Visiting Poets

John Murillo

John Murillo photo by Marcus Jackson

Poet Carolyn Forché describes John Murillo as “a poet for his time, equal to its urgency, and graced are we to have him among us in this time of need.” In fierce, unflinching poems that are as likely to reference Elizabeth Bishop as Notorious B.I.G, Murillo’s most recent collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020), contends with our country’s racism, violence, and literary history, while also uncovering complicated moments of grace. Murillo’s many honors include fellowships from the NEA and Cave Canem, a Pushcart Prize, and appearances in Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020. Murillo teaches at Wesleyan University.


Select Poems

Crips, Bloods, and butterflies.
   A sunflower somehow planted
in the alley. Its broken neck.
   Maybe memory is all the home
you get. And rage, where you 
   first learn how fragile the axis
upon which everything tilts.
   But to say you’ve come to terms 
with a city that’s never loved you
   might be overstating things a bit.
All you know is there was once
   a walk-up where now sits a lot,
vacant, and rats in deep grass
   hide themselves from the day.
That one apartment fire
   set back in ’76—one the streets
called arson to collect a claim—
   could not do, ultimately, what
the city itself did, left to its own dank
   devices, some sixteen years later.
Rebellions, said some. Riots, 
   said the rest. In any case, flames;
and the home you knew, ash.
   It’s not an actual memory, but
you remember it still: a rust-
   bottomed Datsun handed down,
then stolen. Stripped, recovered,
   and built back from bolts.
Driving away in May. 1992.
   What’s left of that life quivers 
in the rearview—the world on fire,
   and half your head with it.

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.
Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman,
then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to lose as if
Your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.
Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master it.
Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.
Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and
lose again. Measure a father's coffin against a cousin's
crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.
Know why your woman's not answering her phone.
Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.
Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes
of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen:
a drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like
your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg
to sugar. Shame. Learn what's given can be taken;
what can be taken, will. This you can bet on without
losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed. Lose
and lose again. Lose until it's second nature. Losing
farther, losing faster.
Lean out your open window, listen:
the child is laughing now. No, it's the drunk man again
in the street, losing his voice, suffering each invisible star.

“And at times, didn’t the whole country try to break his skin?”
        —Tim Seibles


You strike your one good match to watch its bloom
and jook, a swan song just before a night 
wind comes to snuff it. That’s the kind of day
it’s been. Your Black & Mild, now, useless as
a prayer pressed between your lips. God damn
the wind. And everything it brings. You hit
the corner store to cop a light, and spy
the trouble rising in the cashier’s eyes.
TV reports some whack job shot two cops
then popped himself, here, in the borough, just
one mile away. You’ve heard this one before.
In which there’s blood. In which a black man snaps.
In which things burn. You buy your matches. Christ
is watching from the wall art, swathed in fire.

Poetry Center Reading

Winter 2020