I’m a nightwatcher catching sight of rare birds
that come out with the stars. Somewhere a trashcan
is on fire warming a pair of hands. On the corner,
skinny men & big-hipped women wave at highlighter
sedans moving full speed ahead. They trade Newports
inhaling each other’s breath. Half-sleepwalking,
eyelids near closed, the wind propels me, I’m gliding,
feet barely touching the ground.
My eyes are vacant; I don’t see a thing.
When my apartment gets too noisy
with disquiet, I break loose, off to the cinema.
I wish there were a movie to escape to every night.
Like that: finding music & cups filled to the brim with cherry coke
& diamond shaped ice chips that land on your crotch
leaving a moist stain before the lights dim.
Nothing compares to nightfall in the city. The rush
of the metrobus—a mutant centipede menacing through
the city. Leaves whisking inside a trashcan.
Autumn fading violently, trees shedding feathers.
I love the city. Its quiet dramas: the stabbings,
the underfunded asylums, never knowing who’ll
wait at the bus stop with you. The old woman
who wears mud pies on her face screams
Get the hell away from me you yellow monkey,
waving her cane. Everything is changing.
Apple skins that fly over dead birds
with orange petticoats. Pies baking. The homeless
traveling like skiers, their oversized backpacks,
their shopping carts, the way their backs hunch over
& they still smile even when you don’t give them a dollar.
Their cups rattle like tambourines on Judgment Day.
You notice four churches that you took for
abandoned buildings on your block. Everything’s awake.
You recall hymns. Mouth the words as you walk by.
Think of walking in, sitting in a pew in the very back, but don’t.
Your thoughts return to the homeless. You’re a boy again
moving around with your mother. You try to push
the hungry look off that boy’s face, pushing it
further out of your head. You want him to die.
The night makes all of this fresh. Your mind
is a racetrack. Flustered. You walk quietly.
Graffiti cut-outs become your shadow,
they follow you everywhere. You’re trapped
inside an Edvard Munch painting. Your mouth
opens, butterflies come out.
That boy cannot die.
He wakes when you can’t sleep. He lives behind your eyeballs.
This is your fate: trouble sleeping.
This poem originally appeared in the author’s prize-winning Trouble Sleeping (New Issues Press, 2015). Abdul Ali is a two-time recipient of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Literature fellowship. He teaches at Towson University.