Poem-a-Day - "Root systems" by Kay Ulanday Barrett

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December 23, 2021 

Root Systems

Kay Ulanday Barrett
for Yolanda P. Salvo

I have this assignment to write on origins. 
All I can think about is your rellenong 
talong at sunrise, garlic thick air, 
wisp of your floral dress sways on linoleum 
as you commit to careful chemistry 
of fried egg. 

                      To say I have roots means all us kids, 
                      knee deep in dirt. Means I only know how 
                      to eat because you brought backyard, earth
                      soaked, each bite caressed by sweat of 
                      forehead. The land gives us what we need
                      not like this country— 

We didn’t get it then, you training us for end 
of times, or maybe, bringing us back to our beginning. 
Bold brown knuckles turned into baon, lunch time 
snacks folded of banana leaf. To unwrap 
gift every noon, map illustrated of rice, speckled 
in sea spinach, while others ate bland 

                      mashed potatoes. A spark of sili, proclamation 
                      of patis, we held up sliced mangoes sculpted into bouquet. 
                      Every summer, you took small seed, harsh stone, 
                      harsh light, profuse cackle, grew it into momentum 
                      to fuel every star speckled report card on the fridge,
                      every trophy shimmer slung over shoulder. 

Our last photo together, San Fabian, July 2007—  
96°F heat, palm tree silhouette on cheeks. You said
you liked my haircut, So Pogi! Big smirks. Fingertips 
pressed on lychee skin, our version of prayer. 
Not to mention, the way you taught me to pick 
apart until we found tender. 

                      How we knew somehow together, 
                      there could be sweetness. You asked me to open 
                      every fruit, juice like sprinkler from our old house. 
                      This breaking apart. This delicate pouring. 
                      This bulbous bounty. This bellyful harvest
                      was always ours, no matter the soil we stood on.

Copyright © 2021 by Kay Ulanday Barrett. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 23, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.

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“This poem was drafted during my Macondo Fellowship in 2018. It is a praise poem for my Aunty Yoly, the last elder matriarch in my family. As the first to migrate to the U.S., she continually supported family members until her death. With her, each small act was somehow a lesson, an unwavering quiet commitment to cultivate our collective memory and love. The structure reflects a playful root, a back and forth with land and climate. The poem revels in soft, yet vital, sacred offerings from elders: eating sunlit fruit, learning to grow plants, and an acceptance of gender awareness.”
Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett is the author of More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020), which received a 2021 Stonewall Barbara Gittings Literature Honor Award from the American Library Association. They currently serve as a disability justice and trans justice advocate, and live in the unceded and occupied territory of the Lenape and Munsee people.

More Than Organs
(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020)

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“Turtle Soup” by Marilyn Chin
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Thanks to Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019), who curated Poem-a-Day for this month’s weekdays. Read a Q&A about Kaminsky’s curatorial approach and find out more about our guest editors for the year
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