South of Plaza Mayor by Plaza de Cascorro—
past streets named Lettuce, Raisin, Barley—
is Madrid’s outdoor market called El Rastro,
hundreds of stalls, lean-tos, tents squeezed tight
as niches where anything from a clawfoot tub, 
to a surgeon’s saw to a tattered La Celestina
bound in sheepskin could be haggled down
with raunchy bravado or the promise of beer.   
Mostly it was junk passed off to the tourists
as pricey souvenirs, like plastic castanets, hand fans
of silk (rayon really), or tin-plate doubloons. 
So what drew the youth of Madrid to this place
every Sunday afternoon by the hundreds?
None of us were bargain hunters or hoarders,
just hippieish kids in patched dungarees, 
espadrilles, & wool coats frayed to cheesecloth,
our pockets with enough pesetas to buy
a handful of stale cigarettes. It was to revel
in life, squeeze out joy from the lees of fate,
make fellowship like pilgrims to a shrine. 
We’d sprawl against a wall or a lamppost
long into the afternoon to talk, joke, carouse,
eat cheese rinds with secondhand bread, 
drink wine more like iodine than merlot,
oblivious to time & space, the crowds tripping
on our legs, tossing butts into our heads,
how they smelled like horses & we told them so,
who then shot out crude medieval curses,
but we didn’t care, for we felt alive as never before,
singular in every breath, word, & thought,
stubborn as wayward seeds that trick a drought
& grow into hardscrabble woodland trees.  

Hair

Hair tells family secrets, like lips and skin:
my chestnut curls and waves that intractable
thicket—one month’s tropical growth—
Mamá called maleza de manigua,
jungle scrub.  What will the neighbors think?


Locked in the bathroom, I brushed hard
against the grain—pig bristles, nylon quills,
chrome needles, nothing tamed
my guava bush, not even the wire brush
Papá used for mange of rust.


I rubbed sores with Mamá’s alcohol
and iodine (mixed in squirt
bottles to disinfect the house of ghosts).


Prune this wild boy, Mamá told the barber
as she pulled my hair, grimacing, red fingernails
drawing blood.  Cajoling the cranky
pedal with grease, Luis el barbero pumped
up the chair he’d bought at a Hialeah


junkyard, strop stained by rain; la barbería squeezed
between a butchershop and cigar factory—
"America, Love It or Leave It" macramé nailed
above hooks where viejos hung canes, Panama hats.


I slumped angrily, shoe kicking foot rest, 
hands clenched under white shroud, plastic Virgin Marys
scowling at me for hating Mamá.  Luis thinned
the bush with toothed shears, straight razor hacked
outer growth as Mamá reminded him


my abuelos were Spaniards—her Catalan father’s
eyes between gray and blue, Roman nose,
his brother’s hair just like mine, curlier even.
Tío Octavio looked Semitic, Mamá said,
you’d think he was Henry Kissinger.


Fat and bald, back hairs brushed up like cockatoo’s
crest, Luis shook his head, eyebrows raised,
smiling like someone who’s heard this before.
Any hair’s better than none, señora, any hair.

Ars Poetica

In your uncle’s workshop by Havana Bay,
Your pudgy hands, stubby fingers turning
Lithe with wood, cloth, springs, bone, coir,
Your life a reverence to sawdust and burl
As you labored each day in the heat and the light,
Standing on a plank jacked up by bricks,
A ring of tools cuffed to your small wrist,
Your palms and soles callused to stone
As you fluted gadroons, flounced damask,
Beat down unruly tacks to martial rivets.
                                                        O padre mío,
I learned to craft words watching you sew
With the finest thread and not leave a trace—
To be patient, steadfast, reverent in my work.
Don’t dawdle, don’t waste, you’d say, but save
What you can’t use today for another day:
A scrap of cloth, a stray idea, an orphan verse.
gazed in wonder as you made the bucksaw
Sway like a violin’s bow against strident wood,
How you ironed wrinkled linen to vellum,
Or straightened the crookedest of nails
Because anything can be fixed. Praise you,
Papá, my poet of hammer, needle, and shears.

Rasp, Spoon, and Pestle

There were lemons growing old in a clay bowl,
A dozen injured pots that wobbled on the stove,
White countertops with stains like continents

Mamá hid with doilies and patches of an old stole.
A small cabinet stowed vials and jars, her trove
Of ground spices, dry herbs, heirloom condiments

To enchant croquettes, hors d’oeuvres, fillets of sole
Biscay style. With rasp, spoon, and pestle, she strove
To please Papá who scorned those recherché scents

Of haute cuisine, so she fricasseed oxtail in a soul-
Ful red sauce, boiled ham hocks, cooked tripe with cloves
Of garlic—simple, brawny, no buttery ornaments

To rouse his anger; but on Sundays she’d cajole
Papá with sautés, gratins, and soufflés that drove
Him to beg for seconds, thirds, his taste buds in ferment.

Related Poems

City That Does Not Sleep

In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the stars.

Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias.
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;
flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a thicket of new veins,
and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever
and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows.

Another day
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes are waiting,
where the bear's teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is sleeping.
If someone does close his eyes,
a whip, boys, a whip!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.