NAME ME AMERICA
Name me America
Because I am discovered
I am here. I am this body.
This breath a gust. This pulse a drum.
I am poised and fist-ready
And here to say, Look at me,
You look at me. I’m Not so young.
Look at me become
Someone you’d name America.
And you won’t even dream
That I was a Sara.
That I was a four-letter nothing name
The person who fit sideways in a locker
And only chirped come on!
When the Enemy pushed me in
And fist-slammed the door
I could have stuck out a foot, an ankle, a tongue
I could have swelled up into the size of a country,
Loomed over the walls of my nothingness
But I was not America then –
I was crying into the slits that fed me the hallway light
And cursed through snot bubbles all those sitcoms
That fed such a devil such a stunt
But I guess I’ll have to thank her in the end
Because I came out of that metal as America
And I will never fit in there again.
The flick, flick flick light of the dying fluorescent bulb
Is the tick, tick tick of
Don’t forget You’re in the Principal’s Office
Only the Baddies get this chair
And they’ve spent years sawing notches
Into the faux-wood-finish armrests with contraband plastic knives.
But of course, I’m no Baddie.
I’m still a kicking, newbreath America.
Even if Princi-pal keeps calling me Sara –
Want to tell me who shut you in the locker, Sara?
Want to rat, Sara?
Want to be a big ol’ rat because you look like one in that chair…
Feel like one, too.
I saw the notches with my fingernails, adding my skin,
Chewing taffy out of my lips, waiting to breath in.
We’ll have to call your mom, Sara,
This cannot go under the rug.
You see? Do you see, Sara?
I see – I saw the crowd rowdy around my locker cage
I saw laughter like exclamation marks raining through the slits
And Janitor Steve’s snigger when he jiggered the lock free
I think maybe you don’t see, Princi-pal,
I fill up my shoulders with Grand Canyon
Mississippi Great Lakes kind of defiance
And say, Do What You Have To – America Out.
I see the Office for the trees, and shake ‘em –
Guess we’ll learn together what I’m now about.
Trash bags. Ten of them. That’s what I need –
Because red is the new pink.
Oh Hunny, oh Hunny. Mom sets down the phone.
She leaks Homecoming Queen tears.
I didn’t know it was this bad. That you are teased.
Did you know it was probably just as bad for your Dad?
She doesn’t mean to rhyme. She’s out of her element.
She wanted a Gymnastics, Sleepover Giggle Girl
She got a Glasses, Ponytailed Genie-in-a-bedroom –
I unfurl two more trashbags to add to the other ten
I shrug my best answer and go back to my cave
Where the ruffle-lace curtains, the teddies and dolls
Are flying from shelves and poles and walls,
Meeting and falling into black plastic graves
Goodbye, picture books. Goodbye posters.
Goodbye anything pink or just hinting at pink.
And when everything’s gone, Mom gasps herself in,
What have you done here, Sara?
It’s now America, I write on the door in red ink.
She can’t close her mouth – her eyes are too white
I stand up all National, grab her wallet and keys,
We’re going shopping, Mother Dear,
Because red is the new pink
And I am in need.
Phones don’t ring anymore, except in cartoons
They buzz chirp vibrate. Some sing.
But that click at the end is still a mighty Click.
When Jules calls, the Mexican Hat Dance,
And I don’t feel much like answering or dancing
But America, well, she ain’t afraid of anything –
What’d you do? Your mom’s calling my mom
Telling me to call you and you know I got a report due.
This isn’t about the locker thing, is it?
Because that was more funny than anything
And just laugh it up so you see its nothing
Poor Jules. She doesn’t know
I’m about to pull the stars out of shape
Make a new name out of his supposed name game
How could she know with a mouth
Intent on suck swallowing all my words?
Poor Jules. She never did know –
Okay, so I can see how traumatic it was
Stuck in the metal case and such
But shoulder up. I’ve had worse – so much
So, are we done? Cuz this isn’t going to
Write itself, stupid paper. Stupid
SHUT YOUR FACE LIL BROTHER
in the background. One wince for Jules –
Because you know a country can feel bad for an island
Particularly one like Guam – hey…
So Sara, just grit through it, Ok? OK?
I mean, really, see –
America isn’t afraid of you! So shut your lip!
Did you just tell me to shut it?
No. I just got the first of all of my last words.
Click. Double click.
FOR THE LOVE OF RUSSIA
Call him Russia
Cuz he’s big like that
A surfer without the ocean
A guitar boy sans the strings
He sails the pavement
To school on a skateboard
And out the bus window –
The yellow monster metal passes him
And he soars on…
His hay hair flips out on the sides
My mother calls him the Seventies Return
His pants are always low, his shoulders
The yellow creak machine chugs up the hill
pedaling his board,
Now down the incline
And he is sliding on by
Suppose I’ve watched him
Everyday morning without knowing
And see, now that I’m a country
I should probably do something
Come to think of it –
I don’t believe countries ride the bus
At least he never has
I’ll take a cue from Russia
Send myself home on my own
Maybe buy a board and beat him
To the moon’s sky
Or otherwise just get there
With someone like Russia
rushing side by my side
DEATH TO DICKINSON
Miss Yancy is the favorite teacher
The necessary friend of sorts
That all downcast teens need
She doesn’t ask if I’m okay.
She ties her blond locks back and winks
And I thank the world for Miss Yancy
I throw out my black pens for the Red
Lean back in my chair until it creaks
And when the questions stumps the room
I raise my hand like it’s the easiest thing to do –
Sara, you know why Dickinson was obsessed with mortality?
It’s easy, really, I say,
Because the only thing everything’s got in common
Is the oncoming end.
And you could hear a feather flop
Because no one pretends to have a breathing brain
And they all thought I was the same
This is going to be easier than getting
Burned by the sun
On a Mexican beach day.
Until I lean a little too far back – CRASH
Sara, are you okay?
See guys. That’s why you can’t lean in these POS chairs…
Damn, Miss Yancy.
You shouldn’t have asked if I was okay.
Hitting the floor ain’t nothing when you’re used to hitting the floor
It’s standing that makes the dizzy spin
It’s strangling the day that makes things not okay
And I’m going to have to laugh now
I’m going to have to laugh until falling down feels funny.
And here, right smack here, America is growing up –
The dandelion that wasn’t there the night before.
I’m going to sit here, I say.
And every head has split into two.
But you sit over there →
Says the Leader in narrow jeans narrow eyes.
I’m sitting here now.
My jello quivers like a traitor.
I pop the tray down. Then my butt.
I don’t look any different than them in my eyes
Oh, Popular Table. You are the enemy of the masses.
And I’m staking out in enemy territory.
You can’t sit here.
And I have to tell this Leader that, well,
I believe I already am.
They ignore me. They barb their words
In all my directions.
I take them like a champ. I manage down
Three bites of cheese sandwich
I fork the jello. And slurp.
I make it almost to the bell, somehow
My skin peeling in unknown places
My courage taxed out of reason
Alexandra is on the opposite end of the Leader
And she does not get through three bites
Her bottom cast eyes tell me that her food
Is hurting her
And Leader notices, too.
You should lay off the pepperoni in general, Alex.
I snort a laugh in Leader’s direction.
Like what, I say in her speak,
It’s not like you could fit sideways in a locker.
And this time, the table’s laughs are all mine to keep
Home from work with your exhaustion
In a cup in your hand.
I fall on his lap
Smell his Old Spice beard
And become his Sara for a minute
Being invincible is draining
Like a colander, he says and I laugh.
He is so good at my laughing.
Like he made it with his hands
Carved it from a block
Of something without edges
Your mother is worried.
And When is she not?
Can’t a girl reinvent herself?
Only if the reinventing
Doesn’t involve the amputation
Of desirable, hard character stuff
He twists my chin between two fingers
No acid burns, my Daughter
And I say I swear I’ll keep it simple
Maybe not revolutionary
Maybe not yet
I take my leaving leap off him
You promise, Hero?
And since I was a Falling Down Girl
He always called me Hero
So I’ll promise him anything
Even if it means keeping some Sara within
What do you want, Jules?
I should have been gentler, but I’m already in bed
And it’s been a forever first day.
Jules knows not to call me too late –
It’s not Jules. This is Alex. Alexandra. Alex.
So she doesn’t even know her name
I can relate.
She waits for my next line, but –
I should know the words to make a new friend
But that’s not something you know as a retched almost adult
So I try Hi.
I suppose that’s a start –
What was it we said as playground pals?
Will you be my friend?
Leader is going to block you from sitting with us tomorrow.
Her words say something like
I hate her
Without saying it at all.
Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.
She laughs like the world is impossible
Like someone kicked her laughing
Like she’s saying there are worse things than being locked in a locker
Even though the dark is pressing
Into the window glass
I press my cheek to the pane
And whisper nonsense prayers
To things that don’t exist.
Because, did you know?
I didn’t –
That America, the hardest of
Hilled and Hummocked surfaces
With rivers that wash the world
IS underneath the rocks
(Paved in fist pounds)
Just the same jelly stuff
That runs at the core of
Every sort of nonsense being.
Maybe everything is wiggling
Maybe everyone presses their
Cheeks to the panes of the night
When sleeping is thoughts unwashed
Maybe everything, everyone
Maybe not only me –
Feels the tide moving inside
But it doesn’t matter? It doesn’t.
Because it feels like only me
I’ll need to be Adams, Washington –
Thomas Jefferson Whitman
To thwart all the anti-heroes of the world
But I’m broke from the back of just today
And I wish a river would find me, wash me
I brainstorm through breakfast
It’s an accident, really, that mom
Asks if I want to bring or buy my lunch –
Bring. The school is pizza.
And the pizza sucks.
Now paint a cartoon lightbulb
Over this ponytailed head
Mom, can you order me a pizza?
Have it delivered to school
She stands her questions at me
Mustard in one hand
A paper bag in the other
Would you like to tell me why?
Can’t. But it will help me make friends…
I can say that one with a look.
Her questions still stand and she’s thinking
Of her homecoming tiara in one hand
With her Fit Sideways in the Locker Daughter
In the other
A whole pizza?
A large pizza.
She agrees without agreeing
So I kiss her cheek with a smile
And feel broader than I was before my cereal
Don’t worry, Al –
America is on the case
And space at the lunch table is only just space.
MIDDLE TABLE VICTORY
Hang back, I say to Al, who is all nerves in her baggiest sweatshirt,
We’re not sitting with them. We’re taking the Middle Table
And so, even though she’s thinking of running, she follows to the center
Al is a country in her own right.
Maybe not one that leads, but one with gold in her bones.
The cafeteria like a battlefield at break, weapons beside soda cans
Shields next to the potato chips. And barbed words, just a swallow away
No one ever takes the Middle Table
The hub center in the sea where segregation runs strong and hereditary
And inbred in each of us to keep to our circles. Stay clear of the larger pulse
I drop my things so that the table rings a metal clang like a gong
Al sits like a mouse
And now we have every eye, every mouth struggling to swallow sandwich
Readying for the gossip of pronounced change
And I head to the front door
Where my ordered pizza awaits.
I march it back through the crowd with their heads now swiveling
And Al and I settle down with our huge food
She sifts, but I just say, Wait
And the bad boys come first because they have no roots
Trading smiles for pizza
Then the smart ones and the artsy
It is a quick fix – it will never hold up, but for now, we win.
Today Al and I win in our tide of purchased friends.
Somewhere the Enemy and the Leader are hungrier than they’ve ever been
Somewhere Russia is looking on – So I fold my hands behind my head
Let them chew on my loaded smile with their bologna and bread.
The victory lap lands Al and I at my house.
You Have a New Friend!
My mom’s face and voice and height trumpet her surprise.
This is Al. We befuddled the masses today.
Picture my words red, on a banner beating behind a plane…
Or hoisted up by the hands of six battle-weary soldiers.
To my room, the carpet seems dingy on the stairs.
Your mom is tall.
Al’s words have a habit of hushed worn into them.
And she knows it.
I open my door, not ready to feel apologies for what I see through her eyes.
I’m in transition,
I say by way of an apology for the general lack of everything
You’re very different this week.
Al sits on my bed and checks to see if her feet have come too.
Thank you for being my friend.
Picture my words on a Sesame Street lunch box…
Shut it, Sara.
I mean wasn’t Leader’s jealousy just delicious?
Al bites her grin, taps her heels three times
Just where is her Oz anyway?
Better than the pizza, but…
But you’re scared. Me, too.
Don’t worry. I’ll think of something.
If we keep them on their toes, we’ll win. Right?
Al looks at the blank shelf, the ghosts of teddy bears in my sight.
Wonder what she sees. Wonder if we’re really friends.
If they make you choose me or them?
When they make you.
What will you do?
Al swings her feet like she’s been treading water for life
So this is no biggy. I’ve been at the popular table for four years.
Meaning she can cut just as well as she can bleed.
The Mexican Hat Dance announces that Jules is lurking
What was today?!
I feel her wind through the receiver, lean from it.
Hello to you too.
Did Alexandra Depora seriously go over
to your house today?
Sometimes the moon swings into the sun’s light, trumps it.
I’m not doing science, Sara.
No need for name-calling.
YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY
I didn’t think I was driving you anywhere.
You yell too much.
What, so you got new friends for a day
and now you don’t even need to speak to me?
I’ve been your friend since afterschool care,
I don’t like the word remember.
Don’t like remembering that I’ve forgotten –
Forgetting is so pretty. Like a good night’s closed eyes.
Until remembering spreads mud in my joints,
Clumps, cakes, clay in my sighs
And then whispers that I’m eyeing hills past my borders
I choose forgetting.
Will you call me America, Jules?
Of course NOT, I’m NOT an idiot.
I think we’ve ridden this thing out.
My dad’s business words come smooth.
Sting someone else with your salt.
I close my phone. I know that Jules’ family is nine pieces of four people.
I know that Jules is two parts someone else, three halves whole.
I know that her tears run wide when she tries to hold her speaking.
But I choose forgetting, and forward.
Forward for forgetting.
Silver hair of cobwebs shine
In the morning light’s fingers of dust,
I pull them free
The garage smells of wet worms and earth
I dig loose my long abandoned freedom on wheels.
My bike has pink foam on the handles and I spray it Red
With the can that trickles red over my knuckles
Like I’ve nicked something easy to bleed
Spray the metal, chain. Even the daisy printed wheels.
I ride to school and feel the WHIRL of GLIDing…
…in Russia’s wake
His hair can glint white when the sun sits
On its edges and the pieces fly up and back
Fingers pointing, finding me out,
But he doesn’t turn Just step, step SOARing
His board clack, clack, clacking against the sidewalk cracks
I pedal up, but feel the weight of my rust on the hill
The big hill.
The yellow submarine groans past
Faces finding out my strain in the windows…
I kick the pedals, up and not back down enough
Faster America! Russia is killing us!
I lean forward, tilting taking over – Too Sorry Too Late –
And lose my metal on the curb with a clatter
My knee bites the pedal, but the bike’s teeth are tougher
I clutch and worry-back a cry, so far out of date,
Russia glances, his sort-of-smile like a flag trailing
In his wake
Powerful free verse with a surprise on every page. Edgy, original, thought-provoking. Wow.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize judge