After Reading Winter Stars on the Radio
for Michael Luis Medrano
The first time I read Elegy
by Larry Levis, I didn’t get it.
My poet friend who used to be
a journalism major gave it to me
as a graduation gift in 2007,
ten years after it was published
and nearly ten years before
I shed my grad school self
and learned how to read
and write poetry a little bit more
like I spoke. Elegy with a
Chimneysweep Falling Inside It
seemed impenetrable to me
then, and so did the entire
collection. It took me a long time
to admit I was baffled by Levis,
and maybe I still am. But then:
a gift. One of our poetry elders
calls me one day and says,
I’ve got a couple boxes of VHS
tapes in the garage and I’d like
to give them to you if you think
you can save them. So I do
the only thing I can do: I say yes.
And when I see “Larry Levis
and Philip Levine at the Wild Blue,
8/28/84” I make sure to watch
that one first, and I listen. Here’s
what I heard: The voice of Levis
himself falling out of the sky
and into my tiny headphones.
That giant, a man himself.
Each moment remembered
in the rewinding of the tape.
for the foreign words you wrote
but I did not mind.
The bare, ugly line
about dobra pička cut
like no English could.
your cross-eyed, snorting laughter
left us fortunate.
On the Eve of Inauguration
So what are you doing this Friday?
asked my Armenian journalist friend
who says he’s on sabbatical. I thought
for a long moment and went blank, then
I said something mundane like, oh I’ll be
at work, where else would I be? forgetting
that Friday would be the first day
of what will likely be a dark new era
for all my brown and black and queer
and Muslim brothers, sisters, and inter-mixers.
Are you going to watch the inauguration
on TV? he asks. Hell no, I say, trying to wake up
to the reality and weight of this small talk.
“The formal admission of someone to office.”
“The beginning of a system, policy, or period.”
“A ceremony to mark a new beginning.”
A few minutes later, he is chatting in Arabic
with his Syrian wife, a fellow lover
of college basketball and international film,
and I can’t help but feel the stares
of two guys in red trucker caps sitting behind us.
Maybe you’d like to get dinner sometime
with us and discuss Middle East politics?
he jokes. We laugh. And I think to myself:
I barely know you both but I know enough
to inaugurate a force field around you.
Chile with Lime and Salt
My artist friend walked straight up
to the counter lined with aguas frescas,
a spot I had never even noticed before,
and she ordered an ensalada de fruta
with cucumber slices and syrup and tajín
seasoning. Me? I wanted a hot chocolate
but all they had was Nescafé or hot water.
So I ordered a pan dulce, a classic cuerno,
which kind of looks similar to a croissant
in the way it folds into itself like a horn.
I took a big bite and my black sweatshirt
turned white from all the sugar that fell off
that sweet, soft horn. It was no use. I had to
eat the whole thing and dust myself off later.
My artist friend, meanwhile, clearly had
the nicest snack at our table, the perfect
mix of sugar and spice, the chile with lime
and salt glittering inside the syrupy cup.
The night before, I had carefully shaved off
the center of my mustache down to bare
skin, leaving two tiny tufts of dark whiskers
that looked at a distance like dirty dimples
over each corner of my mouth. I decided
that I would try a little taste of the chaos
of Chicano modernity and attempt to make
my inner Cantinflas more real, to see
how I would feel with such a distinctive
look. It did not seem to be working. A few
stares, but not one single comment all day.
My indigenous blood was not strong enough.
My European blood was not strong enough.
My mestizo blood was not strong enough.
My only strength came from the cuerno,
an announcement in a hunk of a sweet treat
that said: I was drunk on my own imaginings
and no disguise could mask this comedy.
With my back turned to the meat
counter, you asked me how I felt
and the word tourist came to mind.
One time when I was in high school
I mixed up the words in Spanish
for “one more trip” and mistakenly
said “one more old lady,” which led
to a series of jokes all summer
from the packinghouse workers
that still replay in my memory.
Viaje and vieja, two nouns
that do look similar to a pocho
but hold entirely different meanings.
So it seemed fitting that 25 years
later, walking through the gigantic
Vallarta Supermarket with you,
fighting sensory overload and over-full
from an over-sized $5 chicken torta,
I would raise my cellphone to make
a portrait of you, standing in front
of a bin of grapes for $1.99 a pound
and with piñatas suspended above.
I imagined myself as a fresh batch
of papier-mâché, feeling malleable
and colorful, preparing for celebration,
hardening for the breaking apart.
A text from my goth friend said,
“Oh great, now we’re talking
about Black Lives Matter
and Colin Kaepernick.” I knew
exactly where that was going
before I received the next
text, and where it was going
was downhill fast considering
her extended family. I imagined
our president elect’s townhouse
at Christmas time, minimal or
functional or some might even
say clean, the halls decked
with boughs of his all-American
White children, each more perfectly
dressed for an upscale catalog
than the next. “He’s not even
Black, he’s half Black. He’s only
growing an afro now to try
and be more Black.” As soon
as they went there, I thought
to myself: good for Kaepernick.
Good for him, trying to own his own
Blackness. It made me want to grow
out my Chicano facial hair again,
like Luis Valdez or like my uncle Jorge
or like an indigenous warrior or at least
like Cantinflas, and paint the word
M I S C E G E N A T E D
across my chest for the world to see.
But would I be seen? Pocho that I am,
I might walk in on my goth friend’s
family and say: “Kaepernick’s jersey
is still the #1 best-selling jersey
in the NFL, according to Forbes,”
as if an actual fact could erase
a lifetime of learned allegiance.
It seems false or mostly false that
poets, like politicians, would benefit
much from a fact checker, or at least
the present-day internet equivalent
of “truth is not black and white.”
I imagine all of my truths, my mostly
truths, my half truths, and maybe
even my ecstatic truths lining up
for deliberation, hopeful, crossing
their fingers their pants aren’t on fire.