Sometimes I get so nervous when I speak
I can feel my heartbeat in my tongue.
And my heartbeat talks faster than an auctioneer,
but this is the last place
I would ever try to sell something from.
When I get really scared
I imagine my enormous grandmother
is standing behind me
with her pipe-organ arms
hugged tight around my chest.
She says, “Listen, I know you’re running your mouth
so your mind can rest.”
is no broken levy staring up at the water.
It is the bite marks a mother left on the hurricane
while her daughter climbed to the 9th ward rooftop
to spray paint, “We are still here, y’all.”
Yes we are.
While some days we may barely get our feet wet
most of the time we’re gonna have to wake
and shake the tidal wave off our etch-a-sketch
to make space for the notes
of a brass-knuckled saxophone
carrying the tattered hope
of the ocean’s prayer.
All these words
are just paper boats praying they can get there.
Tell me we will get there
before we come up broke,
believing that people, like levies,
have to hold themselves together
when often it’s our falling apart
that gives us the grace,
that makes sure no one ever
builds a condo over our broken open hearts.
Two years after Katrina
I found a sea shell
beneath an oak tree in New Orleans City Park.
I can still hold it to my ear
and hear the song the folk singer sang
that night she left so much blood on her guitar strings
and I knew I have never been touched right,
knew we could be instruments
if we could just let our kite strings
get tuned to the lightning tonight.
Tuned to your thunder.
I am already shaking like a matador’s hands shook
in that 1906 California earthquake
when 28,000 buildings fell
and the people said, “When 28,000 buildings fall
do you know how many walls are no longer there?”
All they had left between them
was the gospel salt of their sweat,
as they carried each other from the rubble to the street
where each night they carried the piano
to be played by a new refugee.
Some wishes can only be made on the stars’ dust.
I know most of the time my shine
cannot hold a match to my rust.
So ask me about the rain.
I will tell you my mother says, “The thing
about wheelchairs is they keep you looking up.”
Says, “Forests may be gorgeous
but there’s nothing more alive than a tree
that learns how to grow in a cemetery.”
So when my grandmother died
I started wearing her thimbles on my fingers
when I’d type these poems,
hoping every key I’d type
would sound like a footstep of someone coming home,
the way my friend came home from Iraq
and named his baby daughter Viva.
We have all fought for our lives
more than we know,
survived our own questions.
How can you grieve a poisoned sea, a bleeding gulf?
Can even the moon handle that kind of gravity,
that pull to surrender?
I say science can split an atom.
But what if Eve could put Adam back together
by reminding him the garden is just a seed
sometimes so small it can fit on the tip of your tongue?
See, this is me hitchhiking with a green thumb,
hoping to grow something in the trust
of letting y’all pick me up
‘cause today, trust me, I was falling for the wreckage.
So remind me
the most fertile lands were built by the fires of volcanoes.
Plant my feet in the one thing that flowered
when everything else erupted. Usman,
an immigrant from Pakistan,
could not stop saying, “Brother, Brother,”
to the Jewish man whose hand he held
down ninety-eight flights of stairs
to escape the fall of the Twin Towers.
Right now, that is the only hour I will set my heart to.
The moment we realize sometimes
it is the metal in the wind chimes that reminds us
how soft the breeze is.
And maybe my grandmother only believed in Jesus
‘cause she believed He came back
wearing that whip on his back like a halo.
Either way, this world
has picked me enough times for its madness vase
for me to know sanity is not
running from the window when the lightning comes.
It’s turning thunder into grace,
knowing sometimes the break in your heart
is like the hole in the flute.
Sometimes it’s the place
where the music comes through.
[Performance by Hakim Bellamy, Angela Herrera, and Mikaela Renz-Whitmore starts at minute 17:17]