one more from jennifer maritza mccauley

scar on scar offIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I noted the recurring themes of witness and presence throughout the poems. These themes are not mutually exclusive in the poems, rather, they exist side by side, creating meaningful friction and nuanced depths. Today’s poem, “Some Advice,” is also from McCauley’s collection and is  a good example of these creative engines at work.

In the poem below, a speaker recounts the “advice” given to them by a man. The move to relate the man’s statement not in his voice via quotes, but instead through the narrative framework of “He says” allows for a distance that disrupts the power of what is said while at the same creating a space in which what is said can be interrogated. The man’s statements, which are charged with danger, threat, gender stereotypes and double standards, are braided with the speaker’s inner responses.

These inner responses trouble the already troubled conceit that these statements are “advice.” The true nature of the man’s statements is unfurled throughout the movements of the poem. From the first stanza’s misguided take on accountability which shames the speaker and their physical presence (“your joyful teeth are enough to / jail you in consequence”), to the admonishment and threat of the last lines, witness and presence work together to evoke the mortal threat this speaker lives under in society and also subverts that threat into a poem that forges awareness out of lived experience.

Some Advice – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

He says you have it coming
because you smile
too-big at the Papis and gals and no matter
the meaning behind that smile, baby,
your joyful teeth are enough to
jail you in consequence.

He says whatever happens
when he releases me into the wet night
after a weird beer or somekinda wine
is my own fault, that I can’t blame my
body-losses on the black city or briny Caribbean
night.

He says that’s your problem –
the happy in your front teeth,
the way your purpl’d hips coil and flick,
it doesn’t matter if you see themboys spirit
before body, themboys don’t see
spirits and yes, babygirl:
they are looking at you.

He says what I should see first
is men-eyes and lusty sweat bundled
on men-foreheads and he says
if I wear shortskirtstightjeans and themboys
reach out and snatch me from red alleys,
that’s on me. And by the way, he says,
if you don’t bite hard enough
when they catch you, baby,
you’re a fucking whore.

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Scar On / Scar Off can be purchased from Stalking Horse Press.

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microreview & interview: Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On/Scar Off

scar on scar off

review by José Angel Araguz

Loriella is Dead – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

Yesterday Loriella choke-cried into my phone,
saying we black gals got to stick together, hip to hip
since the world is a leech sucking at our night
necks, and I said girlIhearyou and I could hear
her voice cleaving clean down the center and
I remembered this was the girl who kicked a blackboy
down the stairs of Litchfield Towers, and burned my books
in the dorm yard when I told her I couldn’t love her like that–
With all-the-time love, with only-her love

and she said give me sweet words then and I said what sort
and she burned my books again, the next night, on the dormhall yard
and told me my skin was the wrong kind of tawny,
that I was too soft-voiced to be a real black girl, that
everything I said was too long for listening.

Yesterday, she was talking and her voice got soaked with
ghosts, of men who sexed her bad and women who
gave her lies of love, and I remembered the other nights
she called me, when we were young and tighter-skinned, and
she talked about firearms and gun barrels and her
Auntie’s arm- burns and she said she’d never
do what her Auntie did though she thinks about
what it’d be like to go away, with no man or woman draining her
dead, to go away by her own hands like Auntie did that
night when we were playing Scrabble on the dormhall
floor and she got the call that said Auntie is dead
Auntie left the room.

Yesterday, Loriella thanked me for love, said I was okay and
she knows her head is cut-up and we agreed that every
head is cut-up and every little black girl head is a little
tired and today her Mama calls me and says

Loriella is dead, and asks me what I said to her and
I said nothing, just that we black girls got to stick together
hip to hip, heart to heart, and her Mama says
how come you didn’t try any kind of talk to make
My Girl live and I listen to fat air on the phone and her Mama’s
cold cries, and I imagine Loriella’s neck, life-broken, on the floor.
I think of its fleshy folds and clavicle, her pink mouth,
how it pursed and pouted and spoke fear and I think of what

I said every day when we were young: What do you want
me to tell you? and how I wondered what
words could do. I tell her Mama that, as
I choke-cry, “What could words have done?”

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Reading through Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I kept coming back to the final question in the poem above: “What could words have done?” This question lives at the core of this collection whose poems embody spaces of agency and contemplation. Whether reckoning with danger and gendered double standards while listing “40 Ways to Avoid Sexual Assault,” or invoking Celia Cruz’s bittersweet refrain “la vida es un carnival” in an underground mall, McCauley’s poems answer the question of “What could words have done?” with witness and presence.

In the poem above, the question originates from a moment of grief. The narrative of Loriella is one of misunderstandings and fractures. Even the phrasing of “girlIhearyou,” whose collision of words evoke urgency and a desire for connection, stands out as a one-sided gesture. The speaker goes on to detail the ways in which that sought-after connection kept slipping. And yet, the poem stands as an answer to the question itself, a testament to a life that cannot be summed up neatly, and the life of the speaker who must move forward despite this knowledge, questioning and holding close to words.

This question returns implicitly in the lyric essay “An End,” in which a speaker meditates on her experience working with and caring for an elderly man. The speaker relates: “I am afraid to die, my oldman client tells me,” at the start of the piece, and follows up a little later with “My oldman says don’trepeatwhatIsaid again, and I nod.” Through this back and forth, the text becomes a space where this secret can be held; it resides here for the speaker in a way that allows her to empathize as well as contemplate the fear itself. The speaker later learns of his death via a phone call answered while driving. The news shocks her and results in a car accident:

I pull over and wait for the driver to get out. She climbs out of her Jeep carefully. I walk up to her, give her my information. I watch this woman scribble the superficial facts of my life on the back of a Burger King receipt. She is writing what I tell her: my car’s make and model, my Daddy-given name, my address and phone number. All evidence of my short and stupid life. Underneath the red of Target storeface, I watch this woman record everything I tell her about me. She finishes quickly; I don’t have much to say. She looks up, wondering if my body is shaken. It is not. I was young then, nauseatingly alive.

Here, again, we have misunderstandings and fractures, albeit of a more literal kind than before. In the act of exchanging information after a car crash, the speaker becomes aware of her mortality, but also of what little might remain afterward. This piece which is an act of the speaker recording the final days of her “oldman client,” suddenly finds a parallel in this scene after an accident. The insights offered here are nuanced. What can words do in the face of “the superficial facts” of our lives? What could words have done for her oldman client? Again, witness and presence return as an answer.

Not every answer to the question “What could words have done?” is elegiac. “The Summer of Screens,” for example, presents a speaker awake to what words can do and are doing. In the excerpt below, there is a lyric elasticity able to hold the varied layers of experience that the speaker lives through while watching a Beyonce video in a particular time and place in American history. What plays out as juxtaposition within the literary and aesthetic act of a poem, reflects the complicated nature of life for this speaker of color. Here, again, the speaker seeks connection, but finds instead a troubled reflection; the same medium that offers up these also offers up the cultural rejection embodied by Donald Trump. It is hard not to feel left out in a world where our pop stars and our politicians have a major presence in our consciousness while remaining, ultimately, inaccessible on several levels.

The poems of Scar On /  Scar Off live in this duality. How do we make peace with the scars we have? We live despite them, with them, but not ignoring them. We remain present with them. We use words to engage what the scars mean. And after understanding what we can through the witness and presence of books like McCauley’s, we persevere, like the speaker below, to “still, desperately, / want to getinformation.”

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III.

On YouTube, Beyonce has tied up that
blonde weave we’ve been seeing for years
into tight braids that look like shadowed cornfields,
shining against her expensive scalp. She
is twitch-dancing, her soft-hard legs jerking
to the sound of pop and power, a beat
rehearsed to make us shout “yeah, girl, please!”

Beyonce isn’t wearing white and she’s not
having fun anymore she wants you to know she won’t
have as much white fun. On YouTube, she glowers
at me and descends into Katrina-water, while sitting
on top of a copcar she bought for this video.

In another video, Donald Trump calls my graduate school
by name and says it is full of little black people with little
white leaders, and he looks me in my eye and reminds me
I am one of the little black people he hates.
I click on Beyonce’s video again because I know this dark
rich woman, in a game of theoreticals, loves me
far more than Donald Trump.

When I realize this, Beyonce is no longer glowering at me,
she’s saying, “girl, we got this, I’m with you,” and she is
glistening fine and smooth. Her royal black skin could be mine
but it isn’t.
Her skin: as shiny as a money-coin.

When she sings ladiesgetinformation I start crying
and don’t know why, because I know this is
a video and she has purchased all of our culture’s
chilling symbols and will go back to a queen-home
I will never see. But when I see her skin like this: suddenly black
and toughly smooth on my small computer, she reminds me of who
I am. This summer I could be one of those Bey-lovin’ blackfolks
worshipping my be-weaved goddess from the backrow of
a concert that costs half my rent. Maybe, before I go back to
my busted Ford, me and other blackgirls and boys might get lucky
enough to pass her security guards, to walk around the concert
copcars she owns, that we could never buy
for protection. I still, desperately,
want to getinformation.

I click off the video,
when she sings:
SLAY SLAY SLAY
SLAY SLAY SLAY

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: Audre Lorde has this terrific quote: “There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself…because they want to dismiss everything else…” Poetry is my way of underlining, striking out, and rewriting all of these pieces. With poetry, I can interrogate the many definitions and intersections in one person, community, language, and genre. As a half-African-American and half-Puerto Rican woman, I’ve often been told who I am, what I’m not, how to fit in and how to talk. As a result, I’ve never been a fan of simple definitions. I don’t like leaving “pieces of myself” dismissed. I also enjoy many poetic forms, and think the identity of a poem can be just as complicated as the identity of a person.

For me, the beauty of poetry is that it can tell a story, sing love, compel readers to act, lay loss bare and bloody. Ideally, I wanted this collection to reflect some of the issues posed and dissected by poets I admire like Claudia Rankine, Sonia Sanchez, Tato Laviera, and Gloria Anzaldua. How do my experiences and those of folks I know push against stereotypes? What are the conversations and conflicts in my communities? How do I complicate what folks already think about race and gender? These were questions I was consciously and unconsciously wrestling with as I wrote this collection. Ultimately, I wanted this work to be many-voiced, hybridic, messy, searching, and full of love.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: I started writing this collection while I was bouncing around the South and Caribbean, editing my novel with my wonderful agent Amanda Jain and preparing to move to the Midwest from Florida. During this time, I’d be in prickly situations or meet folks that unearthed my complicated feelings about blackness, Latinidad, the body, love, and loss. Poetry and short prose were my go-to genres for exploring these concerns.

Some poems were more challenging to write than others. Sometimes I had to be in the right mindset to get the words on the page. Often, I’d say, “I really need to write a poem about this,” and the piece would take forever to come together. I’d give up, return later. Other times, the words came naturally. Sometimes a poem would tell me it needed to be prose, or vice versa. After a year or so, when I realized I had enough poems to start thinking about a collection I tried to find themes and through-lines. The hard, fun work was determining which pieces belonged and didn’t belong in the book. I cut a lot of darlings and played around with the structure of the book  quite a bit. The awesome folks at Stalking Horse helped with this process further after they picked up the collection. Writing this thing overall, was a challenging and liberating process.

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Special thanks to Jennifer Maritza McCauley for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. Scar On/Scar Off can be pre-ordered from Stalking Horse Press.

jenniferpictureJennifer Maritza McCauley is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbia, Missouri. She holds or has previously held editorial positions at The Missouri Review, Origins Journal, and The Florida Book Review, amongst other outlets, and has received fellowships from Kimbilio, CantoMundo, the Knight Foundation, and Sundress Academy of the Arts. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets University Award and has appeared in Passages North, Puerto del Sol, Split this Rock: Poem of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF will be published by Stalking Horse Press in fall 2017.

microessay & microfictions!

Just a quick post to share the publication of my microessay “One Broken Line at a Time: Notes on Poetry and Migration” featured at Letras Latinas earlier this week.

During the month of March, Poetry Coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers as part of the project Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration (#WeComeFromEverything).

My essay brings together ideas on the poetic form haibun and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe into conversation, along with some reflections on both from my personal experiences.

Special thanks to Barbara Curiel & Francisco Aragón for including my work in their project!

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I also wanted to announce the release of the latest issue of Star 82 Review, which features three of my microfictions: “Over the Sink” “At the Table” & “Pallbearer.”

This issue includes work by Devon Balwit and Natalie Campisi amidst some other stellar writing. A warm thanks to Alisa Golden for featuring my work!

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See you Friday!

José

microreview & interview: Steven Sanchez’s To My Body

body

review by José Angel Araguz

In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.

One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:

you fall
in the sand and I hear

you sniffle.
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain

sieving
through your fingers
like water.

This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.

Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:

My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me

between her and the mattress…

This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:

…the book splayed open

on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine

and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws

and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.

When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole

protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…

These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.

Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.

The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez

Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor

tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,

the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself

on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords

aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,

they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing

whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale

as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —

seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.

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sanchezInfluence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.

Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.

The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body.  I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.

Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.

Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! Find out more about his work at his siteTo My Body can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

* the 2016 End of Year Reading!

Time once again for my end of year reading here on the Influence! This year has left me with much to be grateful for, from readings in my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas (Del Mar, TAMUCC, & Moody High – órale!) to getting to be the Visiting Writer at Adelphi University’s Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat as well as participate in my second CantoMundo.

I am especially grateful for the journals and presses and their respective editors that have worked with me this year and helped bring more of my work out into the world. Lastly, I want to say thanks to everyone who reads this blog as well as to the community of writers, readers, and friends (three words for the same thing, no?) that have reached out to me regarding my work. When things get dark, as they often did in 2016, community and words bring me back to light.

book of flight cover     Divorce Suite pic IG

For this end of year reading, I have chosen selections from my two chapbook publications of 2016, The Book of Flight (Essay Press) and The Divorce Suite (Red Bird Chapbooks).

From The Book of Flight (which can be read for free on the Essay Press site) I am reading pages 2 through 5. From The Divorce Suite (available for purchase from Red Bird Chapbooks), I am reading the poems below. I learned a lot working with both presses bringing these projects to fruition. Special thanks especially to Andy Fitch, Aimee Harrison, and Maria Anderson of Essay Press, and Eric Hove and Sarah Hayes of Red Bird Chapbooks. And a warm thanks to Pam Dick for writing the intro essay to Flight and selecting it for publication!

 

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The Particular Life – José Angel Araguz

The oak chest holds the scent
of the tree it was made from,
everything placed inside
comes out thick with the smell:
traces on blankets, letters,
notebooks that even closed
show at the edge of the pages
the blot and blurring
of fine lines, a photo
I’d neglected to
rip up with the rest
after the divorce, a shot
where I stand younger
than I am now, smiling,
and then only half-way,
the rest of my face pulled in
as if inhaling deep,
taking in the particular
life that passes
no matter the effort
to shut it away.

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Rose Song – José Angel Araguz

“…the rose is out of town” – E. Dickinson

The rose is out of town,
and the wine has moved away.
The wedding ring won’t glint,
the river won’t let it.
Perfumes won’t call me back.
The candle’s on a walk,
lets shadow fill the shelves.

Our secrets tell themselves,
while worries stay to talk.
The wedding dress is slack.
The coat hooks comfort it.
Lost buttons try to hint,
there is no other way.
The rose is out of town.

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Happy flighting and suiteing!

José

* leticia hernández-linares & the mission

mucha-muchacha-too-much-girlThis week’s poem comes from CantoMundista Leticia Hernández-Linares’ collection Mucha Muchacha/Too Much Girl (Tía Chucha Press) which I reviewed earlier this week. While my review focused on collection’s confluence of musical traditions and sensibilities, the poem “Bringing Up the Sun” represents another facet, that of establishing the presence of a neighborhood on the page.

In this poem, Hernández-Linares brings the Mission District alive for the reader, focusing on the political undertones that pervade these streets, from the flags to local businesses. For example, the image in the lines

Mortuaries abound,
doors wide open like the defeated mouth of a mother
who has lost her son —

establishes a sense of what is at stake in this particular poem as well as sets up the narrative of assessing what it means to raise sons in this neighborhood. This narrative, homieimplied in the title’s wordplay, is developed here into one of my favorite moments in the collection when the speaker pushes against the “storylines” of the neighborhood through the imagery of “homie dolls.” By juxtaposing the implied social “translations” of these novelty toys against the lessons of redemption and vulnerability of the schoolyard, the poem evokes the tension surrounding young boys without trying to solve it. Thus, the celebration of culture inherent in the toys exists side by side the hope “salvaged” in the schoolyard.

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Bringing Up the Sun – Leticia Hernández-Linares

The changing of the flag waves Central American
today. Church bells sit still over a tombstoned dawning.
Heading towards the sun beyond la Dolores, calle
named after pained bricks that hold Mission monuments
together, businesses that help you bury your dead, raise
your stripes, dominate the strip. Mortuaries abound,
doors wide open like the defeated mouth of a mother
who has lost her son.

No news breaks. Three quick facts on a back page,
devoid of desperate looks, gasps stopped
short — nobody of note. Nervous bravado
commands prodigal descendants of volcanic piedra,
once sacrificial daggers reduced to nonchalant weapon.
Brother competes against brother to bring the next day up.
Morning greets wringing hands, shaking heads gathering
for another entierro. Each new day
carrying heavier bags under its eyes.

Flattened metal versions of obsidian scratching out
our sons’ storylines. So many translations of a boy
in the making, made like tiny rubber homie dolls
we spin out for fifty cents.
We salvage hope in the school yard,
where little brothers you can’t get for two quarters
shake hands after getting mad, can’t wait to go ice skating,
tell stories about 500-year-old grandfathers.

On the other side of bright blue school walls that give guise
to us, mortuaries fly flags for good business. Boys start asking
which set of colors belong to them. Stripes block
the light so false emblems sneak in, peddling allegiance,
sacrifice, in the form of our sons.

When I ask after the sun, the old man shrugs.
Es que no sé hija, the flag, the flag was in the way.

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Happy homie-ing!

José

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Everything We Think We Hear by Jose Angel Araguz

Everything We Think We Hear

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends December 04, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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