Monday, March 16, 2015

#162: "South Ozone Park" by Abdul Ali

~This poem was previously published in Fledgling Rag (2015).

South Ozone Park

                         in the inner city
                         or like we call it
                                  —Lucille Clifton


They walk in packs
sweet talking
baby ooo & ahh
can I get yo phone number?
Don’t be that way
pretty thang
& when they give a smile
gold plates flash
ring to chain,
gold fronts
toothy smiles
beaming from
chest to chest
a pinball game
until the night lights up
like Times Square
& the hood ain’t so scary
until patrol cars change
the colors of the sky
from black & gold
to red & blue.


Subway cars roar overhead
boulders hold this urban
pride rock in the air—
we tag bricks
it’s summer summer time
fire hydrants will empty
on women with mini-skirts
neon spaghetti straps
the night humming with cicadas
& bats & streetwalkers.
It is true that                                                                                                       
on every block                                                                                                                                 lives a superhero                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        unafraid of bullets


Storefront churches
on every corner:
Church’s chicken
The Way of the Cross.
Holy Redeemer
Soul Rescue Workers
soul food dinners after service.
We walk uptown
like we own it, Boom-
boxes, our warcraft,
 It’s Tricky
 our theme song
Islam brothers selling
final call newspapers
Bean pies two for five.


When was the last time
you’ve been home?
Did you find anything familiar?
Was the soul food joint still standing?
on Rockaway? And what about Baisley Park
where schoolchildren
walked across the frozen lake
falling inside a mirror
becoming black icicles?
Was your old house still standing?
Who yanked out the pear tree?
Did anyone remember the block
before they built a house in the lot?
Before English reversed into
a dozen curry-stained tongues?
Did anyone remember your name?



I’ve lost count of the many times people’s mouth drag on the ground when I tell them that I’m from New York City. There’s no shortage of stereotypes about young black men living in the City. This poem, however, gave me permission to write against stereotype and to embrace the community that I’ve been away from for half of my life.

This poem’s epigraph comes from poet Lucille Clifton. Her direct impact lines made my task clearer. The poet’s job is not merely to engage in proving stereotypes wrong but simply to name what is ours. Clifton writes:

in the inner city
or like we call it

I kept repeating that word: Home. Home. Home. And that is how I began to move deeper into the poem. I wanted to use imagery to tell a story, not sociology. I didn’t want to tell you what Southeast Queens is like, what famous people bought a house nearby or how what the population is like. But rather show you in the poem: The way the young men dress; The overhead subway system (it’s not an oxymoron, I promise!); The colorful ways that people from my neighborhood speak; The mating dance that teenagers engage in when communicating with the opposite sex; The heavy policing in our neighborhoods; The park that was notorious for school kids taking shortcuts, using the frozen lake as a bridge, ending tragically for many.

Ms. Lucille gave me permission to remember the neighborhood I came from and to challenge myself to remember the place that no longer exists (except in my head). This poem came to me in images almost like I was in a dark room putting photography paper in a tray of solution staring at parts of my childhood up close then far away.

Whenever I get on a bus and return to New York, almost all of my neighbors have either long passed away or they only remember me as a younger person or when I call they hesitate struggling to catch my voice (which is no longer familiar).

Writing about where you’re from is slippery because the place you remember will never be again, mostly, because you can’t stop time. Everything keeps going just as you’re moving through life, aging, and living. To admit this in a poem is tough. The temptation to fake it is always there. And what’s worst, as an adult you have so many more filters that you didn’t have as a child witness.

So when I couldn’t work on this poem any more, I decided against a cutesy title. No favorite bodega or penny candy or the mouth-watering slices of pizza for .99 cents. This poem deserved the grounding of a name-place since the tension really is in the discovery of home vs. inner city.

I think “South Ozone Park” is growing on me.  


Abdul Ali is the author of Trouble Sleeping that won the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize selected by Fanny Howe. He’s an alumnus of the graduate creative writing program at American University. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, A Gathering of Tribes, New Contrasts (South Africa), and the anthology Full Moon on K Street. Ali has received fellowships from The American University where he was editor of the literary journal, Folio, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Ali teaches in the English Department at Towson University.

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