Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

Golden Ax

Author Rio Cortez
Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
Paperback
$18.00 US
5.5"W x 8.39"H x 0.24"D  
On sale Aug 30, 2022 | 80 Pages | 978-0-14-313713-9
| Grades 9-12 + AP/IB
Longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry
Longlisted for the 2023 PEN Open Book Award
Finalist for the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award

“Outstanding . . . the poetry in these pages is intelligent, lyrical, as invested in the past as the present and future with witty nods to pop culture.” —Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

 
“I’ve never read anything like it. Truly a sublime experience.” —Jason Reynolds, author of Ain’t Burned All the Bright

A groundbreaking collection about Afropioneerism past and present from Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and New York Times bestselling author Rio Cortez

From a visionary writer praised for her captivating work on Black history and experience comes a poetry collection exploring personal, political, and artistic frontiers, journeying from her family's history as "Afropioneers" in the American West to shimmering glimpses of transcendent, liberated futures. 
 
In poems that range from wry, tongue-in-cheek observations about contemporary life to more nuanced meditations on her ancestors—some of the earliest Black pioneers to settle in the western United States after Reconstruction—Golden Ax invites readers to re-imagine the West, Black womanhood, and the legacies that shape and sustain the pursuit of freedom.
© Paul Tran
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rio Cortez is the New York Times bestselling author of The ABCs of Black History (Workman, 2020) and I Have Learned to Define a Field As a Space Between Mountains, winner of the 2015 Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Her honors include a Poets & Writers Amy Award, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, The Jerome Foundation, and Poet’s House. Rio holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. View titles by Rio Cortez
Far Enough

Byrdie Lee Howell Langon self-published Utah and the Early Black Settlers, a short book about her life and the Black community in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was honored with these words by her Bethel AME pastor, Jerry Ford, in 1969:

We say we love you

not only for what you are

but for what you are

when we are with you

we love you

for putting your hand

into our heaped-up hearts

and passing over

all the frivolous and weak things

that you cannot help

but see there

and drawing out

all the beautiful things

that many

have not looked far enough

to find

Covered Wagon as Spaceship

Standing unseen in the little bluestem,

curious and not quite used to living,

I consider whether it's aliens

that brought Black folks to the canyons, valley.

Standing in the great evaporation

of a lake, holy dandelion for

eyes, full and white and searching the landscape

for understanding: how do you come

to be where there are no others, except

science fiction? I am a child feeling

extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,

is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction

UFO, for Instance

When the hole between blue spruce widens

and twists into a cosmos              when the wild

lilac and campfire atomize           and night hangs their smokes

across its belly   when in the clearing you are certain

you are not lonelier         but there is a lifting in you

where other knowing rises too   and divides you from the bone

in your feet to the fat     round your heart and leaves you

surrounded by your own              breath you emerge from

and watch vanish and think          the night ate it ate your knowing and how

could anyone know any more     you might as well look out

into the clouds of long pine that hang     brambled and

orange in branches          you listen for howling but none comes

North Node

According to her, I appeared to my mother in an in utero vision and told her my name. Before I chose my mother, all day long I ran my fingertips along the slick backs of cutthroat trout and gathered water from Millcreek into a sapphire pail. I waited for her. In the distance, there was a blue bull surrounded by lilies.


She loves me, so she bore me underwater. IÕm here to learn a lesson. I spent my other lives in the Nevada desert, where I only did what felt good. What could that mean? I reconcile the pleasure in lying naked on the hot sand of the Mojave, watching the braided muscles in a horseÕs hind legs with the ocean nowhere, a frying chest on the hood of an idle car. So comes a lesson, IÕm here to cut the scorpion from my throat. Even though it has dragged me through sweet darkness and time. Even now, in the stillness of home, in love and full of wine, it wraps its eight legs around me. Even through the lilies, it sets its many eyes on me and, suddenly, longing

Like a Suggestion

The antelope start dying,

of all places, on Antelope

Island. Our two greyhounds

startle in their sleep and walk

together toward the window.

I've heard wolves are hunting

bison, even though it's spring

and there are easier things to kill.

Cowbirds abandon wooden

fences. They say Atlantic salmon

haven't returned to their cribs

of fresh water. The cat stands still

before an open door to the house.

I move to put my hand behind

her ear and she bolts.

I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space between Mountains

If I remember a field where I stroked the velvety hound's-tongue and cracked its purple mouth from stem and it is not a memory, then what were the limits of the field?


Sometimes we are driving south toward Zion in a crowded truck with my mother and we pass the same red wildflowers until someone says, ÒIndian paintbrush, Rio, havenÕt you seen them before?Ó And, have I?


Other times I pose in front of giant flor de maga, its soft petal saucers larger than my head. My father fixes one behind my ear and says something in Eyeri but for what photograph? I am a conjoined hibiscus-headed twin, except IÕm local.


I braid the long hair of the willow and like a young warrior I swing across the canal bed by the braid. By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the willow trees, we hung our harps. How could we sing the LordÕs song in a foreign land? I read this once in Sunday school, tripping on it.


In any field I am certain I can be seen by someone. How couldnÕt I? When IÕm blood-divided one hundred ways, when I pray to the God called DO NOT BOARD THE SHIP, when IÕm protected by so many masters of the vine. They must be in here somewhere? They must see me this far into the desert, it canÕt be that I am alone here. I search behind the cattails, I scramble the wood. Has it gotten darker?


A child and all I can see are houses. Every house is a rambler with a plastic snake full of sand or a well that isnÕt really a well. Every house is on a street named after the Ute tribes. IÕm in Ute Country, in the field to fly a cheap kite, but it gets caught in pine sap. I walk home but not without pocketfuls.

The Idea of Ancestry

After Etheridge Knight

I am in a sweet place

standing in Millcreek

on a road

in its canyon

and this sweet place

has also been the sweet place

of my people

I am staring

into the water

my grandmother fished

with a rod and a line

I am standing

near the head

of a timber trail

felled by grandfather's

grandfather

I am listening

to the aspen

its green coins

singing in the wind

and I know it sang

just like this

for them

I am standing

right at the center

of its singing

the same sound

heard by black bears

or the calf of a moose

lying even sweeter

in the yarrow

showing we can be dark

and shining in wildflower

I know this timber

was once a house

my mother's grandmother's

mother's hammer in hand

everything

throttling backward

toward me

through time

a timber roof

that has kept the frost

from coming in

and stinging my babies

we made that

for ourselves

I consider choosing

there are times

when it is a joy

to remember

I like to think about my people

drinking fresh buttermilk

from the chosen farms

of their other people

all of us gazing

back at the house

framed by our future knowing

filling up on fresh tomatoes

and after

maybe lying like the silk calf

in the deerwood and the aster

and never-ending

Driving at Night

For Laquan McDonald

I think it's quails lining the road, but it's fallen birchwood.

What look like white clouds in a grassy basin, sprinklers.

I mistake the woman walking her retriever for a pair of fawns.

Could-be animals. Unexplained weather. Maybe they see us

that way. Disappointed, the closer they get. Not quite ready to let it go.

I'm Forced to Imagine There Are Two of Me Here

To fit in we practice not dancing I pull her hair against our head and burn

               the water out     she sucks in the lip of our belly

I call her Rio       say Rio  remind them of our one white    grandmother

               do what it takes to make them think        we are like them

Because it is a risk to want us      we close the bedroom door         she reaches under

the blanket         It's just  me Rio  and        The Dark

               does she part my legs     or The Dark's      I spit into our hand          and touch her

Sometimes she bites our lips       to make them smaller     we refuse

               to dance              we do what it takes

I let her drive Little Cottonwood Canyon It is night             we hit a deer      breath

from its nostrils clouds the windshield     It feels like there could be more

               of us somewhere              she opens the car doors we show each other mercy

take the same bite of a cracked rib           blood from her mouth I move to kiss the animal

I learn to shoot a bow

It is no River Jordan that flows here

between the railroad tracks and the back porch.

It's a canal. Not unlike my mother:

low as it want to be and fullest when

it rains. Existing for however long

without a name, and singing

under a timber bridge that we built. We built that.

Isn't that our story? To be denied

the beginning. I cross the bridge to shoot

a sapling bow my grandfather has carved.

He helps me aim into cardboard flats stacked

against the willow. I guess this is where

I am Orion. With two birth stories.

In one story I come from a sea god

with the forest as my mother, and in

the other, I have no mother at all

Partum

Just as close       to living as you are           to disappearing  knowing

my limits              you locate           the tender spots              without.

               To be batter and rind

maybe I've hidden            my feral self       even though       I was certain       I was wild

I'm now certain it was vanity

here I pace          cut open              drinking thistle and yolk

expecting nothing            determined to live

you        Little God,           Oldest Friend

who summons milk         and hair from the follicle              who moves my teeth      and makes

me bleed             it is not a joy      but joyful            to have been      brought

this close

to the earth

haven't we touched hands before?           in the bright red towns of my youth

in Loa or Escalante          where I thought                we were only passing through

was it you at the counter              serving me sarsaparilla   in a cool brown bottle,

remembering me?

Marion's 1982 Chevrolet Citation

If I board her      it means pulling open her heavy sails the steel

that gravity throws shut on my calves     good thing

I am quick to leave

She must be virtuous because there is nothing hidden in her

going     not the power in her closing doors nor the ignition

and its triumphant refrain

even idle, she disrupts    she rests in the cool shade

of a basketball hoop       I stare from my parents' living room window

how the mulberry tree wreaks its havoc on the driveway

all my friends call her The Killing Machine             how else

could she have lived this long and look so good   Marion says

it's like she's been asleep for me

I am six days from my sixteenth birthday               I cover her

hatchback in cosmic fish and press

my foot down where do I go       I wonder without them

the chrome of the dashboard mirrors the Millcreek sun

I see myself in fraction   my wristwatch as I pull the radio knob

eyebrow cocked as I adjust her mirrors

A Class Distinction

I start to say

Once,

I left the mountains,

the Wasatch and Oquirrh

talking aloud

I question the spelling

in my head

I've never been sure

It's possible

I wasn't born from mountains at all

but a valley.

What is lower

than a valley?

Once,

I left the strip malls,

I grew up in a long drive-thru line

sipping diet cola from a bent straw

when I talk about mountains

I am being romantic

about the valley

I worry

you'll unmask me

I've always been that way

lying

just a little

on the Berber carpet

squashing summer ants

the TV telling me everything

Salt

This is the place!                             Space is the place.

               -Brigham Young -Sun Ra

I slip the silksac of my body          and walk out      onto the flats

the air a machine             sucking earth into fragments of white     absorbing heat

               finding me

I kneel at the shore         I reach into the lake        it is red  as a halt

               I reach into the wound of it         I drag out            its string of bones

and now I am two            times the dark

I crush skeletons              of artemia underfoot      I eat eggs            in stasis the dead             lake idles

the city surrounds           what weapons we are    I fold the net of my shadow        I hold it

               as evidence

Emancipation Queen

"Emancipation Queen" was a historically Black beauty pageant in Utah.

               It's true

that beauty

can be a tool

dually wielded

               robin's egg

who would know

come from a red-

breasted bird

               taffeta gown

named for what

the body made

its blue

               but not the maker

or the blue

from which come

the robin

               is that emancipation

to leave beauty behind

               a Black girl

               on a stage

               inside the egg

of a robin

               a Black girl who is

a robin

repeating the question

As Cain

Until 1978, Mormons maintained that in a spiritual "preexistence," Blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.

I think of the earth that drank Abel's blood

as I uproot foxtail from the garden.

Earth, not passive, but cursed by God, having

accepted death, and maybe, even, hoped

to grow from it. And Cain said to Abel,

"Let us go to the field." I cut my own

thumb on a weed. I carry out a strict

ritual of healing: cold hose water and then

most Holy: mouth. Tell me, what mark has God

given me? I am paraphrasing here

when I say God told Cain to rule over

his own longing or else restless wanderer

shall he be on earth. First curse, then blessing.

God's always changing his mind about us

To Salt Lake, Letter Regarding Genealogy

After Charles Olson

No shore no shore           backed against a paradox of water           where snow

halts in valleys and we drink

what melts,  I, risen from one break         in the endless

salt flat. I have had to build. O! how I have built for you!

See how I have come, Salt Lake, with my thousand faces of the void!

My face night with no stars,        my face waves

in night sea.       I was born to work.

My mother, crow-headed goddess, called me dust and trusted

I'd become.        I changed for you! I became

a quarry in Big Cottonwood. Later, I was born

in uniform and carried a pickax in my throat.

I stole the mountain's sandstone and it wasn't good enough

so I took its quartz instead and told you  "pray by it." I,

Guard-thing of the White city.    How would you pray without me!

I was born with a sore head from a perm               and swaddled in pages

from The Good Book.     I was a decoy.

I pretended not to know my many names.           

I did the work of believing with you.

I was born on swamp property    the woman who bore me was an animal.
Praise for Golden Ax:

Longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry
Named one of the Best Books of 2022 by The Houston Chronicle
Named one of the "Books We Love" by NPR

“With a careful balance of lyric and detail, Cortez considers the pursuit of freedom passed down to her . . . [and] shows us how looking back can be beautiful and how claiming that past is the loudest celebration of it.”
—NPR, “Books We Love” 

“[Golden Ax] advances an intriguing, revolutionary argument: that the present is not simply a product of what has come before, but engaged in a constant, generative conversation with the past; that the past, in some ways, might be formed by what is to come. Sinuous and beautifully crafted, even the negative space on these pages transmits a complementary narrative of loss and yearning. Cortez alters both her own past, and ours, by acknowledging her people, integrating them into our present tense, and projecting them into a future in which true freedom might be possible.” 
—Tope Folarin, Vulture

“Cortez examines how her family came to the American West after Reconstruction—and reimagines the landscape through the lens of Black people who both embody and defy its realities. In the process, we are pushed to envision our own futures on the frontier, united by a collective aspiration to freedom.”
—Essence

“Outstanding . . . the poetry in these pages is intelligent, lyrical, as invested in the past as the present and future with witty nods to pop culture.”
—Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

“Cortez maps untrodden historical and speculative terrain in poems of stunning breadth and intimacy in this exquisite debut . . . reflecting on class, race, and womanhood with wit and lyrical subtlety . . . Unflinching and generous, this bold collection opens new vistas in contemporary Black poetry.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“[A] terrific debut collection . . . Cortez can be brutally honest and unsettlingly witty.” 
—Ron Charles

"Golden Ax is a master class in the use of popular culture to critique the foundations on which that culture is built. Plus, it’s a lot of fun."
The California Review of Books

“[These] poems are witty, weighty, and often profoundly radical in their approach to what has been and what may be to come.”
Alta

“A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts . . . Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the other­worldly landscape of the American West . . . Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.”
BookPage

Complicate your shit, I hear myself saying more and more these days, about our two-dimensional, simplifying, reductive thinking to most everything worth thinking hard about, and so imagine my delight, or something heartier than delight, my relief, my gratitude, at Rio Cortez’s beautiful book, Golden Ax, which, I love—I mean, I love this book—for its sensuous, chiseled language; for all the trees and plants (aster, bluestem, birchwood, hibiscus); for its weird and brainy sense of humor; for its palpable yearning and need; and for its entangled, complicated, unfixable, and unfixing blackness. Its unsettled and unsettling blackness. Which is really just to say: its blackness. I am so grateful for this book, and this voice, and this heart, in the world.”
—Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights

Golden Ax is a mirror maze where every poem elongates or widens the reader. Though Cortez leads us through a personal journey that embodies the distortion of the archived and the imagined, I couldn't help but feel at the end of it that I'd been in congress with some of my own lesser-recognized selves. I've never read anything like it. Truly a sublime experience.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ain't Burned All the Bright

“A game changer. Cortez is without a doubt one of the most brilliant writers I've ever read. This book will be talked about for decades—it's canon . . . Poetry needs [Cortez's] voice—lullaby, chant, call for change, song, wind—to save a home-truth place for us in the universe, past, future, and present. Golden Ax is a seismic achievement, a cosmic-level work of art.”
—Brenda Shaughnessy, author of The Octopus Museum

Golden Ax is as omnipresent as scripture. Rio’s location as poet, archivist, lover, mother, and citizen is where Blackness as sound and organic synthesis meet. Insistent with cataloging our fullest existence: Black life, Black leisure, Black peace, and Black joy, Golden Ax is an integral study and acknowledgment of a historically scattered, generationally wounded people. Rio traverses between tanning bed reclamations, Cuba observations, the weight of her beloved’s eyes, and the findings of the afro-futurist body thriving in a natural world. This collection is the grace we don’t deserve, but will love wholly as we earn the weight of its bounty.”
—Mahogany L. Browne, author of Vinyl Moon and poet-in-residence at Lincoln Center

“In Golden Ax, Rio Cortez communes with language and land on her own terms. Airy and spacious but dense in complexity and intention, this book wrestles with and falls in love with its landscape; situating itself in the plains of a new Black West tradition. These lush, inquisitive poems sing life, afterlife, and before-life. Brimming with lyricism and imagination, sensitivity and sly humor; Golden Ax is a perfectly innovative and relentlessly tender collection by a thrillingly dynamic poet.”
—Morgan Parker, author of Magical Negro

About

Longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry
Longlisted for the 2023 PEN Open Book Award
Finalist for the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award

“Outstanding . . . the poetry in these pages is intelligent, lyrical, as invested in the past as the present and future with witty nods to pop culture.” —Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

 
“I’ve never read anything like it. Truly a sublime experience.” —Jason Reynolds, author of Ain’t Burned All the Bright

A groundbreaking collection about Afropioneerism past and present from Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and New York Times bestselling author Rio Cortez

From a visionary writer praised for her captivating work on Black history and experience comes a poetry collection exploring personal, political, and artistic frontiers, journeying from her family's history as "Afropioneers" in the American West to shimmering glimpses of transcendent, liberated futures. 
 
In poems that range from wry, tongue-in-cheek observations about contemporary life to more nuanced meditations on her ancestors—some of the earliest Black pioneers to settle in the western United States after Reconstruction—Golden Ax invites readers to re-imagine the West, Black womanhood, and the legacies that shape and sustain the pursuit of freedom.

Author

© Paul Tran
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rio Cortez is the New York Times bestselling author of The ABCs of Black History (Workman, 2020) and I Have Learned to Define a Field As a Space Between Mountains, winner of the 2015 Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Her honors include a Poets & Writers Amy Award, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, The Jerome Foundation, and Poet’s House. Rio holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. View titles by Rio Cortez

Excerpt

Far Enough

Byrdie Lee Howell Langon self-published Utah and the Early Black Settlers, a short book about her life and the Black community in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was honored with these words by her Bethel AME pastor, Jerry Ford, in 1969:

We say we love you

not only for what you are

but for what you are

when we are with you

we love you

for putting your hand

into our heaped-up hearts

and passing over

all the frivolous and weak things

that you cannot help

but see there

and drawing out

all the beautiful things

that many

have not looked far enough

to find

Covered Wagon as Spaceship

Standing unseen in the little bluestem,

curious and not quite used to living,

I consider whether it's aliens

that brought Black folks to the canyons, valley.

Standing in the great evaporation

of a lake, holy dandelion for

eyes, full and white and searching the landscape

for understanding: how do you come

to be where there are no others, except

science fiction? I am a child feeling

extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,

is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction

UFO, for Instance

When the hole between blue spruce widens

and twists into a cosmos              when the wild

lilac and campfire atomize           and night hangs their smokes

across its belly   when in the clearing you are certain

you are not lonelier         but there is a lifting in you

where other knowing rises too   and divides you from the bone

in your feet to the fat     round your heart and leaves you

surrounded by your own              breath you emerge from

and watch vanish and think          the night ate it ate your knowing and how

could anyone know any more     you might as well look out

into the clouds of long pine that hang     brambled and

orange in branches          you listen for howling but none comes

North Node

According to her, I appeared to my mother in an in utero vision and told her my name. Before I chose my mother, all day long I ran my fingertips along the slick backs of cutthroat trout and gathered water from Millcreek into a sapphire pail. I waited for her. In the distance, there was a blue bull surrounded by lilies.


She loves me, so she bore me underwater. IÕm here to learn a lesson. I spent my other lives in the Nevada desert, where I only did what felt good. What could that mean? I reconcile the pleasure in lying naked on the hot sand of the Mojave, watching the braided muscles in a horseÕs hind legs with the ocean nowhere, a frying chest on the hood of an idle car. So comes a lesson, IÕm here to cut the scorpion from my throat. Even though it has dragged me through sweet darkness and time. Even now, in the stillness of home, in love and full of wine, it wraps its eight legs around me. Even through the lilies, it sets its many eyes on me and, suddenly, longing

Like a Suggestion

The antelope start dying,

of all places, on Antelope

Island. Our two greyhounds

startle in their sleep and walk

together toward the window.

I've heard wolves are hunting

bison, even though it's spring

and there are easier things to kill.

Cowbirds abandon wooden

fences. They say Atlantic salmon

haven't returned to their cribs

of fresh water. The cat stands still

before an open door to the house.

I move to put my hand behind

her ear and she bolts.

I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space between Mountains

If I remember a field where I stroked the velvety hound's-tongue and cracked its purple mouth from stem and it is not a memory, then what were the limits of the field?


Sometimes we are driving south toward Zion in a crowded truck with my mother and we pass the same red wildflowers until someone says, ÒIndian paintbrush, Rio, havenÕt you seen them before?Ó And, have I?


Other times I pose in front of giant flor de maga, its soft petal saucers larger than my head. My father fixes one behind my ear and says something in Eyeri but for what photograph? I am a conjoined hibiscus-headed twin, except IÕm local.


I braid the long hair of the willow and like a young warrior I swing across the canal bed by the braid. By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the willow trees, we hung our harps. How could we sing the LordÕs song in a foreign land? I read this once in Sunday school, tripping on it.


In any field I am certain I can be seen by someone. How couldnÕt I? When IÕm blood-divided one hundred ways, when I pray to the God called DO NOT BOARD THE SHIP, when IÕm protected by so many masters of the vine. They must be in here somewhere? They must see me this far into the desert, it canÕt be that I am alone here. I search behind the cattails, I scramble the wood. Has it gotten darker?


A child and all I can see are houses. Every house is a rambler with a plastic snake full of sand or a well that isnÕt really a well. Every house is on a street named after the Ute tribes. IÕm in Ute Country, in the field to fly a cheap kite, but it gets caught in pine sap. I walk home but not without pocketfuls.

The Idea of Ancestry

After Etheridge Knight

I am in a sweet place

standing in Millcreek

on a road

in its canyon

and this sweet place

has also been the sweet place

of my people

I am staring

into the water

my grandmother fished

with a rod and a line

I am standing

near the head

of a timber trail

felled by grandfather's

grandfather

I am listening

to the aspen

its green coins

singing in the wind

and I know it sang

just like this

for them

I am standing

right at the center

of its singing

the same sound

heard by black bears

or the calf of a moose

lying even sweeter

in the yarrow

showing we can be dark

and shining in wildflower

I know this timber

was once a house

my mother's grandmother's

mother's hammer in hand

everything

throttling backward

toward me

through time

a timber roof

that has kept the frost

from coming in

and stinging my babies

we made that

for ourselves

I consider choosing

there are times

when it is a joy

to remember

I like to think about my people

drinking fresh buttermilk

from the chosen farms

of their other people

all of us gazing

back at the house

framed by our future knowing

filling up on fresh tomatoes

and after

maybe lying like the silk calf

in the deerwood and the aster

and never-ending

Driving at Night

For Laquan McDonald

I think it's quails lining the road, but it's fallen birchwood.

What look like white clouds in a grassy basin, sprinklers.

I mistake the woman walking her retriever for a pair of fawns.

Could-be animals. Unexplained weather. Maybe they see us

that way. Disappointed, the closer they get. Not quite ready to let it go.

I'm Forced to Imagine There Are Two of Me Here

To fit in we practice not dancing I pull her hair against our head and burn

               the water out     she sucks in the lip of our belly

I call her Rio       say Rio  remind them of our one white    grandmother

               do what it takes to make them think        we are like them

Because it is a risk to want us      we close the bedroom door         she reaches under

the blanket         It's just  me Rio  and        The Dark

               does she part my legs     or The Dark's      I spit into our hand          and touch her

Sometimes she bites our lips       to make them smaller     we refuse

               to dance              we do what it takes

I let her drive Little Cottonwood Canyon It is night             we hit a deer      breath

from its nostrils clouds the windshield     It feels like there could be more

               of us somewhere              she opens the car doors we show each other mercy

take the same bite of a cracked rib           blood from her mouth I move to kiss the animal

I learn to shoot a bow

It is no River Jordan that flows here

between the railroad tracks and the back porch.

It's a canal. Not unlike my mother:

low as it want to be and fullest when

it rains. Existing for however long

without a name, and singing

under a timber bridge that we built. We built that.

Isn't that our story? To be denied

the beginning. I cross the bridge to shoot

a sapling bow my grandfather has carved.

He helps me aim into cardboard flats stacked

against the willow. I guess this is where

I am Orion. With two birth stories.

In one story I come from a sea god

with the forest as my mother, and in

the other, I have no mother at all

Partum

Just as close       to living as you are           to disappearing  knowing

my limits              you locate           the tender spots              without.

               To be batter and rind

maybe I've hidden            my feral self       even though       I was certain       I was wild

I'm now certain it was vanity

here I pace          cut open              drinking thistle and yolk

expecting nothing            determined to live

you        Little God,           Oldest Friend

who summons milk         and hair from the follicle              who moves my teeth      and makes

me bleed             it is not a joy      but joyful            to have been      brought

this close

to the earth

haven't we touched hands before?           in the bright red towns of my youth

in Loa or Escalante          where I thought                we were only passing through

was it you at the counter              serving me sarsaparilla   in a cool brown bottle,

remembering me?

Marion's 1982 Chevrolet Citation

If I board her      it means pulling open her heavy sails the steel

that gravity throws shut on my calves     good thing

I am quick to leave

She must be virtuous because there is nothing hidden in her

going     not the power in her closing doors nor the ignition

and its triumphant refrain

even idle, she disrupts    she rests in the cool shade

of a basketball hoop       I stare from my parents' living room window

how the mulberry tree wreaks its havoc on the driveway

all my friends call her The Killing Machine             how else

could she have lived this long and look so good   Marion says

it's like she's been asleep for me

I am six days from my sixteenth birthday               I cover her

hatchback in cosmic fish and press

my foot down where do I go       I wonder without them

the chrome of the dashboard mirrors the Millcreek sun

I see myself in fraction   my wristwatch as I pull the radio knob

eyebrow cocked as I adjust her mirrors

A Class Distinction

I start to say

Once,

I left the mountains,

the Wasatch and Oquirrh

talking aloud

I question the spelling

in my head

I've never been sure

It's possible

I wasn't born from mountains at all

but a valley.

What is lower

than a valley?

Once,

I left the strip malls,

I grew up in a long drive-thru line

sipping diet cola from a bent straw

when I talk about mountains

I am being romantic

about the valley

I worry

you'll unmask me

I've always been that way

lying

just a little

on the Berber carpet

squashing summer ants

the TV telling me everything

Salt

This is the place!                             Space is the place.

               -Brigham Young -Sun Ra

I slip the silksac of my body          and walk out      onto the flats

the air a machine             sucking earth into fragments of white     absorbing heat

               finding me

I kneel at the shore         I reach into the lake        it is red  as a halt

               I reach into the wound of it         I drag out            its string of bones

and now I am two            times the dark

I crush skeletons              of artemia underfoot      I eat eggs            in stasis the dead             lake idles

the city surrounds           what weapons we are    I fold the net of my shadow        I hold it

               as evidence

Emancipation Queen

"Emancipation Queen" was a historically Black beauty pageant in Utah.

               It's true

that beauty

can be a tool

dually wielded

               robin's egg

who would know

come from a red-

breasted bird

               taffeta gown

named for what

the body made

its blue

               but not the maker

or the blue

from which come

the robin

               is that emancipation

to leave beauty behind

               a Black girl

               on a stage

               inside the egg

of a robin

               a Black girl who is

a robin

repeating the question

As Cain

Until 1978, Mormons maintained that in a spiritual "preexistence," Blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.

I think of the earth that drank Abel's blood

as I uproot foxtail from the garden.

Earth, not passive, but cursed by God, having

accepted death, and maybe, even, hoped

to grow from it. And Cain said to Abel,

"Let us go to the field." I cut my own

thumb on a weed. I carry out a strict

ritual of healing: cold hose water and then

most Holy: mouth. Tell me, what mark has God

given me? I am paraphrasing here

when I say God told Cain to rule over

his own longing or else restless wanderer

shall he be on earth. First curse, then blessing.

God's always changing his mind about us

To Salt Lake, Letter Regarding Genealogy

After Charles Olson

No shore no shore           backed against a paradox of water           where snow

halts in valleys and we drink

what melts,  I, risen from one break         in the endless

salt flat. I have had to build. O! how I have built for you!

See how I have come, Salt Lake, with my thousand faces of the void!

My face night with no stars,        my face waves

in night sea.       I was born to work.

My mother, crow-headed goddess, called me dust and trusted

I'd become.        I changed for you! I became

a quarry in Big Cottonwood. Later, I was born

in uniform and carried a pickax in my throat.

I stole the mountain's sandstone and it wasn't good enough

so I took its quartz instead and told you  "pray by it." I,

Guard-thing of the White city.    How would you pray without me!

I was born with a sore head from a perm               and swaddled in pages

from The Good Book.     I was a decoy.

I pretended not to know my many names.           

I did the work of believing with you.

I was born on swamp property    the woman who bore me was an animal.

Praise

Praise for Golden Ax:

Longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry
Named one of the Best Books of 2022 by The Houston Chronicle
Named one of the "Books We Love" by NPR

“With a careful balance of lyric and detail, Cortez considers the pursuit of freedom passed down to her . . . [and] shows us how looking back can be beautiful and how claiming that past is the loudest celebration of it.”
—NPR, “Books We Love” 

“[Golden Ax] advances an intriguing, revolutionary argument: that the present is not simply a product of what has come before, but engaged in a constant, generative conversation with the past; that the past, in some ways, might be formed by what is to come. Sinuous and beautifully crafted, even the negative space on these pages transmits a complementary narrative of loss and yearning. Cortez alters both her own past, and ours, by acknowledging her people, integrating them into our present tense, and projecting them into a future in which true freedom might be possible.” 
—Tope Folarin, Vulture

“Cortez examines how her family came to the American West after Reconstruction—and reimagines the landscape through the lens of Black people who both embody and defy its realities. In the process, we are pushed to envision our own futures on the frontier, united by a collective aspiration to freedom.”
—Essence

“Outstanding . . . the poetry in these pages is intelligent, lyrical, as invested in the past as the present and future with witty nods to pop culture.”
—Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

“Cortez maps untrodden historical and speculative terrain in poems of stunning breadth and intimacy in this exquisite debut . . . reflecting on class, race, and womanhood with wit and lyrical subtlety . . . Unflinching and generous, this bold collection opens new vistas in contemporary Black poetry.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“[A] terrific debut collection . . . Cortez can be brutally honest and unsettlingly witty.” 
—Ron Charles

"Golden Ax is a master class in the use of popular culture to critique the foundations on which that culture is built. Plus, it’s a lot of fun."
The California Review of Books

“[These] poems are witty, weighty, and often profoundly radical in their approach to what has been and what may be to come.”
Alta

“A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts . . . Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the other­worldly landscape of the American West . . . Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.”
BookPage

Complicate your shit, I hear myself saying more and more these days, about our two-dimensional, simplifying, reductive thinking to most everything worth thinking hard about, and so imagine my delight, or something heartier than delight, my relief, my gratitude, at Rio Cortez’s beautiful book, Golden Ax, which, I love—I mean, I love this book—for its sensuous, chiseled language; for all the trees and plants (aster, bluestem, birchwood, hibiscus); for its weird and brainy sense of humor; for its palpable yearning and need; and for its entangled, complicated, unfixable, and unfixing blackness. Its unsettled and unsettling blackness. Which is really just to say: its blackness. I am so grateful for this book, and this voice, and this heart, in the world.”
—Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights

Golden Ax is a mirror maze where every poem elongates or widens the reader. Though Cortez leads us through a personal journey that embodies the distortion of the archived and the imagined, I couldn't help but feel at the end of it that I'd been in congress with some of my own lesser-recognized selves. I've never read anything like it. Truly a sublime experience.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ain't Burned All the Bright

“A game changer. Cortez is without a doubt one of the most brilliant writers I've ever read. This book will be talked about for decades—it's canon . . . Poetry needs [Cortez's] voice—lullaby, chant, call for change, song, wind—to save a home-truth place for us in the universe, past, future, and present. Golden Ax is a seismic achievement, a cosmic-level work of art.”
—Brenda Shaughnessy, author of The Octopus Museum

Golden Ax is as omnipresent as scripture. Rio’s location as poet, archivist, lover, mother, and citizen is where Blackness as sound and organic synthesis meet. Insistent with cataloging our fullest existence: Black life, Black leisure, Black peace, and Black joy, Golden Ax is an integral study and acknowledgment of a historically scattered, generationally wounded people. Rio traverses between tanning bed reclamations, Cuba observations, the weight of her beloved’s eyes, and the findings of the afro-futurist body thriving in a natural world. This collection is the grace we don’t deserve, but will love wholly as we earn the weight of its bounty.”
—Mahogany L. Browne, author of Vinyl Moon and poet-in-residence at Lincoln Center

“In Golden Ax, Rio Cortez communes with language and land on her own terms. Airy and spacious but dense in complexity and intention, this book wrestles with and falls in love with its landscape; situating itself in the plains of a new Black West tradition. These lush, inquisitive poems sing life, afterlife, and before-life. Brimming with lyricism and imagination, sensitivity and sly humor; Golden Ax is a perfectly innovative and relentlessly tender collection by a thrillingly dynamic poet.”
—Morgan Parker, author of Magical Negro

Books for LGBTQIA+ Pride Month

In June we celebrate Pride Month, which honors the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan and highlights the accomplishments of those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual + (LGBTQIA+) community, while recognizing the ongoing struggles faced by many across the world who wish to live as their most authentic selves. Here is

Read more

PRH Education High School Collections

All reading communities should contain protected time for the sake of reading. Independent reading practices emphasize the process of making meaning through reading, not an end product. The school culture (teachers, administration, etc.) should affirm this daily practice time as inherently important instructional time for all readers. (NCTE, 2019)   The Penguin Random House High

Read more

PRH Education Translanguaging Collections

Translanguaging is a communicative practice of bilinguals and multilinguals, that is, it is a practice whereby bilinguals and multilinguals use their entire linguistic repertoire to communicate and make meaning (García, 2009; García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017)   It is through that lens that we have partnered with teacher educators and bilingual education experts, Drs.

Read more

PRH Education Classroom Libraries

“Books are a students’ passport to entering and actively participating in a global society with the empathy, compassion, and knowledge it takes to become the problem solvers the world needs.” –Laura Robb   Research shows that reading and literacy directly impacts students’ academic success and personal growth. To help promote the importance of daily independent

Read more