Winner, 2013 Literary Award in Poetry

R. A. Villanueva


What the rains bring are trains, shorted, held fast
to bridges between stops, boots, fireworks
called off again. They say the city — mist-
figured, flood-drummed — has wanted this for weeks
and point to maps, cold sweeps, shifting pressure
along the Arthur Kill up and out to
the Sound. But Friday was free of thunder,
wind, downed lines. You smoked on the front stoop
and she walked her dog and I felt a sting
at my shin from the salt and sweat in my
stitches. We talked too long about small things —
prom nights, driftwood, punchlines to jokes poorly
translated — and had to remind ourselves
why we were here. That sky. Your son. Those grins.


We are here because of that sky, those grins
and grudges our sons will inherit if
not for us. Beneath Chambers the walls
are made with eyes, cracked tesserae of
sight lines dusted gray. Above, my wife walks
to work past picket men, Gadsden flags, boys
arm-in-arm, posing beside full-color mock-
ups of Memorial Voids and storey
15 cradled by fog. Everyone stares
at everything else. It is what we know
now, how we tell each other we survive
upright in an America we own.
But suppose I'm given no piece of your
you say - suppose your "home" smacks of war.


You say: There was no time when home and war
could be kept apart or held untroubled.
Take how each drive out in the Pinelands would
feel like crossing the Mason-Dixon or
how the white kids massed in pickups with their
empties and ropes, barreled into town dead-
set on catching her with him, hand-in-hand.
Now when I think about it, My mother

is who I see. She spent her nights brushing
my hair, tracing my eyes. In the mirror,
she pointed, I named: "black," "almond." Mom made
sure to add "blessed," "lucky," and I believed
her then. I've learned my son is still too young
to wonder where we're from or what we are.


And before you ask: I've learned what we are
is unwanted, marked by sighs and curses
like some new kind of rot. Each summer since
and every floodlit, bone-shaded "Never
Forget" has arrived dressed with teeth, flags, their
sight of me that night below Myrtle, fists-
in-pockets, unsure of where to run. Boys
that drunk mean what they promise and could care
less about the color of your passport
or where you call home. Fuck remembering
their way. If we let them, soon all we'll have
left are anthems, this looping montage of
eagles and bugles and smoke. Remembering —
I need you to know — takes names, faces ghosts.


I need you to know I've tried. To name ghosts,
to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
the city's glossed clots and fresh buttresses,
that earthworks' trill we've let pass for rebirth —
it's to ask mercy from all that survives
us. And, yes, it's how we'll skin their myths, right
those mouths rhyming "bruise" with "brick," "break" with "leave."

Last night, stalled near Rector, I thought about
the sound of particulate matter and
burnt bone upon glass, about my brother
who refuses to shake it off. My hands
fell, emptied. I thought to knuckles, sutures,
"Go Home" cut into cheeks, how — weighted by
their marrow — flightless birds want the sky. 


Though lacking the breadth
and mass of the iliac wing,
this sacred bone remains,
for Vesalius, broad as hunger,
as grand and spacious

as the sea. But he leaves names
and reasons for others, wants
only the seven figures of the thorax,
cares more about the Cartilages
of the Rough Artery.

He does not mention how this holy
place, cut from the ox-calf wrapped
in fat, was Achilles' mourning offering,
how the blessed ram, shank broken
over the fire, was Abraham's sacrifice

after his son. When I think aloud,
Nothing we do living
can be as beautiful
as what the living will do
with our bones,
you reply

with ceremony, recounting
cremations from your childhood:
boys at pyre's base sifting through ash
for that fragment of sternum
which resembles a man

lost in meditation, those shards of hip
worthy of marigolds and hand thrown urns
to set upon the Ganges. Years later
you find yourself home, on the edge
of a Greater Bangkok throttled

with fires and protest tambourines.
There amidst talk of the hereafter
and makeshift triggers, you tend
to a lung bruised through the cage
of the ribs, send photos of Varanasi,

its bargefields and silks, a barber
drawing his knife across the cheeks
of the dead and their brothers.
What I have yet to show you back
is Santa Rita de Casia, its reliquary

chapel overtaken by flowers, this
grave mason preparing a space
for my grandfather as we watch
the youngest girls of the barangay
lifted up and passed, kicking

at the air, over the face of his casket.
Someone whispers, So that his spirit
will keep to heaven,
and then I know
I am not entirely here: I stare
at a boy trowel earth into a paste

of mortar and spit; I hear Vesalius
take his artists to the head and
its moveable sutures, the bulwark
of temples made for the soft nerves,
formed for the sake of the eyes;
I kneel

beside priests burning camphor
upon the ghats, brace this eldest son
for what he must break with his hands
and the sight of his father's soul
freed from the fabric of his skull.