Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Did you hear?


Did you hear?

Today they canceled science and history
and math
and filled the slots with silly time.

It was declared
that serious persons must commit
one gaff
or fall
or laugh
or write the word booger
one-hundred times.

It’s just that sort of day,
ovely,
dovel
lovely is what it is.

Did you see the news?

They found a WWII submarine
off the coast of Carolina.
A relic of a serious time--
but wouldn’t you believe it,
the crew was fine!

They were drunk actually
and the spectacled scientists felt silly
from their tentacled craft
as the submariner and his men
sauntered all over
the ocean floor.

I'm sure you've felt it before.

People always saying
there's something’s coming;
they feel the slow strings
quickening, tightening.
But assholes always get it wrong.

Didn’t you hear?

Today they canceled science and history
and math
and filled the slots with silly time.

So write the word booger one-hundred times
laugh
make a gaff 
or if deep down 
you're serious like me
fall
in love.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Third World Explanation

I can only explain the Third World like this: it’s like sleepaway summer camp. You sleep next to a fan. If you get sick, an adult who is not your parent takes you to the doctor. The roads are bumpy and unpaved. The cars are all old pickups that need paint jobs. Conditions alternate between dust and mud. The furniture is old and worn, even in places like insurance agencies or restaurants, and the padding will be popping out of the leather or there will be scratches or little drips of paint on it if it's wood. It's still comfortable, and functional, but it would never fly in the States. Someone would have said, “It’s time we got rid of that thing,” and that would be the end of that. New fuckin’ table. At summer camp everything and everyone looks a little grimy. But you get used to it, so much that when you leave the first thing you notice are the colors. There's such contrast between the white shirts and the red sweaters. Your eyes are adjusting. Then your mom says you need to take a shower before you go out to eat. You realize you're dirty as hell. Most people in the Third World are spared this rude realization because their camp session lasts forever.

We never had packs of wild dogs at summer camp though. One night around 2 a.m. I watched a street battle, a swirl of ribcages and muscle, in the cobblestone intersection below my balcony. I had a great view but I can’t say I enjoyed it much. When it was over, the one pack was charging up the hill, looking like a cavalry regiment after a successful raid, and the other gave a half-spirited pursuit before trickling back down the hill. One of their number, a thin and beautiful creature that looked like a wolf, was sitting like a sphinx in the middle of the road. His back leg stuck out oddly behind it and it from where I stood it looked like a ripped pillow. He made no noise but beat his tail and looked at the other dogs plaintively. They gathered around him and licked his face and whined after they’d smelled the oddly-bent leg. I returned an hour later to smoke a cigarette and the dog was alone and looking alert, listening to the sounds of the empty street. It was a starry clear night and he looked like a castaway. I don’t know what happened to him and I can’t think of a better outcome than not knowing. Maybe it’s the way dogs grin even when they’re hurt or dying that makes their plights such a concern to people. Of course many people don’t care, and anyhow it's not an actual grin. 

It's No Joke Being Broke


Being broke in the Third World is no joke. Sometimes I don’t even have the equivalent of a nickel. A nickel. That’s five cents. A few months ago I came to spend a few days in Tela, a city on the north coast of Honduras, before flying out of nearby San Pedro Sula. I’d paid half of all the money I had for one night in a hotel and I was getting screwed. I sat in my room covered in sweat with a remote control to a dead TV. The fan wouldn’t spin, wouldn’t oscillate. I said fuck; the fan made a clicking noise. My lips were bleeding; I’d been eating unripe mangoes. The skin of an unripe mango is full of urushiol; the same thing that makes poison ivy a poison. I went to take a shower. Often its the only way to stay cool. The towel on the rack by the sink had the words Hotel La Hacienda written in black permanent marker. There was no curtain or shower-head, just a tube sticking out of the wall. I turned the nozzle, half expecting no water to come out, and it didn't. I smelled smoke, a sort of burning plastic smell. The fan was on fire. I’d left it on and the internal gears were grinding themselves away.

My stomach was rumbling in the morning. I went to get the free breakfast. It was early and the room was dark. The restaurant was on the second floor and out the window on the far side of the room I could see the main square and beyond it the grayish-blue line of the ocean. I felt better. The woman came out and I told her I wanted coffee. She pointed to the food on the counter. There was cereal, oatmeal, and grits. There was milk in a jug in the refrigerator. I have always been wary of milk products. I hadn’t eaten grits since being in Tennessee so I emptied the bag into a plastic bowl and added some hot water. They were good but not at all the way I remembered them. Halfway through the bowl I saw I was eating maggots. The little larvae were squirming. For a moment it looked like the grits had come alive. Why is it that little things always seem to squirm? I finished the coffee and headed to the beach.

There was a bridge over a small river that emptied into a lagoon. Water from the lagoon flowed across the flat sand and met the onrushing water from the ocean and the currents made fantastic patterns. Palm trees lined the beach in neat rows and every so often there was a large blue garbage can next to one of them. A large ship loomed close to shore. It revved its engine and black smoke came out of it. I thought it was searching for something or practicing staying in one place because it did not leave an area within four bright orange buoys. It was a workday and there was nobody on the beach. I put my towel down and buried my wallet in the sand. There was nothing in my stomach but coffee and a few maggots. In the water I bobbed like a pop can. The ocean was as warm as forgotten tea.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fish Girl

There was a fish on the sidewalk. 
“Hey!  Hey!  I like your sunglasses,” she said.
 She was flopping alongside of me.   
“You snuck up on me there.”
The sun slid a rainbow up to her pouting lips. 
“What’s your name?”
A heave:  “Mary.”
Mary was covered in flies.
“Where are you going Mary?”
“This way.” 
“Well come on then.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
 “Tennessee.  Thirty miles south of Chattanooga.”           
“So that’s eastern Tennessee.” 
She stopped and looked very impressed.
Baby,” she said.
I thought I saw a smile, the rainbows around her gills switching poles.
 “Well, I live right up here by Morocco Street. Do you know where that is?”
“I do. I’m staying there with some friends.”
“What a coincidence. What are you doing in town?”
“I just got a job at Babes’ Cabaret.”
“So you’re going to be a stripper?”
“I start tomorrow night. You should be my # 1.”
“OK,” I said. “Take me home with you?”
“Sure thing,” she said. “Just pick me up.”
I put my hand around her
and she felt like old sandwich meat.
"Hm, maybe if I."
Then I caught my finger on a spine. 
"Sorry," she said.
I tried my hand like a spatula
and one of her scales peeled off into my hand.
She was stuck to the pavement.
I didn’t want to go home with her anymore.
“Just wondering, do you have water or anything at your house?” she asked.
I looked down the street for the bus.
“Uhm. What they don’t have a fish bowl where you live? Or at least a cup of water?”
“No, they just say they love me.”
“Well that’s something. Hey, you want some beer?”  
I had a half a can of beer
and I tilted it toward the button eye
 and the sinewy mouth, which snapped open.
“That was good,” she said. “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”
“Five blocks this way, and two that way.”
“Oh, bye,” she said and waved her fin
sadly like a fan.
I put my hands on my hips.
The light was baking the shade,
just beating it up.
I saw legs moving from the bottoms of trellised porches.
The cats were starting to move.

“God luck Mary,” I said. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cabbies

Two white gulls appear from the perfect blue and startle the water. It is 8:00 a.m., the start of a new day. The cab drivers’ voices rise and fall in time. They come to this parking lot every morning. There is a Dunkin Donuts, which opens early, and Value Pricing, an Arab store that sells dates, olives, and tea. On a good day there are twenty of them, with ten drinking tea and smoking cigarettes, watching the sun rise over the canal from foldout chairs around an ornate rug that’s stored in Horiya’s trunk. Four other men sit cross-legged on stools. The older men wear well-ironed gray trousers and pastel shirts that puff nicely near the waist. One has a tweed jacket neatly folded over one knee. They have striking mustaches and black hair that’s combed over dignified patches bare scalp. The others recline in their cars and close their eyes and do not talk except out their windows. They come to see men that look like their grandfathers talk to men that look like their fathers, letting the language drift in the open window...
“He received the...ah... Peace Prize in 1964 to make the world a better place. Then there was 1967, and ah...”
“—Whole new ball game?”
“Right,” the first one says. “Exactly.”
There’s a rumble in the distance that scares away the gulls. (What does Horiya, whose father’s business was destroyed three times by airstrikes, hear in the summer when the sky is dark and booming with rain?)
“I could drive cab for 30 years with no raise,” a young driver says. “Already I speak better English than Jerome, and he is the boss.”
“He speaks black,” another says. “‘Yo Yo.’ Right?”
 “It’s an outrage.”
An older man with the folded tweed jacket raises his hand. “Outrage?” he says. “You not realize how bad it could be.” “Look where we are. The air is good. You are not questioned by the guards. You may go anywhere you like. It is a blessing.” His palm is flat, held from a bent elbow, like a frozen snake ready to strike.

 “Yes, but we still must work,” – the other old man adds– “very hard.” The last two words carry the full weight of his breath, as if it were too early for them to be spoken, and they remind the men to be a little afraid. Two men roll up Horiya’s rug and carry it to his trunk. They finish their coffee, crush half-smoked cigarettes on the pavement, start their engines and drive away. Then the parking lot is empty. They hear it on their radios. The first plane hits at 8:14. The second at 8:22. If you hadn’t been there an hour before, you’d never know they were there. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Never Write Poems About Dreams

In college someone told me,
Never write poems about dreams.
It's an excess,
a willful muddling of meaning,
a lack of conviction disguised as attitude.

I can see the logic in this,
but god damn.

I'm not particularly worried
about how I write a fucking poem,
I told the guy,
who was my college professor.

He had a fedora, a witty t-shirt,
thick-rimmed glasses, a mustache,
and he was wearing a scarf in New Orleans.

That's a lack of conviction.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Candidate


I was at a gas station in Honduras
drinking coffee and reading
when I met the candidate.


There were three employees dressed in bright red vests.
One put the coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
Another fetched sugar packets
and a little red straw.
The last took a pile of napkins from the dispenser
and placed them neatly under the sugar packets.


I knew by his stature,
his perfect mustache, and cowboy hat
that he was someone important;
a wealthy rancher
or a member of the cartel.


He sat next to me and asked where I was from
and I told him, and he said he had family in Waukegan
and I told him what I knew of the place.
He said he'd lived in New Orleans
and then California,
where he’d picked artichokes with Cesar Chavez.
Knew him personally.


I nodded and noticed his face by my right elbow
on a stack of laminated flyers.


Mario Padilla, candidate for congress
running for the newly-formed leftist party, Libre.


Next to Mario is Libre's presidential candidate:
an attractive, dark woman
with thick black eyebrows named Xiomara Castro,
wife to former president Manuel Zelaya
who was ousted in a coup in 2009.


I told him I was a leftist too and then had nothing else to say,
so I motioned to the chaos of the street where the construction
of a four-lane road was underway.


“I heard it’s all for politics,” I said, baiting him. “They want it done by election time.”
“You see that?” he asked,
pointing to a boy sweeping dust from the street. “The poverty. It breaks my heart.”


Maybe a week later I heard an interesting story:
I was told Mario Padilla stole the gas station we'd been sitting in.
More precisely President Zelaya
had seized all the gas station in town
and given them to party supporters, like Mario.


Perhaps it's for good reason that people say
Libre is more of the same.
They had a shot at winning, but that was seven months ago.


In the mean time,
the new road was completed,
the Che Guevara memorial was demolished early on election day,
and Libre lost the election,
though their red flags hang from the tree stumps
and gutters in the poorer neighborhoods
where everyone with nothing to lose
somehow lost again.


The new president is conservative.
He promised: A Soldier on Every Corner
and now with the machine guns
there’s no fear of being robbed of your wallet,
there's just fear,
which is robbery of hope.


What it comes down to in Honduras is security
and that’s the way it is now: secure.
People with money like conservative politicians
because they buttress inequality,
giving you the choice between warm shit
or cold shit,
corruption or martial law,
poverty or crime.


Sooner or later we’ll say enough is enough.
There is hope, I know it,
because inequality is not a natural state;
it takes energy.


Imagine a hand shaking a snow globe
or sand agitated in water.
Gravity takes over
sooner or later.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Trivia


I found myself playing trivia with a cute girl at the elbow of the bar. We hadn’t signed up to play, so we just called out the answers.
“Which John Steinbeck novel revolves around the characters Lenny and George?”
Of Mice and Men!” we said.
“Which American novelist wrote the Rabbit tetralogy?”
“John Updike!” we cried.
We couldn’t miss. We were getting some good glares from the tables behind us. The host, a man-child who was halfway through his third Dr. Pepper, sat at a foldout table with a microphone and a laptop. He seemed very content and I didn’t see him pull his eyes away from the screen once.
“Who in the 1940s invented the Aqua-Lung?” he asked.
“Jacques Cousteau,” I said, “that one was easy.”
“And Emile Gagnan,” she added. I looked at her. She was wearing a black and white dress with diagonal stripes that turned horizontal below her chest.
The bartender walked over to our corner. “If you two keep calling out the answers you’re going to have to leave.”
“Give me two PBRs.”
“I’m serious, one more time and you’re out.”
“Sure.” I gave him a five and put a dollar on the bar for tip. The host was feverishly scoring the previous round. I turned to my teammate.
“I was under the impression that it was just Cousteau.”
“They were co-inventors: Cousteau was the rockstar, Gagnan was the engineer.”
“I didn’t think anybody spent more time on Wikipedia than me, except maybe the host.”
“Well that’s depressing.”
“I like it. What’s your name?”
“It’s a normal name,” she said, “It’s not interesting. What about yours?”
“My last name looks French, but it’s not. People say it’s difficult to pronounce.”
“I’m jealous.”
“You shouldn’t be. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind your name.”
She nodded, but seemed doubtful. The bartender brought the beers and I handed one to my teammate. She looked at me. She had big, dark eyes.
“Is there an interesting story behind your last name?” she asked.
“I’ve heard two. The first, which I heard from my uncles as a child, is kind of mysterious and romantic, but it hasn’t been substantiated by the internet. They said it meant People of the snow. I wish it were true. People of the snow. Isn’t that nice? The second story is that it’s a Gaelic translation of the Germanic name Siegfried, which means Victory. You know like the Nazis, ‘Seig Heil!’”
“My first name is Spanish for pillar.”
“Like a pole?”
“Like a support beam.”
I didn’t hear the next question of the next round, but apparently she did.
“Cheese!” she yelled, and there were some groans from the tables behind us. The host put his Dr. Pepper down loudly on the table. The bartender stood up from taking an order down the bar and pointed at us. “That’s it you two, out!”
We walked out to the street and I saw lights above the houses. It looked like a stadium, but I guessed that it was a port on the river. We were close to the river, but you couldn’t see the lights during the day and you wouldn’t know.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“With some friends on the couch. You?”
“With my mom, but just for now.”
I took a step forward and brought my lips to hers, accidentally imagining her mother: a woman with the same face, hair, and dress, but with more makeup, black stockings, and a larger bust. I pulled back.
“You know,” I said, “you’re the best trivia player I’ve ever met.”
“I’m an insignificant-information specialist.”
I asked her what she wanted to do, and she took me by the hand and led me down a street where quaint little houses and banana trees stood over a sidewalk made of brick. There was a bike with thin tires and a large seat locked to a stop sign. She unlocked it and I told her to straddle the front tire and walk and then jump up on the handlebars when I started pedaling. I took care to avoid the parked cars. It was damp and dark and brisk with her good-smelling hair in my face. The world of drunk bicycling is a wonderful world. It has to be at least as good as drunk driving, and it’s probably better, because there is less guilt and less danger of anyone but yourself getting killed.
We rode our strange vehicle for two blocks, and then the pedaling became incrementally more difficult. The back wheel was under-inflated. I told her to hop off when I hit the brakes, and she pushed off and her legs cleared the front wheel. We walked onto a street with a boulevard and large houses with wide, deserted porches. There was a heightened perception and an intimacy and measuredness to time that we’d not felt on the bike. The streetlights illuminated the lower branches of huge oak trees and on the ground the moist-looking roots pushed the sidewalks up from the ground.
We found a dark place along the side of a house and we kissed and I turned her around and pulled up the back of her black and white dress. I liked what I saw, maybe as much as I’d ever liked anything else, but there was also an unexpected feeling of familiarity, a sudden sense that I was participating in some ubiquitous and ultimately banal enterprise. Of course, this did not stop me and I was glad to find that once again we were of the same mind. I probed her every centimeter, exploring with my hands, growing more depraved with every passing moment, as she ducked, spun, and fluttered, letting me know her body in segments, engaging with pieces rather than the whole. What we were doing was more like watching professional sports than making love and it took great focus and encouragement to achieve anything substantial, but I finally did.
I walked home and forgot about her that night. I don’t know when I first started thinking about her again, but a week later I was back for trivia night sitting at the elbow of the bar. I couldn’t remember her face, so I sat and listened for someone calling out the answers. There was a pretty girl next to me. We looked at each other, but she didn't have anything to say and neither did I. It went like that all night, these looks. Finally I leaned over. “Your name means pillar in Spanish," I said. "Pillar, like a pole.”
“Like a support beam.”
She looked at me, smiling very large, and I remembered her eyes. She was more dark and wonderful looking than anything I'd expected to see that night.
“There are two stories about your name,” she said. “One your uncles told you. It’s mysterious and romantic and it’s the one you’d like to believe, but the other story is true."
I was in love.
"Do you want a drink?"
"No."
"Me either."
“Then let’s go."
She was the best teammate I ever had and we never played trivia again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Get Lucky


We were listening to jazz on the patio of a bar in New Orleans.
It was a cool night and the band was passing around a solo.
The light was dim and everywhere there was a feeling of wellness
being edified by drinks.


My girl said she had to go to the bathroom
and when she'd stood up
and went
the guy at the next table
leaned over to me and said,
“Mmm mm Mm! I wouldn’t mind going home with that every night!"


He had cut-off jean shorts and insane blue eyes
that I followed across the patio
to a thin and beautiful woman holding her purse
winding through the tables
in a silky green dress:
my girl.


I leaned back in my seat
and remembered how it was to be driven mad
by the sight of women--
not love at first sight,
which implies a sort of serendipity,
but the indiscriminate sexual craving
that is like hunger
and has nothing at all to do with chance.


Looking at him,
I felt no fire.

I’d hit the jackpot
and forgotten how it was to be alone,
forgotten the old way,
forgotten my people,
perhaps even become arrogant,
which is the greatest sin.

If he was loneliness come back to visit me
I owed him something more honest
than knocking his teeth out.
Anyways, it was only a matter of time
before I was back on his team.


“Sometimes I get lucky,” I offered and he nodded,
but he was thinking “Bullshit,”
and I thought he was probably right.


I listened to the music
and thought of how to explain this.  
The drummer had begun his solo.
He stretched it out, improvised,
and just when it seemed like noise, he stopped.


I’ve never been much of a gambler.
More often than not I put up more than I can afford to lose.
I never turn down a bet, especially when I’m hurting,
and I don’t care about the odds.
If that’s luck, then I’m lucky,
but I don’t think that’s it.


I bought us two drinks I couldn’t really afford
and made his a double.


It’s recklessness
and if you’re true to it
like I am
you better learn to enjoy the payouts.