“I just wanted to see what it would do when I say—” by Gabriel Cortez came in 3rd place for the 2022 Emerging Poet Prize, selected by guest judge Safia Elhillo. We’re honored to share this propulsive poem with you.
I felt so sistered by this poem, so nourished by its imagination and smartness and expansiveness. I loved the journey from the first line to the final line. I love this poem. I traveled. I laughed! I sighed! —Safia Elhillo, guest judge
I just wanted to see what it would do when I say—
Cici says nigga and the automatic caption generator stops.
Somewhere, a phantom stenographer lifts its hands from the keys
and cranes a mylar ear forward, listening again for that giddy sound,
which hinges the air between the bodied and the bodiless like a screen
door. We chuckle wondering how a computer might pronounce
this 6th grade shibboleth, lunch table where we learned to cuss
and flick quarters bloody and knuckle-skinned amongst our own.
What could silicone or wires electric tell us
of ash and cocoa buttered knees, of lips thick
with slang lifted off the backseat of an uncle’s Acura,
the oral tradition of poison distilled into cure.
[nig-uh] disaggregated into syllables
is a two step authentication.
From behind its aluminum dermis,
the machine transcribes the living,
studying the sound a muscle makes skipped
across roof of mouth. It hears
nasal cavity, soft palate, a throat
hatched into black bird
from trees buzz sawed into dust.
The computer whirs its robot finger in search of a match
and we watch as algorithms scratch our breath
into constellations for somebody else’s sky:
nigga → nickel
nigga → night gown
nigga → Nigerian, nimbus, Megan
nigga → until finally aha!
From inside its glass display case,
smiles back at us like a cheap grill,
the censored version of the song
they play at the school dance,
teachers interrupting our wind and sweat,
the ugly shirt they made us wear
for showing too much
good Black skin.
And me and Cici are like lol,
cackling at the familiar script,
acquainted as we are with that hand
behind the hand, its color and pull,
how, long before Zoom calls, we learned
whiteness operates at the level of code.
But imagine with me, listener, a system hacked.
Imagine if, from within its constants
and variables, ciphers and schemes,
the automatic caption generator hears Cici say nigga
and in the pause that follows,
constructs an entire new alphabet to ornate its brilliance.
And what if, from inside this opening,
the computer caresses it’s own keys
knowing everything there is to know,
and types n***a and means
look what cosmos I made for you!
n***a, a body made of stars!
n***a, an asteroid belt slung so low
the hem gathers black holes beneath its heels!
n***a, a history book so thick with reference,
its letters, annotations. It’s annotations, annotated!
a hieroglyphic motion carved into light!
Look! n***a playing double-dutch hisself!
Look! n***a bouncing the rock off her own head!
Look! n***a a stream of water, an open
hydrant pouring into the lake of its own mouth!
n***a of three moons’ orbit!
n***a of planets fixed
by the gravity of the throat’s guffaw!
n***a a spell, spelled out and secured
atop the air like the last sliver of night
shimmering over the dark and
illuminated horizon between us.