Four Poems

by Kay Ulanday Barrett


plan what dumplings to eat

diaspora love is to say, meet me on mott st., turn on doyers st., and wait in line for half an hour. ok. maybe an hour. not touch each other, but plan what dumplings to eat. not say a thing, but talk about hand pulled noodles, order two steamed pork buns, one for now, and another for later after we build a real appetite. watch one another pull apart soft dough made by women’s hands right at sunrise. before that, i’m in a meeting where a white lady tells me how i don’t even sound filipino. before that, you are not thanked for the ways you do all the work among men. we read the headlines and see bodies like ours but never hear our names pronounced correctly, if ever. all our people clean the houses or build the buildings or bake the bread, and we should be so grateful for this immaculate booth, upholstered in red, so grateful for the diplomas, and the crying between airport gates, see how we’ve made it. i send money back home without envelopes now, it’s done all online via cellphone. you go back to harlem, translate papers to parents. my mouth waters over chive parcels as you reach for the greens, chopsticks pick apart piles of leaves from stems as they sit in the salt of oyster sauce. we talk shop. we claim our worth. together, we order more chili oil and think, this chili oil is hot? — we rub our bellies under the table, still hungry, and smile as if to mean, y’all ain’t tasted anything yet.

everyone huddled in the smallest circle

When you're well into your 30s and you have no heat in the
entire building and you loath that actually you're used to this,
that poverty had been a training, poverty was a practice
imposed on you since childhood. So somehow, small-you
knows how to keep warm when it's 5F outside with blankets
towering a fort on your bed. Yes, you've called & reported &
notified sources to get the heat back on. That's not the point.
What you remember as a child is reading at candlelight or
small space heaters you pretended were robots or
re-starting the electrical fuse when a space heater took too
much juice. You remember your mom crying a couple times,
looking over at your freezing grandparents, all of them
cloaked in the same formula: a hoodie, scarves, bubble
jacket, defeat. She continued to boil water for steam on all
the stove burners and with shivering hands ma would
mumble "we left home for this? We left home for this?" She
would cup her hands blowing breath and each exhale felt
like a wish to return. And your grandparents just sighed &
rocked each other in the basement. All of us wearing starter
jackets, the same kind ma would sell along with phone cards
to her kababayan as yet another side hustle. You, a curious
child who knew there was another home but had never been
there yet — would walk over and ask your mama, hug her
tightly, would nudge your grandparents and hold their worn
hands, to tell them about their home, and so they did. The
waiting hours became the tides of the beach, the sun glow
sweat, the harmony of palm tree leaves catching wind, the
fishing boats dragging nets that appeared to be its own kind
of cursive in sand. There we were, everyone huddled in the
smallest circle in a Chicago northwest apartment, waiting for
it to get warmer, waiting for our bodies to feel home again.

What I learned after moving

with gratitude for Rhoda Rae Gutierrez

Dear Rhoda, Sometimes I do what
you did for me — Open up my home,
give someone keys, let them raid the
fridge. I’ll say, There’s bone broth,
Here’s the longanisa, Don’t bother
with the dishes. Like a real grown up! 

Dear Rhoda, When I said I left the
Midwest for poetry I meant I was
closer to the ocean now and in all
ways, closer to drowning, but mainly,
I just wanted to enter a force bigger
than whatever I grew up with. What I
don’t bother to tell you is admittedly, I
give myself a slow death every day,
something mundane enough like not
brushing my teeth at night. 

Dear Rhoda, Remember that time we
didn’t even know each other and it was
before big city dreams and off the Redline
Argyle stop we went to a restaurant,
pointed to a brute of a photo, and ordered
the biggest garlic dungeness crab? This
was before the dead mom, the frantic
burial, me crying in living room, your hand
pressed on every exhale. In a mentor, you
want someone who can dig through the
cracks, someone unafraid of splinter,
someone who can find grace in the
pungent, meat under the nails, still with
grin like a sunset. 
Well, what is almost as good as
that? I now live in a wave of
`people, up to the ears in
emotions, empathy on the C train
is a thing, therefore one cries
about never belonging anywhere,
which is what actually makes a
true New Yorker or at least
a tolerable transplant. 

Thanks to you, in a different
area code, when the empty
house becomes pages on the
floor, I cook myself
something from the Atlantic,
to remember us. Something
that needs both hands, and I
let myself feed, what could
be considered sloppy I think
undulation, I think don’t be
afraid to let the steam rise,
allow this craving, the kind
that makes a person want to
lay down and just live in it.

Tell a child about something that causes you fear or dread

with gratitude for Samiya Bashir

it’s alright to be just wound
sometimes. to gape, to cry, to rock,
to shiver, to rumble, to ramshackle,
to shake ancestors in your sleep. 

to be part ghost. to razor, to
lash, to hang, to be the thing
that flails, to be cathedral, to be
gravestone. to speak cobweb. 

let me tell you: to die everyday is the kind
of pulse that makes music. to be the kid
who leans against books more than
people. to be the book as it opens,
closes, folds in on itself, on the same
paragraph. to be the underlined stanza
whose body bursts syntax scars naked. 

love the body when it emblazons family curse,
when you are bad joke at the table, when you
are shuffled scrapes of forks, the weirdo told
shut up, forsaken. 

let the lonely make a lens so clear you become intergalactic.
let the residue be a blanket you shed every season.
let your gaze be salve & the sign of the cross.
let you be a blessing no one understands.
let you be the words a stranger waits for.
let love be the bunker you crawl into.
let you guffaw, let you cackle.
let you be the last one left.
let you be the last one.
let you be the last.
let you be the.
let you be.
let you.


Writer’s BIO:

Kay Ulanday Barrett (aka @brownroundboi) is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist, navigating life as a disabled pilipinx-amerikan transgender queer. They are a fellow of VONA, The Home School, Lambda Literary Review and Drunken Boat retreats. They are currently Guest Faculty for The Poetry Foundation and 2018 Writer-in-Residence for Poetry at Lambda Literary Review. K. has featured on stages like The Lincoln Center, Princeton University, UC Berkeley, Chicago Historical Society, Brooklyn Museum. Their work has featured on PBS News Hour, Asian American Literary Review, RaceForward, The Deaf Poets Society, NYLON, Apogee, Entropy, BITCH magazine, among others. More: