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The 1970’s were full of firsts for many people. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Raul Castro became the first Latino to hold the office of Governor in the great State of Arizona. My mother, Anita Ortiz, became the first in her proud, Hispanic family to marry an Anglo. Thomas Gordon, my father, became the first in his Anglo family to marry a divorced, single mother of non-European descent, although they were fond of describing her as “Spanish.” Thomas and Anita then went on to have me, their first child together, but not their first child. My half-brother, Luis, was my mother’s first.
Shortly after my birth, my mother returned to work and started attending college. While school was in session for my mom and brother, my dad’s mother watched me during the day. Until I started attending school myself, this is where I spent half of my life. My father’s family lived across the city and a world away.
My grandparent’s white ranch house sat on a little over an acre, nestled between old orange groves. Set far back from the street, the long drive stretched out lazily next to the neat rows and rows of trees that hid the neighbors’ houses. Out behind the drive and the garage was the back acreage, where my grandparents always kept a couple head of cattle and let the neighbors’ horses graze.
The little ranch had a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat. Every morning that I was there, my grandmother would give my grandfather a lunch packed in a shiny metal lunchbox, a thermos full of coffee, and a kiss. In the morning, he always smelled like a combination of mustache wax and aftershave, his wavy, grey hair neatly parted and combed. He would walk out the door, off to his job of designing jet and rocket fuel, with a pen and mechanical pencil in his front pocket, his keys, and a pack of Camel cigarettes in his hand. In this house, everyone spoke English without an accent or a brogue and the breeze carried with it the sweet smell orange of blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Summers in Arizona could give the Devil heat rash. My mom drove a 1973 AMC Hornet, which had a special setting on the air conditioner for “desert climates.” This did nothing to prevent crayons from melting into the floor mats, vinyl records from warping, or the big metal seat belt buckles from branding us while we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. My brother and I would threaten to report my folks for child abuse if they tried to drive us across town during the summer. So, if my parents ever needed a sitter in the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summertime, we stayed with someone from my mom’s large extended family, all of whom seemed to live within a five-mile radius of us. It was within this tight circle that I spend the other half of my childhood.
When I went to my grandparent’s house, the routine was always the same. My mother walked me up to the house. The adults exchanged pleasantries. My mother told my grandmother when she could expect her to return. My mother gave me a kiss and I waves goodbye from the back porch.
With my mother’s family, it was a crapshoot. We’d drive up to one of the aunts’ houses; my brother and I tumbled out of the car like excited puppies, tripping over ourselves to get to the house and out of the sun. We’d knock on the door and if someone answered, we’d turn, wave to our parent and go inside. As soon as we passed the threshold, they’d back out of the drive. There were no arrangements made, no pick up times discussed. If the door opened, we went inside. If not, we trudged back to the idling car, reluctantly got back in, drove a couple blocks in any direction, and repeated the process. The first house we usually hit was my Tia Gloria’s house.
Gloria was my mother’s oldest sister. She and my uncle Hector had five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to just a few years older than Luis. All seven of them lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the barrio. Their back yard was home to an old pickup that had wood running boards that creaked and moaned when you stepped on them, and a handful of wiry chickens that left their eggs all over the yard including in bed of the truck. Two mutts named Frito and Lay protected the chickens from cats and hawks and other poachers, but mostly they slept in the shade under the truck.
In this house, accents came and went, thicken and soften depending on the audience, the mood, or the weather. Some spoke Spanish heavily peppered with English, other English sprinkled with Spanish phrases and slang.
Here the air was heavy with the sticky, sweet smell of cooked citrus juice coming from the big brick processing plant that made the syrup for Squirt soda at the end of the street. Any noise coming from the plant was drown out by kids laughing, dogs barking, music playing, and people talking to each other over fences and through the open windows and screen doors. The only time the noise subsided was when everyone headed inside for dinner.
By the time the Ortega family settled in for a meal around their Formica and metal table, my Tia Gloria and my cousin Sofia had been cooking for forever. It was amazing to watch those two women gracefully glide and spin around each other in that tiny kitchen. Even the food seemed to be a part of the dance, somehow popping, bubbling, and sizzling in time to the Tito or Celia Cruz songs coming from the radio that sat on top of the fridge.
I so wanted to be a part of the culinary ballet, not knowing that I was witnessing was a finely choreographed performance, honed over years of practice. When I rushed in and begged to help, I did nothing but throw them off their steps. As a five year old, they banished me from the kitchen, ordering me to go play. But I didn’t. I perched on the arm of the couch, so I still had a clear view of their dance, and sulked.
Tio Hector came home from working at one of the farms that used to surround the Valley and found me pouting in his living room. Every day for the better part of a week, he walked in the door, kiss me on the top of my depressed little head, and ask “¿Que pasa, mijita?”
“Nada,” I responded, trying to look as dejected as possible.
“I’m not allowed to help. I’m too little.”
“Then go play.”
“It’s too hot.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder as if he understood the troubles weighing down my soul, and he headed to the shower to wash off the bits and pieces of his day that stuck to him. But after a few days, he’d had enough.
“¿Quieres ayudarme?” he asked me.
I paused before I responded to his invitation to help. I hoped that it didn’t involve standing in the backyard, waiting to fetch tools or beer while he worked on that ancient truck. But, even that was better than doing nothing.
“Si, como no.” I finally answered.
Every day after he came home and showered, he worked with me so I could master my new responsibilities. The first day I watched.
“Mira, mijita,” he began. “Take one of the papeles and lay it like this.”
He laid the tiny rectangular sheet of paper on the coffee table in front of us. He sat on the sofa and I knelt on the floor between his bare feet, both of us facing the table. He hunched over me, so that the paper and his hands were directly in front of me. As I watched, I could smell the Ivory soap on his freshly scrubbed skin. He grabbed a pinch of what looked like pencil shavings from a pouch, and laid them in a neat little row on the edge of the paper.
“Mira, only this much. No mas or it falls out.” He put my index finger over the row.
“See, only as wide as your finger,” he instructed. Then he nimbly rolled it into a tight little tube with his leathered and calloused fingers. He picked it up and held it out at my eye level.
“Pick it up like this. Okay? With the edge of the paper facing up so you can lick it like an envelope.” I turned to watch him quickly swipe his tongue along the edge.
“Not too much vavas. You don’t want to make it wet.” He continued his lesson. “Okay, this is important. Gently run your finger over the edge to press it down. Remember, gently, just to get paper to stay down. Don’t pinch it or mush it.”
We practiced that way every evening for days. The first cigarette, I watched. The second, we did together, his sun baked farm hands guiding mine, still baby pink. The third, did on my own. By the end of the week, I graduated. From there on, it was my job to have three cigarettes waiting for Tio Hector. After he got home and showered, I went in the backyard with him and looked for any eggs the chickens may have hidden while he smoked the first cigarette. When he was done, we washed up for dinner. I never saw him smoke the other two. He saved them for just before bed and right after breakfast the next day.
One day my mom came earlier than usual to pick us up.
“Hola,” she called as she walked through the door. Tia Gloria and Sofia paused just long enough to stick their heads out from the kitchen, returned the greeting, and returned to cooking.
“Monica, go find Luis and tell him it’s time to go,” my mom ordered.
“Just a second,” I said as I brought a tightly rolled cigarette up to my lips and licked the edge.
She just stood there, dumbfounded, and watched me as I smoothed the paper down and set the cigarette next to the other one I had finished just before she walked in the door.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Making cigarettes for Tio Hector,” I proudly stated. “He taught me.”
“It’s true,” Tio Hector said, his voice coming from behind my mother, which made her jumped a little. He was beaming at me, his pride nearly matching my own. My mother’s face did not mirror ours.
“I don’t think she should be doing that, Hector.” She sounded worried. My heart sank. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy too, but I knew enough that it worried me. However, my uncle didn’t stop smiling at me even for a second.
“Why?” he asked.
I watched her struggle for an answer. Then, after what seemed like an extremely long time, she finally offered something up.
“Well, it doesn’t seem right that she knows how to roll cigarettes but she can’t even tie her own shoes yet.” I watched both my mom and tio’s faces.
“Maybe she should learn how to do that first,” she offered.
“¡Aye, mija!” Tio Hector exclaimed dramatically putting his hands over his heart and rolling his eyes. “You don’t know how to tie your shoes?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not quite understanding why this was a big deal. The flip-flops and sandals that I wore during the summer didn’t have laces to tie. Tio Hector smiled down at me and put his hand out. I smiled back and handed him his three neatly rolled smokes.
“That’s fine,” my Tio Hector said to my mother. As I stood and started to follow her out the door, Tio Hector asked me, “Where’s my hug?” As I hugged him, he lifted me up, kissed me on the cheek, and softly said, “Gracias, muñeca.”
The next day, all of my family descended on our house for my brother’s birthday. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were older, filled with what my dad called “blue collar families”, and had tidy yards with a bike or skateboard strewn under a tree or on the sidewalk. And almost all of them had swimming pools.
Our swimming pool was ancient and the plaster would peel layers of skin from your feet. But it was ours and in the summer, we practically lived in it. We were also the only ones in the family on either side with a pool. So everyone showed up any time there was an excuse to use it, like my brother’s birthday.
I loved it when my Grandpa Gordon would come over to swim. He taught me how to swim like a frog and side scissor kick. He’d throw coins into the deep end, and my brother and I would see how many we could grab before we had to come up for air. When we got tired, my grandpa and I would share an inner tube or raft, and just float around until it was time to eat.
After my grandfather had shared a second piece of cake with me, he was sitting on the pool deck, smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to him and picked up his pack of Camels.
“How many are in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Let’s look on the package.”
I examined the box until I found the number.
“20!” I exclaimed. “Wow. It would take a long time to make all those.”
“They have machines that do it really fast,” my grandpa assured me as I handed him his pack.
My mom was walking around the patio and pool deck collecting plates and glasses. She called me over to help carry the stuff she’d gathered.
“Don’t talk to Grandma and Grandpa Gordon about cigarettes. Okay?” she said quietly. She had that same look on her face as before, as if we were going to get in trouble.
“Why?” I asked, all my concern punctuating my question.
“Well, it’s just not good manners, I guess.” She said, her eyes hopeful that I would either understand or just leave it there.
“Is it bad?” I asked and heard her let out an exacerbated sigh.
“No, not bad. It’s just not polite.”
The whole next week at the Ortega house, after Tio Hector came home, I learned to tie shoes. He taught me as patiently and methodically as he had before. He brought out every shoe his kids owned and set them out on the floor in front of the TV. I practiced, while he washed up. If I knotted up one shoe, which I inevitably did, I just moved on to the next one. By the end of the week, when our mother came to get us, I eagerly showed off my new skill.
After that, I went back to rolling cigarettes. It took a few days for my mom to catch on that I had started production again. But when she saw the three cigarettes waiting for my uncle on the coffee table, the look returned to her face.
“I don’t think Monica should make cigarettes anymore,” she announced as Tio Hector walked into the living room.
His thick black hair was still wet from his shower and he had slicked it back. He looked like Ricky Ricardo in cuffed blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of a suit.
“¿Por que?” he asked. His voice sounded like he was tired of this conversation before it began.
“It’s just not right,” she began and looked up to see how even that much of the objection registered with him. He just looked at her and then at me, waiting to hear more.
“The tobacco is full of chemicals and nasty stuff,” she continued. “She shouldn’t be touching it. What if it turns her fingers brown?”
Tio Hector smirked at the idea. Then he looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not the problem,” he decided. “What’s wrong?”
My mom flushed, took a deep breath, and then blurted out, “White kids don’t roll cigarettes.” She took another deep breath. “What are the Gordons going to say when they find out their granddaughter is rolling cigarettes?”
Although she said everything very calmly and quietly, she looked embarrassed and guilty.
“I think they have machines that make cigarettes,” I offered, trying to help. However, this only made her more upset. Tio Hector went over to her, gently wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for a minute.
“Calmate,” I heard him tell her. “Esta bien.”
He stepped back and swept her hair away from her face with his finger. “You can’t avoid it, Anita,” he said. “She’s going to brown up sooner or later, and not because of the tobacco. I promise you, they will love her either way.”
She sighed and the redness that showed up in big angry blotches on her cheeks and neck began to fade. Tio Hector pulled her close again until I heard her say, that he was right and she was sorry. As we drove home, Luis kept asking why no one was talking and what was wrong. I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what happened or how to explain it. So, we were quiet.
The next time I went to the Ortega house, there was a little box wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper and tied with a bright piece of yarn sitting out on the coffee table.
“Mija, that’s for you,” Tia Gloria told me. “Pero, escuchame. Don’t open it until Hector comes home.”
All day I was drawn to the little, neat package. I ran my finger over the fuzzy yarn until I accidentally untied it. Luckily, I could tie it again, but I couldn’t remember if I needed to double knot it or not. I did anyway, just to be safe. I held it up to my ear and shook it, then quickly set it back down. Finally, Tia Gloria took it away and put it on the kitchen counter because I was driving her crazy. That day I drank a gallon and a half of water just so I had an excuse to go into the kitchen and see if it was still there.
After what seemed like ages, Tio Hector came home. I asked if I could open the gift as soon as he walked in the door.
“Just wait until I take my shower,” he instructed.
“Hector!” Tia Gloria yelled from the other room. “Don’t be mean. Let la niña open it!”
I ran to retrieve it from the counter and hustled back to sit next to Tio Hector on the couch. As I peeled away the paper, the glossy box underneath showed a picture of a toy I’d never seen before. In my experience, boxes were reused a lot, so you couldn’t trust the picture on the outside. I quickly opened it to find the same curious toy I had seen on the box. I looked up at my Tio Hector and said thanks but with a question mark hanging on the end.
“It’s a machine,” he took it in his hands and examined it. “A machine that rolls cigarettes for you, like you said.”
He handed it back to me and pulled the instructions out of the discarded box. For the next few days, we learned how to use my new rolling machine. It stayed at the Ortega’s house and I used it every day that I was there, although we never spoke of cigarettes again.
When the pastor spits
while sputtering any
variation of God’s name.
When the swing of preacher’s
head streams sweat into the pews.
capture both spit and sweat
in the elder mothers’ hats.
Use it either as holy water
or anointing oil.)
When you realize the song
on the organ has looped.
When someone says catch
the spirit, as if the altar
is lined with bear traps.
When the AC gives out
when you realize
it was never on.
When sister Bernice’s baby
cries to see mother shuffle
feet like stomping a snake.
When sister Ruth steps on
your new white Nikes.
When the youth minister
runs out the front door.
There are casualties in faith
If you become drunk
on the wine of sweat
and singing and prophecy
enough that the red
text of Gospels bleeds
indistinguishable from black,
from the white space,
from the thick air. Run
Shout to the Lord.
Sing to Him a new song.
PSALM FOR GOING DOWN
Is this not praise? To relearn
speech with thighs
pressed to each ear, practice
the shapes of each soundless
letter against opening of flesh.
Is this how Adam formed
the first alphabet? Was this
the origin of speaking
in tongues? Jesus, I know you
too would open your mouth
and men would rise, would speak
into an opening and
a man would come
forth. I am resurrected
at each little death. I will not
deny the evidence of spirit,
a tongue of fire
descending onto head
SAME OAKS, SAME YEAR
My cousin kept me and his little brother
saved me from our uncle’s
pit bull, then spent seven years
in prison for his set.
Every other word
he said was
Uncle Nagee showed us
how to make a BB rattle
inside a squirrel.
Two small holes,
enter and exit.
All summer I wondered
what leaves the body?
If the Neuse River was gin,
we would’ve drunk to its bottom,
its two-million-year-old currents,
shad, sunfish, redhorse, yellow lance.
All the blood from the Tuscarora War.
We would have drunk it all,
aunts and uncles would have led us in Big Bill Broonzy’s
“When I Been Drinking,”
until everything inside us began to dance
and we all joined in,
silt around our ankles,
everyone kicking sand.
We’re proud to announce our 2017 Pushcart Prize nominees!
From Issue 9
From Issue 10
After Jamaica Kincaid
Enter the ministry through the main gate (not the women’s entrance), on Olaya Street:
Memorize the number on your ID card (#1072049285)
Vote in the municipal elections, so that the world may see you and celebrate the act
Wave a green flag during football matches and weep after inevitable defeat
“Wave your green flag.”
“Wave your green flag.”
“Wave a green flag.”
“Where’s your flag?”
I refrain from waving.
Refrain from seditious expressions
Buckle your seatbelt, unless you want to pay a fine
Read the sports page; support local teams when they play in Asian regional competitions
Memorize the male names in your lineage
“What man are you?”
he asked, repeating the oft-heard phrase.
“What man are you?”
“You are what man?”
“Are you man, what?”
“What man are you?”
Report a birth to Civil Affairs within thirty days
Pour coffee with your left hand and offer it to the guest with your right
Always wear the thobe, especially when visiting government institutions
Never wear shorts on airplanes; otherwise you will be barred from travel
At the border which separates the Kingdom from the neighboring Emirate, a young woman sat in her car—
“What makes it hers?”
“How did she come to possess it?”
the woman is not permitted to cross that imaginary line dividing two countries, but neither can she be refused entry outright. Authorities respond by shrugging at the impasse, leaving her stranded for days on a strip of asphalt between worlds.
“Why don’t you keep your mouth closed?”
“You are most beautiful when you’re silent, brother.”
When they announce the beginning of Ramadan, drive your mother or wife to the market to buy sambosa dough, barley and raspberry syrup
Express Pledge fealty to your superiors
Offer dates to guests
Acquire the required signatures in order to complete your transaction; follow the steps described on the ministry’s website, because, as you have been told, there can be no argument in the presence of the text
Refrain from saying the wrong thing so people don’t assume that you are the criminal you are intent on becoming
Identify your female relatives when called upon
This is how you address someone who matters; this is how you speak to a regular Saudi; this is how you speak to a South Asian; this is how you speak to a strange woman; this is how you speak to your own women in the presence of strange men, so as not to incur injury to your manhood; this is how you address someone whose importance you are unable to discern
Refrain from visiting suspicious websites
If a camera photographs your car while you are exceeding the speed limit, a violation will be sent to you via text
Avoid suspicious characters guilty
so why did she have to die?
“That’s not a question one should ask.”
“What business is it of yours?”
Express gratitude that you exist in a state that preserves your freedom
Squeeze rice into a ball and stick into your mouth; stand up before you feel full; spray cologne on your palm
Memorize the words to the anthem
Refrain from expressing the seditious word dancing insolently on the tip of your tongue
Walk by the wall
Appreciate an extra day’s vacation and an increase in wages
“I pledge my undying fealty.”
after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Riding with Death
They made me with bones,
white, yellow, brown & dusty bones,
heavy & hollow, broken & shuttered,
they made me with bones
no one has ever claimed,
bones no one will ever bury,
they blew through my hollow bones,
they hummed the saddest song
as they snapped bones
to make them fit into my skeleton,
they tied my clavicles with deer sinew
& whittled tree limbs to fix my legs,
they nailed sea shells on my skull
with heavy & black maguey thorns,
they plastered my rib cage with black clay,
they unwrapped my vertebrae
from a bundle of banana leaves
they baked over a layer of charcoal,
they assembled my crumbling bones
with their long, sluggish hands
like one assembles marimba bars,
they mixed dirt & crushed charcoal
to paint my bones, they woke me up
when they poured handfuls of desert
sand into my empty mouth,
I tasted the dirt,
coarse & rough,
against my jade teeth,
I felt hungry & thirsty,
I learned to cry,
I didn’t stop until they gave me
a bowl of corn mash
to ease my thirst & hunger;
Raining this morning & the foothills are dusted
with the gray light that comes with bad weather.
Even through the water’s falling sound
the train makes itself heard across the city
like church bells at midnight. What beautiful moaning
loudness becomes when it’s forced to stretch itself
across a distance. Like the way my lover’s song greets me
from upstairs, where he’s singing in my shower—
even across our short reach, his voice sounds truer
than when he sings & I am near him. Listening
to him croon through the water’s heavy moving,
I’m certain Eurydice was pleased
when Orpheus looked back too soon.
How happy it is to die twice
when your reward is your lover’s real voice
reaching you across wind & water & time.
How relieving to realize he is more himself
without you than when you are spread out
naked below him, your hair tangled in his palms
& his song diluted from your sating his longing.
What is constant across all love
is the inevitability of its end.
One of us will grow bored
or one of us will die, & knowing this it seems
Eurydice was best to leave love early.
Wait too long & he’ll stop
singing even from a distance. Go
now! Run from your love! May your absent
touch be the bells he hears clanging out from the steeple
into the gray night that slows into morning,
where the train will try to out-moan the wind,
where he will liken this moaning to the way
you sounded beneath him. He will pick up his lust
like a lyre & sing your name trying to reach you
wherever you are. & wherever you are
you will hear his song haunting the air like mist.
Listen to how entirely he loves you, for the first time.
After Dean Rader & Robert Frost
Another planet battle-scored & near-exterminated: we crave this cave-chase & escape plan,
our evacuation inevitable. We have always been outnumbered & every system is remote
from somewhere. Our future pendulums away from us, our small stars extinguish each other
in the heart’s dark sky. You are not afraid. An empire grows in my chest. Pistol me open,
let my rebellious ribs steam into the frost, feed on the warmth of me. We cannot destroy
all that threatens us & ice will not slake your salted tongue. Given flame, we choose to burn.
This is not an ode. February’s ice razor scalps
the gingko trees, their hair pulled skyward
like the ombre roots
of young women. March harrows
us mottled girls. Vernal equinox:
a hare harries the chicks, hurries
behind wet haystacks. Livestock.
Gnats. The glue-traps are gone.
March, ladies. March for your dignity.
March for your happiness. March, a muss
of lidless eyes. In the forest, a handsome man pisses,
puissant, luminary’s ink leaking on trees.
Penury I furl into the craven lens, in its mirror, a pulse:
webcam where I kiss my witnesses.
They watch and watch and watch the butcher
cut, the surgeon mend, they watch the glade
of crushed femora, they watch my dorsal fin,
they watch my scales dart across the cutting
board. They watch the way I open, flinch, bent
against the wind that beheads the nimbuses.
Or April’s turning toward ecstatic sob—departure.
Networks freeze, all sloe, all ice. Transmitters
falter. The cicatrix soaped, cilia & pus
rubbed raw. No machine. I dare
my witnesses to stick their pencils on me.
Do they marvel at a conquest—
blue flesh & gills. Do they think of me as soiled
or new soil. Do they take notes in their medical
journals. Am I their inspiration O Vesalius god
of anatomy is that why they ask so softly for my name.
This morning I peruse the dead girl’s live
photo feed. Two days ago, she uploaded
her confessions: I can’t bear the sorrow
captions her black eyes, gaps across a face
luminescent as scum. I can’t bear Ithaca snow—
how it falls, swells over the bridges,
under my clothes, yet I can’t be held
or beheld here, in this barren warren,
this din of ruined objects, peepholes into boring
scandals. Stockings roll high past hems
as I watch the videos of her boyfriend, cooing:
behave, darling, so I can make you my wife.
How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold,
eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on
and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes
all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.
Her windows overlook Shanghai, curtains drawn
to cast a shadow over the Huangpu river,
frozen this year into a dry, bloodless
stalk. Why does the light in the night
promise so much? She wiped her lens
before she died. The smudge still lives.
I saw it singe the edge of her bed.
grew legs and arms, sucked in air and named ourselves,
is who we are— bone and gut, God’s face before we invented it:
stone-like, wide mouth feeding on every element.
BAREBACK AUBADE WITH THE DOG
Thicker than its master’s thigh,
I saw that dog gnawing its leash—
and didn’t I know better? Knowing my fear
of dogs, I thought, “If I walk faster
and stay calm, then—”
That leash, thin as Yes, snapped. Of course
the dog snapped too and I
wasn’t fast enough—only two legs then
instead of four. I was afraid, yes,
but I didn’t run. With my eyes shut,
I braced for what comes to those afraid
of what they refuse to see. But
that time, the dog headed for the lake.
It passed me by and I watched
the water gulp it down—its paws and then
its legs and then its flanks and then gone
was the scruffy heart
of its head. Wasn’t I sure it would not resurface
when it did? What sunlight there was
caught in its mouth a small body—its
slim head bucked twice more
against the water’s vermillion ripple.
AND THE DOG COMES BACK
from the lake with nothing
but the bark
it left with—an unintelligible
agony. Isn’t that, me
being the two-legged kind,
assumption and projection? A bark
sounds like a bark. A call of danger is a call
of ecstasy. It sloughs
the lake off its flanks,
sniffs the spittle of its chewed leash—
dangling from a hand
which too doesn’t know any better.
Control yourself, the dog
is told. The impossible leash
stings its back. So this is restraint
—I think as the dog
in the dull salt
of a featherless palm. No,
you’ve caught me. I’m not there. I’m the animal
still fucking in a stranger’s bed.
His tongue licks my mouth. I whistle,
but I do not listen.
It’s my hand—so close
it could be bitten
clean off. Tonight
he is the dog—this bedded stranger
not using his words,
not responding to any name.
He lets me keep my hand—
returning it back cleaner
than it left. I haven’t learned my lesson
so I give him the other one.
No, not could be bitten. He bites my hand
and I howl like something
that should not howl
down his throat. We are both dogs
now, mouthing the dark until
we are not mouthing the dark.
We are sinking in the hold
of whatever is willing to hold us.
As if I can’t understand
my body is more than surreptitious pact
and the crime it loves,
they’ve cornered me. And in this light
my frame is haphazard and threatening,
but I can’t speak—their leather collar still cinched
around my neck, a silver
leash hook for each pair of eyes daring me
to attack. Each man armed
with a hot muzzle, a mouth
full of scripture and no to aim
onto my back—now bent
over a prayer they mistake
for a growl. In this place,
there is no common tongue,
I can’t understand them,
so I can’t follow the order
that follows each leash,
so they beat me
until skin becomes wound
then scab then hide.
TEN YEARS AFTER MY MOM DIES I DANCE
The second time I learned
I could take the pain
my six-year-old niece
—with five cavities
humming in her teeth—
led me by the finger
to the foyer and told her dad
to turn up the Pretenders
—Tattooed Love Boys—
so she could shimmy with me
to the same jam
eleven times in a row
in her princess pajamas.
When she’s old enough,
I’ll tell her how
I bargained once with God
because all I knew of grief
was to lean deep
into the gas pedal
to speed down a side road
not a quarter-mile long
after scouring my gut
and fogging my retinas
with half a bottle of cheap scotch.
To those dumb enough
to take the odds against
time, the infinite always says
You lose. If you’re lucky,
time grants you a second chance,
as I was lucky
when I got to hold
the hand of my mother,
how I got to kiss that hand
before I sprawled out
on the tiles of the hallway
in the North Ward
so that the nurses
had to step over me
while I wept. Then again,
I have lived long enough
to turn on all the lights
in someone else’s kitchen
and move my hips in lovers’ time
to the same shameless
Amen sung throughout
the church our bodies
build in sway. And then
there were times all I could do
was point to the facts:
for one, we move
through the universe
at six hundred seventy
million miles per hour
even when we are lying
Oh magic, I’ve got a broken
guitar and I’m a sucker
for ruin and every night
there’s a barback
who wants to go home
early to bachata
with his favorite girl.
I can’t blame him or the children
who use spoons for drums.
And by the way, that was me
at the Metropolitan stop
on the G. I was the one
who let loose half my anguish
with an old school toprock
despite the fifty-some
strangers all around me
on the platform
waiting for the train
about to trudge again
through the city’s winter
muck. Sure, I set it off
in my zipped up three-quarter
coat when that big girl
opened the thunder in her lungs
and let out her badass
banjo version of the Jackson Five,
all of which is to say, thank you
for making me the saddest man
on a planet teeming with sadness.
The night, for example,
I twirled a mostly deaf woman
in a late-night lounge
on the Lower East Side
and listened to her whisper
a melody she was making up
to a rhythm she told me
she could feel through her chest,
how we held each other there
on a crowded floor
until the lights came up
as if we were never dancing
to the same sorrows
or even singing
a different song.
UPTOWN ODE THAT ENDS ON AN ODE TO THE MACHETE
What happens when me and Willie
run into each other on a Wednesday night
in Brooklyn? He asks, “Where we going?”
And that’s not really a question.
That’s an ancestral imperative: to hail
any yellow or gypsy that’ll stop on Franklin
and Lincoln to fly us over the bridge then
zip up the East Side where the walls
are knocking to Esther Williams or Lavoe.
And you know Willie daps up Orlando
and I say What’s good! and it don’t take
three minutes for me and Will to jump
on the dance floor or post up at the bar
sipping on Barrilito or to tap on my glass
a corny cáscara with a butterknife
like I’m Tito Puente but I have no clue
I really sound like a ’78 Gremlin
dragging its tailpipe the length of 119th,
which is to say, it don’t take long
for Willie and me to be all in. And that’s when
out of nowhere in the middle of the room’s boom-
braddah macumba candombe bámbula
this Puerto Rican leans over and says to me
real slow, “Everybody is trying to get
home.” And I’m like, “Aw fuck.” because
I’m on 1st Ave between 115th and 116th
not even invested in the full swerve yet.
It’s not even five past midnight and Will
is dropping science like that. Allow me
to translate: There are neighborhoods in America
where a man says one simple sentence
and out flow the first seventeen discrete meanings
of home. If you haven’t been broken by the ocean,
if your own weeping doesn’t split you down
into equal weathers: monsoon, say, and gossip,
if you can’t stand at the front door
of an ancestral house and see a black saint
staring down at you, no name, no judgment,
if you haven’t listened to the town drunks
laughing underneath a tree they planted
so they wouldn’t forget your pain, then your story
must have a whole other set of secrets.
You must know what it’s like to expect
an invitation. You might not know what it’s like
to wonder if someone is even waiting
for you to return. Your idea of home
might not contain ways to call blood cousins
from another time zone or just shout
from the middle of the road. There are those of us
descended from peasants who never had to travel
too far to visit the smiths who craft knives
from hilt to tip, who cook blades
that split the wood or carve the rind
from flesh. I once went to visit the men
who make the machetes of the Philippines.
There was a time, I didn’t care where
those knives came from, how the men and women
stoked the embers and dropped their mallets
with a millimeter’s precision. When I was young,
I thought hard was the mad-dog you could send
across a crowded bar. I thought hard
was how deep you roll or how nasty the steel
you bring. In some neighborhoods of America,
hard is turning down the fire just enough,
so you could kiss the knife and make it ring.