These Words Are Synonymous Now
Juan Felipe Herrera
On the way to school I tell my son
remember to read—read fast. At every curb
think of three things, examine the faces
the eyes—especially the eyes, be quick.
The other day I picked up an old paperback
Houdini, The Handcuff King who slipped off
Scotland Yard’s shackles in minutes.
Holding the book in my left hand, I churn it
with the fleshy mound of my palm my thumb
makes small circles on the cover.
These word are synonymous now:
I am working on a play—the world in twenty years.
There is a sentry, a clown, and warrior; the slave colony
on the verge of escape from the video eye. The eye
sees everything. Picture the slender man in the supermarket
holding up a small can of cranberry sauce—weighing
the contents he is concerned with a stamp-size
pectin, artificial flavoring.
Tomorrow his daughter will bleed from the mouth;
the blood will glisten hot, wavy—her boyfriend drinks.
She runs to him; he traps her when daddy sleeps.
There are too many recorded tragedies. No one listens.
Listen to the little bronze gears inside the computer;
everyone owns one, delivers upon the keys. Listen again:
slapping, so quiet,
mournful, so pious.
Big words. My friends are afraid to speak them.
The television offers brilliant young men.
immense shoulder braces tumble across the green,
a pigskin against the solar plexus, a broken leg
juts out wanting to kick the audience, sweltering,
saliva on shirts, ribbons, cold bottle Pepsi’s.
I work toward good things, play inexpensive games—
a miniature clay house with two black windows,
pearled marbles with yellowish zig-zag lines,
a funny thumb-size, plastic, German lugar pistol.
I surprise myself. I finally figured people out.
The Rhyme-Master, Elder King of Ink
who bequeathes Grace upon the Speechless.
The Child-Molester who receives tribute
from his political colleagues.
The Daughter-Monkey caged by her own aging mother
who will never talk to another man again.
I think of my mother. Tiny ancient—who saved broken birds
from the sidewalk rubbing their heads with herbs who
waited nineteen years for me to return. I never did.
I read about the Thalamus, the intricate web of the brain.
My friends use these words too:
while our little mothers shrink,
die without us. We never say Sacrifice. It smells of
My Aunt Lela is caught in a second-story above a ham and eggs
diner. She’s eighty-four when she walks she falls
on the cement every time her legs give out.
I tell her to use a cane like my mother did.
People don’t like to hear this, they say poetry must have
a fancy curl in the center—don’t complain, they say.
I ask them so you have better figures?
In the United States
the per capita income is $27,000 a year
in Malawi Africa it’s $160 in Nayarit Mexico up
on Indian land—a bowl of corn squash and seeds.
I sit at the library, gaze across the table; trees, windows
are continuous; the telephone pole connects with the leaves
darkness crawls up the bark, tears daylight to pieces.
These are labels and empty synonyms:
Poetry and chalkdust.
Horror and humanity.
Laughter and spit.
I tell my son—that’s good, learn the cello, listen to
its womb, take your time, observe, survive.
from: After Aztlan; Godine Publishers, 1992