The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: DAREN COLBERT
Bag groceries at the market down the road. Because your mom
says you need the money. Because you need the money. Paper
or plastic? Don’t mess this up. You know how Cheryl gets. Eggs
and bread on top, meat on its own. Carry them out. Hold them
from the bottom, thank them for shopping, wish them well on
their way. Ask for time off. Let your boss yell. Miss your
brother’s state championship. He doesn’t win, anyway.
Work as a groundskeeper. Wake up at eight o’clock, wipe sweat
from your eyes for forty hours a week when they told you
twelve. Drink your jug of water, feel the warm liquid coat your
tongue, drown each defiant word. Not too long, now. You don’t
get paid to stand around. Tomorrow, pray for rain. Give a silent
devotion as the trees cower beneath the white noise thundering
down. Swear when the sun miraculously rips through.
Wash dishes at your local movie theater. You want to work in
film, so it’s almost the same thing. Just try not to cry while
you’re here. You only started this week and you need them to
like you. Yes, you’re limping, and yes, there’s blood, but no one
needs to know. When the cook asks if you’re okay, tell her
you’re a bit sick, that’s all. Then smile. Like you’re happy to be
here. Because you are. You really are.
After your shoes have drowned with your dreams in the mop
water, your palms pruned flesh, go home. Watch the town roll
by in bright swirls. When you stop at the light by the gas station,
don’t imagine your future: the words you will not write, the
places you will not go. Ignore the ache that sits under your skin.
The relentless coming and going these nights will bring. Don’t
cry. Please, don’t cry. All right, you can cry. Just remember to
go on green.
Lay awake that night. The night after that, too. Head into work
with your eyes on the ground. When they ask how you’re doing,
say, Fine. It’s better that way. Hobble through the kitchen and
hope the crashing dishes and sizzling stoves will be louder than
the pain. At the end of the night, head out the back door, tell your
boss you missed a phone call from your mom. Call your mom.
Wait by the dumpsters as it rings. Hello? Feel your ribs break.
Tell her you can’t do this. Tell her you thought you could. Tell
her it’s your body, the hours, the people, you don’t know.
Breathe. Wait for her to get your dad on the line. Wipe your eyes.
Breathe. Listen to his voice crack through the speaker. Let the
breeze billow through your clothes. Apologize, to both of them.
For not sticking with it. For not staying quiet. For refusing to
stand here, still in this life.
Why My Brother Refuses to Speak Spanish When My Mom Says Te Amo
Because I don’t want to,
cold and hard like water from the spigot
in our abuela’s bathroom
If you want it warm,
you’ll have to heat it on the stove.
I stare at his eyes that remind me
of la cancha when it rains,
our cleats biting into mud
with every dash, our whoops and hollers
swallowed by the thunder above.
Heaven’s a lively bunch.
I dig through the brown,
hoping to pick a truth from beneath
my nails, one that doesn’t crumble
in the heat of the afternoon
or dry with the ring of salt around my neck.
I wonder if, Because I don’t want to, translates
to another language, if it sounds more true.
I wonder if it means
Because I don’t want to be Latino
or because I don’t want to be afraid
or because I don’t want to feel shame
for failing my mother’s tongue, its sharp consonants
pricking my own, the blood spilling with every vowel
until my ancestors surround me, ponder
my face and ripple into silence when they fail
to see their own.
What if I am to be my mother’s son by birth alone.
If, soy un catracho will be a phrase that always struggles
to leave this mouth. ¿Who will water la tierra
con su sangre, alimentar a los niños her bones,
if not me? Because I want to
say, I love you, in more than one way.
In the end, my brother leaves before we can conclude,
and I am stranded in this room with these words, struggling
to swallow every curve and edge. My mother calls out
to me, asks what’s wrong, her voice so foreign and sweet—
like our time in Yoro, when she sliced mangos onto a plate
and handed them to me without my asking
amidst the burgeoning bodies of family bursting through the door,
as if to ask that I end this war, let its remains drip down my chin.
Mi nene, the ants will devour what’s left.
I chew the memory between my lips and meet her concern
with silence. I want to tell her
everything, but I don’t know how to say it.
A few good words with Daren
PDS: As a writer and editor, I think a lot about language—what languages are “mine” in the racist, colonialist project of America? What languages have I lost access to? I mourn the languages that my multilingual immigrant mother didn’t teach me because it was too hard to do it in a country that demands English from everyone. I was drawn to that same sense of loss and longing in your poem, “Why My Brother Refuses to Speak Spanish When My Mom Says Te Amo.” Tell us a little bit about your relationship to language and how it speaks to your identity and your writing.
DC: I feel like language is a fundamental part of my being. I’m sure it’s similar for everyone, what with it being a major component of how we communicate, but I’m fascinated by the sounds, the rhythm, the silence of it all. I’m not the most talkative person, but I find I have the most to say on the page. I guess it’s easier to cut through the bullshit that way.
As far as my identity, language plays a huge role. Like you, my mother chose not to teach my brothers and I Spanish growing up. Partly because we didn’t have the will to pay attention, but also what that could mean as a child growing up in the Midwest, where you’re most likely the only person of color in the entire class. Looking back, I was always angry. Not at her, but at how she was made to feel that it was necessary—that it was the best way to protect her kids. Angry that I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself in the process. I’m angry that we live in a country that boasts of culture and its wonders, until we’re faced with one different than our own.
I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do—reclaim that part I’ve let fall away. My mother is Honduran and my father is African American, so I’ve often found myself questioning whether each half of me was enough, while also navigating a predominantly white space. I’m sure you can imagine the identity crisis that followed as a result. I felt like an impostor claiming my latinidad, that I’d be exposed in front of my mother and her family, that in that moment, she’d realize her culture would die with her. At times, I still do. I think that’s why language is so prominent in my writing—it gives me the chance to hold on to her. Because she is mine, and her culture is mine, too.
PDS: Both of these poems explore a grinding away of self, or at least a obfuscation—what practices do you take in your writing life to care for yourself while processing and writing through loss and pain?
DC: I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better at taking breaks. I feel like I get sucked into hustle culture and often forget myself in the process, which can really wear away at my well-being—especially considering how demanding processing loss and pain can be. I’ll also read/listen to artist interviews or podcasts that explore an artist’s process because I love seeing how they approach their art form. I think it’s important to remind ourselves of not only the work that goes into the finished product, but also how there are so many different ways to arrive at the same place.
Speaking of interviews, one I find myself going back to is an interview Frank Ocean did with the New York Times a few years ago. When asked about the time it took to make Endless and Blonde he said, “‘I know that once it’s out, it’s out forever, so I’m not really tripping on how long it’s taking.’” I feel like that’s helped a lot in accepting that these poems will come out when they’re supposed to, even if it takes longer than I’d like.
The last thing I do is listen to sad music. Artists like Frank and Jessie Reyez come to mind because they both possess an authenticity that spills out of their work. I really admire their vulnerability, and it’s something I strive to do in my own art. There’s a certain comfort that comes with sharing your grief.
PDS: Whose work feels like a deep nap after a long day? What books or poems are energizing you these days?
Musically, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is always an album I can put on and let wash over me. It’s such a spiritual experience. Well, that and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. I’m a sucker for nostalgia. By the way, have I mentioned how much I love Frank Ocean?
I’ll confess that I haven’t read as much I would like, but Sandra Cisneros’ work—especially her fiction—always reminds me of moments I’ve shared with my family or issues I’ve experienced myself. As far as poems go, one I read recently that hit me in the gut was Mariposa’s “Ode to the Diasporican.” The poem deals with the plight of being Latino/a, but growing up away from the motherland. The speaker’s confidence in their right to claim their latinidad is reassuring and what I hope to have one day, and I’d recommend that anyone struggling with their identity read it. Immediately.
Daren Colbert is a writer and filmmaker living in Missouri. He received his BA in English from Missouri State University, and currently works as a Wellness Coach at his local YMCA. When he’s not writing or making films, he’s usually pacing around his house, trying to remember that one idea he said he wouldn’t forget. He swears it’s the greatest thing ever. His work can be found in Crown Anthology, CONKER Magazine, and Unvael Journal.