbirds in our hands
to wake the music in our bones
to place one fearless kiss on the mouth of that brave river
that has to run through the center of our hearts
to find its way home