They talk different here

they talk different here

he stood quietly

behind me with a hopeful glare
at the edge of their heavy iron gates
as heavy shadows clung tightly to unsteady
legs melting his footsteps into an inkwell
filled with his darkness, he lived in his story
and though it was never written, i could see the words
stapled to the walls of my mind as a reminder
saying, this is your chance, and i considered
perhaps being painted in black was the reason
my dad could not walk with me
into school that day

they told me i was different
because i was Bright

perhaps he could no longer see
a path for himself in a world that cared little
for tending to overgrown dreams, he pushed me
instead, softly nudging me past my fears, you can
make it on your own, he told me with a silent nod,
my dad was not one for many words, i felt then
like a small bird standing at the edge of normal, struggling
to believe in the wind as he watched the unanswerable
questions tugging at my wings with labels clawing
at my hopes, i could hear expectations whispering
in my dreams, sweet nothings like,
can you really fly out there

my dad did not say much that day,
but i knew he was proud

on that first day of school, before i had learned
the steps to show i could master each standard test,
before i had mastered strolling into and out of costumes
faster than the beat of the subway train flooding into my window
each morning, he walked with me to the edge of a battlefield
where i knew the language but had trouble
finding my words

see i was just 14 at the time,
but i wanted to make him proud

gliding into a storm where syllables danced
around clouds strung together in foreign gestures
playing melodies i had never heard before, new phrases
they hung heavy in the air like swollen rain drops, they stung
as they landed on my ears, i was beaten by the confusion
but I had to learn these lessons, so i strolled onto stage
in the courtyard proudly where others could see my dance,
my uniform flapping in the wind like a cape, i could grow
to like this suit, i thought, and just for a minute,
as i stared at the blackness of my shadow creeping
along the walls of private education, i considered
maybe i’m the superman i’ve been waiting for
all this time and no one here sees it
but me

yet, stifled by a growing awareness
i realized, they talk different here

my rhythm of speech was called accent
and it dawned on me, i was a foreigner
in my city, i did not learn going to high school
would be my first time studying abroad, see back home
words flowed out smoothly, like jazz instruments playing
a hip beat over a salsa track, phrases hovered along the notes
as bachata echoed from a radio in the back of the barbershop
where old men with smooth black hair called young dark boys
papi, as if they saw the men we could one day become
and young dark boys called puerto rican boys son,
perhaps we all realized we had an obligation
to care for one another as family

but here they call me diversity
sometimes, I’m simply Bright

you’re not what I expected, he said
i never really had black friends, i mean
you’re not really black right, are you mixed
i don’t know, i mean, i didn’t really know what
he meant, see no one had ever asked me who i was
and i wanted to explain, to tell him about my family’s culture
so he could see my survival reached beyond the darkness of my city
to the outdoors where you brought sleeping bags and tents
and flashlights, i wanted him to see my darkness
found inspiration in artists like Steinbeck and Frost,
with insights resonating deeper than hip melodies
hopping carelessly over radio tracks, but i chuckled
under my breathe, awkwardly,

perhaps collecting sugarcane instead of cotton
did make our history a bit sweeter, maybe
that’s why i always check other

they call my caribbean a paradise, maybe that’s why
i would sail away during class, disappear under waves
into the blackness of my seat where no one could hear me,
maybe that’s why I felt like my dreams were melting
under the weight of my shame, my wings drenched
with tears because it hurts to run from the darkness
in your shadow, history following just steps behind
but there’s no room for darkness here
so i couldn’t look back

you are different, they said
you’re so Bright

so i ran from class to class, tired
from the questions tugging at my wings
as labels ripped through my hopes, along the way
i forgot where I was going because i stopped believing
i was made to go higher than this, but i never flew
too high, see i had trouble finding the right words

but sometimes i can still hear my darkness
tugging from somewhere deep inside
my shadow, singing come home
over a hip hop track
with a soft beat

they don’t know his story here,
on days when i’m lonely, tired
from all the dancing, i’m reminded
he didn’t walk with me
into school that day

see, they talk different here

– – –

Image Credit: This poem was inspired by original artwork created by Alex Mill before his time in the Monastery.  He now writes about the power of kindness at Kindnessville.

– – –

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  • Erin

    Speechless! This is an absolutely incredible poem Etienne, and I found myself clinging to each and every word. In my mind I saw crows, ravens, black winged birds, graduation gowns, Brightness in dark, other people’s confusion over identity as if being human is not enough to qualify your presence, and we all need to be able to check some sort of box in this world. Please, please, please publish that book of poems you mentioned. The world needs your voice!

  • Yazminh AB

    Beautiful, beautiful, Etienne. I love how you’ve incorporated Alex’s art so well with the mood of your pieces. Thank you for sharing the poetry that is you.

  • Stephanie Arsoska

    Have you thought about creating an audio to go with it? You could put it on sound cloud.

    • EtienneT2014

      I have thought about it, but likely won’t do that until maybe sometime in the future. It does have a distinct sound and rhythm though, I say it in my mind as I write it, often to certain music.

  • Esenam

    wow, what more can I say? This is a wonderful poem telling a story alot of young foriegners face outside thier home country.
    Your choice of words are on point.