"I gathered them one by one
and made a rosary of childhood"

Anthony A. Lee
West Los Angeles College

leeAnthony A. Lee teaches African American history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize from Cross Keys Press. His first book of poems This Poem Means won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry prize for 2005, and was published by Lotus Press. He has published a number of books and articles in the fields of African American history, African history, and Baha’i studies.

Memory of Abel | The Sermon | Swimming

"Memory of Abel" a poem by Anthony A. Lee from West Los Angeles College.

Memory of Abel

After Sergio Ortiz

I met Abel at the northern
corner of the Plaza in El Paso.
Thirteen years old.
Good at selling the pleasures
of the body that his demons,
northern and white, pay for cheap
while they moan the hymns
of the one-eyed siren.
In his eyes you could see
the reflections of possible johns
that night—and a little coldness.
The cold that you know is death.

My work is just work,
he said. My family is a pain. Friends?
My friends are the dollars
in my pocket. Food?
Food hurts my stomach, he whispered.

The other day, early,
I passed by the plaza
with the cheap stuff on sale,
and there I caught the smile
of a child lying on a bench—
seeing what had so long been gone.
A few tears came out, but
I don’t know where they came from.
I gathered them one by one
and made a rosary of childhood
that I hoard selfishly—
that today I take out
to remember how beautiful you were,
and that makes me think of a sad
Portuguese song,
O Infante!

Poet’s Note: Sergio cared for a teenager with AIDS for a couple of years before the boy became too sick and he had to send him back to his family in Mexico to die. He has written about this in Spanish.


"The Sermon" a poem by Anthony A. Lee from West Los Angeles College.

The Sermon

(there were two of them, interrupted by a moment of contemplation)

was on the impossibility
of imagining death or anything
after that—only
hotel rooms and penthouse windows,
shoes empty on the floor,
the private pool below the balcony
blue in its shininess,
the lapping of the ocean tide
on the rocky shoreline, its pleasant whisper—
which obviously is not enough.

A hundred thousand years of human consciousness
and we still have no words for spirit.
Our language for death conceals it
and everything beyond
is fragile, vulnerable, breakable—the preacher
despaired, taking refuge in God,
but said he doesn’t mourn at funerals,
as dying is physical,
like eating pastry, drinking coffee,
stretching for yoga, growing bigger,
standing for a bus, playing soccer, coming home,
hearing piano music in a concert hall (Chopin),
catching your breath before a stand
of green forest along the mountain road
or a painting in the corridor of the Chicago
art museum, like feeling the slippery thrusts
of love, the sweaty joy of dancing,
the crunch of tempura, the saltiness of pesto,
the heat of the tea, the sweetness of strawberries,
the coldness of the stone floor on my forehead,
the masculine warmth of the handshakes after,
nervous smiles: my only hope of salvation.
The dead do not tell us their secrets.


"Swimming" a poem by Anthony A. Lee from West Los Angeles College.


I float on the pool
naked, exposed,
paddle on my back hard,
trying to do it right.
Could this ever happen again?
Struggling in circles,
my hands are fish fins.
Sunlight glare cuts
sharp on the bare ceiling,
shines the water.


Coach shouts,
shouts again.
I hold my breath
as long as I can.
My father will not come back.