This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features two poems by Mark Cugini. 


The first white who
saw it rode under
a red flag. He said

it was shimmering
but no one ever
found a sparkle.

Years later, we’d
name a bridge
for him and

forget that he’d
kidnapped an
Indian. We  

tend to fudge
our histories
when we’re forging

our land masses.
It took reading
a street sign

to learn that
I was surrounded by
water—until I was nine

all I could hear was
Satin Aisle,
Satin Aisle,

as if we had draped
ourselves in some
glorious Christian

ignorance. My
people are cursed
with pronunciation

problems, a low back
chain shift we
drag out to the

Atlantic. We throw
‘bows at phobias
and we can’t see

past Manhattan.
In college I
researched ship

captains and wrote
about The Pig War.
I ate lots of chicken

and my voice buoyed
with drawn-out
vowels. I never talked

about abortion and
I hid my hide behind
a newfound liberalism.

We tend to fudge
our histories
when we’re forging

our land masses.
Satin Aisle,
Satin Aisle

You tend to build
bridges over the boats
too big to pirate.

You tend to drown
the islands that you wish
were never found.


Bay Terrace. It’s where all the slugs go when they
shut down the afterhours club. No one has ever
wondered if my island was enchanted—they
all just get skin fades and fight and go godless.
The ferry is free and no one ever named the subway
line—no need to go underground if the
whole core is rotting. A tug boat capsizes in
broad daylight right past the Tottenville
train station. I’m only here when I’m lost and
that’s happening more and more now
that I’ve got no use for maps—tell me where
to go and we won’t pay attention to anything.
The District gets whiter and I grow alive
at a library in Bushwick. Some cities have
pulses but me I’ve got this take out menu.
Old jobs are reposted and my mind’s still
a missed layup away from State(s).
I don’t want to write poems, but how else
can I tell you that my life was a trap
beat? What other way can we escape into
airspace, drunk and heavy on last night’s
empty regrets? A slug kills nine people in a
church and you’ve still got to button your shirt.
A white man says we need to set a higher bar for 
and then rides off my timeline on a police horse.
That’s where we live nowadays—everyone
is wrong and they keep raising racist flags
above the state house. There’s nothing new
I could learn from another man—I know
enough about being awful in being
an awful one myself.
Dew and champagne, dew and champagne.
In one life I am a lap band with lung cancer.
In another I am a marine biologist and my
friends burn high like a bright coral reef.
Everything I order goes to the wrong
address, but I take solstice in the thought
that there’s another me being damp and
miserable in another damp city.
I want Nick to teach me to kick flip
the summer, but I haven’t had the
balance for that sort of magic.
I button my shirt and wonder if that
other me backs out the driveway and
puts bullets in the past like I do—
                                                            Flavored tobacco,
                               MIDI Ringtones,
                                                            Vanderbilt’s tomb,
                                    Glass Shards,
                                                           I’m mad, dawg,
                               car bombs and
                                got rug burns
                                                        from backspins
                                  on the train
                                                       ride to Portsmouth
                           pounding slabs
                                                       busting up
                               block parties
                                                       and highways—
                 you can add it up for
forever and still get the middle of
nowhere. I want to write lines and
lie about riding my bike, but no one
ever taught me how.

Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).