Onset [2022 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize Featured Finalist]




“There you go,      speaking harm into being.”



—My mother said that.





She said that       when I shrieked over 
centipedes having more
centipedes in our bedroom 
baseboards. Will I wake 
up with cennapeeds 
in my mouth?    Told the mere suggestion 
could grant the insects’ oral trespass, 
I slept mouth to mattress, which had apnea

skew me magenta and comatose. 
Six, black, female, dead, 
I inhaled anesthesia for 
a tonsillectomy. 


No more mouthing-off on worry.






I borrowed chapstick from girls on Bus #5, blondes I rode in
graffitied olive seats with. One let me borrow “Fuchsia Medusa.” 
It came in a tube that mimicked a lighter. Roll the spark wheel, 
and a totem of fruity wax bloomed, just like the blue-butted Bic 
flames that browned my Nana’s salems into cancer. But I lost Medusa
during the U.S. caloric holiday for thanks, and for losing her I owed
the blonde my whole Lip Smacker set. Otherwise, the superintendent 
would be phoned—the superintendent who rescinded recess from
hooligans with brillo plaits and the state milk discount. 

I told my mother about my sharing, not my owing, 
and seems she broke my ear with thumb and ring acrylic:  
               Keep sharing your lips. Gon’ mess around and catch 
               shit you can’t get rid of.      Four ills she can’t
get rid of:              —diabetes          —memory           —biases      

I’m too puppydog to speak the fourth.






So whenever our Zenith blacked from Nick @ Nite to St.
Jude fine china heads or hooligans headfirst in chicken meals
or 5-O windshields, I held my breath. The object was 
to avoid the ills of other people. To not breathe it in—
the possibility of ill happening to me. When I did mistakenly
inhale, I had a ritual to nix whatever kismet I sniffed: 
I’ d shove my wrists out (ill entered through the wrists) then 
chant,      outoutout      until my wrists felt unoccupied. 

Hard to explain unoccupied wrists. Best to say 
ghost appendage without the war, skeletal healthy hollow, 
a long sleeve’s breeze. 






Tried breathing through the dyke death of Set It Off, the belated amputation of Soul Food.
And when a rapstar swore, I’ll put a hole in your parents, I couldn’t sing his line
without perceiving some ajarment befalling my folks.       Does all of life whittle
down to holes in hoodies, preteen bikinis, dark families, long shirt
sleeves?        Well then, I just won’t breathe. 






But, twenty-four-year-old black female apnea—
fear means a harsh catalog of breathspeak with,
most certainly,                      no   outs.


Courtney Faye Taylor is a writer and visual artist. She is the author of Concentrate (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. A recipient of the 92Y Discovery Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize, Taylor’s work can be found in Poetry, The Nation, Ploughshares, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.