Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Kemi Alabi





Dendrochronology of This Want

Count the pimpled genitalia of sex-ed fame
            multiplied by every high school in Wisconsin

Add the ninth graders cast as pus-to-be
            instead of storm’s eye: empty bellied, ravenous

Count the days my mother wondered where her clitoris was
            multiplied by the year she stopped asking

Add the Sundays pastor named Eve blight
            multiplied by the aunties’ amens

And the deacon eyes needled through my stockings
And the weeks a body starves down to one closed fist
            multiplied by the dances too Black for corsage
            just Black enough for 808 bonegrind
            white boy palm lines seared into hips
            ring-aged like tree trunks sawed from root

Count every gender I refused for this branding

Measure the spectrum of unkissed

Calculate the surface area of skin
turned dust, my coat for twenty winters

            Holes in every pocket. I’d learned to beg—
            How many crumbs on the road to you?

                        Measure the sine wave of this gasp
                        Distance between trough and peak

                        Angle between eye centered and rolled
                        The shiver’s velocity

                        Each second the body was lost
                        magnified to the tenth power

                        of the body returned
                        and returned
                        and returned


Theory of Plate Tectonics
for Regina

She says New England hoards college girls like cherries in its cheek,
tongue-tying their legs to knots, making party tricks out of people.
Says it’s an old currency, wads of tangled stems tumored
with unfinished bows. Says the quick ones learn to curl like ribbon.
The brave ones learn to run with their hands. The pretty ones knot
and knot into rope and callus and none of their blood stays long.
But half butane, half lemon juice, all pit, no skin, us sad ones
are a new fruit. I tell her we should shower more. Eat something
besides black pepper and rum. I tell her, darling, the teapot’s melted
to the stove, all the mugs chipped in hazardous places—dropped
from scalded hands into perfect blades, stealing lips from our guests.
But she reminds me we have no guests here. Just the half-dead boys
we’ve specialized in trapping, the long-legged never-giants too grateful
to run, so now, cups brimming with sliced mouths, kitchen table littered
with scabs, we pick over the charred parts: two-dozen match heads
sawed from their stems with his sharpest key (ours now); half a collarbone,
still warm (ours now); the light bulb he almost smashed into her throat
when he learned not all flightless soft-bodied girls are fireflies (now ours
to shatter in the rooftop shadows just like one of us). She tells me Paris
is mostly glitter and ash this time of year. Red velvet glove shit.
Prettiest scowls you ever saw. Tells me Cape Town paves its streets
with severed wings that shimmy for moonlight and stray coins. Says
she’s got a naked man waiting in Havana, and his neighbor owes her
a pack of cigarettes. Says she’s been studying plate tectonics. Whispering
spells for Pangaea. Lighting incense to prayers for the Great Rift Valley
with magma from Kilimanjaro. She’s scouring for signs of Himalayas
in the Appalachia branded to her calves. Asks how long it takes
smoke signals to hitch waves ‘cross the Atlantic. Asks me if I know
the difference between arson and wildfire. I tell her arson
is chain smoking with the dirty wax girls she meets on OK Cupid.
I tell her wildfire is thinking candles fit replacements for daylight.
I should have said the difference depends on what’s burning.
That we have such old bones for such new people, I’m afraid
they’re more cinder than marrow, and we’ll feel safe in all
the wrong places, always most at home here, among the flames.


Photograph of Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore.

Kemi Alabi was born on a Sunday in July. Since then, their poetry and essays have found homes in Black Warrior Review, Catapult, The Guardian, Apogee Journal, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books, 2018) and other warm places. Kemi leads Echoing Ida, a Forward Together community of Black women and non-binary writers. Find them in Chicago or online @kemiaalabi. More from this author →