Fear and Other Poems

 
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Joseph Cuomo

Art by Christina McPhee

 
 

Fear

the cashier’s fingertips still wince from my hand
as if it would singe hers—well, yes,
je suis un singe…
Derek Walcott

Aristotle classified all barbarians
slaves by nature naturally in their
interest subjected to their betters

making better judgments on their
behalf other thinkers thought this
contrary to nature yet ubiquitous

unavoidable universally acceptable still
others thought slavery immaterial
all that truly matters is the status of the

soul no ancient thinker declared it pure
evil a young man you begin in radio a
station where what isolates divides us

ethnicity race orientation gender
doesn’t matter at least this is
the premise you feel its presence

infectious wondrous you ask the producer of
poetry day if you can help she makes you co-
producer on the spot you don’t know then with

Pepsi you’re either equal or enemy there’s
no middle ground you also don’t know
she’s feared by almost everyone who isn’t

Black producers engineers volunteers
committee members hosts the director
you sense in her oddly familiar presence

friends you met in the forest skinny
dippers vegetarians acidheads admirers
of Khalil Gibran flowing dresses bright

headscarves heady incense in master
control you don’t see she fears the
fear she triggers in others is obvious

bigotry soon strangely then you’re the
liaison between Pepsi and the director
the committee each side wants nothing

to do with the other each sees you as
sympathetic yet essentially different a
man in the middle you see how others

flinch dodge flee her you see how she plays
into this flings accusations snaps you can’t
tell she’s testing them but can feel when they

fail one day she has a cold you had a cold a
week earlier and she insinuates stiff irate
you gave it to her before you know it you

sense it a test Pepsi you say possession is
nine tenths of the law the two of you
collapse in laughter fall into each other

embrace you don’t see the long years the
centuries millennia within the moment
the test you don’t see the all too sensible

expectation almost no one will pass you
don’t grasp what you both have found
still later decades later not long before she’s

gone you’ll find it in her
eyes
again this yes this even

more ancient than Aristotle.

 
 

Vowel

I’m here now can hear him shouting
seething cursing into the phone the
rage of Achilles unleashed on a reticent

priest he will not let go will eat drink
inhale the fever the bile the spasm
twisting his thick body around wrenched

cork uncorked abrupt what is inside raining
out don’t tell me don’t you tell me you
think I don’t see things you think I don’t

know you think I’m a fucking asshole I
know believe me I know I know my
kids would be sitting in that goddamn

school right now if my name didn’t end in a
vowel there it is the secret the mystery the
source I see my small self helpless perplexed

the shock the conflict the clash of
absolutes the unquestioned authority
of my father of the Church the priest

unforgivable and yet he forgave us forgiving
all our sins now I see what I didn’t
then like a god I take on my father’s form

animate him sense each muscle his mine
tense churning of the blood bilious
liver hammer of the lung inhabiting

his skin his shame his anger
true as bone I can feel it
devour him when trying to buy

a home they weren’t gonna sell to
someone like me someone with a
name that ends in a vowel I sit inside

his soul and see what there is of him in
me his fire his fury the indignity no less
tenacious than mine during the War they

had me stationed in Tennessee before we got
shipped over and the sheriffs in this
frigging town they threw me in jail the

bastards worst jail I ever seen didn’t even have
no toilet just this trough like horses
drink out of running through the cells of course

I was bombed we all were we
knew where we were
headed but that ain’t why they

arrested me you wanna know
why you wanna know for dating
a white girl

yes my father yes he had been
wronged the heat the lightning
genuine though he held it

too long poor man he couldn’t
unknot his pitiless heart could
not calm his own storm it bent

blinded swallowed him a war he
couldn’t win his war the war
within a match inflamed possessed

undid him undid those he
loved wronged cut us now I
see the hit the burn the hurt

to him us me differently no longer
alien to the horror the hurt to
others before others since others

to come I can see a through
line a link a bridge between us
so many of us a bond among the

dead the living the not yet born
so many of us shadows to the
world shadows to ourselves so

many estranged anomalous wretched
refuse cryptic difference the wretched
dream a Trojan horse why why do we

hate whoever is not
us even though of course they
are we yes we are our brothers keep

saying it we are our
sisters they all of them
are me they all of them

are gods.

 
 

Meeting

If you know for certain what is the purpose of
the universe…then…no degree of coercion is
too great, provided it leads to the goal.

Bertrand Russell

around thirty you debate Jerry Falwell on TV
his face enlarged on the monitor
enormous big as Cyclops smiling courteous

to the camera yet duplicitous he talks
shit to you during the commercial tries
to fluster unnerve you then back live

he claims not to have said what he
did beats you in battle belittles you
foolish a nobody looking through

notes trying to cite his lies his
deceit Falwell sees but a sole
possibility the certainty of war

the dictate of the divine Armageddon
his joy tomorrow already written
knowable inevitable the way forward

indisputable the inerrant command of
the Bible all we can do is walk willingly
or unwillingly down the path history

reduced to this the power to predict
preempts all discussion all
argument disagreement now disloyalty

skepticism subversion fanaticism
infects the Oval Office then as it
will decades later Falwell separates

the righteous from the rest of us the
powerless the feminist the lesbian
the dark barbarian how do we survive

this how do we reason with the
unreasonable inflexible how defend
conciliation kindness empathy now I

see what you didn’t then we yes all
every one of us has tasted the whip
estrangement defeat gay trans Black

Brown odd foreign still our betters are
not better than us they deny their own
ignorance imperfection uncertainty

confuse belief with knowledge believe they
they alone see what no one can
the premise lone key the sole purpose for

the existence of humanity
conviction breeds confidence
however misplaced belligerence

lunacy intolerance the province of
those who know what they
don’t can’t can never know there is

no supremacy no hierarchy we who
stand up speak out we who love yes
love another more than ourselves

there is no panacea utopia no final
victory there is only this the
company of those who have gone

before us those who will follow
there is only the sense of doing
what we must the sense of each

of us hand in hand for all eternity.

 

Spring / Summer 2024



Joseph Cuomo

Joseph Cuomo’s most recent work appears in the Boston Review. He was born in Harlem and spent his early years in the south Bronx. He has debated Jerry Falwell on CNN and produced an award-winning public radio documentary on American Fundamentalism, broadcast in the US, Canada, and Australia. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker Online and Don’t Tell Mama: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing. The work that appears here is part of a book of poems, which he has just completed.



Christina McPhee

Christina McPhee’s site-based abstractions illuminate ways of knowing across drawing, painting, and multiples. Museum collection highlights include the Whitney Museum of American Art and the International Center of Photography, NY. Recent institutional shows of her work include Christina McPhee: Regeneration at KinoSaito Art Center, NY (2022). Group exhibitions include the forthcoming Atmospheres of Sound: Sonic Art in Times of Climate Disruption at UCLA for the Getty’s PST ART initiative, “Art |& Science Collide” (2024-25). She is a recipient of a MAP Fund for Performance, together with Pamela Z, for their collaborative work, Carbon Song Cycle.



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