Ode Per Sempre – Nikki Velletri

So began the summer of our countries
       circling like vultures winged and blood-ready
                for flight. When we stepped into butchery

and found our bodies had evaded us,
       and how no one dared to row your body
                 back across the Atlantic, the whole

town perking up at the smell of
       metal and whispering tragedy beneath
                the streetlights. And it is tragic,

death in America, not because every avenue
       after midnight seems to become a cityscape
                with all the little lights blinking out;

or because your mother was still
       waiting for us to come home
                months after we came home,

but because we did not die in a great many cities
       very far from here, the kind of cities where
                death is always waiting for girls like us and

girls like us deliver. Dip our feet into its jaws
       like the girls we laughed at by the August river,
                the ones who couldn’t help but proclaim its

frigidity to the world, so often that the residents
       came to know the word cold. And I came to know
                your face, peach-splotched and slick with grease,

with the sunscreen your mother packed into
       tupperware as if we’d need it in the weeks
                before we left, the days before it was decided we

would not return. Turns out my college self
       is still streaming out behind us like the flag
                we hung from the car’s antennae, the flag

we never got shit for because we could speak
       the language as good as the natives, as good
                as the natives we pretended we weren’t.

In America we could erase anything we wanted
       from the cloth of memory, and America could
                erase any of us. We could have been those girls

washing blue on American shores, who here have no words
       to be understood, who painted their bodies for the nightlights.
                We could have been the girls who made it

home. Descending into a swarm of arms in
       an airport terminal, every flight path empty
                because there was nowhere else to go now,

no ancient ruins to desecrate, no alcoves
       to duck into at midnight to press our slimy lips
                against the same man, lips still pressed hours

later but the street around us empty, every
       light still blinking, every avenue still open,
                every eye still watching, still toasting us

through open windows. And when the morning
       spread a lighter palette against your skin I could not
                wake you, not because you were so beautiful,

which, of course, was true, but because
       your heart had stopped beating hours ago.
                Every window, every avenue shuttering,

how I could never leave the city of our firsts and
       lasts, the city of my birth. All the lights blinking
                out, I could have said any number of things:

a little prayer, the steps to the dance we taught
       your grandmother and her friends in the piazza
                at daybreak—O, how they laughed and cried

a bit because they would never again be as happy
       as we were, never fill their bodies or another’s
                so well. In the end I did none of this, rendered

mute as the American girls we laughed at, the ones
       no one else will ever remember. So I sat inside
                the mouth of darkness as your body was enveloped

into silence, said: Suppose there was a house
       at the edge of the city that survived
                even this. Suppose you lived there.
Nikki Velletri

Nikki Velletri is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been recognized by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, the National YoungArts Foundation, and the National Park Service, amongst others, and can be found in Kingdoms in the Wild and L’Ephemere Review.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

James G. Piattreply
February 24, 2020 at 9:33 AM

Nikki, your poetry is dark, yet beautiful, full of anguish, yet still beautiful. I loved it! You will make your mark on the poetry world!

Prithvijeet Sinhareply
April 2, 2020 at 5:56 PM

Your thoughtful and expansive yet realistic vision of life actually rings true in these current times. This is a profound poem.

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