Volume 5, Number 1, Winter 2004
I pull out your copy of Neruda’s poems that remain
on my shelf. I read Tus Manos, inspiring me to write
another poem about your hands, holding a cigarette,
gesturing with our old conversations about Botticelli
or the Cosmos over goblets of red wine on the beach
with seashells and stones we’d collect and place along
the window sills as if they’d grow softer in moonlight.
I read Tu Risa wanting to trace your laughter back to
when I didn’t need to write about the way we walked
together on our boardwalk, as if the sea didn’t matter,
paying no attention to the senate of stars governing us.
Then I turn to a poem you book-marked with a petal,
flat as the page it kept and turning brown at the edges,
but its heart still scarlet and velvet with want, pressed
between titles: El Olvido/Oblivion and Siempre/Always.
Mother Picking Produce
She scratches the oranges then smells the peel,
presses an avocado just enough to judge its ripeness,
polishes the Macintoshes searching for bruises.
She selects with hands that have thickened, fingers
that have swollen with history around the white gold
of a wedding ring she now wears as a widow.
Unlike the archived photos of young, slender digits
captive around black and white orange blossoms,
her spotted hands now reaching into the colors.
I see all the folklore of her childhood, the fields,
the fruit she once picked from the very tree,
the wiry roots she pulled out of the very ground.
And now, among the collapsed boxes of yuca,
through crumbling pyramids of golden mangoes,
she moves with the same instinct and skill.
This is how she survives death and her son,
on these humble duties that will never change,
on those habits of living which keep a life a life.
She holds up red grapes to ask me what I think,
and what I think is this, a new poem about her–
the grapes look like dusty rubies in her hands,
what I say is this: they look sweet, very sweet.
What Las Palmas Mean:
shade from moonlight
tango with a starry breeze
café-con-leche and pineapple soda
at La Palma take-out counter
the ghosts of the sand castles,
the sorceress of the coconut
my gossiping ladies that tell no lies
the jagged edges of a parade
on a crowded, hot boulevard
violins or bongos, on the sand –
we spill champagne or rum
fuschia neon No Vacancy flashing
at the Palms Motel – 2:00 A.M.
Martí: las palmas son novias que esperan
brides waltzing on the shore;
and the windows of the tropics
P & S or VIVA CUBA
carved in block letters
the aphrodisiac of a people,
the talisman of a nation
open hands –
broad and veined and still,
and still waiting.
Last Night in Havana
Drifting from above, the palms seem to sink
willingly into the saffron ground, all I can map
is the marble veins of rivers turning static,
the island coastline retreating like a hem
from the sargasso patches of Caribbean.
I think of you primo, huddled on the edge
of an Almendares curb last night,
El Greco shadow spilt across the street,
and over the tracks stapled to the weeds
below your open bedroom window.
Covered in cobwebs of humid wind,
we slapped at unreachable mosquitoes
as Havana’s tenements collapsed around us,
enclosed us like the yellow of old books
or the stucco walls of a hollow chapel.
You confessed you live ankled in the sand
of a revolution, watching an unparted sea,
marking tides and learning currents
that will carry you through the straits
to my door, blistered and salted, but alive.
You said you want silence, you want to leave
the sweep of the labor trains in your window,
the creak of your father’s wheelchair in the hall
searching for a bottle of pills he will find empty,
and the slam of your eyelids forcing sleep.
The tires are ready, bound with piano wire,
the sail will be complete with the linen scraps
your mother will stitch together after midnights
when the neighbors are trying to fall asleep.
Last night in Havana, your face against your knees,
your words drowning with the lees in an empty bottle
of bootleg wine you clutched around the neck
and will keep to store fresh water.
Tia Olivia Serves Wallace Stevens a Cuban Egg
The ration books voided, there was little to eat,
so Tía Olivia ruffled four hens to serve Stevens
a fresh criollo egg. The singular image lay limp,
floating in a circle of miniature roses and vines
etched around the edges of the rough dish.
The saffron, inhuman soul staring at Stevens
who asks what yolk is this, so odd a yellow?
Tell me Señora, if you know, he petitions,
what exactly is the color of this temptation:
I can see a sun, bit it is not the color of suns
nor of sunflowers, nor the yellows of Van Gogh,
it is neither corn nor school pencil, as it is,
so few things are yellow, this, even more precise.
He shakes some salt, eye to eye hypothesizing:
a carnival of hues under the gossamer membrane,
a liqueur of convoluted colors, quarter-part orange,
imbued shadows, watercolors running a song
down the spine of praying stems, but what, then,
of the color of the stems, what green for the leaves,
what color the flowers; what of order for our eyes
if I can not name this elusive yellow, Señora?
Intolerant, Tía Olivia bursts open Stevens’s yolk,
plunging into it with a sharp piece of Cuban toast:
It is yellow, she says, amarillo y nada más, bien?
The unleashed pigments begin to fill the plate,
overflow onto the embroidered place mats,
stream down the table and through the living room
setting all the rocking chairs in motion then
over the mill tracks cutting through cane fields,
a viscous mass downing palm trees and shacks.
In its frothy wake whole choirs of church ladies
clutch their rosary beads and sing out in Latin,
exhausted macheteros wade in the stream,
holding glinting machetes overhead with one arm;
cafeteras, ’57 Chevys, uniforms and empty bottles,
mangy dogs and fattened pigs saved from slaughter,
Soviet jeeps, Bohemia magazines, park benches,
all carried in the egg lava carving the molested valley
and emptying into the sea. Yellow, Stevens relents,
Yes. But then what the color of the sea, Señora?
Poems from City of a Hundred Fires reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Richard Blanco is the fifth poet to read at the US Presidential Inauguration. He is the author of three books of poems: Looking for the Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), Directions to the Beach of the Dead, (University of Arizona Press, 2005), and City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), as well as a memoir, Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (Ecco Press, 2014). He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Central Connecticut State University. He lives in Bethel, Maine.