Richard Blanco’s Poetry América I. Although Tia Miriam boasted she discovered at least half a dozen uses for peanut butter— topping for guava shells in syrup, butter substitute for Cuban toast, hair conditioner and relaxer— Mama never knew what to make of the monthly five-pound jars handed out by the immigration department until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly. II. There was always pork though, for every birthday and wedding, whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, even on Thanksgiving day—pork, fried, broiled, or crispy skin roasted— as well as cauldrons of black beans, fried plantain chips, and yuca con mojito. These items required a special visit to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of Eighth Street where men in guayaberas stood in senate blaming Kennedy for everything—“Ese hijo de puta!” the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue filling the creases of their wrinkled lips; clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth, ashamed and empty as hollow trees. III. By seven I had grown suspicious—we were still here. Overheard conversations about returning had grown wistful and less frequent. I spoke English; my parent’s didn’t. We didn’t live in a two-story house with a maid or a wood-panel station wagon nor vacation camping in Colorado. None of the girls had hair of gold; none of my brothers or cousins were named Greg, Peter, or Marcia; we were not the Brady Bunch. None of the black and white characters on Donna Reed or on the Dick Van Dyke Show were named Guadalupe, Lazaro, or Mercedes. Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either— they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving, they ate turkey with cranberry sauce; they didn’t have yucca, they had yams like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class. IV. A week before Thanksgiving I explained to my abuelita about the Indians and the Mayflower, how Lincoln set the slaves free; I explained to my parents about the purple mountain’s majesty, “one if by land, two if by sea,” the cherry tree, the tea party, the amber waves of grain, the “masses yearning to be free,” liberty and justice for all, until finally they agreed: this Thanksgiving we would have turkey, as well as pork. V. Abuelita prepared the poor fowl as if committing an act of treason, faking her enthusiasm for my sake. Mama set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven and prepared candied yams following instructions I translated from the marshmallow bag. The table was arrayed with gladiolas, the plattered turkey loomed at the center on plastic silver from Woolworth’s. Everyone sat in green velvet chairs we had upholstered with clear vinyl, except Tio Carlos and Toti, seated in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army. I uttered a bilingual blessing and the turkey was passed around like a game of Russian Roulette. “DRY,” Tio Berto complained, and proceeded to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings and cranberry jelly—“esa mierda roja,” he called it. Faces fell when Mama presented her ochre pie— pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert. Tia Maria made three rounds of Cuban coffee then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture, put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family began to meringue over the linoleum of our apartment, sweating rum and coffee until they remembered— it was 1970 and 46 degrees— in América. After repositioning the furniture, an appropriate darkness filled the room. Tio Berto was the last to leave. Broken Covenant after the storm rain driftwood starched sands no footprints was scattered of what once the gossamer blue sails of man-o-wars gasping in the sun pieces of broken coral snapped like wishbones slivers of tiny fish bottle flickering on the shore a few reclaimed by the ebb a filmy green a torn net of a wave a lost buoy a yellow bulldozer heaps of spent seagrass raking the sand diesel smoke like incense a snapped fishline spiraling into the heavens in the name of the vanished a dead fish Burning in the Rain Someday compassion would demand I set myself free of my desire to recreate my father, indulge in my mother’s losses, strangle lovers with words, forcing them to confess for me and take the blame. Today was that day: I tossed them, sheet by sheet on the patio and gathered them into a pyre. I wanted to let them go in a blaze, tiny white dwarfs imploding beside the azaleas and ficus bushes, let them crackle, burst like winged seeds, let them smolder into gossamer embers— a thousand gray butterflies in the wind. Today was that day, but it rained, kept raining. Instead of fire, water—drops knocking on doors, wetting windows into mirrors reflecting me in the oaks. The garden walls and stones swelling into ghostlier shades of themselves, the wind chimes giggling in the storm, a coffee cup left overflowing with rain. Instead of burning, my pages turned into water lilies floating over puddles, then tiny white cliffs as the sun set, finally drying all night under the moon into papier-mâché souvenirs. Today the rain would not let their lives burn. El Florida Room Not a study or a den, but El Florida as my mother called it, a pretty name for the room with the prettiest view of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up against the windows, the tepid breeze laden with the brown-sugar scent of loquats drifting in from the yard. Not a sunroom, but where the sun both rose and set, all day the shadows of banana trees fan-dancing across the floor, and if it rained, it rained the loudest, like marbles plunking across the roof under constant threat of coconuts ready to fall from the sky. Not a sitting room, but El Florida where I sat alone for hours with butterflies frozen on the polyester curtains and faces of Lladro figurines: sad angels, clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed blue and gray, gazing from behind the glass doors of the wall cabinet. Not a TV room, but where I watched Creature Feature as a boy, clinging to my brother, safe from vampires in the same sofa where I fell in love with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo watching westerns, or pitying women crying in telenovelas with my Abuela. Not a family room, but the room where my father twirled his hair while listening to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche and Kant a few months before he died, where my mother learned to dance alone Key Deer The mile markers count down [ 28 | 27 | 26 ] as Nikki and I sail in her Plymouth Fury cutting through saltwater marshes on our way to Key West for New Year’s Eve again [ 25 | 24 | 23 ]. We cross the same bridges stringing the same islands together, under the same braille of stars, past the same road sign near Bahia Honda: KEY DEER HABITAT: ONLY 49 DEER REMAINING. Last year there were ninety, Nikki reminds me, tells me her story about summer camp again: the tiny deer standing no taller than a car tire, feeding them cabbage out of her hands, then having to clang on pots and pan to scare them away and keep them wild. I tell her I love that story [ 22 | 21 | 20 ], though what I really mean is that I love her, that I’m proud of her quitting Vodka, that she’s not who her father says she is, and doesn’t have to be her mother. I want to tell her that she’ll survive— and so will I, though I’m not completely sure. I don’t know yet that in a few years [ 19 | 18 | 17 ] she’ll move to New York City, find a life among its poets and skyscrapers and a dog named Pepper, and I’ll end up in love with the lonely woods of Maine. What I know is tonight [ 16 | 15 | 14 ] we’ll be at Sloppy Joe’s, she’ll climb on my shoulders, we’ll watch the giant plaster conch, and at the stroke of midnight embrace amid the crowd on Duval Street. Though now [ 13 | 12 | 11 ] there is only this stillness, the silence of mangroves clinging to each other, the last of the key deer nibbling berries on either side of the highway, and the two of us speeding through dusk as if we’re the last two people on earth, one more time, one more year [10 | 9 | 8 ]. Looking for the Gulf Motel Marco Island, Florida There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be rising out of the sand like a cake decoration. My brother and I should still be pretending we don’t know our parents, embarrassing us as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging with enough mangos to last the entire week, our espresso pot, the pressure cooker—and a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby. All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even on vacation, only two hours from our home in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida, where I should still be for the first time watching the sun set instead of rise over the ocean. There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . My mother should still be in the kitchenette of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce. My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us dive into the pool, two boys he’ll never see grow into men who will be proud of him. There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi, my father should still be alive, slow dancing with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony of The Gulf Motel. No music, only the waves keeping time, a song only their minds hear ten-thousand nights back to their life in Cuba. My mother’s face should still be resting against his bare chest like the moon resting on the sea, the stars should still be turning around them. There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . My brother should still be thirteen, sneaking rum in the bathroom, sculpting naked women from sand. I should still be eight years old dazzled by seashells and how many seconds I hold my breath underwater—but I’m not. I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard, looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything that should still be, but isn’t. I want to blame the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want to turn the golf courses back into mangroves, I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost. Missouri Sky Music --after Pat Metheny He plucks a string into a gust stirring dust, spins a windmill lonely in a blanket of corn covering Leesburg Summit where he grew up in a back yard two hundred miles due south of nothing, playing for the wind and hawks and hope of leaving the state he returns to in his music now, compositions of the sky that held every minute for hours for him. Notes lifting into clouds bulging with light, strums ribboning the horizon with plum, as I coast north on a train leaving a place I once called my home too, my face against the glass, my eyes blurring across some city between cities with his songs in my ears also listening to the scratches of his fingers across the fret—those gritty imperfections so necessary and inseparable from the music, not knowing which is truer, which I prefer. “Of Consequence, Inconsequently” A bearded shepherd in a gray wool vest, a beret lowered to his brow, that’s how my blood has always imagined the man who was my great-grandfather, his eyes hazel, I was told once. But I’ll never see what he saw of his life in the cold rivers of Asturias. I can only imagine the fog caressing the hills of his village and him watching from the window of the train he took to Sevilla—for love, my mother explained to me once, holding a ghost of him in a photo on his wedding day with an ascot tie and buttoned shoes standing in a room filled with mahogany and red roses. Were they red? What color were the tiers of Spanish lace cascading from my great-grandmother’s dress? Nothing can speak for them now, tell me what they saw in their eyes that morning they left for love or war or both, crossing the sea to Cuban palms under the quite sun. But what if they’d never met, what color would my eyes be? Who would I be now had they gone to Johannesburg instead, or Maracaibo, or not left Sevilla at all? Into what seas would I have cast thoughts, what other cities would I’ve drowned in? The countries I would’ve lost, or betrayed, the languages I would speak or not speak, the names that would’ve been my names— I’d like to believe I’ve willed every detail of my life, but I’m a consequence, a drop of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here in the middle of a story I don’t know, having to finish it and call it my own. New Orleans Sestina Against Order We’re driving 900 miles in 17 hours, for a reason— perhaps to feel like nothing through the nothing of pasture flat as the highway tarmac, or to be lost through the x’s of Loxley and Biloxi, or to forget like exit-number towns that have forgotten the meaning of their Indian names. 10am at Shoney’s we order lunch instead of breakfast. I’ll put in your order— right away, the waitress smirks. Must be a reason, why she hasn’t left this place, I guess, nothing to lose, I figure, the way we left last night, lost and incidental down I-70 doing 80, forgetting the stars hitting the windshield and the meanings I give them—hope|awe|dream—against the mean of my life, days like the billboards flashing orders: sleep here|eat this now|exit here—for no reason. Perhaps nothingness drives us to somethingness— and that’s why we hit the road, to find what’s lost by losing ourselves, to remember by forgetting who we are, only needing to find a station to forget the hours left with preachers claiming we’re meant for the Kingdom of Heaven if we follow Jesus’ orders. Though I don’t believe, I start conjuring up reasons for my sins, can’t forgive myself for wanting nothing more than this easy ride on a weekend. We’re lost lambs in The Big Easy without a map, but don’t lose a minute of Bourbon St. sax and tap, before getting voodoo dolls, Hurricanes, beads, and a meal meant for a Cajun king: crawfish gumbo, catfish, an order of beigne at Du Monde, thinking: Is this the reason? Is this it? when our waiter says: Ain’t heard nothing ‘til you go to Nugget’s. So we go there, nothing but a beat-up bass, an upright piano, drums lost behind a spotlight on a woman dressed in forgetme-not colors, her voice like cider, clove, menthe liquoring my ears, her face a cameo ordering me to feel every second—and that’s the reason why we came, nothing like N’awlins to lose yourself in a song, forget order, find meaning in a voice sing’n: ain’t no reas’n, ain’t no reas’n. One Today One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies. One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows. My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper— bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives— to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem. All of us are vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light breathing color into stained glass windows, life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth onto the steps of our museums and park benches as mothers watch children slide into the day. One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes. The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues, the symphony of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, the unexpected song bird on your clothes line. Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling, or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, Namaste, or buenos dias in the language my mother taught me—in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips. One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience. One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work: some days guessing at the weather of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother who knew how to give, or forgiving a father who couldn’t give what you wanted. We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home, always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country—all of us— facing the stars hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together. Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008 Groundbreaking Ceremony, City of South Miami, Sunset Drive Improvements And so it began: the earth torn, split open by a dirt road cutting through palmettos and wild tamarind trees defending the land against the sun. Beside the road, a shack leaning into the wind, on the wooden porch, crates of avocados and limes, white chickens pecking at the floor boards, and a man under the shadow of his straw hat, staring into the camera in 1914. He doesn’t know within a lifetime the unclaimed land behind him will be cleared of scrub and sawgrass, the soil will be turned, made to give back what the farmers wish, their lonely houses will stand acres apart from one another, jailed behind the boughs of their orchards. He’ll never buy sugar at the general store, mail love letters at the post office, or take a train at the depot of the town that will rise out of hundred-million years of coral rock on promises of paradise. He’ll never ride a model-T puttering down the dirt road that will be paved over, stretch farther and farther west into the horizon, reaching for the setting sun after which it will be named. He can’t even begin to imagine the shadows of buildings rising taller than the palm trees, the street lights glowing like counterfeit stars dotting the sky above the road, the thousands who will take the road everyday, who’ll also call this place home less than a hundred years after the photograph of him hanging today in City Hall as testament. He’ll never meet me, the engineer hired to transform the road again, bring back tree shadows and birdsongs, build another promise of another paradise meant to last another forever. He’ll never see me, the poet standing before him, trying to read his mind across time, wondering if he was thinking what I’m today, both of us looking down the road that will stretch on for years after I too disappear into a photo. Place of Mind Mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall from the awnings and window ledges. The search for myself begins an echo drifting away the moment I arrive. From the awnings and window ledges follow the rain flowing down the streets. The moment I arrive, I drift away: Why am I always imagining the sea? Follow the rain flowing down the streets vanishing into the mouths of gutters. Why am I always imagining the sea? A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave. Vanishing into the mouths of gutters, rain becomes lake, river, ocean again. A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave always beginning, yet always ending. Rain becomes lake, river, ocean, again mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall always ending, yet always beginning, the search for myself ends in an echo. Some Days the Sea The sea is never the same twice. Today the waves open their lions-mouths hungry for the shore and I feel the earth helpless. Some days their foamy edges are lace at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk. Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs from a storm. I sift spoils of sea grass: find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan, examine a sponge’s hollow throat, watch a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand. Some days there’s nothing but sand quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind sometimes laden with silver tasting salt, sometimes still as the sun. Some days the sun is a dollop of honey and raining light on the sea glinting diamond dust, sometimes there are only clouds, clouds— sometimes solid as continents drifting across the sky, other times wispy, white roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals, into hands, and I remember some days I’m still a boy on this beach, wanting to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish, build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am a teenager blind to death even as I watch waves seep into nothingness. Most days I’m a man tired of being a man, sleeping in the care of dusk’s slanted light, or a man scared of being a man, seeing some god in the moonlight streaming over the sea. Some days I imagine myself walking this shore with feet as worn as driftwood, old and afraid of my body. Someday, I suppose I’ll return someplace like waves trickling through the sand, back to sea without any memory of being, but if I could choose eternity, it would be here aging with the moon, enduring in the space between every grain of sand, in the cusp of every wave, and every seashell’s hollow. Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha I arrive with a box of guava pastelitos, a dozen red carnations, and a handful of memories at her door: the half-moons of her French-manicures, how she spoke blowing out cigarette smoke, her words leaving her mouth as ghosts, the music of her nicknames: Cucha, Cuchita, Pucha. I kiss her hello and she slaps me hard across my arm: Cabron! Too handsome to visit your Tia, eh? She laughs, pulls me inside her efficiency, a place I thought I had forgotten, comes back to life with wafts of Jean Nate and Pine Sol, the same calendar from Farmacia Galiano with scenes of Old Havana on the wall, the same peppermints in a crystal dish. And her, wearing a papery housecoat, sneakers with panty hose, like she wore those summer mornings she’d walk me down to the beach along First Street, past the washed out pinks and blues of the Art Deco hotels like old toys. The retirees lined across the verandas like seagulls peering into the horizon, the mango popsicles from the bodeguita and the pier she told me was once a bridge to Cuba—have all vanished. I ask how she’s feeling, but we agree not to talk about that today, though we both know why I have come to see her: in a few months, maybe weeks, her lungs will fill up again, her heart will stop for good. She too will vanish, except what I remember, of her, this afternoon: sharing a pastelito, over a café she sweetens with Equal at her dinette table crowded with boxes of low-salt saltines and fibery cereals. Under the watch of Holy Jesus’ heart burning on the wall, we gossip about the secret crush she had on my father once, she counts exactly how many years and months since she left Cuba and her mother forever, we complain about the wars, diseases, fires blazing on the mid-day news as she dunks the flowers in a tumbler—a dozen red suns burst in the sapphire sky framed in the window, sitting by the table.