Sitting at her table, she serves
sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mama, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment.  To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
albondigas.  No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back.  I am full.  I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove.  All my words
make her smile.  Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair.  I ask for more.

I watch the mama warming more
tortillas for me.  I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths.  Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together.  They speak
nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was.  Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?

She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.

Five Indiscretions (Sheep Meadow: New York,
        1985).  Originally in

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Mi Abuelo

Where my grandfather is, is in the ground
Where you can hear the future
Like the movie Indian with his ear at the tracks.
A pipe leads down to him so that sometimes
He whispers what will happen to a man
In town, or how he will meet the best

Dressed woman tomorrow and how the best
Man at her wedding will chew the ground
Next to her. 
Mi abuelo is the man
Who speaks through all the mouths in my house.
An echo of me hitting the pipe sometimes
To stop him from saying
my hair is a

is the only other sound.  It is a phrase
That among all others is the best,
He says, and
my hair is a sieve is sometimes
Repeated for hours out of the ground
When I let him, which is not often.
An abuelo should be much more than a man

Like you!
  He stops then, and speaks: I am a man
Who has served the ants with the attitude
Of a waiter, who has made each smile as only
An ant who is fat can, and they liked me best,
But there is nothing left.
  Yet I know he ground
Green coffee beans as a child, and sometimes

He will talk about his wife, and sometimes
About when he was deaf and a man
Cured him by mail and he heard groundhogs
Talking, or about how he walked with a cane
He chewed on when he got hungry.
At best,
Mi abuelo is a liar.

I see an old picture of him at nani's with an
Off-white, yellow center mustache, and sometimes
That's all I know for sure.  He talks best
About these hills,
slowest waves, and where this man
Is going, and I'm convinced his hair is a sieve,
That his fever is cooled now underground.

Mi abuelo is an ordinary man.
I look down the pipe, sometimes, and see a
Ripple-topped stream, in its best suit, in the ground.

Whispering to Fool the Wind (New York: Sheep
        Meadow, 1982).  Originally in
The Louisville Review.
        Included in [among many others]
The Norton Introduction
        to Literature,
Ed. J. Paul Hunter and Jerome Beaty, and
        Poems, Poets, Poetry,
Ed. Helen Vendler.

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The Language of Great-Aunts

The great-aunts have a corner, and wrinkled skin
indistinguishable from their thick stockings,
and they invariably speak in the other language
of which we, as children, are able to recognize
only the commands, which are obvious, and the narrow
eyes, which make them law, drawn overly tight.

And their smiles are also long and tight,
black and without real teeth, scars on the skin
but only slight ones; red lips pressed, narrow,
their smiles are like the lines on their stockings,
which as two boys, at our height, we recognize
and wonder if these lines also speak some language.

And they do: theirs is the visible language
that when these women chew, only their mouths are tight
and immediately, because we are down there, we recognize
that, if they chewed harder, their wrinkled skin
would chew too, jiggling under their faces like the stockings
which are too big because their legs have grown too narrow.

But if we laugh, we get again the quick pin-narrow
eyes, who themselves speak a third language
more powerful than the line mouths of the stockings.
The eyes of the great-aunts disappear when drawn tight
and conspire somewhere under their spiderwebbed skin
made more webbed by attempts, not to warn, but to recognize.

We are never sure what exactly they are trying to recognize:
who we are, perhaps, or what we've done, and the narrow
amount of us they admit through the eyelids into that skin
is the part in us, inside, that makes us recognize
at these moments that our stomachs grow muscle-tight
and we change our big attentions fast from their stockings.

Because we are still too much children, their stockings
allow us to understand what others will not, to recognize
like commands what their eyes are really saying: how tight
their lives have grown, making their insides more narrow
than outside; words, black lines, eyes, all are one language,
too tight now, too weak inside to hold up this skin.

We watch their stockings grow larger, their legs more narrow.
We recognize by touch the verbs of this single language.
Later we stay tight, and pull--in mirrors--at our strong skin.

Whispering to Fool the Wind (New York: Sheep
        Meadow, 1982).  Originally in The Louisville Review.
        Included in [among many others]
The Norton Introduction
        to Literature,
Ed. J. Paul Hunter and Jerome Beaty, and
        Poems, Poets, Poetry,
Ed. Helen Vendler.

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The faces and hands of her grandchildren
Had grown too big to fit through her eyes.
She learned to keep bowed her head
Because fingers and ankles she could recognize
And faces she could not, not even her own
Which fit her now like a wrinkled handkerchief,

Like the brown, unlaundered, unironed handkerchief
She kept always in her hands because her grandchildren
Had given it to her, had allowed her to own
Some part of them, a larger part than her eyes
Would have allowed; she could recognize
In her hands the face from her head

Better than in a mirror, and her head
Felt lighter without eyes, or ears, and the handkerchief
She massaged constantly showed her how to recognize
Clearly why not one of her grandchildren
Would touch her; she could feel their eyes
Also with her fingers, and they were like her own,

Afraid of looking, and their lips were like her own,
Afraid of speaking, and she was kissed only on the forehead
Because of this, and with her fingers that were eyes
She felt afraid, again, again, crushing the handkerchief
Because these were the children of her children
And in them she could not fail to recognize

Herself, trying nervously, trembling, not to recognize
Death, how it had taken her name, Belita, for its own.
She remembered her friends suddenly as children,
How they had played Death like this, because ahead
Only dinner waited for them, how each took a handkerchief
And pulled it slowly over the mouth, the nose, the eyes.

How it was her turn, and quickly her own eyes
Closed; in her short life she had learned to recognize
How a sheet was like a handkerchief
And how both could be her own, and yet not her own,
How each covered easily the length of her head,
How the pennies put on her eyes balanced like children.

But those eyes are not her own.
She cannot recognize any longer the little head,
Covered now by that handkerchief, kissed by the children.

Whispering to Fool the Wind (New York: Sheep
        Meadow, 1982). 
Originally in A Shout in the Street.

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The Women at Early Mass

Small towns have the smell,
Wood burning, cool air,
Houses high on the sides
Of painted, small mountains,
Silent smell, which stands
Arms folded and thick

As a man's are thick.
Small towns know the smell
No one understands.
One man dreams it as the air
Half-strong in the mountains--
Young girls on their sides

Propped and nude, white sides
Exposed, breasts as thick
And sloped as new mountains
Whose smooth, hard pine smell
Braids now the rented air
Where a thin girl stands

Ashamed for him, and he stands,
But still dreams, so his sides
Stay as pained as the red air
That moment is thick
Suddenly; and the smell
Of pain is also mountains

In wives, whose mountains
Never were, Wife, who stands
The thin, sexual smell
Of his dreams, who sides
With this man grown thick,
Strong, high in the air

But then sad--that air,
The weight of mountains,
Is always more thick
Than himself.  She stands
Pain, too, in her sides:
The fat, votive smell

Of white air; she too stands
Beneath mountains, with sides
Thick, but scrubbed of smell.

Five Indiscretions (Sheep Meadow: New York,

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