(For Jose Montoya, David Henderson, and Pedro Pietri and the first poetry reading I ever attended, Fall 1973)
I wallowed in a needled-spawned world,
addicted to dope and the crazy life,
and yet there I was—in Berkeley
for my first poetry reading.
I was eighteen—with a bullet, as they say.
Earlier I had flown on a plane for the first time.
Sure I’ve survived half a dozen gun assaults,
cops knocking me around,
ODs, blades to my neck in jail cells,
homeless in dank streets,
and beat downs in barrio brawls—but flying?
That scared me to death.
I sat there in a crowded cafe,
not knowing what to expect.
Poetry? I’d never heard this before.
Oh, I had written lines:
vignettes, images, fears, thoughts.
I didn’t know they were poems.
I had no idea what a poem was.
First up on the mic was Jose Montoya,
with Chicano prayers of old pachucos,
and strained loves and guitar solos,
and Indian hands in corn flour.
Then David Henderson took the stage,
gleaning urban black streets, racist stares,
Black Panther fury & Southern cooking.
Finally, Pedro Pietri came up—Nuyorican
word meister, flashing El Barrio’s experiences
with poems located in phone booths & real life wisdoms
that made us laugh and shake our heads.
I had never heard words spoken this way,
more music than talk,
more fevered shapes than sentences,
more Che and Malcolm than Shakespeare.
These poems came for me,
lassoed my throat,
demanded my life’s savings,
taking me for a sunset ride,
knocking me to the dust.
These poems were graffiti scrawls
along the alleys & trash-strewn tunnels of my body,
the metaphoric methadone for the heroin hurling
through my bloodstream, the lifeline I already had inside
and didn’t know.
These poems were pool sticks, darkened gangways,
a swirl of sunrise after the graveyard shift,
a blood-black yelling behind torn curtains,
a child screaming and nobody coming to help.
They were a women’s scent after a night
of lovemaking, a sweet touch of hand to face,
cascades of hair on a pillow,
a moan during an elongated kiss.
These poems were shadowed intents,
startled doubts, sorrows without grief,
the moon without sky,
the falling inside that happens
when you push razor onto wrist.
They came for me as I sank into my suicide,
while fidgeting in a chair,
inching under the skin,
as I wondered why I even came.
Jose, David, and Pedro
—I was never the same after this.
They came for me and I’ve never let go.
They came for me and I’ve perspired poems
ever since. They came for me—and all my addictions,
my sorry-ass lies, my falling masks,
my pissed-off wives, neglected children,
angry friends, and back-to-back failures
could never, ever, take them away.
Perhaps when the stories are lost and the dream is a dry river and what makes the flesh sing is a long-gone prayer, we may find our true names;
Perhaps when the earth’s rotation stops, when the moon has wilted, and the sun’s rays scorch down this squandered ground, we may uncover our inner eye;
Perhaps when the poisons that once were our sustenance and the radiation that once gave us light, now foster our insatiable hungers and an abiding darkness, we may know what really feeds and guides us;
Perhaps after we’ve created so many borders, so many walls, and conjured up even more laws to make even more lawless, we may realize it’s ourselves who’ve been made illegal, it’s our spirits we’ve alienized;
Perhaps when parents lose their final grasps on their children, they will finally grasp that their sole purpose is to bring loved, healthy, and understood children into this world—to re-seed and remake the universe, better and more holy each time;
Perhaps when the wars in the names of countless Gods that look and act like those who evoke them finally end, we may realize that God is the unnamable, unobtrusive wind that caresses our cheeks, the rain that falls on us all, and the very air that enters our lungs, our blood and brains so we can name whatever God we want;
Perhaps when all the textbooks and written histories and science papers cease, we’ll understand that nature, and our own natures, are the source of all knowledge, language and histories, and we’ll always be able to re-write them, re-imagine them, and re-weave them into the world;
Perhaps when love has become the embers of what we hate, the residue of what we’ve destroyed, we’ll know that love is the stream that flows through each and every one of us, the water we thirst for in the deserts of our days, the ocean from which all our tears, full of salt and unmet desires, surge and flow.
Machu Picchu - or what I should have become when the ancient stone walls and the clouded heights named my blood
memories of childhood rise up like a twisted vine,
mocking the granite sinews of this adult body & the solid layers of lies
that have become my face, demanding a lightness of foot and of fears
as antidotes to the round-bellied night crawler
I’ve succumbed to—this clown in tattooed skin,
a priest without prayers, the wrinkled figure in soggy coat on a scorched plain
fire awakens me although I’m cold inside,
surrounded by carcasses of embattled loves
and blistered stories, always ending with betrayals and dismissals,
with the turning away of the most emblazoned eye;
they are the settled unholy ingredients in the bottled angst I’ve traded
on street corners, poetry bars, living room arguments,
and between the multi-tracked songs that singe the cluttered paths of my lunacies
I can’t hide, I can’t run, the ruins speak to me in whispered cadences, with scrolled breath,
blurting out curative threats, words that bob in a rushing mud river,
ripping the flesh of cruel invectives, addressing me like a worried mother,
a tired frog outside my window, while laying me down on a ground
crawling with spiders and my best intentions
I learned to live on chicken & vegetable soups,
long walks, coca leaves inside my cheeks, chicha morada,
the way the natives did for thousands of years, with few calories,
yet still energized, awake, strong…and even the wooded hills
and high attitudes are less formidable, less monstrous, more like brothers,
like leaves, like a welcoming breeze.
Machu Picchu, you were always in my crowded
dreams, in the faded colors of my worn clothes,
on the folds near my eyes, always a tree branch
to cling to, a father when my own father ate the hearts of his children,
as a brother in the heroin-nights of my downtowns,
even when I had never seen you
I’m here and I sense this open citadel helped shape my hands,
my mouth, the many constants of my inconsistencies,
and whatever death melody I played but never died to
a place, an embrace, a cauldron of history I never knew I had,
Machu Picchu survived the thousands for my steps to seal this pact,
to communicate what winds and tortured rain cannot do,
Machu Picchu as a meditation in stone, moss and cloud,
with two-inch colibri and saddened flower to accompany me,
climbing the heights of this carved womb on a grinning mountain
to the depths of my own negations and hypocrisies,
to whatever song suggests my slow and languid
tearing out of my skin.
The thing is I wanted to be a writer
even before I knew what writing was about.
I wanted to carve out the words
that swam in the bloodstream,
to press a stunted pencil onto paper
so lines break free like birds in flight
—to fashion words with hair,
lengths and lengths of it,
washed with dawn’s rusting drizzle.
I yearned for mortared-lined words,
speaking in their own boasting tongues,
not the diminished, frightened stammering of my childhood,
but to shape scorching syllables with midnight dust.
Words that stood up in bed,
danced merenques and cumbias,
that incinerated the belly like a shimmering habanera.
Words with a spoonful of tears, buckshot, boners, traces of garlic,
cilantro, aerosol spray, and ocean froth.
Words that guffawed, tarnished smooth faces,
and wrung song out of silence.
Words as languid as a woman’s stride,
as severe as a convict’s gaze,
herniated like a bad plan,
soaked as in a summer downpour.
I aspired to walk inside these words,
to manipulate their internal organs,
surrounded by blood, gray matter, and caesuras;
to slam words down like the bones of a street domino game,
—and to crack them in two like lover’s hearts.