Tower of Babel

Praise be to God for confounding our tongues and scattering us into exile 

like chaff in a stray wind or the fig seeds dropped by a green iguacaon on a hogplum.
Confusion is sweetest chirimoya on a dry tongue. 
Hymns of disorder bring bountiful harvests in times of drought, 
And perhaps only cross-eyes can see in chaos serene mandalas. 
I shout from the top of my Babel’s tower sown as a kapok tree— 
Blessed are the dialects, the patois, the argots, and the pidgins; 
the half-breed word-hoards and the mongrel grammars; the geechees, 
the calós, and the ghost words; those hallowed languages gone dead 
or worse extinct because of genocide or conquest or just time’s erosion, 
yet how we must mourn each one in our bones, hearts, spleens; 
then join hands by the sea at dawn to chant their names in flames 
of gumbo-limbo, O so many to remember: Elmolo, Mawa, Ba-Shu, 
Koibal, Guanche, Calusa, Wichita, and the Taíno of my own island—
Kubanakán—whose words linger past the cyclones of our sadness
like flotsam chromosomes or castaway fossils of such beautiful amber 
as barbacoa, canoa, fotuto, hamaca, iguana, malanga, tabaco, yuca.  
With these words I make machines of memory in flesh and marrow. 
With these words I glide and cleave the tidal waves of history.  
With these words I take root in the quicksands of diaspora.  

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.

El Rastro

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.  

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.

Related Poems

Sovereignty

Can be fragile, easy
to fade or be erased, all

It takes is a single heavy hand
or a legend thrown

Like a gauntlet, the hand that opens
an island’s body, an autopsy.

Nothing says empire
like a flag, says republic like fabric

Stretched & strung, swathes
of land tethered, a sanguine stitch

Of the tongue, language conquers
from within     before the blade

Separates flesh & kin,
breath & the line, all

Broken by a wall
& a people’s history

Crumbling in another’s wake

Buffalograss

Barely-morning pink curtains
drape an open window. Roaches scatter,

the letter t vibrating in cottonwoods.
His hair horsetail and snakeweed.

I siphon doubt from his throat
for the buffalograss.

Seep willow antler press against
the memory of the first man I saw naked.

His tongue a mosquito whispering
its name a hymn on mesquite,

my cheek. The things we see the other do
collapse words into yucca bone.

The Navajo word for eye
hardens into the word for war.

Red Language

If I heard the words you once used
in our wild place rough with scrub roses
in sand—if your words came back
gray and kind as mild winter
believe me I’d still understand
offer my own red language
my tongue to your tongue
so we recall what we once said
that made us live
                        made us choose to live