Poetry & Environmental Justice: Two Poems by Kay Ulanday Barrett


Each year, we use some of our posts to connect with the Poetry Coalition’s annual programming. This year, the theme is It is burning./ It is dreaming./ It is waking up: Poetry & Environmental Justice. (The line “It is burning./ It is dreaming./ It is waking up.” is from the poem “Map” by Linda Hogan.) We are engaging with that theme through a focus on disability and environment. 

If you are reading these poems on a cell phone or small screen, please turn it to the widescreen view for accurate formatting. 


You can solve the Black hole but…


when I think of Stephen Hawking
& his death, I'm reminded how access
to adaptive technology should be accessible
to all & everyone, not just selective few
who can afford it. there are +5K RTs &
almost 13K likes of an illustration  
where Hawking is standing.

I notice how people now illustrate
him post-humously standing up,
walking into cosmos, in the afterlife,
(presumably           happier
& "better off" not to be,
(who) he was (supposedly)
meant to be directly belittles
and diminishes disabled
bodies of futurist, cosmic,
& outer- 



to state that to
make it is "to walk"
to only have stardust
on your heels only if you run
is rife with able-bodied

the very kind that would limit and
devalue Hawking to access resources
that channeled brilliance & discoveries.



this goes to show that ableism
is so insipid and works to erase
all truths of a person
(even a white cis man, at that)

even if they expanded
            our perceptions
of space and intergalactic
                        existence as we know it.



⁠—Insert names of POC and trans POC
killed from state who were Disabled

who are now



I am told by poets
that requesting accessibility
is an academic concern.

when accessibility is
debatable, it implies that the 
presence of disabled people
and contributions are debatable.
better to hide.  better to bootstrap
into oblivion.

I wish on any star that they
could say what they mean:
how they consider our lives,
cultures, and work
are inferior.



even         when you're dead
            and have expanded galaxies,
            you are supposed to aspire
            to abled expectations.

even        if comets are
your first language
when you're dead

no matter
they will try to steal
your magic from you.



Writing in Frida's garden

We stand in lines
up to two hours
old women with wheelchairs
and I all care for ourselves
on cobblestone
to see your bed
ordained, spine pluck, toe
frizzle, sparkle on lace.
I overhear someone say
there are too many gueros
in your house. 
I’m curious if they
meant your life.
A mirror for your torso
as you gasped dreams
on dreams, blood, oil, paint.
on most mornings was it just
you, and your dog, rolled up
to your neck, furless gauze. 
did the start of day unfurl
its mouth, tell you
to be color clad?


your wheelchair collects dust
next to the canvas of fruit. art from
an iron garden, medicine bottle
cuddled to paintbrush, sick kit
uncanny. we take photos. french
touristas sulk at your cane, so sad.
actually, I do not blame metal
or accident,  I understand embrace
of elaborate quiet,  how
possibly on all the pills
pallet pushed through
your fingertips and a future of
sutures nobody could understand.
who in this bed has been erased?
when they frame the singular white
woman’s face in a sea of men
do you harmonize with Chavela?
both of you,  caressed in the
clang of bourbon or tequila?
i too know what it’s like to have
heartache as your main meal,
chop off your hair, wear a suit,
find a femme to love.


How did you, gauze on gauze
leather buckle on leather buckle
prime for poultice. what did it
take for you to be kept together?
every time Diego kissed
another who was stitchless
did you stomp journal entries?
did you parlay portaits starring
creatures horned and harrowed,
make them your confidants?
corseted spirit trying not
to split into heart sting.
how to imagine all the art
in a world that can’t pronounce
the shape of your body.
there’s a cast where you drew
hammer & sickle, your portrait
framed so we might not see your
smile in a wheelchair
but I notice.


on your last protest from sick bed, 
you determined, go outdoors, like
a true revolutionary only to catch
pneumonia. did nobody tell
you, a bed is revelation?
do you feel us now spasm
song, a choir of canes in percussion.
how we hope all of you
doesn’t hide whatever you are
each hue, each arc. Meanwhile
all the language, you gifted us
when we thought the
cosmos were too far away.


Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and cultural strategist. Barrett’s book More Than Organs received a 2021 Stonewall Book Honor Award by the American Library Association & is a 2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalist. They have featured at The Lincoln Center, The U.N., Symphony Space, The Poetry Project, Princeton University, NYU, The Dodge Poetry Foundation, The Hemispheric Institute, and Brooklyn Museum. They’ve received fellowship invitations from MacDowell, Lambda Literary, Drunken Boat, VONA, The Home School, VCCA, and Macondo. They are a 3x Pushcart Prize nominee and 2x Best of the Net nominee. Their contributions are found in The New York TimesThe AdvocateAsian American Literary ReviewVoguePBS News HourThe RumpusAcademy of American PoetsNYLON, WBAI Radio, NPR, and more. They have written two poetry books, When The Chant Comes (Topside Press, 2016) and More Than Organs (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020). They currently remix their mama’s recipes and reside in Jersey City with their jowly dog.  kaybarrett.net