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About this Poem 

“This poem was inspired by my work as a teaching artist in the Bronx. The final stanza alludes to a photograph by Deborah Luster from One Big Self, a project in which she and the poet C. D. Wright documented prisoners in Louisiana after asking them how they wished to be seen.”

—Leigh Stein

The Dream of a Common Language

Leigh Stein

after Adrienne Rich

On Wednesdays I take the train past Yankee Stadium,
to a place where it is never a given that I speak the language,
to a place where graffiti covers the mural they painted to hide
the graffiti, to a place where the children call me Miss Miss
Miss Miss Miss
and I find in one of their poems, a self-portrait,
the line I wish I was rish. The dream of a common language

is the language of one million dollars, of basketball, of plátanos.
Are the kids black? my boyfriend wants to know. Dominican.
It’s different. When asked to write down a question
they wish they could ask their mom or dad, one boy writes,
Paper or plastic? A girl in the back of the class wants to know
Why don't I have lycene, translating the sound of the color

of my skin into her own language. The best poet
in sixth grade is the girl who is this year repeating
sixth grade. When I tell her teacher of her talent
she says, At least now we know she’s good
at something.
To speak their language, I study
the attendance list, practice the cadence of their names.

Yesterday I presented a black and white portrait of a black man,
his bald head turned away from us, a spotted moth resting
on one shoulder. I told them this is a man serving a life
sentence in Louisiana. Is this art? Without hesitation,
one girl said no, why would anybody
want to take a picture
of that.

Copyright @ 2014 by Leigh Stein. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on July 7, 2014.

Copyright @ 2014 by Leigh Stein. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on July 7, 2014.

Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein is the author of Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012). She teaches poetry in the New York City public schools, and lives in Brooklyn.