Agent Orange Blues & Other Poems

Ebony E. Chinn

Without Asking

I call to tell my mother about a wasp in my kitchen
and she tells me she dreams of waterbugs.

They taunt her with their winking antennae—
always in her home and her mind without asking,

just like my aunt who always gave me money
at church with a smile, always without asking—

now staring at me in my dreams.
I didn’t attend her funeral

because my father never asked me to.
I never asked the Lyft driver to tell me

he was shot and died three times,
the last time left for dead, chest open,

at one time comatose, now smiling
and telling me his story without asking

as people often do when I tell them I’m a poet.
Then there’s the veteran

with 47 stitches in his right leg
stranded on his motorcycle asking for help—

so, unlike myself. I don’t like asking
for what I need, so I take. I have taken.

I have been guilty of uttering the cliché,
I didn’t ask to be here. 

I so desperately want to live without asking.
Like the sun-dried wasp in my apartment

thinking it found something it needed
without asking. Before dying

my father wanted me to forgive him.
He never even asked what he did wrong.

Raccoon

Clumsy-footed and broken-necked,
a raccoon fell into the fork of a tree last night.

The tree was rotten – no, is rotting. Is dead?

Every year the apples grow smaller.
Wild onions pretend to be grass.

A blade of grass sounds like a bird.

A blue jay can be seen in the yard.
If you dig deep enough,

a salamander can be found. I found the grave

of a dog behind the garage – a dog!
Pest control finally comes

and poof! no more raccoon.

While doing yard work,
my father brings me a red-spotted purple butterfly.

Its lifespan is four months.

My father is dying, you know? Is dead?
Every year more onions grow between us.

My father is a raccoon.

I don’t like to stay out late.
I know where I get my dark circles from.

Soft & Sweet

On the first day of spring
a tornado watch buzzes my phone.

During spring’s first sunrise,
I shave my head again.

My buzzed beginnings
are swept & washed away

to be someone else’s problem.
Up North, it’s still snowing.

On the third day of summer,
I’m cornered by a bumblebee.

Its bulbous body mirrors my own.
We both wonder how this encounter will end.

Elsewhere my mother & aunts
laugh at the irony of wild cotton

seen by my grown-ass cousin. Up North,
my childhood apple tree hasn’t bloomed.

Down South, snow shuts down everything.
The bee buzzes off somewhere.

The apple tree is cut down.
My mother still picks cotton as her fabric of choice.

Foolishly trying to soothe my sweet tooth,
I once caught & killed a honeymaker for its honey.

      I have yet to be stung for my debt.

Agent Orange Blues

I was born by a river
and now live under it.

I’m being scooped away
to be buried again.

I suppose the wicked never rest,
which is why I’m still around.

I was born by a river
in a plant by the Passaic

where toxic mud resides.
It’s been dirty ever since.

I was born by a river
and have lived by the coral.

I’ve heard they’ve been dying
in places I’ve never been.

It was soon realised
that my gift

was to give birth
in order to kill.

Something about chemicals
fooling nature and whatnot.

Imagine acres of crops
ready to be plucked.

The swelling of fruit
is fragrant enough to be jealous

of pollinators whose life purpose
is to collect and spread

the sperm of plants.
Such a shame

to do all that flying
only to come back to a cemetery.

Spine

My ice-chompin’ mouth
has cracked countless cubes of ice
which may have chipped a tooth
that was straightened and filed down
with my mother’s money.
This doesn’t stop me craving
the crunchy, chilly satisfaction
of making a waterfall out of my throat.
When I refused to enter this world,
metres of my mother were pushed
to the side to make room for me.
I don’t love my body or anybody that much.
She bled until she didn’t.
My blood is her blood. The two of us
half-sickling together and alive.
My mother swears she can still feel
the epidural needle in her spine.
Mine hasn’t been straight in years, so,
I envy her shoulders—
even when they ache.
I sometimes use heat to stop the pain
in my lower back when I bleed
or bend over or stand up for too long.
I complain. I bleed until I don’t.
And my mother always apologises.

Ebony E. Chinn is from New Jersey. She has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama. She is also an Editor-at-Large for Anomaly. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Frontier Poetry, Narrative, and Callaloo.