Torn Lungs

After September 11, 2001

Years after the towers fell, the city filled with poems
the way it had filled with smoke—Sudden, a critic calls it,

Suddenly everywhere. I imagine seeds of light
in every hand, poems germinating in the oil of skin.

Foreheads bowed as if in prayer, as if in grief, almost
touching, and poems in between them: soft scales

of meter, words collected carefully like ash
from the hem of an angel’s dress. I imagine the world let in

poems like rivers flushed with light and low-roofed homes where children ate
apples and watched the rain. Our bodies, my mother answers,

when I ask her what the world reined. The world tightening
its fist. In the years after the attacks, my mother prayed

alone, in her apartment, on linoleum. The blinds drawn. Blinds
into which they peered, through light and shadow, hunting

my mother’s body. “What it’s like, coming from a family
of terrorists,” they asked. English floundered

in my mother’s mouth. I confess: it hurts to study the attacks, to glimpse
in an old photograph the city’s buildings, like lungs, slow-beating

and wet, to glimpse the attack, how it tore bronchus,
lobe, artery. It hurts to think, in the aftermath, the city filled

with poems my mother didn’t have the language
to read. To think the city moved tenderly to language the way seawater moves

to its shore, but the city wouldn’t move tenderly
to my mother, wouldn’t let her move. Two decades later,

my mother, every morning, tells my sister and I to be careful,
to listen, to respond, Yes, not to respond Problem, not even

to respond, No problem because they are watching, still calling us,
Problem. We hang our chins on our collarbones. Diagnosed with pneumonia

six years in a row, I think of the air this country doesn’t want me
to have. O, how the city, in its hurt, tore, too, our lungs.

O, how we, too, grieve. We grieve a country that doesn’t love us
back. A teacher tells me, Sarah, no more kumbaya images

when I end a piece of writing with women crossing terrain,
hand over hand. I don’t speak because my mother taught me to survive

here means not to. If I could speak, if the poem lets me
survive, and speak, too, I will say: I am asking

for lungs filled with song. I am asking: will you let me believe

in a future of touch? A future where my people’s place
in this country isn’t conditional on our solitude, our quiet, our clasped

hands? Where the soft muscle of land rises to meet our mouths?
Where we open the windows and the only sound that comes out

of our bodies is music? Will you let us believe in a future
where we might find ourselves not in wreckage, but in poems?


You cannot halt a billion years of evolution. We were here long before you and we will be here long after.

Daughter's Guide to Lavender

Ask about the truth. Then ask, again, about the romance. Know that one might cancel out the other. Do not ask any more questions. Count backwards, three to one. Desire more.