Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is a poet from New York City who has shared her poetry on six of the seven continents, and is currently yearning for Antarctica. She is perhaps best known for her talk at the 2011 TED conference, which garnered two standing ovations and has been seen over three million times online. Sarah holds a Masters Degree in The Art of Teaching from Brown University and an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Grinnell College. Her first book, “B” was ranked #1 Poetry Book on Amazon. Her work has appeared in Pear Noir!, the Literary Bohemian, DecomP, Damselfly Press, Union Station Magazine, Foundling Reviewthe Huffington Post, CNN.com, among others. Sarah is the founder of Project VOICE, an organization that uses spoken word poetry to encourage people to engage in creative self-expression in schools and communities around the world. For more, see: www.kaysarahsera.com

 

Four Poems (January, 2014. Issue 42.)

Hands

People used to tell me that I had beautiful hands.
Told me so often, in fact, that one day I started to
believe them; started listening, until I asked my
photographer father, Hey Daddy, could I be a hand model?

To which Dad laughed, and said no way.
I don’t remember the reason he gave,
and it probably didn’t matter anyway.
I would have been upset, but there were

far too many crayons to grab, too many
stuffed animals to hold, too many ponytails to tie,
too many homework assignments to write,
too many boys to wave at: too many years to grow.

We used to have a game, my Dad and I, about holding hands.
We held hands everywhere. In the car, on the bus, on the street,
at a movie. And every time, either he or I would whisper a
great big number to the other, pretending that we were

keeping track of how many times we had held hands,
that we were sure this one had to be eight-million,
two-thousand, seven-hundred and fifty-three.
Hands learn. More than minds do.

hands learn how to hold other hands.
How to grip pencils and mold poetry.
how to memorize computer keys,
and telephone buttons in the night.

How to tickle piano keys and grip bicycle handles.
How to dribble a basketball and how to peel apart
pages of Sunday comics, that somehow always seem to stick together.
They learn how to touch old people, and how to hold babies.

I love hands like I love people. They are the maps and
compasses with which we navigate our way through life:
feeling our way over mountains passed and valleys crossed,
they are our histories.

Some people read palms to tell your future,
I read hands to tell your past.
Each scar marks a story worth telling: each callused palm,
each cracked knuckle—a broken bottle, a missed punch,

a rusty nail, years in a factory.
Now, I watch Middle Eastern hands
clenched in Middle Eastern fists.
Pounding against each other like war drums,

each country sees their fists as warriors
and others as enemies, even if fists alone are only hands.
But this is not a poem about politics; hands are not about politics.
This is a poem about love.

And fingers. Fingers interlocked like a beautiful accordion of flesh,
or a zipper of prayer. One time, I grabbed my Dad’s hand
so that our fingers interlocked perfectly, but he changed his
position, saying, No, that hand hold is for your mom.

Kids high five, sounds of hand to hand combat
instead mark camaraderie and teamwork.
Now, grown up, we learn to shake hands.
You need a firm handshake, but not too tight, don’t be limp now,

don’t drop too soon, but for God’s sake don’t hold on too long…
but… hands are not about politics?
When did it become so complicated?
I always thought it simple.

The other day, my Dad looked at my hands, as if seeing them
for the first time. And with laughter behind his eyelids,
with all the seriousness a man of his humor could muster, he said,
You’ve got nice hands. You could’a been a hand model.

And before the laughter can escape me,
I shake my head at him
and squeeze his hand.
Eight-million, two-thousand, seven-hundred and fifty-four.

On the Discomfort of Being in the Same Room as the Boy You Like

Everyone is looking at you looking at him.
Everyone can tell. He can tell. So you
spend most of your time not looking at him.
The wallpaper, the floor, there are cracks
in the ceiling. Someone has left a can of
iced tea in the corner, it is half-empty,
I mean half-full. There are four light bulbs
in the standing lamp, there is a fan. ou
are counting things to keep from looking
at him. Five chairs, two laptops, someone's
umbrella, a hat. People are talking so you
look at their faces. This is a good trick. They
will think you are listening to them and not
thinking about him. Now he is talking. So
you look away. The cracks in the ceiling are
in the shape of a whale or maybe an elephant
with a fat trunk. If he ever falls in love with
you, you will lie on your backs in a field
somewhere and look up at the sky and he will
say, Baby, look at that silly cloud, it is a whale!
and you will say, Baby, that is an elephant
with a fat trunk,
and you will argue for a bit,
but he will love you anyway.

He is asking a question now and no one has
answered it yet. So you lower your eyes from
the plaster and say, the twenty first, I think,
and he smiles and says, oh, cool, and you
smile back, and you cannot stop your smiling,
oh you cannot stop your smile.

Sophia

When we were three,
Sophia and I were taken
to the beach in Hither Hills.

A seagull came and stole our
bagels, the sand was awful hot,
but the water was perfect on

our warm bellies. Fathers lifted
us high into the air and we squealed,
mothers looked out from under

the beach umbrellas. We went
for a walk on the wooden pier
and both wound up with splinters

in our left feet. Matching splinters!
Matching bathing suits! Matching
wails as fathers propped us up on

the hood of the station wagon,
mothers found the tweezers
in the first aid kit, took turns

alternating between holding ice cubes,
wrestling our wriggling,
and digging out the culprits.

I don't think I actually remember
this day. I don't think the scene
in my head is real— must instead

be the retelling of the story that
I have memorized and rehearsed—
that my mind has filled in the gaps.

And yet, it would explain why,
twenty-one years later, we
can feel the phantom hurt inside

each other; how our pains align
themselves in symmetry, or in
compliment, like mirror selves.

How— when the phone rings,
your voice on the other end
allows me to release my wail,

reach out to squeeze your hand.
We dig the slivers from ourselves
as best we can. When the

hurt remains, you, dearest friend,
will recognize my limp. You will
whimper with me, fully. You will

return with me to the hot sand,
to the menacing gulls, to the water
sweeping us into new and better days.

Montauk

I am a city girl to my core. The first time my parents took me outside of New York City to visit my uncle in New Jersey, I was standing on the front porch of their lovely suburban home when a fast-moving shadow caused my three-year-old heart to damn near beat out of my chest, and I shouted, That’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen. My uncle calmly responded, That’s a cat, sweetie. And I shot back, Oh yeah? Well what’s it doing outside?

My parents figured there were some things you just couldn’t learn from New York City. So every summer we migrated out to Montauk, Long Island—the easternmost part of New York State. My father only got two weeks off from work a year, so whenever August rolled around, we packed everything we could into the company van and followed that yellow spotted line of highway out until we couldn’t go any farther.

This is where I learned to swim; where I heard the word shit for the first time, from a bunch of surfers down at the beach. This is where I learned to ride a bike, swerving around puddles on rainy afternoons. This is where I learned to drive a car in the hardware store parking lot; how to kiss a boy with sand between my toes.

Time goes to Montauk to take a break. It loosens its belt, takes a seat on the front porch next to my father and his Weber grill. It putters around the kitchen with my mother while she kneads her homemade sourdough bread, and chuckles when it catches her speaking out loud to herself—telling nobody in particular—We should roast some peaches tonight. I’ll bet oatmeal would be delicious for breakfast tomorrow if we roasted some peaches tonight.

Time stalls in Montauk. I am seven years old. My little brother is three. He splashes in a baby pool, while I brave the full-length Olympic sized one by myself. Chubby in my one-piece, my thighs brush against each other as I tread water in the shallow end. I look up and see an older girl: perfect in her bikini, tall, and tan, and probably on her way to meet her handsome Prince Charming boyfriend. She glows as she glides past me, tosses her hair like she has all the answers, and I wonder if I will ever be a woman like that. That summer, I learn how to wish on stars.

I am twelve years old. My little brother is eight. He can surf better than I can, and I hate it. I wait until he and all the other surfers are done for the day before paddling my fat sponge of a board out past the breakers. There is nobody left in the water. The setting sun makes the water glow golden. I tuck my legs up. That summer, I learn how to be alone.

I am sixteen. My brother is twelve and at the beach. I am reading magazines on the couch when my mother appears in the living room holding her laptop, the only computer in the house. My brother has downloaded his first porn video, and my mother is trying to decide what to do about it. That night when I go to check my email, I discover she has made a new folder on the desktop and labeled it, PK’s Porn. That summer, I learn how to love my parents.

There are some things you cannot learn in New York City. There are places where fishing nets do not mean stockings, where the learning happens in between moments, like after a wave passes, and you break the surface gasping for air.

I am twenty-two. The landmarks are the same. The same stretch of beach, same hardware store parking lot. Some of the names have changed. The pool hasn’t. I make my way to the shallow end and wade in slow. In Montauk, I can take my time. I look up to see a little girl, chubby in her one-piece, gripping the wall and watching me enter the water, her eyes the size of summer tomatoes and just as red from all the chlorine rubbing. I almost speak to her. But before I can, there is a splash behind me. A woman well into her fifties—chubby in her one-piece—has cannonballed into the deep end. She comes up coughing, flailing; water in her nose. She comes up laughing. The little girl giggles. And me? Well, I am laughing too.