The Summer of ‘77 I learned
the Spanish phrase: pelo malo
when my aunt announced
that I’d never be loved by a white man
con ese pelo malo. I loved my hair,
the way it frizzed around the edges
of my face & stood there like a woman
waiting to be asked to dance a slow bolero
a jumpin’ rumba. I was three years old
didn’t know much of love then
the orange tree that stood in my aunt’s yard
became my first lover. I would wrestle with
its tender branches hoist my small frame
around its tubby brown trunk thick as a liana
or a man’s waist. I wonder now if every lover
in my bed in some ways is a representation
of that orange tree & those words I heard
in that Miami heat about the way love
can be so damn fickle that the texture of my hair
would wilt a pink crotched man, make him
recoil from my locks. Today, I still do
have a fondness for trees, all of them
with their deep roots & their heartwood
The alamedas holding rows of them, singing,
shading my unruly hair reminding me that once
I was told there would never be an arboretum
in my future. That I’d never have the gift of choices:
bonsai, white birch, redwood —
SAPPHO IN NEW YORK
She was first spotted on the corner
of 125th & Lenox
her plaited hair curled. Her eyes
pearls through a rainy mist.
The incense vendor told everyone
she lingered by her table
preferred the smell of myrrh &
frankincense. She smelled of the
other side: wooden boat oars &
sleep. She carried a bag full of
poetry books & a purse
of the softest leather dyed pink,
rumors trailing behind her.
I first saw her on the 1 train
She sat across from me, braided
leather sandals & her t-shirt
read “ I love Ferrymen” & her
lips were crescent shaped
like the moon during my cycle.
Her arms folded across her body
to protect. She asked where
I bought my shoes, the leopard
print ones with the red heels I
answered Jersey, she had
never been, only travels island to island:
Cuba, Dominican Republic, the Maldives,
Madagascar, Easter, Martinique, Lesbos.
My sister called on a March day
I saw Sappho, she said, I saw her
She was waiting for the M4 bus
I followed her, I couldn’t help it
the rumors of her beauty are true
she carried a lyre, her fingers,
they were the color of burnt umber
do you think it is because of longing?
Is umber the color of loss?
It is so yellow, the way the buildings
stand upright & cast concrete shadows
against the speckled sidewalks. The museums
are full of the Gods. They look as though
they were stone, but I know they are watching,
waiting for me to enchant them.
I only want to pull the strings of this city
I am done with immortals, they are too quiet
I love the sound heels make against the streets
I am falling in love all over the city, leaving
peacock feathers completely abandoned on carousels.
Poems falling out of my dress
I cannot contain them.
The women here need me, the news reports
sightings of me everywhere, but I am not,
only where I am needed.
On the subway women carry heavy loads.
On the pavement their weary feet leave marks
that only I can see, like lipstick
stains against dirty napkins in dark bars
Sometimes I am recognized, but mostly, I am
like a blue jay everyone thinks is a sparrow.
I hear them talk about me, they say I am responsible
for the city’s young girls’ disinterest in boys. That
since I’ve arrived women are taking over industry
& men have fallen behind, a drop in men that
graduate from college. But I care nothing of
industry. I care about the way a moan sounds
in the ear before the chest feels the first pang
Tonight I will strap on the highest heels,
stretch my body as if I were
standing on stilts
standing on bricks
standing on the long backs —
Arabian horses. I will balance my song in
that space between the neck & the shoulder
blade. Announcing to every woman
that burnt umber
is the color of poetry —
Yesenia Montilla is a New York City poet with Afro-Caribbean roots. Her poetry has appeared in the Chapbook For the Crowns of Your Head, as well as the literary journals 5AM, Adanna, The Wide Shore and others. She received her MFA from Drew University in Poetry and Poetry in Translation and is a CantoMundo Fellow. Her first collection The Pink Box is published by Willow Books.