Poem of the Week | September 23, 2013

This week we offer a new poem by Airea D. Matthews. Matthews is a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and is currently a Zell Postgraduate Poetry Fellowship recipient at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA. She resides in Detroit with her husband and four children, and is currently at work on her first full-length poetry collection.

Author’s note:

The poem, “Swindle,” started as a simple recollection of attending backroom poker games as a child. That memory spurred considerations around autonomy and forced maturity, or as Jean Toomer wrote in Cane “a growing thing ripened too soon.” Employing power, muteness and loss as predominant themes, I attempt to reconcile these fragmented memories with the embedded truth of my relationship to my father.

Inside the poem, the child is silent as the speaker continually issues the imperative. The absence of stirring begs questions about the formation of personal agency, like: what happens to identity when free will is stripped? What happens when subject becomes object? Does the imposition of personal sovereignty compel a fear-based taciturnity? And how can co-dependence usher in an unconventional power shift? These interrogations are meant to linger as the sense of danger heightens, and the speaker creates a manipulated game that his coerced child must learn to rule.



-Trenton, NJ 1977
Learn the suits, Ace:
a club looks like a three-leaf clover
a spade is an upside-down heart
a diamond looks like two kissing triangles
a heart is a goddamn heart.
A hand is five cards:
one card, each finger.
The ace is the highest.
Then the head cards:
King, Queen, Jack then
count back by 10—
that’s the rank.


Got it?


Bring a Barbie doll,
something to play with.
Circle the players from afar.
Eye your sneaky Uncle Clayt,
nigger tucks cards under his cuff.
Pull on his sleeve, ask for a hug.
If it feels stiff, say you’re thirsty.
Don’t crawl under that table,
‘less you want a gun in my mouth.
Don’t sniff the powder on the felt.
And boy, don’t touch the chips;
they’re worth more than you.




Aim for loose play,
every motherfucker’s hungry.
When the game is tight,
stakes get too fat, too quick.
You’ll lose before the draw.
Spy those hands, Ace. Tell me
what you see. Scratch your chin,
rub your nose, pull on your ear;
we got a code:




Thing is that ace is tricky,
hinges on what’s held;
it can play high or low.
A full house ain’t shit.
Bend the straight.
Fuck a pair.
Fear that flush.
If you see those head cards
in order with the same suit:
grab your baby doll,
go to the bathroom,
flush the toilet twice,
stick one finger down
your throat,
bloat your cheek, run out,
force lunch on the table. Say:


Daddy, my head hurts.


We make dust, baby girl.
Only lose what little you left.