Play for Time

Playful and deliberate, innovative and strange, Play for Time, Paula Mendoza’s debut collection of experimental lyric poems, demolishes the literary commonplaces of “universality” and provides a timely introduction to an explosively original voice in poetry. Here, Mendoza wields the weapon of language as she dismantles the longstanding traditions of the colonial narrative, male speech, and the sentimental love poem. Taking on the forms of historically polarizing figures—the witch, the femme-dom, Eve—the speaker of her poems is both submissive object and powerful agent that wills herself caught between pirate and plunder, that rewrites linguistic scripts to survive oppression, that self-immolates into a state of rebirth, that asks what use or meaning can be made of brokenness and displacement. Play for Time is the second winner of the annual Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize (2019), selected by Pulitzer Prize–winner Vijay Seshadri.


Make it snakes. Whom were always deceiver and forfeit.
As I am always derivative. A sap. The sticky. Stain
of his leak. What’s crusted the slip. What makes it so
hard/beat fast/feel sad. If a matter of origin, I’ll throw up
a cosmos. Twinkle-lights pock my smile with zodiac.
Make it the first time I let him, his O-face smeared
into an Edvard taffy theatre mask. His joy was terrible.
Its in-and-in-and-in, whorls of wet, agitated sand
that could not bear my weight. Make it a heavy sound.
Make it roach scuttle in cathedrals. Make it rainstick’s
thirsty lie, faux firelight, and the gas turned up. Make it
black-out sex forgetting she had a name. I get ahead
running towards a dangling carrot’s veiny slow dissolve.
I move my lips but only his sounds come out. I motor
hind hooves and the cyclone dust kicked up vanishes me.
About my head, a red halo dilates. She is not my own
god, I am my own. My god, make it snakes. Make one so
onyx a glossing, so diamond a tip, my every shiver’s incision.

Dehelixing Adora: A Colonial Kantá

A battery of violents and still the heart
data proves inconclusive.

Do our deficients coerce? I malign
your sovereignty. Alas, my talon’s

no match for your drone.
Police the alleys in this speech.

My theory stiffens your discipline.
Slavishly, this thought pulverizes love

into something I can breathe.
I can’t breathe.

Maugre my dread, I convolute to you, sahib.
O, durable truth of my adoration!

Mistake me again, I am
ugly with lust.

This weeping is consensual.
Your episteme is my ontology.

I, island adjacent, of redoubtable
splendor. Dear pirate. Plunder.


You were between two animals.
Between two attributions.
At the crotch of a river’s fork.
At a loss, at least.
Between all losses, tendering alms.
By the skin of one’s stolen teeth.
The lethargy of one newly shorn.
To derive, say, attenuate, say
starved to a taper. A porousness.
False asphodel if aphasic, if sticky.
Vaseline-smear a focalization.
Ocean maw and mountain blade
recede. At last, at least—this. A figure
gathers line and edge. She is between
two roars. Who devours or drowns.
Say shore when you mean precipice.
Say split when you mean in pieces.
Redoubled at the jut of some far
becoming. Between, to say the least.
A shade and its absorption. To
swatch a sea’s phonemes, to score
what of light she keeps to let through.

One after the Other

Luminous with lack I billow invertebrate
in salt and algal dark. A thing making sense
one human at a time in this lean doom.

The narrative, inviolate, declines
chromatically. I order my days by depth
of hue. Light is sensible and fathoms

where history refused. Before self
shades into name, the foreground spores
atomic. Swaths of nothing to call

back, or by her name. Loitered at doors
coming or going, was I set against
four walls or the shore and sand?

Does the story confuse its tense?
Does she cohere like skin, how it holds
our hells together, syntax and sheath.

If you believe, there may still be hope.
I might still convince you when someone
happens in my life the minutes undulate

and bloom. And anthers of stamen
burst to cloud my flight, void
of story, all flaw and collapse.

Let me suspend your dread for awe.
Let me care for you in our time of lead.
Reels re-imagine her unbroken

and nameless until I name her, unmade.
Before maker, she makes herself a thing
making sense in this lean doom, regardless

of what in fact happened, is happening—
the ground or ocean to swell her heavy
sunk in a salt and algal dark, all light, all lack.