Poem of the Week | November 30, 2020
Kim Sousa “My Father Knows What Work Is”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “My Father Knows What Work Is” by Kim Sousa!
Kim Sousa is a Brazilian American poet and open border radical. She was born in Goiânia, Goiás and immigrated to Austin, Texas with her family at age five. Her poems can be found in Poet Lore, EcoTheo Review, Palabritas and elsewhere. Kim is currently seeking poetry submissions for an anthology of LatinxFuturisms she’s editing with Alan Chazaro and Malcolm Friend. For more of her work and for the submission call, you can find Kim at kimsousawrites.com and on Twitter @kimsoandso and @LatinxFuturisms.
My Father Knows What Work Is
Punching the clock at 5 AM, sure as he used to wake na chácara
to Dindinha roasting beans from green to black on the open fire—
What practical magic always had the coffee ready with the sun?
Only here, dentro los estados unidos, we are being ground
between two stones. Pressed for everything we have—and don’t.
My father says he used to be the color of coffee.
His metaphor. Though, I’ve seen it. Preto.
Broad shoulders, broader nose.
Can there be an origin story for us?
I never ask through my violence of phenotypes.
White people have taken this from us, too:
tribalism. A red hat word. One that waits
to round us up at our work sites. For work or internment, both.
Our bodies, our bones. They would spill
every seed we carry.
I easily pick my father out in old futebol photos;
I remember the games.
My sister and I—his impossible gringa daughters—
with our baseball caps pulled tightly against the pigeon shit.
That’s what I remember. The pigeons.
In the rafters like a coming storm: purple-black and loud.
The beer-peanut-pigeon smell. Not my father on the field, driving
forward towards the goalie, wearing out his knees for country,
pushing his barefoot hunger behind him, always.
My father! So casual about playing professionally.
Throwing us on the back of the dirt bike as we screamed for him
to send us flying over the quebra-molas, past the requisite traffic stops
and police taking bribes, always mais rapido, mais alto to that grass field.
No dirt to kick up into his eyes, finally.
No patched and deflating ball.
If I learned what work is, it wasn’t in the threadbare blanket
my mother saved from the flight that brought us here—
or in the wings the attendant stuck through me.
Not in my father sweating in restaurant kitchens, learning the word for knife.
Not assembling boxes at the meat packing plant on summer days,
holding his hand in the break room with its magic soda machine: what plenty!
No, work is, sweaty and sucking ice chips, listening to his easy Spanish
with the others: three languages sprouting on my father’s tongue
when the boss could only speak one. Pendejo / Porra!
What delight: to earn a worker’s swears and contempt and calloused hands.
To eat the pickup truck oranges Dad sliced in the parking lot,
to watch the swipe of his knife against workpants
before he sprinkled each half with salt.
To stain my face and swallow each seed in secret.
For just one seed to sprout:
I wrote this poem from disparate memories and an old futebol photo of my dad with his teammates—at a time when I was experiencing a lot of anxiety around my father’s status and the Tr*mp administration’s accelerated vilification of /violent rhetoric against brown and Black immigrants. (One anxiety has since slowed, while the other has not). There’s this really shining moment in Daniel Peña’s brilliant debut novel, Bang, where one of the brothers eats oranges with salt sprinkled on top. It’s a little moment that stuck with me the way only those precisely rendered crystalline images do. I’d grown up eating oranges this way—it was a moment of cultural connection across the Latinx diaspora for me. In Bang, Dan’s writing about a Mexican experience, and I was recognizing my Brazilian American self in it. Many of poems come out this way: there’s a little seed I’ve been carrying (the salted oranges) that sits a while with my anxiety/ies until—the poem.
In writing this poem with another I wrote at this same time, “Poem for my immigrant father who has now left and will not come back (Borderlands, Issue 51),” I started to conceptualize my first manuscript, which deals with reconciling a lost legacy (later-term miscarriage) with an inherited one. All of that is contained in this poem, in the manuscript: what it means to be displaced in this country, what it means to be both implicated by whiteness and othered by it, how much of either legacy I cannot claim because of my phenotypes and white-skinned privilege, how much we mythologize our immigrant fathers because we can never really know them/how many wounds they protect us from through their silence, etc. My ultimate hope for my work is always that the poem becomes a spell, casting fierce protection around everyone who inhabits more than one world, who dreams us real.
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