By Kayla Morgan & Stephanie Cohen-Perez
Poetic Pillars is a collection of poetry encompassing such themes as identity, mental health, family, heritage and love that serve as moments of self-reflection and appreciation of our individual and shared experiences.
Table of Contents
- April 28, 2004: bloodline death at childbirth
offaway with their heads
- Vignettes of Love
- Unspoken Love Story
- a bipolar ritual: mother-daughter bond
- Eulogy for the Long-Dead
- Elegy to the Hood
april 28, 2004: bloodline death at childbirth
I. i see my father’s reflection
at how my mother’s womb
beloved spring baby
birthed with a trivial
backbone in her
i wonder if he notices the
from my skeleton’s scent.
And that it was him,
off my bone marrow—
like he does with
cleaved and carved
into a ceramic of curry,
neglecting the canola oil.
fermenting in the famine
of his fatherly instinct.
II. i ponder why he
recoils from me like foreign spices;
when he discerns
me in his reflection,
his fluorescent daughter,
he won’t seize
his parental massacre—
present and yonder,
intensifying in my
III. i will even savor
if he respected me as he
does ripen plantains:
the ones he
and how he dresses
His bundles of joy,
in African pottery of cayenne
and turmeric powder;
heredity sizzling in
the juice of
grated ginger root:
a cuisine of
the satisfaction and victory
beaming in his blood.
IV. he spits “vexed lineage”
at the smoky ashes
from my spine,
i paint “prime essence”
with my blood
on the glass—
hoping for a resurrection;
or maybe a eulogy,
but my bones
the reality is
like the birth of
in the homeland: fatal exile.
off away with their heads
“Who are you?” asked the Caterpillar,
and Alice was thrown
of existential conundrum,
of pondering identity,
of future ideations,
of questions and answers yet unknown.
“Who are you?” he asked me,
and my mouth tasted gravel and
a lump the size of a cool ceramic croquet ball
lodged in my esophagus,
the hellish ticking of the White Rabbit’s pocket watch
resounding in my eardrums,
loud and long enough to create a
She told me yesterday on the phone:
“His dementia is getting worse. Come over soon.”
So I grinned as wide and fiendish as the Cheshire Cat
for two hours and pretended that everything was okay
— it was not —
And I got home and my tears formed an ocean
not unlike the one Alice nearly drowned in and
the Walrus and the Carpenter and the little goddamn Baby Oysters
danced around in, in a celebration of life but also
a celebration of impending doom.
There is no “Drink me” vial to cure this
There is no “Eat me” pill to cure this
There is no miraculous riddle I can answer at the end of my quest to fix this
Sometimes I feel like there is no happily-ever-after for
every single card in the deck
There is nothing right now but a wise old caterpillar
peering at me with rheumatic eyes through the
foggy wastelands of his gray matter
asking me WHO I AM
And I almost want to forget the pain of remembering.
Maybe the Queen can chop off my memory instead
and scoop the matter out with a flamingo beak
to let him remember me,
but more importantly, to let him remember himself.
Vignettes of Love
I. His lyrical words hold me in their body of bliss,
wholly inhaling me so that we become one:
a blessing bestowed upon us, rising
from the omened wheels of fate;
a lullaby that chants of golden laughter
and rosy smiles within our sacred heaven.
II. Every letter of his name is a piece of
poetic lineage that I dream of ingesting:
mellow placements of sounds that harmonize
into a ballad—mirroring the melodic tune
of syllables rolling off the tip of his tongue:
his voice, a physical manifestation of poetry,
serenading my ears.
III. Our conversations are infinite,
entrancing time and giving tender kisses
to the thoughts of our sentiments—
our larynxes shatter when our outro occurs,
and the ‘see you soons’ sorrowfully drags
off our lips—but even in our send-offs,
there is a ringing slice of our souls in
each other’s staves; even in the silence,
the solitude, our symphony of love reigns on—
til death do us part.
IIII. He extracts his warm heart,
wrapped in his unconditional masculinity,
and proposes it to my womanhood,
for he treasures the passion of dualism.
I feel the music of joy, slow-dancing
in our shared celestial body, to the sight
of our souls’ skins intertwining;
bones braiding into one being:
as above, so below.
V. His existence is a true testament of Venus;
a monument to romantics’ intense fantasies;
an addictive remedy to the voids in my cold home.
Our love will be like heirlooms for our kin:
a neverending classical sonnet of our warm-blooded
flesh—where our emotions waltz in naked euphoria
and an air of vulnerability—a two-chord harmonic
melodrama, that will forever flourish in my heartbeat.
Unspoken Love Story
We sleep like curled quotation marks,
the curvature of the little knobs in your spine
pressed up against the soft flesh of my stomach,
Your even breaths expanding and contracting your delicate diaphragm,
A reminder to me that your existence in my life is simultaneously heart-rending
I wonder if you felt the same way about your younglings
Before they were taken from you.
I feel this sense of protectiveness and loyalty when you are afraid,
when you are in danger,
when you are threatened, and it finally made me understand what
We live in a world where the love we barter for is conditional.
It comes with rules, corollaries—
the fine print is infinitesimal. All around us love is
stolen, forbidden, retracted, unrequited, and
ultimately rendered into so many shards it becomes nonsensical at times.
Many do not receive the bounty they seek.
But with you, love is infinite;
It is absorbed but also radiated;
It is unconditional and knows no bounds;
It is indescribable beyond words, like much of our communication.
I feel your breaths echoing mine in the dark and hold you against my ribs with a rounded spine and wonder if this is what it is like to be one organism,
if this is what it feels like to feel like you grew from my body like a plant cutting set free into its own pot of soil.
We sleep like curled quotation marks,
beginning the sentence of each new day together,
facing adventures by each other’s side,
writing the start of our own story.
Unwavering love and loyalty,
Free of the restraints and limitations that were always placed upon us.
a bipolar ritual: mother-daughter bond
My mother plucks the yellow petals
off the marigolds of her life—
leaves the remnants on her
soul’s funeral pyre. She recites
chants for abandonment; requests
to be forsaken with her clasped
hands. Unbinds crosses and idols
from her altar: replaces them with
scars forged from fingernails,
scraped against her scarlet skin.
Bitter crimson gushes out from
the omened lines on her palm.
Bitter crimson carves her cryptic
language onto my constricted
throat; brutal as the flamed-blade
wounding her blind eyes—
concussing my body as it
decays into a corpse.
Her bloody mumbles of
mental misery keep my soft
bones as relics. The indigo cries
hollering within my hollow
body—as her ghost haunts me:
collecting my scraps of sanity,
turning them into ashes.
I implore purified prayers,
exorcisms for my mother’s plague.
A curse that is also engraved
in my own damned tomb,
as I find myself plucking
the same solemn
Eulogy for the Long-Dead
They said her name was Mathilda.
I’m not even sure how to spell it, because no one really talked about her,
so I made that up, too—
Just as I had to piece together the shards of her life,
This matriarch whose body and blood bore the burden of
immigration, of child-rearing, of husband-appeasing, and then
was poisoned by its severe and abnormal attachment to alcohol,
Rejected because it did not adhere to the structures of twentieth-century “normalcy.”
But I think of my great-grandmother often,
not because I ever knew much about her,
but because the fragments of family secrets that threatened to overspill the fount caught my ear,
That she was an “alcoholic,” that she was a “madwoman,” that she was —
and the voices would lower an octave, to a near hush — possibly
I grew up thinking this was an ugly word, an unnatural word,
A jumble of symptoms and diagnoses and various manifestations of
The depictions in media blurring the lines between different disorders,
The palpable, visceral shame in anyone who might have the gall to remember a
woman like her. And I picture her, sent away to some nameless asylum,
Because in that decade, in that century, in this country, they did not have a cure for this,
They did not want a cure for this,
A woman was only a
wife and a
this one could not hold herself together at the seams.
An Eastern European Jewess who grew up in the Philly slums, who by their standards did not deserve
the care and treatment and excuses and support that other folks did.
I picture her very sad, very lonely somber face that I have only ever seen in a single grainy noir photo,
Dark hair up in an austere chignon, lips pinched, a far cry from a smile,
Peering out, wondering what would happen to her husband and only child. Wondering how the world could keep on turning in her absence.
There are papers with her history written upon them; they have been shoved to
the back of musty drawers, slammed into manila folders in the hopes that
future generations would ignore them. That we’d forget it. That we would be “protected” from it. Enshrouded from it. And then, when I landed myself in a hospital bed one year long ago,
the name slipped haphazardly,
like a coppery-tasting leech from a relative’s mouth:
I once stood before the desiccated remains of the sanitarium on Roosevelt Island–
once known as Blackwell’s Island–
and I could feel the pain that resided in those ruined walls,
the gothic ghosts and ghouls who still call it home.
I imagine Mathilde in one of those solitary cells with no one to speak to,
any agency she might have had in those times stripped from her shaking, spindly body.
And in another world, in my fantasy realm, I would throw myself into the river towards home, gasping for air, fully alive, swimming with every ounce of energy I have, to escape
and the uncertainty of the future,
feeling the froth and sting of the salted waves against my skin.
Reminding myself that I am still here,
and she is not.
Elegy to the Hood
The cloudy reign of redlining,
festering in striking black,
has been blistering in the obscure
building blocks of the hood.
Constructed by the system, with its left hand
on the Bible, solemnly swearing for suffrage
in our community. And with their right hands,
they slit our throats and are exonerated.
They say that housing discrimination
ended in 1968. I object. Why are our
homes still being bedeviled, terrorized, tormented
by the poltergeist of residential segregation?
They embedded the words too “hazardous,”
too “declining,” “too risky of an investment”
into the eroding gates of our battered communities.
Cremated our flesh, gushing out of our
bloodsoaked bawls for equality—
our homes now a burial ground.
Have you seen how the liquor stores
clutch their leashes to the cracked pavements
of broken dreams? Or how the check cashing
services cheat our communities—their malevolence,
blazing and smoldering within our people’s wealth.
How they deceive us with fractured promises
of financial freedom at the finish line,
while instituting economic barriers halfway through the race.
Have you seen how the eerie dusk
of industrial plants and factories plagues
our breath? How it smothers our Black children
with elusive pillows built of lethal toxins?
Inhale—as their graves are dug at birth,
Exhale—as they are lynched,
now stifled with a higher risk for asthma.
Have you seen how different it is on the other side?
I have. I have seen it on the train, migrating
into the vast realm of gentrified neighborhoods,
wary as my surroundings shapeshift from Black to White.
I lament at the disparity between my home and that of the intruders.
How they flourish and frolic along the border,
dividing our two different worlds.
And occasionally, how they travel from their side
to ours. How they break and enter into our homes,
looting a residential lineage of people’s bones,
ashes, hearts, who were buried there for several
generations. Actually, that’s not entirely the truth.
They are not just “people.” They are my grandmother,
my father, my sister, my aunt.
Do you know how much I mourn as I watch this menacing
scene: indie espresso cafes, vegan bagel shops,
and hipster millennial bars being built upon
the voices of the dead? Beloved treasures
of culture, history, and ancestry deteriorating into
The foolish ignorance of the gentrifiers, blaring as
harshly as a siren. Their acknowledgement of their sins,
as hushed as a cemetery. Sometimes, I ponder
if they intentionally inflicted this willful blindness
upon themselves. And sometimes, I wish
for them to wake up.
I think of the lush green space and smoldering heat as my feet slap the pavement
and I am transported “home.”
Away from the chafing of sirens and smells and sounds,
Trading rivers for oceans, asphalt for sand,
The salt on the breeze is the same.
the ease of walking and the rush of the subway a distant memory,
hedged in from the moment I enter the airplane cabin to the
cramped car ride halt-halt-halting at every intersection’s blinking lights
to a small space that was briefly mine that now functions as a welcoming room for guests, most of whom are strangers to me.
It is hard for me to love that place, to want to be in it.
It is hard to marvel at the chittering insects, the squelch of mud, the hiss of snakes, the ever-present danger lurking in the grass and, once, looming inside of that house.
A younger version of me kept caged like a frantic little bird with clipped wings
A picture-perfect-picket fence paradise that said “look but don’t touch,”
a world that said “smile but not too loud,”
an upbringing that said “do your best but do not be yourself.”
I sit in that room, smelling the frying of oil, feeling the warm breeze sigh through the orchids, hearing the chittering of small animals, and feel myself sinking into the swampland my hometown was built
But then I take a deep breath.
I think of the noise reverberating on the concrete,
I think of the smells of grease and garbage and burning rubber,
but also clear Atlantic air and how the cotton-candy skies light up the summer nights
as I peer across the avenue, straight through Manhattan to the East River,
and watch as the lights in each building flicker on,
passing each street on the run home, watching the setting sun
glow golden across the iron, steel, concrete and glass.
I am free, here. And “home,” that pregnant word that constantly reinvents its reincarnated existence, can change. The occasional scent of frying oil or fabricated jasmine perfume on the breeze reminds me that I am both here and there. But that here, I am uncaged.
The salt on the breeze is the same.
But I am new.
We composed the eight poems for Poetic Pillars individually and then used our weekly mentee-mentor meetings to collaboratively edit, provide critique and feedback, and explore on a deeper level the art of poetry and our goal to write new types of poems on various topics that we find important. These pieces are part of a larger portfolio we have crafted during our year together, and these poems evolved over the past few months, constantly changing and developing. We’ve learned so much from each other about writing, ourselves as people, and our bond as we worked on these pieces and provided each other support, inspiration and critical feedback.
Kayla Morgan is a junior in high school and is an avid poet and spoken word performer. She has fostered her craft as a mentee at Girls Write Now, a member of the Developing Artist Ensemble, with the Young Playwright's Group at TDF NYC, Body Electric at UPenn and more. Kayla enjoys using her poetry to uplift neglected voices of the unheard in her community and beyond.
Stephanie Cohen-Perez is an editor, writer, reviewer and artist based in New York City. Stephanie enjoys YA stories about ghosts and goblins and outer space, and dabbles in illustration for young readers. Stephanie lives and travels with her well-read dog, Teddy.