My Work

Poems

 
Many years ago, the Buffalo News published my first poem, "Departure."  I went to the corner store to buy my paper, told everyone there, "Look! My poem!" When I went to pay, the clerk refused my money, and the sound of applause filled tiny Wilson Farms.  Here are some of my poems.

My other work:
          MemoirShort StoriesOther Writings

 

Departure

Three cardboard suitcases
- the only ones left in a city
everyone was leaving -
lined up like shortcomings.

I looked away
cut, somehow. Papa started the Ford;
Juana came out in her red and white pinstriped uniform
I embraced her and never looked back.

I call Havana streets by name
as we drove on,
the morning washing them down
making them blue and clean and
still so early.
Soon the heat will be rising like a ghost.

Grandmother's iron gate, the porch,
the empty rocking chairs,
her flower beds,
the geometric pattern of the garden tiles.
She is ready.
We drive to the harbor.
 
The ship is bigger than the sea.
All doors in the city open, all windows open,
all hands pull at my blue suit.
Nothing to declare.
Passengers aboard.

Mama, Papa, Mama Angelica:
from the railing
I see you behind years of glass.
I hear your silence
rushing through my ears.
How small you grow,
cardboard family,
cut-out figures,
each with a hand held high
as the ship begins to move.

At the mouth of the bay
I see your handkerchiefs,
frail.
I see you break.
I am afraid to look back
and see myself next to you
waving
inconsolable.
  

Ahoy the Indies

I retrace my steps, the long walks
on the streets of Barcelona
past herbalists' shops
in the dark Gothic Quarter,
past caged canaries
singing from ancient walls.

I am a wanderer pacing the surface
of a madre patria I cannot recognize.
Columbus towers over the harbor.
His index finger points at the Indies,
at my grandmother left behind in Cuba
on her empty porch.
He points at the red hibiscus,
petals on fire,
tells her again:
"This is the most beautiful land
human eyes have ever seen."

She looks at the white garden wall.
She sees my shadow dressed in taffeta,
her great-grandchildren in New York snow
living out the last leg of the Admiral's voyage.
 
 

Second Home

Spring after spring
just a few miles east
of Buffalo, New York,
Canada geese return
to stubbled fields
of wintered corn.
Their sloppy landing
on wet furrows
patched with unmelted snow,
their calls announcing
paradise regained
awaken a longing
for my faded Havana streets.

This April
my friend Mary
saddled the bay
and the dappled mare,
and we rode out
into fields of stubble
and wintered corn,
disturbed a flock of geese
who took flight
over our heads,
and our horses shied.
We broke into gallop and laughter,
yelled our war cries,
full speed the horses,
each stride drumming the word
Home,
home perhaps,
perhaps home
at last.
 

Aller's Farm, Iowa

Longing for the island of Cuba
wears thin
here in Iowa
where cornfields are real and
there's a hickory tree
with a rope swing
you can sit on and fly
over barns and silos
that look like pictures
on a glossy calendar.

Crossing Huck Finn's river
late last night
I was a boy on a raft.

Silver possum crossed Route 64
in a silver possum dream,
and insects
cracked like eggs
against my windshield.

Now I have crossed the Mississippi
how pale the other rivers
I carry in my head
like a snail its home.
Names memorized in a fifth grade class:Cabrera, Yariguá
Chaparra, Mayarí
Moa, Toa
Duaba, Miel

Rivers blurred like the photographs
of my dead family
holding squirming dogs in their arms,
riding small horses,
smoking, laughing
as if their world would never end.

Here at Aller's farm
just east of Cedar Rapids
I can see radiant asparagus beds
and touch the tips of the green fingers
that point to heaven.

There is music to the names here: Tiffin
Lone Tree
Oskalooksa
Coon Rapids
Little Turkey

 

Crossing Brooklyn Bridge

 When I begin my walk,
I see her
haunting and delicate
in the hues of dusk
almost frail this summer
under a veil of iron lace scaffolding.
All along Brooklyn Bridge,
fast cyclists
sound their warning whistles,
silver spokes hum by
almost touching a line of briefcases,
and next to me a  black woman
begins to sing to herself softly. 

I walk with her song
stride after stride,
and we become millions of footsteps
crossing home together into Brooklyn,
looking for a cool grove of sycamores
after the day’s work. 

Just upriver
a quarter of a century ago
I saw my first dawn here.
Cabin porthole open,
neck craning,
eyes
still confused by sleep,
I saw
arm
face
diadem
a copper-green woman
fiercein her harbor at sunrise
undeniable then
today
an old friend
on her small island.
   
  

Mongo Santamaría
Calling the Spirits from Buffalo

Mongo’s hands are flying on the drum,
opening a path of air
for their bare black feet
and polished soles.

His voice is calling
for Obatalá,
king of spirits,
ruler of the white parts of the body,
for Osaín,
the great healer,
who smokes cigars and sometimes lives
inside a turtle shell,
for Changó,
who gallops his horse across the sky
and loves corn meal and red wine.

Mongo is calling Ochún,
queen of sweetness,
drinker of chamomile tea with honey,
the goddess no one has ever seen cry.

He is opening a path
for Yemayá, black as coal,
mother of the world,
immense and pure as the sea,
holding her fan of peacock feathers.


And here they are now
with their brilliant bead necklaces,
cowrie shells,
and pieces of divining coconut,
without coats or shoes
among the high snows of Buffalo.

Shadow on Stone
On an Anniversary of Hiroshima

On the granite steps
the shadow of the person sitting there
that morning in Hiroshima.

And on the day I left Cuba,
my friends died.
Raúl died in his blue sailboat.
Alvaro died
as he brought his violin to his chin
and began to read the first notes
on the yellowed page.
Elvira died
knocking at the door of a safe house.
Evelio died dancing without me.
Sometimes
after twenty-five years:
a voice on the telephone,
or a letter under the door,
or a tape of Alvaro
playing Brahms.
The applause goes through me
like a gunshot.

In a secret place
in this house, in the dark,
shadow and shadow and shadow,
I gather us together
into the first small seed.
 

Mama Angélica -- To my grandmother

Dressed in widow’s black,
the top of your feet rising like tiny bread loaves
from your diminutive black shoes,
you push open the San Rafael Street door
and we walk into Havana’s Woolworth’s
--el ten-cen, we call it.
 
For days, I’d waited for my hand in yours,
so that we could begin our journey
through school supplies:
gold stars in cardboard boxes,
construction paper stacked like rainbow slices,
rubber bands delicately bunched,
cases of Prismacolor pencils.
 
We move on.
Up the escalator to pets:
A bell for my parakeet,
a deep-sea diver for my fish tank.
You open your black change purse,
and a centavo a goes into the scale. ‘
Here’s my fortune: You will travel.

Tired Mama Angélica, tired abuela,
at the soda fountain now,
dipping her paper napkin
into the ice water
when no one is looking,
wiping her slender fingers clean.
Then she’s lost in the mirrors
lining the counter wall,
practicing leaving us,
tasting death in small portions,
now and then feeling for our packages
under the counter, making sure
no one has taken anything away.