plastic succubae, they haunted my childhood sleep-those
throbless creatures with odd necks that snapped or crumbled
when thrown from the bed or bashed with a hammer
and i would wake into the welcoming dark, relieved
for those rosy-cheeked specters with fingers that would not part
had vanished and i could will myself to better dreams, forget
those blank voids that caused me cringings-for although
i could not appreciate death, i understood not living
The Invention of Your Face
I was waiting when you came back from
Argentina—the summer you smuggled
Dulce de leche in your luggage. You talked
About the film: you’d discovered how
The proscenium shifted, haloing the body
In the camera gaze—and how you emerged
Through that fluid arch each frame. You’d
Missed me, you’d missed her: six years old
And suddenly shy in your presence. You
Spooned sweet milk paste from the tin into
Her cereal bowl—then let image after image
Appear for her through a camera lens you made
Of your hands, held like half-opened wings in the air.
She could see the great waterfall, Iguaçú, and miles
Of hardwood trees, called Breakers of the Axe,
Quebracho, as they swirled up in the Chaco—and one red
Horse galloping all by itself across the Pampa. I watched her
Changing expressions: I knew how many nights she’d gone
Searching for you, beyond the movable walls of a dream.
You showed her a little bird that sang in Pagatonia wearing
A gaucho’s hat and she ate sugar paste she barely tasted. She
Was a child; she took in whatever sweetness you
Provided—what sweetness there was in the world
That we could see. Silent, the two of us, staring at you—
We could never get past it: the invention of your face.
Fifteen years old and I cry every night.
I know there’s nothing special about this,
that there are better things in this world
to tell you about in my singing voice.
Even so I drank wine for the first time today
and stayed in my room naked, so I could take in the afternoon
carved into small pieces
by the clock.
Thinking alone hurts. There’s no one to hit, no one
to pardon and mercifully let off the hook.
Only you and your face. You and your face
of a phony saint.
The scar no one has ever seen comes into view,
the grimace we hide every day,
the face I’ve never been able to bury, it will make us cry and break down completely
on the day the good people know everything
and even the birds deny us love and a song.
Fifteen years of being tired
and I cry every night just to make believe I’m alive.
Maybe none of you understands what I’m talking about.
It’s my first wine talking not me
while the skin weighing me down swallows the shade.
— Study with a Little Tedium by Roque Dalton
Over the bookcase
between a T’ang musician and a Oaxaca pitcher
with glittering eyes of silver-paper
watching us come and go
the little sugar skull.
2. MASK OF TLALOC CARVED IN TRANSPARENT QUARTZ
Old Tlaloc sleeps, within,
3. THE SAME
Touched by light
quartz has become cascade.
Upon its waters floats the child, the god.
4. GOD WHO COMES FORTH FROM A CERAMIC ORCHID
Among clay petals
is born, smiling,
the human flower.
5. OLMEC GODDESS
The four cardinal points
are gathered in your navel.
In you womb the day is pounding, fully armed.
Facing water, days of fire.
Facing fire, days of water.
In a day’s tree
hang jade fruit,
fire and blood at night.
8. CROSS WITH SUN AND MOON PAINTED ON IT
Between the arms of this cross
two birds made their nest:
Adam, sun, and Eve, moon.
9. BOY AND TOP
Each time he spins it,
it lands, precisely,
at the center of the world.
They live alongside us,
we do not know them, they do not know us.
But sometimes they speak with us.
Having been taught to love words and take them seriously, as reflections of reality, I felt it a loss to learn that, in fact, words are arbitrary, man-made, no more permanent than clothing: somewhere under all of them reality is naked.
Disconcerting as it is, however, to lose the security of words that are perceived as single keys to what they unlock, it is also exhilarating to see oneself as the maker of those words, even if they are now impermanent, provisional artifacts that have value for us only because they’re ours. Anybody who has ever gone hunting for that one right and elusive word knows what bilingualism feels like, even if he’s never left his native country or learned a word in any language but his own. There is a sense in which every poet is bilingual, and those of who are more overtly so are only living metaphors for the condition that applies to us all. We use a language that seems deceptively like the language of the people around us, but isn’t quite. The words are the same, but the weight we give them, the connections we find among them, the criteria we use to choose this one rather than that one, are our own.
At a recent poetry reading I closed with a poem in Spanish, and a member of the English-speaking audience approached me afterward to remark how moved she had been by that poem, and how she wished I had read others.
“Where did you learn Spanish?” I asked
“I don’t speak any Spanish,” she replied. “What I understood was the music of what you read.”
It occurred to me, during our subsequent conversation, that poetry may be precisely what is almost lost, not in translation, but in the wording, the transit from experience to paper. If we succeed in salvaging anything, maybe it is most often in the music, the formal elements of poetry that do travel from language to language, as the formal music of classical Spanish poetry my father loved followed me into English and draws me, to this day, to poems that are patterned and rich and playful.
It’s occurred to me since that conversation that a poem in Spanish may have more in common with a poem in English-or any other language-than with a grocery list, say, or a piece of technical writing that happens to use Spanish words. There is something in poetry that transcends specific language, that makes it possible for transplanted people like me to recognize the songs of the Other as his own even before he understands them fully. Poetry may be used to draw very small circles around itself, identifying its speaker as a member of a narrowly delineated group and looking at “outsiders” with eyes that discern less and less detail as distance increases. But it may also be used to draw very large circles, circles that will draw in rather than exclude, as in Edwin Markham’s apt four-line metaphor titled “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that shut him in.
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes bug love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
Eat Your Metaphors
I am soaking wet.
Please, tell me more, he said.
I was standing under a waterfall, head back, tongue out, beads dripping from my hair.
Actually it was just a streetlight, not even a floodlight, and there was a sprinkler at the base of it. But I can’t grow
in this desert climate. They told me so. They said I forget I live in a desert, sometimes, and so I don’t drink enough water.
I don’t know, he sighed, drink more water.
That’s it really, I just need to drink more water. That’s what I realized when it tasted so good and refreshing and cold back there.
Just say it, he pleaded, There’s a big metaphor in the middle of your story that doesn’t need to be there. Will you just stop taking the long way around and say stuff?
They warned me about this. They said I felt safe in taking something and making it into something more po-et-ic. I didn’t realize I was taking anything. I said that. They said to me, Stop it, and sounded just like ma, Stop taking everything so literally.
I thought I took everything as a metaphor?
See? He said.
I guess, maybe, I could’ve just left everything out. I guessed that all the rest of the walk home. My sweatshirt really way soaking wet, back slightly bent, stomach sloshing with acid but not much else. I’ll go to bed hungry one more time, I doesn’t bother me, but one of these days I’m going to have to do something about it. One of these days I’m gonna have to eat these metaphors, and there will be bits of violet sky and rose petals and overcast in my teeth.
And after that, the body’s gonna go. It’s all I can hope for. Everything will turn to metaphor, I’m just one big metaphor. An empty metaphor. A metaphor for all the nothingness.
I can just hope that this will happen soon, and that my arms will turn into two large herons and fly straight out of the shoulder sockets, and that my tongue will turn to sand, eroded down to a fine grain by years of brash, useless words, and collapse down into my throat and suffocate me.
Whatever is, harbors its own unease.
The spring aches, and the taut line sags to the ground.
Green leaves pull skyward, blind roots hunger down
To dark necessities.
Even stirs restless and explodes to odd;
Odd strains for symmetry, limps home to even.
In the light-spangled solitude of heaven
God reels away from God.
And in the heart, born single ad a kiss,
Broods the sad other-yearner, learner, dier-
That knows, uncomforted, its one desire
Was not for this.
down the drain
Because I lack time and means
and means means money here
i have to find other means to get out everything that is in
and sometimes there’s nothing in and I make out
and sometimes I make nothing just to spite myself
despite myself or you
I do this ritualistically by night
but always in a clean, well-lighted place
believing in earnest that it does not matter
a canvas can be found anywhere
on the back of a paper plate, in the backseat of a car,
among electrical circuits or in the air
so I guess what’s worse, excuse me, worth
my trouble and time
is what’s worth my trouble and time and so
I find ways to appear myself into the scenery of earth
because I must appear myself
when I see myself reflected in the scummy water of the sink.
So this is what I do:
I write my stories in soap suds on the counter
and wash them away
I tell my secrets to the dishwater
then let them down the drain.
How It Begins
Somebody’s blade fingers your chest,
out for the bird in its warm nest
rocked in those tides that come and go.
Somebody’s thumb is on the flow
memory ride through secret places
to find the doors, to name the faces.
Somebody’s picking body’s lock,
tapping the glass, hefting a rock,
leaping the gate, cutting the wire
that fuses motion to desire.
What if this once nobody’s there?
Somebody’s step is on the stair.
hen heart people are
we sometimes love ourselves
laugh out loud & touch shoulders
about sad/courageous acts
sometimes we fight & live
these the things we ofttimes do
& when alone I sometimes stare
from wall to sky
creating visions of heroes fighting
for me & my side winning for a change
& me winning & I find
myself bloody against the cement
dodging fists & I can’t say
for certain who I have loved
or have been loved by
it is the fear of summer’s passing
winter’s killing what love has
done & what I have loved for
the doing & I am on my knees praying
hit it a lick lady, you’re in it up to your naps
& the soul-eaters snake
like thieves on the throne
mass producing beautiful
heartless corpses & then stealing
them away while my frequent rebirth
shocks me out of somnambulance
& I’m burning long oil &
skimping on rest & wailing
my time, my time, where is my time?
There’s the horizon still in place,
gray ribbon threaded taut and lean
through those bare twigs that summer-long
hid it behind a scrim of green.
I liked it green-as well as bare-
my quarter-acre in the sun;
I would not dress it otherwise
than seasons in their turn have done,
but do give thanks that sultry weather
of much to feel and less to know
give ways, after a time, to this
clear view of where horizons go.
Rhina P. Espaillat
from: Mad With Yellow (Poems)
Lately she’s been falling in love everywhere–
at the market, in the pharmacy, always in the cafeteria
sliding her tray over the metal rails.
Last week with the hands of the attendant at a gas station.
Sometimes it happens all day long….
Lisa J. Starr
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I knew I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time.