Summer school

by Kay Ulanday Barrett

everyday, she would open up encyclopedias,
brown dense backs, wipe dust from the jacket,
to read her mother paragraphs. start with As,
move up to Cs, as Sharon Cuneta croons. if they
were feeling extra curious, a thumb would track
along a page number at random. in one whole section,
a hotel room is cleaned. where discarded linens, now
space to dream. where crumbs on the floor, now path
made anew. between check list of toiletries she
is asked to look up a pristine word, a word she’s
never used out loud. this is how she learns to undo
silence. her mother folds flat cotton as she folds
vowel sounds. like the corners of cloth they both
keep neat, be presentable to strangers until doors
close, until night is over, until lonely doesn’t care
if white people smile back.

next morning – there, a topographical map of mountain
ranges, crests of moon at every stage of shimmer,
how a sail opens up its belly for wind. the mother
grows quiet like she has more to say about the map.
like she relates to the moon, moving to this country
was supposed to be phase. like she’s compass, stern
arms open, hoping departure means better destination.

years after, when the woman dies, it’s daughter’s turn
to clean. old perfume bottles stash crude scent. the
tape deck serenades p.s. i love you, huwag kang
to be told not to worry feels like a joke.
she keeps only one book. for one last time she scans
hardcover. she reads until her voice hoarse, until
spit & tears are same streak. in solitude, realizes –
scared & sacred are almost the same word if you
learn how to pivot. realizes – she’ll never see her
mother crying over somebody else’s stains again.

Read our interview with Kay Ulanday Barrett here.

Kay Ulanday Barrett aka @brownroundboi is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. Barrett was featured in "9 Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Writers You Should Know" in Vogue in 2018 and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize in Poetry. They are the 2018 Lambda Literary Review Writer-in-Residence for Poetry and 2018 guest faculty for the Poetry Foundation. They received fellowships from VONA, Macondo, and The Home School. Barrett has featured on stages like The Lincoln Center, Princeton University, NYU, UC Berkeley, Chicago Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Museum. Their work has been featured in The Academy of American Poets, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour Poetry, BITCH, Asian American Literary Review, NYLON, and elsewhere. Their first book, When The Chant Comes was published by Topside Press in 2016. Their second collection, More Than Organs, will be published by Sibling Rivalry Press in spring 2020.