703: A Thousand Cardinals

703: A Thousand Cardinals

703: A Thousand Cardinals


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Today’s poem honors our own personal mythology and how the imagination can transform our reality, into one where we can be our whole selves.

A Thousand Cardinals
by Julian Randall

Imagine my first moon
wasn’t a moon at all
but a crescent incision
in my mother      Imagine
my disappointment
when I realized no light
would ever be so full
as the gore I passed through 
just to be born

If I am ever as successful
                                                    at leaving as I aspire to be
I suppose it would go like this
                  I decide to stay          and then a bloom
                                                                                                  of cardinals peel 
from my back          I splinter into a thousand dead
just like that             I’m my mother’s son          all over again

What was the last thing you loved enough
to open something that was not a border
I was born and the scar makes my mother
exactly the island that her parents fled

Every sacrifice begets a question      
                                                             What would you give to never have to 
             flee again?

I mean          my father asked my mother to not teach me 
So I would not be confused              my mother traded her 
and I sound as if I am only his son                What sacrifice         to 
             say allegiance
to my small dark mouth       and not be understood          on 
wash the moon        clean of crimson      until I was barely 
             born at all

In order for me to exist            somebody has to have had sex
In order for me to exist            one thing has to be at the gate
                                                                                                              rattling         until 
At the end of sex a sacrifice has to be made unless a sacrifice 
              was made during
I do both                    just to be safe          I give and give my tongue
                                                                                                             and I am 
              my mother’s son
because the tongue keeps showing up in my mouth

I want to stop                 being              this way         I ask
what it would take to be a sacrifice worthy of the sacrifices 
              that precede me
a trail of wings through which the sun appears to always be in 
I am placed in a school that costs my parents so much
The nature of sacrifice is recursive              we give up
home after home                   a child is left at the brink
of what is known     and we trust an illogical love            that I could 
              bring myself back
I want to know when enough has been given   I want to know
              when I’m allowed
to stop

I ask my birth          to forgive me          when I cannot ask my 
I leave a child          at the edge of my mouth          dare anyone 
              Wash the moon
clean of the child              and this too is sacrifice and 
               lineage       this too an incision
that made me possible

There’s the kind of person who gives their life             for 

There’s the kind of person who gives their life             to prove 
              there was a life

Despite my best efforts        I keep growing back

Suppose to wash my mother clean        I freed my tongue
              my own teeth
and nearly leapt in front of a train                 to save my parents 
              the shame
of knowing I am not as strong as my father             Suppose my 
              mother called
right before          as I worked my knees loose from old 
              transgressions to jump
Suppose only sacrifice staves off sacrifice        What other love
              is there
Suppose           the alternate ending        the train curves a long 
I split        I bouquet       I stay        a thousand stains       a 
              thousand cardinals

"A THOUSAND CARDINALS" by Julian Randall from REFUSE copyright © 2018 Julian Randall. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.