Arlene Biala


Mingus Among Us

Mingus weaves and I think
I want to dance with him
I want to fuse sax and bones  
with my fingertips

Is it the wrong song?
Does it even matter?
I am here in this room, looking
at a face emerging from his femur

Skeleton man running after Mingus' notes
and cigarette smoke
Another strange break in the rhythm
but it's okay, I know it's not meant to be easy
Easy is not evolution
Easy is pollution
and too many marked trails

I want to know if Mingus knows
the meaning of life
and what it means to be
taller than trees
ivory keys hold their breath
high notes remind us, again
it's not supposed to be easy

In this movement, one of four,
I'm conjuring ocean
the rest will come later
For now, this is the riff:
You tell me about this species
I'll tap my toes
You tell me about a book
valued at $4,000
and I want to just lick it,
taste the woodblock cuts
grooving out of reach

I want that solo
But it won't work that way
Here. Take the replica
touch it all you want
Flip the script, throw the bones
deep cut the lines into asking
for the answers

It's extra credit
It's all I need

I want Mingus to linger
tonight, after I leave this place,
drive through the rain
thinking about vertebrae and
bass notes, dissonance
folded up like an accordion
trying to swallow and breathe you
at the same time.


we all have different midnights.

miriam. virginia. yemaya. harriet. nanay bening. bamba. maria gloria. maria natividad. maria iluminada. maria mercedes. maria beatriz. maria rosario. lola enyang. lola amonita.
what i wouldn't give to drink whiskey with you tonight
but you are far away in saudi arabia and i haven't seen you 

in twenty-six years. and you are working the graveyard

shift at bay 101, swatting the hands that try to grab you

while you deliver cocktails at the poker table.

you are calling to cancel our lunch yet again

because your husband is having a panic attack
and he doesn't know how to do that without you.

you are on the phone with your son in mapandan

who was deported ten years ago by homeland security

for lack of american citizenship and being at a garage party
at the wrong time.

and bone density tests. blood counts, platelets dangerously low.
and sometimes you can't remember your daughters
either by name or by face, but you know their smell.

sometimes the afterlife gets in the way.

sometimes we walk castro street, barely a block
and you need to stop. your hip is killing you.

you're never one to complain of aches
but it's different today.

i couldn't just write about trees and daffodils if i tried.

try to write about the lovely sea, and it becomes the place
where my mother and her sisters almost drowned. with yemaya
folding a young girl into her skirt, a fallen warrior.

my freshman year, english lit. class. "if you aren't writing like milton
by the time you are 19, don't bother." yes, i remember. yes.

then, chrystos. haunani kay trask. audre lorde. sharon olds. adrienne rich. jessica hagedorn. genny lim. june jordan. lorna dee cervantes. virginia de araujo. devorah major. virginia cerenio. shirley ancheta. janice mirikitani.

so much beyond.
 rip the milton, you badass women.
how you meet me on the rain soaked trail, stomping the clumps of mud off your boots, steep switchbacks up to the wildcat clearing, into the loop of bluest sky.


current events

is the homework for my ten year old tonight.
november 19, 2012.  of course it is already his bedtime
when he remembers this is due in the morning.

you know what to do, i say, as i place the paper
down firmly in front of him, then walk away.  
tough love, make him do it all by himself,
teach him a lesson in responsibility.

i wait. do not go to his rescue, i tell myself. i wait.

mom, i'm done.  
already? i reply.
well, i'm done reading the article.  it's about people 
already shopping online for black friday.

i groan, get off the couch, go to him.
this is the article you chose?! you know how i feel
about black friday. isn't there something more meaningful
you can write about?

his eyes well up. i can't write about gaza. they're just killing
kids for no reason and they won't quit. and there’s that oracle
story of the boat crash, and a man dead in a crime spree.
i don't want to write about any of that.

my arms open wide, i take him in.  my lesson, my life lesson.
how will i ever protect you? beyond my love, i have nothing.
how does anyone play god?

when we stop crying, i say, here . . . look. how about this story?
"community collects and donates new socks to the homeless"

he reads the story aloud for us.  i listen.  his stuffy nose,
his nasal voice, steadying me like a mantra as he reads on
and on, and i try to imagine clean socks instead of rockets
raining down on gaza, warm feet instead of the cold drone
of a mother rocking her dead child, her arms open wide.