Lunch at the Refugee Café - Al Ortolani


This cafe serves whoever has escaped
by boat, through tunnels, over walls; has
been sliced by wire, shrapnel; coyote’d
across deserts, through rain forests, over snowcaps.
All that can be salvaged stuffed
in Captain America backpacks, wrapped
in Chicago Bulls t-shirts, zip-locked
against inclemency.

New recipes are spiced with paprika,
turmeric, ghost pepper. Every ingredient,
every man, woman, child,
is from somewhere else,
if not now, then once, when a mother,
a grandmother, a great grandmother
packed a bag, stepped into the cloud
of unknowing. Only Native Americans
have a claim to pre-history.

At today’s cafe, there is a sneeze guard.
Clean plates. Stainless forks. Spoons concave
with soup. With reflection.

Knives are for butter.
Masks have been worn for centuries.

Al Ortolani’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Rattle, Prairie Schooner, and New Letters. His most recent collections, On the Chicopee Spur, was released from New York Quarterly Books in 2018 and Swimming Shelter:100 Poems in 100 Days from Spartan Press in December of 2020.  Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He is a 2019 recipient of the Rattle Chapbook Series Award for Hansel and Gretel Get the Word on the Street. Currently, as a retired teacher, he lives in the Kansas City area, subsisting on Chinese carry-out with his wife Sherri and their rescue dog Stanley.