Oh people not mine
what is it we can hear
the old custodian
coddles the tin box
in the empty church
the ex-monk clips
his lime tree just so
my soiled skin flensed
from my uniform
Jesus said to them
oh ye of little faith
Ayamonte is golden
the sun rakes over us
meticulous and slow
a mutt with cataracts
licks its parts ticking
Portugal lies exposed
on her soft cheap cot
passive and docile unlike
that bull that is Spain
the sea’s lips scold me
in that Spanish way
gentle and yet firm
nothing here is mine

The Clerk's Tale

I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, 
selling suits to men I call "Sir."
These men are muscled, groomed and cropped--
with wives and families that grow exponentially.
Mostly I talk of rep ties and bow ties,
of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,
of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,
of foulards, neats, and internationals,
of pincord, houndstooth, nailhead, and sharkskin.
I often wear a blue pin-striped suit.
My hair recedes and is going gray at the temples.
On my cheeks there are a few pimples.
For my terrible eyesight, horn-rimmed spectacles.
One of my fellow-workers is an old homosexual
who works hard and wears bracelets with jewels.
No one can rival his commission checks.
On his break he smokes a Benson & Hedges cigarette,
puffing expectantly as a Hollywood starlet.
He has carefully applied a layer of Clinique bronzer
to enhance the tan on his face and neck.
His hair is gone except for a few strands
which are combed across his scalp.
He examines his manicured lacquered nails.
I admire his studied attention to details:
his tie stuck to his shirt with masking tape,
his teeth capped, his breath mint in place.
The old homosexual and I laugh in the back
over a coarse joke involving an octopus.
Our banter is staccato, staged and close
like those "Spanish Dances" by Granados.
I sometimes feel we are in a musical--
gossiping backstage between our numbers.
He drags deeply on his cigarette.
Most of his life is over.
Often he refers to himself as "an old faggot."
He does this bemusedly, yet timidly.
I know why he does this.
He does this because his acceptance is finally complete--
and complete acceptance is always
bittersweet. Our hours are long. Our backs bent.
We are more gracious than English royalty.
We dart amongst the aisles tall as hedgerows.
Watch us face into the merchandise.
How we set up and take apart mannequins
as if we were performing autopsies.
A naked body, without pretense, is of no use.
It grows late.
I hear the front metal gate close down.
We begin folding the ties correctly according to color.
The shirts--Oxfords, broadcloths, pinpoints--
must be sized, stacked, or rehashed.
The old homosexual removes his right shoe,
allowing his gigantic bunion to swell.
There is the sound of cash being counted--
coins clinking, bills swishing, numbers whispered--
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. . .
We are changed when the transactions are done--
older, dirtier, dwarfed.
A few late customers gawk in at us.
We say nothing. Our silence will not be breached.
The lights go off, one by one--
the dressing room lights, the mirror lights.
Then it is very late. How late? Eleven?
We move to the gate. It goes up.
The gate's grating checkers our cheeks.
This is the Mall of America.
The light is bright and artificial,
yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
You must travel down the long hallways to the exits
before you encounter natural light.
One final formality: the manager checks out bags.
The old homosexual reaches into his over-the-shoulder leather bag--
the one he bought on his European travels 
with his companion of many years.
He finds a stick of lip balm and applies it to his lips
liberally, as if shellacking them.
Then he inserts one last breath mint
and offers one to me. The gesture is fraternal
and occurs between us many times.
At last, we bid each other good night.
I watch him fade into the many-tiered parking lot,
where the thousands of cars have come
and are now gone. This is how our day ends.
This is how our day always ends.
Sometimes snow falls like rice.
See us take to our dimly lit exits,
disappearing into the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul;
Minneapolis is sleek and St. Paul,
named after the man who had to be shown,
is smaller, older, and somewhat withdrawn.
Behind us, the moon pauses over the vast egg-like dome of the mall.
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.

Then

I was a full-time house sitter. I had no title.
I lived in a farmhouse, on a small hill,
surrounded by 100 acres. All was still.
The fields were in a government program
that paid farmers to abandon them. Perfect.

I overlooked Union Lake, a small lake,
with a small ugly island in the middle--
a sort of mistake, a cluster of dead elms
encircled by marsh, resembling a smear
of oil paint left to congeal on a palette.

Pesticides farmers sprayed on their crops
over the years had drained into the lake
and made the water black, the fish shake.
About the family that built the house
I knew nothing. Built in 1865,

perhaps they came after the Civil War?
It was a simple house. Two stories.
Six rooms. Every wall crooked.
Before the house, Indians camped there.
If you listened you could hear them.

On Sunday afternoons in early June,
the sun would burnish the interiors.
Shafts of light fell across the rooms.
An old gray cat sparred his mote-swirls.
Up a tiny staircase, ladder steep, 

I was often found, adrift, half asleep.
I forgot words, where I lived, my dreams.
Mirrors around the house, those streams,
ran out of gossip. The walls absorbed me. 
There was every indication I was safe there.

Outside, children sang, sweetening the air:
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream . . .
their fingers marrying each other with ease
as the dark built its scaffolding above the trees.

Peonies spoiled, dye ran from their centers.
Often, the lawn was covered by a fine soft rain.
Days disappeared as quickly as they came.
The children receded. The moon rose.
Cows paused on the wild green plain

of all that land still left uncommercialized.
Three years I had there. Alone. At peace.
Often I awoke as the light began to cease.
The house breathed and shook like a lover
as I took for myself time needed to recover.

Ponies

I remember the ponies in the distance.
I remember you talked of a war, no two wars, a failed marriage--
discretely, without force or grandeur.
This was before they amputated your leg, before the stroke.
You rolled your r’s, spoke of Oxford,
recalled driving in the Quaker ambulance unit in China,
where you saw an oil drum filled with severed limbs.
Pleased to have your approval, I rarely spoke.
You were like a father to me and I was grateful.
I remember the ponies behind the fence, muscular,
breathing, how they worried the grass.
The ponies said: This day astounds us. The field is green.
We love nothing better than space and more space.
Ah, they knew what I needed to know.
They lived in their bodies.
If the ponies wanted to kiss, they kissed.
They moved like the shadows of airplanes.
They knew no hatred, but fear they understood.
The sky was shot clear with blue.
After the picnic, we gathered the tablecloth.
As we left, I could still see the ponies,
crowding one another, free and unbroken.

Related Poems

Romance Sonámbulo

translated by William Bryant Logan
(skip to the original poem in Spanish)

Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.
With the shade around her waist
she dreams on her balcony,
green flesh, her hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
Green, how I want you green.
Under the gypsy moon,
all things are watching her
and she cannot see them.

Green, how I want you green.
Big hoarfrost stars
come with the fish of shadow
that opens the road of dawn.
The fig tree rubs its wind
with the sandpaper of its branches,
and the forest, cunning cat,
bristles its brittle fibers.
But who will come? And from where?
She is still on her balcony
green flesh, her hair green,
dreaming in the bitter sea.

—My friend, I want to trade
my horse for her house,
my saddle for her mirror,
my knife for her blanket.
My friend, I come bleeding
from the gates of Cabra.
—If it were possible, my boy,
I'd help you fix that trade.
But now I am not I,
nor is my house now my house.
—My friend, I want to die
decently in my bed.
Of iron, if that's possible,
with blankets of fine chambray.
Don't you see the wound I have
from my chest up to my throat?
—Your white shirt has grown
thirsty dark brown roses.
Your blood oozes and flees a
round the corners of your sash.
But now I am not I,
nor is my house now my house.
—Let me climb up, at least,
up to the high balconies;
Let me climb up! Let me,
up to the green balconies.
Railings of the moon
through which the water rumbles.

Now the two friends climb up,
up to the high balconies.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of teardrops.
Tin bell vines
were trembling on the roofs.
A thousand crystal tambourines
struck at the dawn light.

Green, how I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The two friends climbed up.
The stiff wind left
in their mouths, a strange taste
of bile, of mint, and of basil
My friend, where is she—tell me—
where is your bitter girl?
How many times she waited for you!
How many times would she wait for you,
cool face, black hair,
on this green balcony!
Over the mouth of the cistern
the gypsy girl was swinging,
green flesh, her hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
An icicle of moon
holds her up above the water.
The night became intimate
like a little plaza.
Drunken "Guardias Civiles"
were pounding on the door.
Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea.
And the horse on the mountain.


Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.
Con la sombra en la cintura
ella sueña en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Bajo la luna gitana,
las cosas la están mirando
y ella no puede mirarlas.

Verde que te quiero verde.
Grandes estrellas de escarcha
vienen con el pez de sombra
que abre el camino del alba.
La higuera frota su viento
con la lija de sus ramas,
y el monte, gato garduño,
eriza sus pitas agrias.
¿Pero quién vendra? ¿Y por dónde...?
Ella sigue en su baranda,
Verde carne, pelo verde,
soñando en la mar amarga.

—Compadre, quiero cambiar
mi caballo por su casa,
mi montura por su espejo,
mi cuchillo per su manta.
Compadre, vengo sangrando,
desde los puertos de Cabra.
—Si yo pudiera, mocito,
este trato se cerraba.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
—Compadre, quiero morir
decentemente en mi cama.
De acero, si puede ser,
con las sábanas de holanda.
¿No ves la herida que tengo
desde el pecho a la garganta?
—Trescientas rosas morenas
lleva tu pechera blanca.
Tu sangre rezuma y huele
alrededor de tu faja.
Pero yo ya no soy yo,
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.
—Dejadme subir al menos
hasta las altas barandas;
¡dejadme subir!, dejadme,
hasta las verdes barandas.
Barandales de la luna
por donde retumba el agua.
Ya suben los dos compadres
hacia las altas barandas.
Dejando un rastro de sangre.
Dejando un rastro de lágrimas.
Temblaban en los tejados
farolillos de hojalata.
Mil panderos de cristal
herían la madrugada.
Verde que te quiero verde,
verde viento, verdes ramas.
Los dos compadres subieron.
El largo viento dejaba
en la boca un raro gusto
de hiel, de menta y de albahaca.
¡Compadre! ¿Donde está, díme?
¿Donde está tu niña amarga?
¡Cuántas veces te esperó!
¡Cuántas veces te esperara,
cara fresca, negro pelo,
en esta verde baranda!

Sobre el rostro del aljibe
se mecía la gitana.
Verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Un carámbano de luna
la sostiene sobre el agua.
La noche se puso íntima
como una pequeña plaza.
Guardias civiles borrachos
en la puerta golpeaban.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar.
Y el caballo en la montaña.

The Sky Over My Mother’s House

translated by Edith Grossman

It is a July night
scented with gardenias.
The moon and stars shine
hiding the essence of the night.
As darkness fell
—with its deepening onyx shadows
and the golden brilliance of the stars—
my mother put the garden, her house, the kitchen, in order.
Now, as she sleeps,
I walk in her garden
immersed in the solitude of the moment.
I have forgotten the names
of many trees and flowers
and there used to be more pines
where orange trees flower now.
Tonight I think of all the skies
I have pondered and once loved.
Tonight the shadows around
the house are kind.
The sky is a camera obscura
projecting blurred images.
In my mother’s house
the twinkling stars
pierce me with nostalgia,
and each thread in the net that surrounds this world
is a wound that will not heal.


El cielo encima de la casa de mi madre

Es una noche de julio
perfumada de gardenias.
La luna y las estrellas brillan
sin revelar la esencia de la noche.
A través del anochecer
—con sus gradaciones cada vez más intensas de ónix,
y el resplandor dorado de los astros, de las sombras—
mi madre ha ido ordenando su casa, el jardín, la cocina.
Ahora, mientras ella duerme,
yo camino en su jardín,
inmerso en la soledad de esta hora.
Se me escapan los nombres
de muchos árboles y flores,
y había más pinos antes
donde los naranjos florecen ahora.
Esta noche pienso en todos los cielos
que he contemplado y que alguna vez amé.
Esta noche las sombras
alrededor de la casa son benignas.
El cielo es una cámara oscura
que proyecta imágenes borrosas.
En la casa de mi madre
los destellos de los astros
me perforan con nostalgia,
y cada hilo de la red que circunvala este universo
es una herida que no sana.

Lunch Break

Two hours between classes.
The short Metro ride home.
Coffee table, plates, glasses,

the TV flickering afternoon
news, sometimes a car bomb…
And in the kitchen the singular tune

of his voice, his jokes, recounting this
or that—plot of a novel, book
he’s put down, I bought for his

monthly fix (how he’d love
reading in the park what I took
half an hour to choose). Above

all, the sofa: digestion a nap,
my head nestled in his lap.


Hora del almuerzo

Dos horas entre clases.
El viaje breve en Metro a casa.
Mesa de salón, platos, vasos,

la tele luciendo noticias
de tarde, a veces un coche-bomba…
Y en la cocina el tono único

de su voz, sus chistes, contando esto
y aquello—argumento de novela, libro
que ha dejado, que le compré:

sus dosis mensual (cómo le encantaba
leer en el parque lo que tardé
madia hora en escoger). Sobre

todo, el sofá: la digestión una siesta,
mi cabeza recostada en su regazo