R.A. Villanueva

R.A. Villanueva’s debut collection of poetry, Reliquaria, appeared in 2014 and won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His new writing has been published in Poetry, Guernica, Prac Crit, The American Poetry Review, and widely elsewhere. His honours include a commendation from the 2016 Forward Prizes, fellowships from Kundiman and the Asian American Literary Review, and the inaugural Ninth Letter Literary Award. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he lives in Brooklyn and London.


Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Breakfast at the Poetry Café: On the Road »

With Michelle Cahill, Matthew Caley, R.A. Villanueva and David Evans

Sat 4 March | 10:00 - 11:00 | £4.50/£3.50 | The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Studio Theatre

Border Crossings »

Reading: Matthew Caley, R.A. Villanueva

Sat 4 March | 14:15 - 15:15 | £4.00/£3.00 | The Undercroft, St John's House, South Street



What the rains bring are trains, shorted, held fast
to bridges between stops, boots, fireworks
called off again. They say the city—mist-
figured, flood-drummed—has wanted this for weeks
and point to maps, cold sweeps, shifting pressure
along the Arthur Kill up and out to
the Sound. But Friday was free of thunder,
wind, downed lines. You smoked on the front stoop
and she walked her dog and I felt a sting
at my shin from the salt and sweat in my
stitches. We talked too long about small things—
prom nights, driftwood, punch lines to jokes poorly
translated—and had to remind ourselves
why we were here. That sky. Your son. Those grins.


We are here because of that sky, those grins
and grudges our sons will inherit if
not for us. Beneath Chambers the walls
are made with eyes, cracked tesserae of
sight lines dusted gray. Above, my wife walks
to work past picket-men, Gadsden flags, boys
arm-in-arm, posing beside full-color mock-
ups of Memorial Voids and storey
15 cradled by fog. Everyone stares
at everything else. It is what we know
now, how we tell each other we survive
upright in an America we own.
But suppose I'm given no piece of your
you say—suppose your “home” smacks of war.


You say: There was no time when home and war
could be kept apart or held untroubled.
Take how each drive out in the Pinelands would
feel like crossing the Mason-Dixon or
how the white kids massed in pickups with their
empties and ropes, barreled into town dead-
set on catching her with him, hand-in-hand.
Now when I think about it, my mother

is who I see. She spent her nights brushing
my hair, tracing my eyes. In the mirror,
she pointed, I named: “black,” “almond.” Mom made
sure to add “blessed,” “lucky” and I believed
her then. I’ve learned my son is still too young
to wonder where we're from or what we are.


And before you ask: I've learned what we are
is unwanted, marked by sighs and curses
like some new kind of rot. Each summer since
and every floodlit, bone-shaded “Never
Forget” has arrived dressed with teeth, flags, their
sight of me that night below Myrtle, fists-
in-pockets, unsure of where to run. Boys
that drunk mean what they promise and could care
less about the color of your passport
or where you call home. Fuck remembering
their way. If we let them, soon all we’ll have
left are anthems, this looping montage of
eagles and bugles and smoke. Remembering—
I need you to know—takes names, faces ghosts.


I need you to know I’ve tried. To name ghosts,
to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
the city’s glossed clots and fresh buttresses,
that earthworks’ trill we’ve let pass for rebirth—
it’s to ask mercy from all that survives
us.  And, yes, it’s how we’ll skin their myths, right
those mouths rhyming “bruise” with “brick,” “break” with “leave.”

Last night, stalled near Rector, I thought about
the sound of particulate matter and
burnt bone upon glass, about my brother
who refuses to shake it off. My hands
fell, emptied. I thought to knuckles, sutures,
“Go Home” cut into cheeks, how—weighted by
their marrow—flightless birds want the sky.


R.A. Villanueva

Reproduced from Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska