“Bring Back” – Rosamond S. King

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Image: IMG_9737, posted at Flickr by Liberté, Égalité, Safari under a Creative Commons License.

There are more things to worship than the childhood gods you’ve been given to hold. Ask Rosamond S. King’s “Bring Back”, which opens her staggering, revisionist debut collection of poems, Rock | Salt | Stone. Revising what, you ask? “Bring Back” takes you by the black wrist, expeditions you to the unsheltered cradle of your nursery rhymes. Pull a halcyon classic down from the shelf of memory, and hum to it: “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”. Good. Now reopen your eyes, and sing the tune to the gods of your choosing.

Eshu is here. Oshun. Ogun. “Abiku cries down by the river / Don’t bring back that body to me.” The dreamscape of the poem draws on Yoruba creation, a realm that has never spared any thought to the lullabies of white empire. Have you heard Rosamond incant this poem? If yes, you’re not likely to ever forget the call it stirs in your bones. The poet’s sense of daring, saddled up to her dervish of linguistic play, are everywhere in these spare, yet history-dense lines. If the verse were only historically resonant, that would be one hallmark, but King sings them into being. They are dread chants, concealing as they are baring, invitational as they are tendrilled with secrecy.

The poem tells us: “My history lies under the overt / My heritage beyond the seen”. Is this not, of itself, its own mystery of faith? All I need do is dwell on the resonance of Rosamond’s voice, and I’m drawn back in time to this invocation: her voice, the only fixed star by which to steer myself to a history, a herstory, a gleaming black knot, unravelling in the firmament. It’s not a gauntlet, this poem: why, it’s a map to a place you thought you would be denied welcome. Dream in.

Read “Bring Back” here.
Rosamond S. King’s Rock | Salt | Stone won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry.

This is the thirtieth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

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“Full Metal Oji-Cree” – Joshua Whitehead

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Image: Apocalypse, posted at Flickr by Charles Hutchins under a Creative Commons License.

What form do you take in the future? In Joshua Whitehead’s “Full Metal Oji-Cree”, the revolution is upon us, and it’s hybridized, mechanized and fuelled by this truth: “us indians sure are some bad ass biopunks”. Think less steampunk-as-aesthetic, more your grandmother’s arm, robotic, wielding a machete beaded with oppressor-blood. The blood of ‘the native’ isn’t here for white consumption in this future. There are no ‘noble savages’. That racist language has been expelled, and in this future — which feels very much like the now — “the prehuman becomes the precursor to (rez)urrect / the posthuman in the transhuman / so fuck you / well survive this too”.

What I love about this poem is its gleaming, weaponized indifference to convention, on both thematic and stylistic levels. “Full Metal Oji-Cree” feeds itself on the nullification of “terra myths”, the bombardment of settler claims, the razing of the current world order. No more righteous cowboys, Clint Eastwooding all over your tv screens. No more Abraham Lincolns, no more olive branches. If you want reconciliation from this poem, you’ve come to the wrong place. Fuck reconciliation, says this poem’s speaker, who can call for backup from his bloodline and receive it in the tens. We’re past that. We’ve alchemized-weaponized that futility, that abuse-masquerading-as-alms, into something brighter, better, well-oiled and unmissable, even if the world should burn down. We, the poem’s speaker tells us, will survive it. Hell, haven’t we been surviving it all this time?

My favourite lines of the poem, the ones I’ve stuck up in rainbow coloured bone-pins to the astral ceiling of my survivor’s tent, are “there are indo-robo-women fighting cowboys on the frontier / & winning finally”. Because yes, please. Let the future be now, and let it be full of transhuman woman warriors, staking old white men with bloodsplatter on their technobeads, glowing.

Read “Full Metal Oji-Cree” here.
Joshua Whitehead’s collection of poems, full metal indigiqueer, was published in 2017 by Talon Books.

This is the twenty-ninth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“Sailor’s Knot” – Omar Sakr

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Image: DSC_5135, posted at Flickr by sch0705 under a Creative Commons License.

Contains references to violence against children.

Does a capsized ship show you its weakest side? Omar Sakr’s “Sailor’s Knot” is a bruised punch of a poem. Yes, a bruised punch: a vehicle of violence that is itself wounded. It curates the history of pain and substance abuse that marks a mother’s relationship with her child. When called on the telephone, the mother tells her child, “‘my son, a lifetime of never submitting, / not to any man or god, yet the angels / I can feel them dancing on my skin. / Who’s laughing now?’”

The poem’s speaker, the mother’s son, shares news about his mother’s character dispassionately, in ways we sense are intended to injure. She is a woman who never calls, except for cash: a woman described in the voice of an unnamed cousin as “drug-fucked”. In fact, no one in this tableau of hurt and dislocation is given a name. Mother. Son. The figures could be anyone, but the ache and anguish is specific. The cellular memory of this homegrown violence resides in every punishment ever administered from mother’s fist to son’s back: “Maybe every beating / she gave me was warning / to flee a sinking ship.”

Even in the act of total emotional submerging, there’s no escaping the legacy of the mother in “Sailor’s Knot”. What I love about this poem is that it’s methodical and meaningful in its hurt. It uses maritime lexicography, trades in imageries of rope and floundering, to tell us about what can never be rescued, for mother and son alike. Even above the ocean, sometimes that pain meanders upwards, like “empty plates & knives
floating to the ceiling.” What has been passed from parent to offspring here is not so easily voided as casting something to the sea: whether it takes a few weeks or a lifetime, the sea will return it.

Read “Sailor’s Knot” here.
Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses was published in 2017 by Cordite Books.

This is the twenty-eighth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“Can You Speak English?” – Natalie Wee

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Image: Israeli-Egyptian border, posted at Flickr by Cornelius Kibelka under a Creative Commons License.

The borders seem obvious now, but endangered bodies have always known the point of no return, and persisted past it, anyway. In Natalie Wee’s “Can You Speak English?”, a migrant family dares to arrive in America, where their unmapping begins as soon as the first checkpoint: they are called Haunting, instead of Huan Ting. If it seems innocuous, it isn’t. It is “A single / exhale dislocating phantom from girl.” This is how the splitting of self, to accommodate the expectations – the demands – of empire: this is how it starts. Not always with a blow. But with a word. And a word, after that. You can’t say it’s less menacing until or unless you’re the one whose mother tongue is being ransomed.

The poem casts up aching parallels between speaking the alien tongue of English and giving birth. When the mother of the family is menaced by the fluorescence of the next checkpoint, her stuttering syllables are described by the poem’s speaker as stillbirths. The act of creating this language for white consumption is as violent as is “birthing an unwanted / child to a pallid land that does not know it”. The entire poem explores this seemingly subtler, yet no less cruel navigation of language as an instrument of muzzling: how the tongue you are told you must learn to speak can be your ultimate silencing.

We are told, by the poem’s speaker, that “both a well-aimed question & / any instrument of torture require satisfaction / to cease their patient cutting.” What then becomes of you when you do not surrender to the demands of your torturers, for speech or for other safeguards showing you belong? As is chillingly fitting, the poem does not have answers for us. It cradles a mother’s skull, measuring the words before they fall to the ocean floor.

Read “Can You Speak English?” here.
Natalie Wee’s Our Bodies & Other Fine Machines was published in 2016 by Words Dance Publishing.

This is the twenty-seventh installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“肉骨茶 (Meat Bone Tea)” – S. Qiouyi Lu

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Image: 烏龍, posted at Flickr by Yohmi under a Creative Commons License.

We feed and water what we hope will remain. In S. Qiouyi Lu’s “肉骨茶 (Meat Bone Tea)”, the uninitiated may interpret the tea as delightfully carnivorous: not so. Bak kut teh is pork ribs, simmering in a sauce of complex, fragrant flavours: the tea, oolong, is served at the side. That much you can learn from Wikipedia. What does the poem teach us about the complexity, the simplicity of consuming?

S. Qiouyi Lu’s speaker inventories spices and herbs like celestial bodies. Before their gaze, “Angelica and polygonatum swirl petal–soft as blossoms; / dioscorea bobs and forms the white sands of a riverbank.” There is ceremony to the movement and intermarriage of food here, seasoned by the deft, considered precision with which words are dropped into the edible sea of the poem. One senses reverence in the commingling of particles and entities forming this dish, and laced into every morsel, the anticipation of sharing it. We might easily say that poems about food reveal other, non-dietary appetites. If that holds true, what does the speaker of this poem eat, besides meat bone tea? Of what external and interior forces are their metaphysical diets formed — and who is the beloved, dining with them?

What I love best about this poem is that it’s both a laid table, beckoning, and a mouth, parting for succour. It’s a menu for our senses – each item that makes the meal is vividly detailed – and a place for us to come, to be fed. With the arrival of the friend, the “I” voice grows into “we”: two souls, sitting across from each other, a feast awaiting them. You might picture this repast unfurling in a cloister of the unnamed cosmos, and who could call you wrong? Lift your chopsticks. Inhale the aroma of broth. This, too, heals you.

Read “肉骨茶 (Meat Bone Tea)” here.
S. Qiouyi Lu’s writing can be read on their website.

This is the twenty-sixth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Parking Garage at fX Sudirman Mall” – Norman Erikson Pasaribu

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Image: Subsequently, posted at Flickr by Thomas Hawk under a Creative Commons License.

Where does queer love go, when it’s corralled? Lovers outside of the binary have been seeking answers to that throughout history. The two men sharing furtive, hungry kisses in Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s “On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Parking Garage at fX Sudirman Mall” are following an ancient prescription for sourcing queer shelter: you find it, and you take it, wherever you can.

The poem draws parallels to ancient histories of nonheteronormative longing: the martyrs and military saints Sergius and Bacchus craved each other in exactly this way (though some Christian scholars may disagree). Pasaribu cleaves to references from Christian and Roman Catholic orthodoxy to hammer in the longing; John Henry Newman, Aelred of Rievaulx, Thérèse of Lisieux: all are held to the half-light, half-shadow cast in these chambers of parking lots, in these unholy but nonetheless sanctified spaces where men may make love to men.

“Keeping watch as one / for security guards or janitors”, these intertwined homosexuals aren’t necessarily safe where they couple. They continue to feel the weight of the world’s censure, even at this vantage of remove: “A friend dismissed / their feelings as unnatural urges / but each of them knows who he is now.”

What I love best about Pasaribu’s poem is that it offers no consolation for the certainty of queer love. Who you are is not enough to save you, not from loneliness, not even as you entangle in the arms of another. We liberate love for ourselves wherever we can, particularly in those countries where queer love is illegal. We chase it in dimly lit stairwells of abandoned malls; in high-rise parking complexes after hours. We let it take from us even while we give everything we are to it. Just like the martyrs did, in their time, Christian or not.

Read “On a Pair of Young Men in the Underground Parking Garage at fX Sudirman Mall” here.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s first book of poems, Sergius Mencari Bacchus, was published in 2016 by Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

This is the twenty-fifth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“There’s Something Wrong with the Conditions” – Dean Atta

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Image: she made a 4pm pedicure appointment, posted at Flickr by gadgetgirl under a Creative Commons License.

Some days, pedicures are more important than poems. Ask the speaker of Dean Atta’s “There’s Something Wrong with the Conditions”, who wants to make his feet supple and worthy of a good ravage: there’s a man, you see, who wants to kiss him, crown to toetip, a man smitten with him, and in the face of that, can’t a poem be written the day after?

Here’s what I like best about this piece: it’s no varnished version of reality. In it, we open strikingly, moribundly, with worms trying to escape the compost. Is it really Death, though, cradling the skull of this poem? The maggots, vehicles of decay, are fleeing the compost, not luxuriating in it. It isn’t always the grand, crashing waves of poesie that makes us want to commit to the act of living. Sometimes, honey, it’s a gorgeous man.

It’s the deep end of the pool, this human longing: nothing’s shallow about it. Atta makes the longing and elation plain, in short and bold declarations: “Did I miss a cruder implication / or should I take it literally? / I am besotted. He is smitten. / This is floaty and fantastic.” Oh, how we live with our hearts in our mouths for moments like this, no matter how much high art we’ve made and consumed.

Oh, the last lines of this poem: the frantic, panicked repetition of “something wrong”, percussing the soft brain tissue. See the way the poem ends unpunctuated, trailing into a void of unknowing. Darling, that’s where the maggots live. Darling, that’s the brink you pull yourself away from, day after heartbreaking day. It’s only fair that it’s not always the poem that saves you. Don’t be afraid to reach for the nail varnish, the Tinder app, the whatever it is that keeps you here, incandescent, breathing.

Read “There’s Something Wrong with the Conditions” here.
Dean Atta’s first book of poems, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize.

This is the twenty-forth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“Outcry” – Rajiv Mohabir

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Image: Parvati and Shiva, posted at Flickr by harminder dhesi under a Creative Commons License.

When I began reading the poems of Rajiv Mohabir, the image of myself grew, like a flame seeking similar fire. Think of what happens when a lit deya is joined by a trayful of others, before being taken out to the courtyard. I lit my own understanding of myself, and see myself illuminated in Rajiv’s work – where it reaches, what it teaches and dares. “Outcry” is a new, burning deya for me to hold.

Intimate partner violence is no stranger to Indian diaspora families around the globe. In the poem, a woman’s passage to Liberty Avenue has been paid by Prem, a man whose name means ‘love’. In coiled, taut language, in brief lines that snap and bite, the poem takes the tone of archivist, of document-keeper. The ledger being filled is an account of abuse. How important it feels to say that plainly, in the same plain and unembroidered truth Mohabir makes of “Outcry”.

For all that, don’t be surprised if your heart hurts in time to the syncopated brutality of the poem. The language shines without ornamentation, lighting itself to reveal a purplish skeleton narrative: cycles of abuse churning like the kala pani; a man “from whose breath / amber with rum, / a demon springs / into limb and shadow / and spits knives”. Be surprised at yourself if your heart doesn’t hurt.

A poem is always its own invention. In this case, Rajiv takes us to the immediacy of the news, to the woman turned into a bloody statistic by a man’s rage. In a real sense, the poem unstatistics Rajwantie Baldeo, gives her a habitation in text that goes beyond fact sheets and coroner’s reports. Those are their own uneasy poetry too, of course. This poem makes a permanence of her name, demanding you say it. Say Rajwantie Baldeo.

Read “Outcry” here.
Rajiv Mohabir’s second collection of poems, The Cowherd’s Son, was published in 2017 by Tupelo Press.

This is the twenty-third installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“Haircut” – Omotara James

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Image: lisa’s scissors, posted at Flickr by Rena Tom under a Creative Commons License.

A childhood shearing is often a rite of passage. In Omotara James’ “Haircut”, it’s what the child passes into, while being shorn, that curls in a secret, sharp thicket at the centre of this poem.

Short, close-knit sentences build the poem in prose form. The only italics are a single line of bladed dialogue, issued by the mother holding a pair of scissors to her child: “I said don’t move.” Scent and sensation bubbles here, from the sizzle of the frying pan, the speaker’s longing for coconuts, the hot splattering of palm oil in the kitchen: this small, baleful domestic front builds itself in sensory strokes.

Trouble is the connective thread here. When the speaker thinks about laying her troubles on the tiled floor, of how she composes her limbs, she remembers being seven and shorn at the pubis by her mother. We receive the impression of vulva as flower, but not joyously petalling: “My girlhood, open as the morning / blinds, the light I wish was brighter. When Mom’s finished cutting, she / dusts the loose hairs like a janitor, underpaid.” In the world of the speaker’s present, her mother wants to know what her daughter does sexually with another woman. This is a gauntlet of incomprehension often faced by so many queer folk: to receive queer news, it must be yoked to sex. The poem blisters the underside of my tongue with this truth, white-hot as it is, honeysuckled with a warning: those who are ‘normal’ will always want to know how you work.

Your mother’s no exception. Hell, sometimes your mother’s at the front of the queue, brandishing a pair of long silver scissors, her hand steady. Sometimes we pay for the fruit of ourselves by these tithes of anatomy. The mother reaches into the daughter, pulling without permission.

Read “Haircut” here.
Omotara James’ chapbook Daughter Tongue appears as part of New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Tano), published in 2018 by Akashic Books.

This is the twenty-second installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

“The Name of the Poem is “Discovery”” – Deneka Thomas

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Image: Orion Sword, posted at Flickr by anttler under a Creative Commons License.

We’ve all dreamed of other worlds than these. In Deneka Thomas’ “The Name of the Poem is “Discovery””, witness how black queer longing vaults itself beyond the firmament of Earth. Witness how the voice yearning for more finds a foothold in the deepest reaches of (un)known space.

Listen, darlings. Space? It’s not just for white people. This poem knows it. This poem wants to “find the biggest dipper for the collection of any spillage. / Hurtle and orbit as close as it can to the sun”. What I like best about Thomas’ ambitions for the piece is that she isn’t afraid to cast the interstellar die far, watch it scatter into the slipstream of multiple possibilities, myriad ways of imagining (wo)man’s configuration with the fantastic, the speculative, the weird.

Topographically, the poem takes us from sky to sea, and the effects are vertiginous. If you were to map the physical progression of these verses, your drawing would take you to locations both celestial and maritime. It’s not haphazard: the clarity of desire here is its own astrological method. If the speaker of the poem, the one issuing it commands through an unnamed proxy, gives any indication of their own desires, then the evidence points to them being achingly similar: the speaker hungers, as the poem is instructed to do. The speaker, like the poem, perhaps needs the call of instruction, to touch herself.

“Tell the poem to spill its seabed loose. / Remind it of its defence.” In language as honed as a martial blade, suited to dethicketing purpose, Thomas clears a path to the stars, or the seas, or the land on which “a pack of wild African dogs” roams. If this poem is called discovery, what does it say about the expeditioner, galaxy-hearted, who has summoned it? Look heavenward, discoverer.

Read “The Name of the Poem is “Discovery”” here.
Deneka Thomas is the winner of the 2018 First Citizens National Poetry Slam – Trinidad & Tobago.

This is the twenty-first installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.