“The Fire This Time” by Roberto Ascalon

Roberto Ascalon


or How Come Some Brown
Boys Get Blazed Right
Before Class and Other
Questions Without Marks

how much damn broke
does it take to want to
burn just before class
lung green with chaos
how many times the
police come to the door
way past late, your auntie
face forlorn and flashing
in the turning blue, how
much knuckle in a boy
fist gotta break cheek till
body want to go numb
how much brave you
gotta front, pay forward
like a hard stare, like a
work muscle jaw
how many legal papers
say stay or go, right or
nothing, home or jail
love or palm skin
how many words
or promises did dad
mom and god knows
who else have to crush
so that you spit out
your eyes and slouch
like a demon, daring
me to call out your
name, as if it had
power anyway, as if
your own name, when
you strangle it out
your throat spill god
stuff, god, like a broke
egg, baby born into
fire, how come fire
put you to bed instead
of sweet hands, good
hands, why they put bad
hands, why bad hands
why the fire this time
god, why, we ain’t done
nothing, nothing yet
nothing yet and nothing
wrong, except the babies
are on fire, on fire, babies
burning by the stairs
before school begins

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
Rattle Poetry Prize Winner


Roberto Ascalon: “I’ve taught a poetry class in this one school for the last eight years. It’s been fantastic. But hard sometimes—it’s a credit retrieval school—the last ditch for kids who’ve been expelled for being angry or being sad or being high or for fighting or cursing out a teacher or not speaking English well enough or scratching fuck you on the bathroom mirror or being pregnant or skipping school for weeks—conditions and actions that often haunt the poor and the black and the brown. With lots of love, freedom, encouragement and a safe space, I find most kids want desperately to read their work out loud. But recently I had this one boy, who, by his very presence, prevented others from reading their poetry. Class fizzled when he was in the room. He’d talk brazenly on the phone during class or slouch deep in his chair and make offhandedly cruel comments under his breath. His swagger and arrogance conveyed total disrespect—all with this amazing smile and high cheek bones. Infuriatingly, he could have been a leader if he’d wanted to—but instead chose to laugh at other folks when they read. One day I had enough. I stepped to him, suited up in manly-man aggression, kicked him out. After he left the room, to my deep shock and surprise, the other youth called me out and argued with me. They said I wasn’t being right. They said that he needed the class as much, even more, than they did. They saw how unfair it was—all of it. So, I let him back in the next day. There was an uneasy détente. The other kids eventually read their poems. He wrote a handful of lines that year, maybe ten or twelve. A win. I wrote this poem for him—and for the other youth who wanted him back in the room. For Miss Diane and Lasheera and Romeo and Rica. For all of the brown boys that get denied by people like me. For James Baldwin’s nephew.”

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