Poetry | June 01, 1992
Poetry Feature: Loretta Collins (Tom McAfee Discovery Feature)
These poems were presented as the Tom McAfee Discovery Feature (1992)
El Dia De Los Muertos
Hornitos, California for KevinSometimes I took the drive alone, past
the burned flour and woolen mills
near Lake McSwain. In the summer
the ranch women of Agua Fria, Indian Gulch,
watch the sky for fire planes banking
out of Fresno, away from the high Sierras.
Days after the grass fires have gone out,
the blackened foothills smoulder
near the road’s edge.
I was amazed by the burnline,
so close to ranch houses, where women still
hung wet bedding on the clotheslines.
hugging my car around abrupt bends,
the window down, the sweet, burnt wind
whipping my hair, I wanted to be a ranch woman,
leaning her face against the veranda screen,
the bright unstoppable fire, a fermata,
holding her life, kindling
the one memory that flares briefly for her then:
a late night kitchen, a yellow table she sits at
with spiced tea, the dark rain beating
at the window pane. Is that all she can wish for,
rain? She watches the red fire curl over the berm
of the trenches, her husband’s last attempt
to stop the flames. Her baby wakes
now in its bassinet.
And this can’t happen.
The ranch woman packs up the pickup.
She gets out.
Kevin, this time I wanted to take you with me,
to see the winding procession of candles,
the lit faces climbing the hill, Francisco’s
grave, as if it could have meaning for you.
In this photograph, you stand by an hornito on the hill;
hornitos, for “little ovens,” the dark adobe graves.
You hold the candle so close to your face.
The fine incisions high on your buttocks
still bleed and hurt. I can’t touch you,
slip my hand into the hollow of your back,
the way I want to. It will be two days
before your surgeon calls to say the word
we each think quietly to ourselves that day:
Leukemia. Like a chant, like Alleluia.
We gathered our candles when the light fell,
climbed with the others. A cedar fence post marked
Francisco’s grave. I put my candle on it.
I wanted to tell you about him then,
but the Spanish mass, prayers for Doña Calendaria,
drifted toward the goat fields. I watched
each face take on its own quiet light.
When I was five years old, my parents
brought me to Hornitos nearly every Sunday.
Francisco Salazar ran the jail museum,
a one-celled granite block. It held
a few joss sticks, a “Burning Judas” doll,
a lynching rope. I remember touching Francisco’s
white trimmed beard, wearing his prospector’s hat.
He told me about Rose Martinez’ Fandango Hall,
all underground, with wagon wheel lanterns, an entrance
to Joaquin Murietta’s secret cave.
Francisco saw Murietta’s head,
pickled in whiskey in a jar in San Francisco,
right before the 1906 fire. The face
was bloated and the long hair swirled
against the glass.
I always begged Francisco
for the story of la Patricia,
a dance hall girl known as Shoo-Fly,
a song she sang at the fandango hall.
She had a daughter, who at just my age,
died in a fever. The daughter lay in a hornito
on the hill. Shoo-Fly saved fandango tips
for a better grave, one dynamited into the rockbed.
She opened the hornito herself, prying out bricks.
Her daughter’s small bones crumbled in her hands.
The next day, in the town plaza, Shoo-Fly set
herself on fire and danced herself to death.
I wanted to tell you these things, Kevin.
But it was quiet, and we stood with los muertos.
I didn’t know then how the disease
would require its own litany of rage;
how your quiet sentence, “Loretta,
I don’t want to die,” would become the one cruel
motto of our lives. How in the night
you would take out that rage, first on objects.
How I would sweep glass, plaster sheetrock, calm
alarmed neighbors, and then, finally, lock my son
and myself in his room.
Did I think a woman
couldn’t leave a dying man?
I have one box
of your things. I’m shipping them, with these photographs.
It’s cooler here in the mid-west.
I am driving slowly behind the Amish buggies.
I’m taking my son to the river.
In November homeowners rake leaves on their driveways.
They prod small fires they watch over.
The fires flare up and flare down.
Love at Seventeen
July, knock off time,
we wait for the clock,
Johnboy doodling Cholo
daggers on his time card,
truss boys hawking Skoal,
dusting gloves against
pants, Red orbiting
the guard shack, popping
wheelies on his BMX.
Man, hurr-ry Rick spits
We stink like a giant’s
pussy in here. He flaps
his arms like buzzard wings,
I don’t say Cut
it out or flip
him the bird.
my card, watch the guys
spin off to Heaven
and the Blue Lantern Bar,
or wive’s pineapple curls
and clean underwear.
When Mei pulls in,
and sawdust, she calls
Hey, Lady. We cruise
past the catcalls
of Azar’s Garage,
past Laura’s fountain
and the long loop
of Luzano’s Quicksilver
Train Ride. We leave
her truck by the low-riders
in Applegate Park.
We sit by Bear Creek.
I tease splinters
from my hands.
Once we drove to the outskirts,
near Hmong gardens, Southside’s
Sacred Heart Church. Mei parked
by the darkened strip,
the Fly-In Cafe. Single
engined props taxied
small moons. The rain
filled the windsock
with its worries.
We stayed in the truck.
Mei talked about home,
Indonesia, a rural town.
I’ll tell you the story
of when I was twelve.
It was cold, early.
Her mother still slept.
Mei rose alone to walk the path
of mangrove trees and nipa palm.
Her “aunts” were waiting
by the lake. They led
her waist-deep and sluiced
water over her face and breasts.
Numbed, her knees pressed back,
Mei lay on banana leaves.
A midwife in dark clothes
spread Mei’s lips and carved
the clitoris out.
Mei found a few rupiahs on her bed.
Later, in the Ladies’ room,
she tugged down her slacks,
brushed hair back to show me
I was seventeen that year; crazy,
my diary claims, for a pale,
thin boy who passionately practiced French horn.
But now, when I think of my first
notions of love, I think
of those lumberyard boys. I think
of that flooded stall, scented
not with our dreams or desires,
and the dim glow that lit
the silver crescent of Mei’s scar.
I think of the restless evenings,
the quiet sounds from my parent’s
room: the grind of my father’s teeth,
the radio’s insistent Gospel Hour
from Chicago, my mother’s crying.
My hand wandering under the blankets,
the slippery nub, the ecstatic spark
I felt in my own touch. An anger
that I’m not ever going to give up.
My mother bones hot chicken with her hands,
I pat the board with flour, roll egg noodle dough
out thin. We both unbutton collars, use kitchen mitts
to wave off steam, the reek of onions, heat.
When she fans the pot lid back and forth,
drops in the meat, I breathe carrots, celery,
whole tomatoes brewing in their skins.
Now we can “let it set” until a fork can pierce
a carrot through. We untie aprons, rinse fingers
underneath the spout, take tall ice teas
to the window room: sycamores, lilacs, plum.
Still safe from street sweepers, vagrant dogs,
the man with no shoes who, this morning, flashed
a peace sign at us and continued down the road,
my son ploughs around the lavender rose.
Tiffany, cousin Sue’s girl, spades Johnson grass,
You keep an eye on her,
Mother says. We both know what she means.
Uncle Zesker, sixty-two, boozed and weaving in the lanes,
had snapshots in his wallet. Tiffany’s little pussie,
Tiffany eating head, the ink inscriptions
said. “Six years for violating a special trust”
with his granddaughter. Now the family
talks the photos up: her small body spread
against chenille bed.
At the trial, the girls spoke up.
Aunt Sherry, Gayla, Catherine-Ann, girls
with children of their own. Each woman stated for the record
a hand across a breast, a fondled crotch,
the words, “It’s like a baby’s bottle.
Suck.” Sometimes she throws herself
against the rug and screams. Mother sips her tea.
I watch Tiffany’s shadowed lap where my son piles
an ocean of plum leaves.
Did he touch you?
Mother shoots at me, her glasses strange
and misty from the steam.
Swimming lessons at the lake,
green one-piece, waves that still rolled
their sickness over my bed when I lay down to sleep.
Zesker’s grip between my thighs tight and warm underwater.
Sunsuits with elastic legs.
I shake my head, Not ever
and rise to dump the noodles in the broth.
When the light seeps off to other neighborhoods,
and Mrs. Kirby, blue hair and thin housecoat,
raises her sprinkler key to chase the kids inside,
I’ll open the door, brush sawdust from their pants,
scrub faces, my son’s veined and transparent as onion skin,
Tiffany’s flushed with play.
And why did I come all this distance, and too late,
that man already put away? To stir soup with mother?
To watch a small girl’s lap fill with leaves?
Mother is climbing on a chair for the special
Blue Willow. We’ll dip up large noodles
curled in hot broth, chicken, onions.
A gift for the children: something good
in nice bowls.
Photo, Fable, Fieldtrip
Nothing is ever the same
as they said it was.
-Diane Arbus, An Aperture Monograph
If this was not the Pierre or the Ritz,
then what does it matter, flopped in this hotel
forever, Broadway & 100th Street, Transvestite
at her Birthday Party, N.Y.C., 1969.
And if Arbus had to brave the back steps
to this place, the elevator broken by those
too dead on their feet to find the right floor,
it wasn’t so much for the man peignoired on the bed,
or the stale indivisible cake,
or even a girl strangled without passion
with a looped lamp cord in the room below;
the photograph was, I think, a momentary home,
in the exactitude of shadows, for a woman,
an aperture and a brief scherzo of light.
And if a woman shuts off a light in one
winter-grayed valley of California, and, thinking
of the man in the photograph, then turns
to the cold window’s composition of night,
it isn’t for the lilac or elm to announce,
she once found her husband in fishnet stockings
alone in a room with a magazine; let the bed
keep its silence of pillows. All the woman wants
is to watch a small moon-kindled fire frost
the lawn, silver fig limbs, shadow the fence,
but a quilt is thrown back, and her man,
showered and spiced, is extending one hand.
And if this man now cups in his hands warmth
of another fire he has built in a barbecue
of a river-crossed park, his wife and son braving
the bank’s burdock and thistles for keepsake
granite, then he can only wonder if the water
might take them from some perilous slope.
Down the river, past the trestle, cedars crowd
the water, trunks close together, but here,
it is nice for a woman to rest on a stump
near a rill clotting, green-spurned and water-lilied,
in the limbs of an uprooted birch, minnows rising
for skippers, darting from their water drawn circles,
pyrite pulsing with light. My son bellows, Yield
dragon, or die to a gray log augured to the bank
and fringed with dry moss; I hold his apple,
and we believe in a Loch Ness stalked moat.
If a stern lady rose now from the green water
and asked Why stay? I couldn’t nod to the boy
prodding the dragon with his dagger of bark, nor
to the man, a ways off, sifting handfuls of smoke.
Soon, red-tailed hawks will rise up from their trees,
and we’ll follow them into the dusk. Home,
the boy will wake only long enough to ask
who fixed the moon, and we’ll carry him
to his room. Alone, the man and I will rock
in the brief home of our making, then I’ll sleep,
head on his breast, and wake to Sunday papers
and coffee; we’ll drink from chipped yellow mugs
and read “Broom Hilda,” “Wizard of Id,” while outside,
a winter wind explains itself only in a tremolo
of branches, a slight swell of a flowered apron.
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