Chopping cilantro and flat leaf parsley
on a bamboo board at the sink, mincing

garlic and onions. Late mellowing light,
the air bordering on cool but tinged

bitter-green with the smell of growing
amargoso in the yard. I can keep

the kitchen door open because the side gate
is locked, and the week-long siege at the street

corner is over. We did not know the man
they say trespassed, early Monday morning,

into someone's yard with a firearm;
did not know what altercation if any

led to someone calling the police. So he ran
and barricaded himself in his own house.

They came in force, then; rifles drawn,
sealed off one end of the block. Those of us

who could still come and go out the other end
brought back reports every day, over four

days: how many squad cars, where the waiting
ambulance was parked, the bomb unit; who saw

the robot deployed with a phone, the negotiators,
the TV crew. We did not witness how, before dawn

on the fourth day, finally they took him into custody
from the Latin custodia meaning guardianship,

keeping, care. Now this man who neighbors say
used to pelt their doors with donuts, or attach

stuffed animals on leashes for walks,
is in a hospital or facility. Is it wrong  

to wonder if it lasted as long as it did
instead of arriving at swifter resolution—

doors broken in; tasers, clubs; bullets sprayed
into his body—because of the color of his skin?

Or is it possible to believe that finally
something of change might be moving slowly

through the dismal atmosphere, tempering
and holding in check, allowing the thought

to stay the trigger, the heart to register
its trembling before letting the weapon fly?

In summer, because dark descends more slowly,
it's hard to scan the sky for the hunter

and his belt studded with the three telltale
bright stars; harder to remember how

once, he boasted he would hunt down and kill
all of earth's wild animals, to make it safe.

But there he is, adrift in the inky darkness,
club and shield eternally raised, his own K-9 units

at his heels; and here we are, still trying to sort
villain from victim, wound from welcome opening.

To unravel a torment you must begin somewhere


—after Louise Bourgeois, “What is the shape of this problem” (1999)

Anything can be a thread: fossil

of a seahorse entombed in an earring
box, safety pin festooned
with four wrinkled cords.

A friend tells me
her daughter once confided:
I want a life
different from yours.

I’ve been there,
and also been that wish.

What could one do
with the moon’s floodlights
burning a hole in the sky?

I wanted to stand
in the aperture and be
seen—

and what I’ve wanted
may have come true
or not. I lay down
and let a body

press into mine, undo
the chaste buttons of red silk.
Afterwards, even the rain

could feel oracular. But what if
it’s part of our nature
to want to leave
more than a trace?

Even the moon doesn’t want to return
the comb stuck in its cheek.

The metal teeth bend
toward the river swells. Small
white wings paper the sides of a lamp—
Beautiful and unerring, whatever fate
singes with fire.

Out of the cold current I lift
and stack stones. I rub sticks together.
There are some things I can do.
There are some things I can’t take back.

Why appropriation is not necessarily the same as mastery

The child wants to know the names of all the herbs and spices on the shelf: those
roots floating in a jar like a stunted man treading water, those dried leaves
twisted carelessly with twine and left in the kitchen drawer.

Sounds made in a different tongue are often so enchanting— at the start, they are
like rain falling, plinking over looped chains in the garden.

Remember that things have names. It is important to know that one thing will
not always substitute for another. The beautiful berry leaves a dark stain on the
tongue, a body lifeless in its bed.

Remember that a syllable can be slighter than an eyelash. The way it flicks up or
down can mean a question, or your chin.

The violinist recounts a fairy tale of a boy kept years with others like him in
captivity. They buff the witch’s floors to the sheen of glass, gather the fine amber
dust in the air to bake into bread, the dewdrops in the hearts of roses to feed her
unslakable thirst.

Later, trying to remember, the one bewitched says phrases over and over. But
there is no one there to catch his mistakes, to help him put the pieces back
together.

And you, you’ve been such a good student of that epistemology, of thinking-into-
being: don’t you know that spells are made of words?

Remember too: not all saying is true.

I have heard another story: how the Pont de l’Archevêché groans with the weight
of hundreds of padlocks, etched with promises made to eternity. What happens
when the language of the promise is wrong, when the word for “expensive” is
used instead of “love?”

Do you glimpse my original shape beneath this overlay of form? The rain falls
and falls over the village. The tailor sews in his shop, the fiddler plays a tune by
the fire.

Arrival is recognition, which brings a catch in the throat. We weep when words
break through a surface. We weep when we have seen ourselves.

Orchard

It’s fall, season of the apple—iconic
fruit of this America, mounds of excess
littering the grounds of orchards
from want of migrant hands to pick
the harvest clean: their red the banner
of every girl or woman who tips her head up
to the knowledge of her power—which means
she can see the way things work in the world,
and chooses not to be shamed any longer
for calling it. For what did the hissing
in the leaves tell her that she didn’t
already know, or the laughter behind
closed doors when she ran, groping
her way out? Don’t pretend you don’t
know what I want, said every snake
in the grass. Survival means no one
dies, but someone is forced to take
the fall: the smallest bird, the lowest
fruit—though the fruit isn’t to blame
for its sheen, nor the star for marking
the place where its light was last seen.

Related Poems

A Pain That Is Not Private

There is a time and place in the world for abstraction. When my mother left Puerto Rico for the first time, the year was 1968. Against my unknowing. We hesitate to say what intimacy is and whether or not we have it. I keep trying / to teach my students that / stream-of-consciousness is / this, not that / this / activity fails. We know it does because each of us leaves the room / feeling like barbed wire— snarling behind the barricade (because) at some point, we stopped feeling (like language could say). So we went without while some others embraced. Notice (after the emptiness) : a pain that is not private. In other words, focus not on the object, but rather, the light that bounces off of that object. Perforated. Estranged. Esa luz. Tómatela. Under that light° I felt my body try / to hold on (to the knot inside) your right hand; when did it become a fist? Remind me what it is again / what it is that you wish / to share (with others) >> when you’re on stage…
 
                                  °That light, this pain (what never translates).

Aubade

They say brave but I don’t want it.
Who will we mourn today. Or won’t we.

Black all the windows. Lower
down the afternoon. I barricade

all my belonging. I am mostly never real
American or anything

availing. But I do take. And take
what’s given. The smell of blood.

I breathe it in. The dirt so thick with our good
fortune. And who pays for it. And what am I

but fear, but wanting. I’ll bite
the feeding hand until I’m fed

and buried. In the shining day.
All deadly good

intentions. A catalogue of virtues.
This is how I’ll disappear.

Morning Song

For Janna

The tiny journalist
will tell us what she sees.

Document the moves, the dust,
soldiers blocking the road.

Yes, she knows how to take a picture
with her phone. Holds it high

like a balloon. Yes, she would
prefer to dance and play,

would prefer the world
to be pink. It is her job to say

what she sees, what is happening.
From her vantage point everything

is huge—but don’t look down on her.
She’s bigger than you are.

If you stomp her garden
each leaf expands its view.

Don’t hide what you do.
She sees you at 2 a.m. adjusting your

impenetrable vest.
What could she have

that you want? Her treasures,
the shiny buttons her grandmother loved.

Her cousin, her uncle.
There might have been a shirt . . .

The tiny journalist notices
action on far away roads

farther even than the next village.
She takes counsel from bugs so

puffs of dust find her first.
Could that be a friend?

They pretended not to see us.
They came at night with weapons.

What was our crime? That we liked
respect as they do? That we have pride?

She stares through a hole in the fence,
barricade of words and wire,

feels the rising fire
before anyone strikes a match.

She has a better idea.