Poetry | June 01, 1992

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,

eyes me.

I don’t say Cut

it out or flip

him the bird.

I punch

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,

spraying gravel

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

the place.




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.

  • Soup

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,

chews chickweeds.

                           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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