Four Poems from Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice
Selected by Alexis Rhone Fancher, Poetry Editor
Because What We Do Does Not Die
by Ellen Bass
This is not his face. This is not his breath.
This is a praise song
for the mother who sat down beside me,
her coat still on,
asking, What is it, Ellen?
This is homage to the mother
who hissed, The bastard. The son of a bitch,
I’m sorry you didn’t bite his tongue off.
This is not his smell or the smell
of the grass he cut.
This is my mother the next day
in her clean blouse and crimson lipstick
waiting for him in the store,
quarts of clear vodka stacked behind her.
If you ever touch Ellen again, I’ll tell your wife.
This is my mother pronouncing my name,
the name she crowned me.
If you see her on the street, cross
to the other side.
The man protested.
He needed the job. I only kissed her.
This is how I bow down to my mother.
my dead mother who will never be dead.
I never saw him again.
This is not his voice. This is not his tongue.
by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Prison is the sinner’s bouquet, house of shredded & torn Dear John letters, upended grave of names, moon Black kiss of a pistol’s flat side, time blueborn & threaded into a curse, Lazarus of hustlers, the picayune Spinning into beatdowns; breath of a thief stilled By fluorescent lights, a system of 40 blocks, Empty vials, a hand full of purple cranesbills, Memories of crates suspended from stairs, tied in knots Around street lamps, the house of unending push-ups, Wheelbarrels & walking 20s, the daughters Chasing their father’s shadows, sons that upset The wind with their secrets, the paraphrase of fractured, Scarred wings flying through smoke, each wild hour Of lockdown, hunger time & the blackened flower.
Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ, 8:00 A.M.
by Ross Gay
It’s the shivering. When rage grows
hot as an army of red ants and forces
the mind to quiet the body, the quakes
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips,
his eyes scanning my car’s insides, my eyes,
my license, and as I answer the questions
3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,
his hand massaging the gun butt, I
imagine things I don’t want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens.
by Juan Felipe Herrera
Odd to be a half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the question of the half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids—obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
Flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts—these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
What is the other—yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends—all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being
How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your life-long project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.
Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice, Edited by Carol Alexander & Stephen Massimilla
About the Editors:
Carol Alexander earned her PhD in American Literature from Columbia University. Since then, she has worked in the field of education, first as a university lecturer, then as a writer and editor specializing in educational publishing. She is the author of the poetry collections Fever and Bone (Dos Madres Press, 2021), Environments (Dos Madres Press, 2018), and Habitat Lost (Cave Moon Press, 2017). Alexander’s poems appear in a variety of anthologies and in journals such as The American Journal of Poetry, Canary, The Common, Caesura, Cumberland River Review, Denver Quarterly, Hamilton Stone Review, Matter, Mobius, One, Pangyrus, Pif, Ruminate, The Seattle Review of Books, Southern Humanities Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, Stonecoast Review, Sweet Tree Review, Terrain.org and Third Wednesday. Alexander’s work has also appeared in English, Irish, Australian, and Canadian journals and anthologies. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been read on NPR and featured in readings throughout New York City. In addition to poetry, Alexander has authored children’s fiction and nonfiction. As a freelance editor, she helps academic writers hone their work for publication.
Stephen Massimilla is a poet, scholar, professor, and painter. His multi-genre Cooking with the Muse (Tupelo Press, 2016) won the Eric Hoffer Award, the National Indie Excellence Award, the IAN Book of the Year Award, and many others. His newest poetry collection, Frank Dark (Barrow Street Press, 2022), is forthcoming. Massimilla’s previous books and awards include The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat (SFASU Press Prize); Forty Floors from Yesterday (Bordighera Poetry Prize, CUNY); The Grolier Poetry Prize; the Van Rensselaer Prize, selected by Kenneth Koch; a Salmon Run National Poetry Book Award citation, selected by XJ Kennedy; a study of myth in poetry; numerous Pushcart Prize nominations; award-winning translations; and others. His work has been featured recently in such publications as AGNI, Barrow Street, the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Epoch, Five Points, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, HuffPost, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, The Southern Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and hundreds of others. Massimilla has exhibited his art widely and performed work at venues ranging from the Miami Book Fair to public television to Carnegie Hall. He holds an MFA and a PhD from Columbia University and teaches at Columbia University and The New School. Websites: www.stephenmassimilla.com and www.cookingwiththemuse.com