December Morning in the Desert

- 1952-

The morning is clouded and the birds are hunched,
More cold than hungry, more numb than loud,

This crisp, Arizona shore, where desert meets
The coming edge of the winter world.

It is a cold news in stark announcement,
The myriad stars making bright the black,

As if the sky itself had been snowed upon.
But the stars—all those stars,

Where does the sure noise of their hard work go?
These plugs sparking the motor of an otherwise quiet sky,

Their flickering work everywhere in a white vastness:
We should hear the stars as a great roar

Gathered from the moving of their billion parts, this great
Hot rod skid of the Milky Way across the asphalt night,

The assembled, moving glints and far-floating embers
Risen from the hearth-fires of so many other worlds.

Where does the noise of it all go
If not into the ears, then hearts of the birds all around us,

Their hearts beating so fast and their equally fast
Wings and high songs,

And the bees, too, with their lumbering hum,
And the wasps and moths, the bats, and the dragonflies—

None of them sure if any of this is going to work,
This universe—we humans oblivious,

Drinking coffee, not quite awake, calm and moving
Into the slippers of our Monday mornings,

Shivering because, we think,
It’s a little cold out there.

The Cities Inside Us

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece 
Through the eye and through the ear.

It's loud inside us, in there, and when we speak
In the outside world

We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm

Not reach out
In place of the tongue.

Day of the Refugios

      In Mexico and Latin America, celebrating one's
      Saint's day instead of one's birthday is common.


I was born in Nogales, Arizona,
On the border between 
Mexico and the United States.

The places in between places
They are like little countries
Themselves, with their own holidays

Taken a little from everywhere.
My Fourth of July is from childhood,
Childhood itself a kind of country, too.

It's a place that's far from me now,
A place I'd like to visit again.
The Fourth of July takes me there.

In that childhood place and border place
The Fourth of July, like everything else,
It meant more than just one thing.

In the United States the Fourth of July
It was the United States.
In Mexico it was the día de los Refugios,

The saint's day of people named Refugio.
I come from a family of people with names,
Real names, not-afraid names, with colors

Like the fireworks: Refugio,
Margarito, Matilde, Alvaro, Consuelo,
Humberto, Olga, Celina, Gilberto.

Names that take a moment to say,
Names you have to practice.
These were the names of saints, serious ones,

And it was right to take a moment with them.
I guess that's what my family thought.
The connection to saints was strong:

My grandmother's name—here it comes—
Her name was Refugio,
And my great-grandmother's name was Refugio,

And my mother-in-law's name now,
It's another Refugio, Refugios everywhere,
Refugios and shrimp cocktails and sodas.

Fourth of July was a birthday party
For all the women in my family
Going way back, a party

For everything Mexico, where they came from,
For the other words and the green
Tinted glasses my great-grandmother wore.

These women were me,
What I was before me,
So that birthday fireworks in the evening,

All for them,
This seemed right.
In that way the fireworks were for me, too.

Still, we were in the United States now,
And the Fourth of July,
Well, it was the Fourth of July.

But just what that meant,
In this border place and time,
it was a matter of opinion in my family.

Refugio's Hair

In the old days of our family,
My grandmother was a young woman
Whose hair was as long as the river.
She lived with her sisters on the ranch
La Calera—The Land of the Lime—
And her days were happy.
But her uncle Carlos lived there too,
Carlos whose soul had the edge of a knife.
One day, to teach her to ride a horse,
He made her climb on the fastest one,
Bareback, and sit there
As he held its long face in his arms.
And then he did the unspeakable deed 
For which he would always be remembered:
He called for the handsome baby Pirrín
And he placed the child in her arms.
With that picture of a Madonna on horseback
He slapped the shank of the horse's rear leg.
The horse did what a horse must,
Racing full toward the bright horizon.
But first he ran under the álamo trees
To rid his back of this unfair weight:
This woman full of tears
And this baby full of love.
When they reached the trees and went under,
Her hair, which had trailed her,
Equal in its magnificence to the tail of the horse,
That hair rose up and flew into the branches
As if it were a thousand arms,
All of them trying to save her.
The horse ran off and left her,
The baby still in her arms,
The two of them hanging from her hair.
The baby looked only at her
And did not cry, so steady was her cradle.
Her sisters came running to save them.
But the hair would not let go.
From its fear it held on and had to be cut,
All of it, from her head.
From that day on, my grandmother 
Wore her hair short like a scream,
But it was long like a river in her sleep.

Related Poems

A Few Lines from Rehoboth Beach

Dear friend, you were right: the smell of fish and foam
and algae makes one green smell together. It clears
my head. It empties me enough to fit down in my own

skin for a while, singleminded as a surfer. The first
day here, there was nobody, from one distance
to the other. Rain rose from the waves like steam,

dark lifted off the dark. All I could think of
were hymns, all I knew the words to: the oldest
motions tuning up in me. There was a horseshoe crab

shell, a translucent egg sack, a log of a tired jetty,
and another, and another. I walked miles, holding
my suffering deeply and courteously, as if I were holding

a package for somebody else who would come back
like sunlight. In the morning, the boardwalk opened
wide and white with sun, gulls on one leg in the slicks.

Cold waves, cold air, and people out in heavy coats,
arm in arm along the sheen of waves. A single boy
in shorts rode his skimboard out thigh-high, making

intricate moves across the March ice-water. I thought
he must be painfully cold, but, I hear you say, he had
all the world emptied, to practice his smooth stand.

Sunrise, Grand Canyon

We stand on the edge, the fall
into depth, the ascent

of light revelatory, the canyon walls moving
up out of

shadow, lit
colours of the layers cutting

down through darkness, sunrise as it
passes a

precipitate of the river, its burnt tangerine
flare brief, jagged

bleeding above the far rim for a split
second I have imagined

you here with me, watching day's onslaught
standing in your bones—they seem

implied in the record almost
by chance—fossil remains held

in abundance in the walls, exposed
by freeze and thaw, beautiful like a theory

stating who we are
is carried forward by the X

chromosome down the matrilineal line
recessive and riverine, you like

me aberrant and bittersweet, and losing
your hair just when we have begun

to know the limits of beauty, you so
distant from me now but at ease

in a chair in your kitchen, pensive, mind
wandering away from yesterday's Times, the ink

rubbing off on your hands, dermatoglyphic
and telltale, but unread

on the chair arms after you
had pushed yourself to your feet such

awhile ago, I'd say, for here I am
three hours behind you, riding the high

Colorado Plateau as the opposing
continental plates force it over

a mile upward without buckling, smooth
tensed, muscular fundament, your bones yet

to be wrapped around mine—
this will come later, when I return

to your place and time, I know it, you not
ready for past or future, our combined

bones so inconsequent yet
personal, the geo

logic cross
section of the canyon dropping

from where I stand, hundreds
millions of shades of terra cotta, of copper

manganese and rust, the many varieties of stone—
silt, sand, and slate, even "green

river rock," a rough misidentified
fragment of it once unknowingly

dropped when I was a boy into my as of yet un
settled sediments by a man who tried

to explain how slowly the Earth meta
morphosed from my meagre

Wolf Cub's collection of rocks, his sheer
casual physicality enough to negate

all received wisdom, my body voicing its immense
genetic imperatives, human

geology falling away
into a

depth I am still unprepared for
the canyon cutting down to

the great unconformity, a layer
so named by the lack

of any fossil evidence to hypothesize
about and date such

a remote time by, at last no possible
retrospective certainties, what a

relief, your face illegible
these words when I began not what I had

intended to say—something new about
the natural dynamic between

earth and history, beauty and art—
but you are my subject, unavoidable

and volatile, the canyon
floor a mile from where I objectively

stand taking photos I will later develop of
the ripe, trans

formative light on these surreal
buttes to show you on the surface

how beautiful and diverse
and unimportant our time together

or with anyone else
really is—

The Magpie's Shadow

I. IN WINTER
 
     Myself
Pale mornings, and 
   I rise. 
 
     Still Morning
Snow air--my fingers curl.
 
     Awakening
New snow, O pine of dawn!
 
     Winter Echo
Thin air! My mind is gone.
 
     The Hunter
Run! In the magpie's shadow.
 
     No Being
I, bent. Thin nights receding. 
 
 
II. IN SPRING
 
     Spring
I walk out the world's door.
 
     May
Oh, evening in my hair!
 
     Spring Rain
My doorframe smells of leaves.
 
     Song
Why should I stop
   for spring?
 
 
III. IN SUMMER AND AUTUMN
 
     Sunrise
Pale bees! O whither now?
 
     Fields
I did not pick
   a flower.
 
     At Evening
Like leaves my feet passed by.
 
     Cool Nights
At night bare feet on flowers!
 
     Sleep
Like winds my eyelids close.
 
     The Aspen's Song
The summer holds me here.
 
     The Walker
In dream my feet are still. 
 
     Blue Mountains
A deer walks that mountain.
 
     God of Roads
I, peregrine of noon. 
 
     September
Faint gold! O think not here.
 
     A Lady
She's sun on autumn leaves. 
 
     Alone
I saw day's shadow strike.
 
     A Deer
The trees rose in the dawn.
 
     Man in Desert
His feet run as eyes blink. 
 
     Desert
The tented autumn, gone!
 
     The End
Dawn rose, and desert shrunk.
 
     High Valleys
In sleep I filled these lands.
 
     Awaiting Snow
The well of autumn--dry.