The Secret in the Mirror

- 1952-

The mirror is dirty from the detritus of dailiness—
I look in the mirror and am freckled.

A week out from being cleaned, maybe two, maybe more,
The Milky Way shows itself in the secret silver,

This star chart in my own bathroom,
Aglow not in darkness but with the lights on,

Everything suddenly so clear.
It is not smear I am looking at, but galaxies.

It is not toothpaste and water spots—
When I look in the mirror, it is writing and numbers,

Musical notes, 1s and 0s, Morse-like codes, runes.
I am looking over into the other side,

And over there, whoever they are, it turns out
They look a lot like me.  Like me, but freckled.

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

Saturday Night at the Buddhist Cinema

                                                            There were elephants

in cabaret dress reddish & cadmium blue

& dolphins in undetermined incarnations (I felt as if

I had interrupted the process I mean

the organ player had not risen

remember the Castro theatre off of Market?

It was Visconti’s Rocco & His Brothers & the lights went out maybe

1992 during the Rodney King revolt

the dolphin was working this out somehow tweeting

blinking his tiny saucy eyes I was in the third row as usual

in the middle) there was a horse torn unbridled

immense & stoic being pinned

with a hideous medal by the War Provosts it turned to us &

waited waited              for someone to take her home

the cow was there


            in a Mexican Pancho Villa outfit

                                    spraying everyone with snowflakes &

                        you you            should have seen us


how we had realized the Way

how we rubbed the blood off of our faces after the killings &

how we stuck it to the assassins huddled in a shabby corner

you should have seen the Pig Act

the pig                         a real pig with a wig in flames

in pinkish pajamas & a cigar doing a Fatty Arbuckle schtick

he even ordered 18 eggs over easy with 18 sides of sourdough

cranberry sauce sardines & a side of pastrami he was

hanging off the window ledge top story of the St. Francis

yoddling to a Gloria Swanson look-alike in a cashmere robe

(it was hilarious it was

what we all dreamed of yes that was it     it

was what we all dreamed of) the chicken in kimono pirouetted

with piquant harpsichord arpeggios

Sonata in E Major by Domenico Scarlatti the evil iris

on the side of the cheeky make-up popped

that is when I fell out

slid to the toilet but there were no towels or stalls or water

it was some kind of trick I said & blew my nose

into my sleeve an Italian piece from Beverly Hills 1966

(why was I there

all of a sudden?)


                        For the Short Feature everyone shouted

Wheres the Tuna?
                                                      We want the Tuna?

                        We want the Tuna!

What about the Tuna?


The organ rose from the stage

the song Avremi der Marvikher jittered the chandeliers

sung by a scrubby lanky tenor in a shredded vest

I had the same Chrysanthemum eyes of exile

I had the same wet braided locks & the black spot

            we all danced with straw stuffed violas we lost ourselves

            we regained some kind of  tree-strength that had been severed

the screen lit up with our faces huge hands

reached out to us we lit a tiny fire in the village

that is when my mother María danced an incredible

inappropriate Polka at the center of the plaza (How could that be?

She died decades ago!)

I was expecting parables on the Three Treasures

I was running from the bombs I was delirious for shelter

Outside everything was on fire and the gasman was after me

Imagine that Why me? I said. Why me!  But it was no use

so I ran in here

so I crouched under the seats

next to a woman in an emeraldine scaly dress

she was calm & stunning &

strumming a pearl-edged ten-string Stella

you’re Ava Gardner I said Where’s the exit?


 This is the exit.