Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Gabriel Cortez





Two Stories, Interrupted

        1. Colored (Black) Boys

You are 12 and (Black) in the backseat of your (white)
father’s car sitting behind your (white) grandmother.
When you pass a basketball court, your (white)
grandmother says, look at those beautiful (Black) colored
boys. Your first response is probably your best when you
(Black) scratch a silent question into the window:
grandma’s (white) racist? At 70 years old, in (white?)
America, what else could she (white) be? Later, (Black)
you will interrogate an uneasy gratitude when you (Black)
remember she (white) also said, beautiful.


        2. The Author’s Partner Sees A Rat

You (white) scream and I (Black) search the night air for (white)
teeth. Instead, I find a (Black) boy. He (Black) crawls up the
street on broken (Black) hands. Follows behind (Black) me,
crying out of one (Black) eye, swollen shut. The air, a thick
Tallahatchie. I (Black) say, it’s dangerous when you (white)
scream like that. And I (Black) am ashamed of the (Black)
anxiety. The way it drags mud onto the (white) sidewalk.
Strangles every good (Black) whistle. Makes a sweet (white /
Black) thing taste of blood.


Fat Joe at the Ninth Grade Dance

             my niggas don’t dance 
             we just pull up our pants

and hug ourselves / when we are sure
no one else will / we cradle the gangly
architecture puberty left us / five feet
ten inches of ash and bone and the
most crisp white tees our mother’s
ironing boards could conjure / fists
clenched around any bassline that
promises to swell / our sharp elbows
a suit of armor / cuz ever since Tai got
armpit hair and started flexing muscles
that even make the teachers look twice /
ever since we grew taller than our
girlfriends and thought ourselves men /
ever since Maria got pregnant / and
Jeremy got his teeth kicked in / and we
saw them break like dice across the
school parking lot / ever since then /
my niggas don’t smile / my niggas don’t
dance / my niggas square up / my
niggas carve ulna and radius into sword
and shield / my niggas turn quiet
survival tactics cacophony each time we


                                    lean back


Ode to Street Ball

i was raised in the era of street ball. bowed my head

            at the altar of and1 mixtapes and allen iverson commercials.

while you were practicing free throws, i spent the entire summer

            flicking an orange wish back and forth between my legs.

my first basketball team, i didn’t understand why

            i couldn’t bounce the ball off someone’s head.

what good is a jersey if it won’t carry a small sun into orbit?

            because isn’t style as important to the game as final score?

praise the trick pass. praise the broken ankle.

            praise the prayer of a shot answered by the net’s clapping teeth.

every possession, the possibility of miracle.

            before our fingers could scrape the bottoms of backboards,

we dared dream of a dunk that broke the rim

            and sent the entire playground into retirement.

we who will never join a league or make a sportscenter highlight reel

            scratch our myth into cracked blacktop,

weave our breath between chain linked three-point arcs,

            lace our shoes til even their stitched jaws grow slack with story.

ask the tarmac how i shook a man so bad he kissed the earth.

            ask the stolen net how it still sings a quiet impossible fwoosh

each time the ball passes through the bone-plucked rim.

            we play a different game. it is the difference

between classical music and jazz, ballet and b-boy,

            the turntable and what the deejay summons from melted wax.

call it shirts vs skins, call it winner take ball,

            call your own fouls, win by two, run it back, and1.


Photograph of Gabriel Cortez by Felix Uribe Jr.

Gabriel Cortez is a biracial poet, educator, and organizer of Panamanian descent. He is a VONA fellow, NALAC grant recipient, and winner of the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize. Gabriel is a member of the Ghostlines artist collective and co-founder of The Root Slam, an award-winning poetry venue dedicated to inclusivity, justice, and artistic growth, as well as Write Home, a project working to challenge public perceptions of houselessness and shift critical resources to houseless Bay Area youth through spoken word poetry. For more on Gabriel, visit More from this author →