Janine Pommy Vega: 1942 - December 23 2010

Yesterday Janine Pommy Vega took the journey to the other side. We found out last night, just before heading off to bed. I was doing one of my habitual tours of the internet. One stop is Ron Silliman's blog. When I saw that wild spiked hair appearing on the screen I knew she had died. Lee and I lay in bed talking about Janine, her visits to El Paso, her being so much alive. We'll miss her. Here's a video of her reading the poem "Habeas Corpus" which reflects deeply her work with prisoners, talking with them, learning about them, helping them to write. May she rest in peace. As my previous blog shows, she has been in our hearts for a week or so. We'll miss her. But her poetry is still here.


Janine Pommy Vega & the Black Sparrow

Kitchen Dream

In my room over the kitchen
in Barranco, the shadow of incense
curls across the wooden floor
I lean over the kingdom
of my possessions, and just like that
one day
the smoke will stop

A pigeon lands outside my door
and coos coming in and
out of silence
like a life
lit up for a moment
like someone at the mouth of a river
rushing out to sea.

--Barranco, Lima, Peru, September 1993

This is another reason I love being a poet.

Last weekend I was cleaning my office at home--always a long process because I start picking up books, especially poetry books, and opening them up to random pages and reading. So I picked up Janine Pommy Vega’s book The Mad Dogs of Trieste and opened to that little poem above. I was enchanted with the poem. Sad. Wise. Joyful. All at the same time. I forgot my cleaning-up tasks and spent an hour or so with Janine's poems. She’s a good friend and a wonderful poet. I’ve known her work a long time through Bob and Susan Arnold’s Longhouse Books. She came to El Paso twice, both times performing her poetry at the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art and we became good friends. She’s a great storyteller, and she told us about leaving her New Jersey home at the age of 15 and moving to NYC to be a poet. Like so many of us she had read Kerouac's On the Road and was, well, persuaded. She took up with the Beats and began being a poet. All those legendary times with Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Ray Bremser…you can read about it in the many books about the Beats. But like all the other poets of those times, NYC was only a jumping off place for her journeys into the world. She loved following her nose for life and vision--intellectually, figuratively, spiritually—as the poems in Mad Dogs testify. And she’s a wonderful performer. A wild and excited voice, especially when collaborating with musicians. Janine is also a teacher of the writing of poetry, and she’s done much work in the prisons. I took the photograph above on April 14th, 2004, so, if I remember rightly, Lee, Janine and I were celebrating my birthday (I would be 62 the next day--Janine also was born in 1942 but a few months before me) in the backyard. A bottle of wine, good food, good talk. She and Lee became good friends, talking all the woman stuff that is a mystery to me. I was honored they let me listen.

It was then that Janine gave us our copy of Mad Dogs. It’s a Black Sparrow book (2000). Black Sparrow books--John Martin the editor, his wife Barbara the cover designer, the nice rough feeling cover, the colored end sheets, the generous typography inside. You could always pick out the Black Sparrow titles on the poetry shelves. A long time ago (the 70s, 80s?) I had sent John Martin a manuscript for consideration. He wrote me back a generous letter. He had thought seriously about publishing it, but in the end had to decide against it. I was honored. Janine’s Mad Dogs was probably one of the last before John and Barbara Martin sold the rights in 2002 to Harper Collins (Bukowski, Paul Bowles and John Fante) and the rest to David Godine. Oh well. All good things end. It’s the law of change. That’s okay. I still love those books. I have bunches here and there.

I’m so happy I picked up The Mad Dogs of Trieste. Such a good book of poems by a good friend. It’d be great to see her again. Saturday I start cleaning my office again.


Walt Whitman y the Huevos Racheros at the H&H

This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
Despise riches,
Give alms to every one that asks,
Stand up for the stupid and crazy,
Devote your income and labor to others,
Hate tyrants,
Argue not concerning God,
Have patience and indulgence toward the people,
Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men,
Go freely with powerful uneducated persons
And with the young and with the mothers of families,
Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
And your very flesh shall be a great poem
And have the richest fluency not only in its words
But in the silent lines of its lips and face
And between the lashes of your eyes
And in every motion and joint of your body.
--Walt Whitman, from the Preface to the Leaves of Grass


Eileen Myles' THE INFERNO

"I am glad I am not an artist. A poet kind of is, but really it’s like you’re like a professionalized person. Poetry. Nobody knows what the fuck it is. And what makes it entirely odd is that there’s no money in it.

So in the awards it’s worse than art. No poetry-driven economy. No critical machinery. There’s just no thing at all. Which could be Zen but instead it’s entirely the opposite. It’s so symbolic. And humorless. Awards are the only currency American writing has to describe a writer’s work. It’s almost French. But in France at least the ribbons mean something. You get dinner, a bottle of wine. People know you. Here it’s nothing. And like everything else horrible eventually it leeches into t the soil. Even Allen Ginsberg wanted an award. The week before he died he emailed Bill Clinton to say I’m Allen Ginsberg, the poet. I’ve never received any kind of award from my country. It would be great if I could get something before I die.
But it would make difficulties for you with Gingrich and the right, I understand. Clinton didn’t write back. Nothing for the man who wrote “America”? Allen knew it wasn’t remotely possible to get honored by the superpower that can’t tolerate criticism of itself.  But he was dying and he had to ask. Robert Lowell got honored but he wasn’t a queer or a Jew. He was Robert Lowell."
—Eileen Myles, Inferno, pp 165-66.
Here's a weird thought. I worry about reading too much Eileen Myles. Her writing is so seductive. It’s saying stuff the way I want to say stuff. She even enjoys being not quite accurate. Like some pants with lots of legroom. Space for the mind to feel comfortable and at home. The words could mean this thing or it could mean that thing. And that’s alright. Like those three sentences that start this passage, the last one having two similes, two likes. “I am glad I am not an artist. A poet kind of is, but really it’s like you’re like a professionalized person.” Like she’s really not sure what she wants to say, not sure she wants to tighten it up so there’s no legroom. Like she wants the reader to figure it out herself if the reader cares. And she hopes the reader does care enough to think about what the meaning of being a poet and writing poetry is all about. It’s a crucial question for Eileen. It was a crucial question for Allen Ginsberg. And it’s a crucial question for me. And, like Eileen, I want to wear my own poetry with lots of legroom. Like those pants I wear in the zendo, the ones with the drawstring. I’m always wondering if they are going to fall off. There I am bowing to the Buddha and my pants slip down to my ankles. My legs are so white. My daughter Susie says I need to get more sun.

See there. You can see why Eileen’s writing is so seductive. Maybe infectious is the better word. Like Creeley was for guys like me growing up poet in the Far West 1960s, not many people to talk to. Those little delicate Creeley lines with the heavy breath stop at the end of the line. Such little poems. Creeley said it was okay to write short poems. Poems the length of your sheet of typing paper. That was okay. Then computers came along and we can go on forever. Sometimes I want to go on forever. Sometimes I’m happy writing little short poems. Shorter than haiku poems. Like I said: You can see why Eileen’s writing is so seductive.
POSTSCRIPT: Eileen underlines words in this novel INFERNO which is so much like a memoir it could be a memoir. But she said it's a novel so that's okay with me. Maybe she'd rather be a novelist than a memoirist. Who wouldn't? Especially if you're a poet. But back to the underlining of words. Like she’s writing on a typewriter and not a computer. She doesn’t italicize words. She underlines them. In some places she strikes through words. She didn’t like this or that sentence but she doesn’t delete it she strikes through it. Again like she’s using a typewriter. It has an old-fashioned look. But Eileen is not old-fashioned. She wants the reader to see what she took out and wants the reader to think about what she took out and why she took it out. Style or meaning? Whatever. It’s important to her. Sort of flip and fun. And important. At least in my head. Yeah, infectious is a good word. Like laughter. That kind of infectious. And seductive is a good word too. One or the other. Take your pick. But read the book. Especially if you are a poet. You can choose between one cover or the other cover. That’s odd, huh? Independent presses are always doing interesting things to make you think. So O/R has these two covers. And Eileen underlines words and strikes out sentences. Interesting publishing kind of stuff. I chose the white cover. Sometimes I wonder if many poets are out there buying books anymore. No wonder there’s no poetry-driven economy.

If you want to read a regular review of INFERNO, Liz Brown did a good one at Bookforum. Also, here's a video of Eileen reading from the novel. She reads the part about why she calls it a novel. "Writing a novel is like being buried alive." Etcetera. She's a very good and fun reader.


Charles Olson live @ the Kitchen Table

Below are some great videos of Mr. Maximus Charles Olson reading two of his wonderful poems. Watching these kitchen-made movies really lets you understand how Olson cast such a big light over the workings of the New American Poetry when I was getting into that world. Shy. Unsure. I must have read Olson's "Projective Verse" essay 15 times trying to figure out exactly what his complicated prose was talking about. (It's actually quite simple, I discovered, but I wouldn't trade that journey for an Idiot's Guide.) Barney Childs said one day in class, "Well, Byrd has a good ear. He knows how to do it. He just has to find something to say." Ha. I remember another home movie that I saw in Tucson must have been 1964. It was after a Creeley reading and there was a party up in the hills. The moon and the stars. Lots of booze and talk about poetry. Dreamy. I walked into one room and Creeley was showing a movie of him and Olson in Gloucester. They were walking down a road, hands in their pockets, talking, Creeley looking up to see this big man, his friend. Man, I thought, this is where I want to be. Thanks to Ron Silliman's blog for posting the videos, and to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute archives which is where I copped the photograph, one of my favorites. 


In Memory of Luis Jimenez

Note: In a few weeks I'm going back to Memphis for the 50th Reunion of my graduating class. I graduated from Memphis University School, a prep school. It's a long story how I got there, but my mother who was widowed when I was two was desperately trying to find a male role model for me. I was a hell-raiser, not a happy young man. Public school wasn't working, she felt. I tried CBHS, a Catholic boys school. I got deeper in trouble. So finally for my last two years she bit the bullet (indeed, our whole family bit the bullet) and off I went to MUS. I don't think I've seen any of these guys (except Kingsley hooker) since 1960, so I'm nervous. One classmate I'm very much interested in seeing again is Todd Slaughter, who has become a very fine artist, with an emphasis on public art. I asked him if he knew my friend Luis Jimenez, and he said yes, so I thought I would post this piece on my blog. It originally appeared in El Paso's Newspaper Tree, which is in limbo now, and the Texas Observer.

Eating Mexican Food on Texas Avenue
In Memory of Luis Jimenez

Artist and sculptor Luis Jimenez is dead. The angels killed him. They had been pestering him for years. When he was a kid, walking in the alleys, he was shot in the eye with a bee-bee gun. In 1965 the angels cracked up his car and sent him to the hospital with a broken back. In the 1990s in pure malice they plucked out his left eye, the one injured by the bee-bee. They clawed enough at his right arm and hand that he needed operations. They packed him off to the hospital twice with heart attacks. But he kept working. His art kept him going. He was a blue collar workingman. He loved his tools. He wore a big, complicated utility knife on his belt. He had a nice big pickup.

Houston sculptor Sharon Kopriva says Luis was the hardest working artist she has ever known. He wouldn’t leave it alone. And he was happy when he was lost in his work, his art, using his hands--the stupid angels had left him the one eye in his head, and he saw things only a fronterizo could see. Inside that peculiar geography strange things happened--sex and death danced with the drunks and vatos, cowboys and Indians rejoiced in their legends and defied the onslaught of Manifest Destiny, automobiles made love to America, the myths of Mexico wandered the streets on the sides of low-riders and mingled with the pedestrians of Albuquerque. So he kept on working in the midst of a horrendous divorce and the battles with lawyers. The city of Denver was after him about the Blue Mustang that was to be installed at the airport years ago. The Blue Mustang was cursed.

And of course the angels chose the Blue Mustang with the beautiful eyes of fire as their murder weapon. Thirty-two feet of steel-supported fiberglass and years of labor--he was atop a ladder, hoisting a piece into place, and the angels pushed the Blue Mustang down on top of him.
"When I was young, I felt my skill was inherent in being Chicano, inherent in being Mexican, and that every Mexican not only had ability but appreciated art. It was a kind of fantasy, but certainly within the context a positive thing."
The art of Luis Jimenez was rooted in the gritty aesthetics of El Paso--that rasquache aesthetics that grows up out of the bones and dirt of the desert, an aesthetics that speaks poor Mexican and broken English so that it can somehow endure the relentless expectations of America. He worked in his father’s Electric Neon shop and helped design some of the bizarre neon signs that still are sprinkled around the city. He traveled through Mexico and saw the work--sketches, paintings, and murals of Diego Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. They were sometimes funny, political, violent and populist. The murals especially--heroic and monumental. And in the late 1960s he strode manly Chicano into the belly of the beast, New York City, which was awash with Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe pop culture and intellectual minimalism. The New York City art world disdained American regionalism and didn’t know what “Chicano” meant. Still Luis paid very close attention, he learned what he wanted to learn, he began to make waves but he never forgot where he came from.

Sometime in the 1980s I was in downtown El Paso and was wandering through City Hall in search of some bureaucratic permit to fix my house. I turned a corner and, there on the 1st floor bigger than life, stood Luis’ huge “Border Crossing,” a Mexican man with bandana was wading the Rio Grande with a woman in a shawl on his shoulders. The woman was carrying a child in her arms. The family, pura indigena, was immigrating illegally into the United States. They obviously had their own laws to attend to--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The piece was 12-feet tall, made of the polished fiberglass that made the form seep with deep fluid color. In the guise of art Luis had infiltrated City Hall with contraband ideology.

The piece was on loan and so it disappeared after a few months. I know because I went looking for it. It had become part of my imagination. Then years later I saw “Border Crossing” standing in the December snow near the plaza in Santa Fe. The hoity-toity walked by and nobody paid attention. I daydreamed about stealing the sculpture some drunken night and bringing it home to El Paso. I would install it on the El Paso Street Bridge. It belonged in the ferocious Chihuahua sun.
I had wanted to make a piece that was dealing with the issue of the illegal alien. People talked about the aliens as if they had landed from outer space, as if they weren’t really people. I wanted to put a face on them; I wanted to humanize them. I also wanted to deal with the whole idea of family…I went back to my experience in El Paso where this is a common sight…It was dedicated to my dad, at which point my dad said, “You know, I was never an illegal alien. I just never had my papers straight.”

When his mother was alive, Luis would come to El Paso often and he’d stop by and visit. We’d walk down to the Mexican Cottage on Texas Avenue. Luis usually got the caldo de res, and I got the chile relleno plate with the beans and rice, although I know it’s impossible to be a good vegetarian on Texas Avenue. There used to be a waitress there, a woman in her 30s, who would flirt with us. She’d call us los Guapos and los Reyes de la Avenida--both of us grey-haired 60-somethings, Luis with the one eye and me with the baldhead and the goofy hat. We’d laugh with her and do some flirting of our own. Luis especially got a kick out playing with the coy side of Spanish and explaining to me, his gavacho friend, what he was saying. The waitress would bring us special gifts from the kitchen.

The last time Luis visited, his mother only had a few days remaining in her life and Luis told me about sitting with her as she labored with her breathing. She knew she was dying. He’d try talking to her, but she’d slip away into sleep. He pulled out his sketchbook and he sketched his mother as she lay dying. His sister walked in while he was sketching. She got mad at him. Here their mother was dying, and all he could think about was making art. Luis was hurt by his sister’s anger, but he understood. All his life, he said, his art got in between him and the people he loved. “But,” he said in an almost plaintive voice, “that’s what I do. I make art. That’s how I understand.”

The making of the art cut through the crap. The confusion slipped away and all that remained was the man working.

The waitress at the Mexican Cottage has disappeared. I never even knew her name. The new waitress is nice, but she’s slow and almost as old as me. And Luis is dead. That goddamned blue Mustang. He bled to death on his studio floor.

We’ll miss him, huh?


James Ellroy: Blood's a Rover audio

Huge James Ellroy fan. Can’t help it. American Tabloid juiced me the disease. The public world as conspiracy. The JFK assassination. Mafioso. The Bay of Pigs Fiasco. Cuba dirty money and nothing else. L.A. Cops. FBI. No innocence. Hate and re-hate. We are all dumb rubes. Exotic prose. Un-prose. Re-prose. Kill the sentence dead. Zap the verbs. No adverbs. Shit out adjectives. Break and re-break all rules. Pureland of the Profane. Say what? Son Johnny Byrd sd if 10% is true, then we should walk out the front door and join a revolution. But in Blood’s a Rover, the cops change their spots. Waved little red flags. Morphed Tiger Cab. I didn’t read it but listened to a masterful unabridged recording. The master Craig Wasson and his many voices. 26 hours wandering around the streets of El Paso in my Subaru. The history of 60s & 70s 20th century America seen from the dark smelly and hairy end of the digestive tract—Herbert Hoover, Dick Nixon, Bebe Rebozo, Sonny Liston, Sal Mineo for god’s sake, Red Foxx, Howard Hughes as Prince Dracula. Wasson nails their voices. Never wavers. Emeralds and sex and voodoo. “That’s right, Baby Boy.” MLK assassins (feds and cops and peepers) go red. Guilt and shame. Cannot sleep. MLK fleshy truths dreams. Hoover wears the panties. The Red Goddess wants to have a baby. Beware Haitian voodoo black men with wings and automatic weapons. Hide and re-hide. Secrete and re-secrete. A meet and greet with Ellroy? No way. I think he’s busy scripting the narco-war in Mexico. His personal novel. Talks daily to Calderon and El Chapo on Skype. America doesn’t stand a chance. So, no, I don’t want to meet that man. But I’ll read his books. He’s the best.


TODOS SOMOS JUÁREZ: Peace for the Border

Poster by Antonio Castro H. Antonio grew up in Juárez and now lives in El Paso. He certainly feels a deep sorrow for his city as witnessed by the poster. His father, the artist Antonio Castro L., still lives in the home in Juárez where he grew up, but his son wants him to move across to this side. Antonio H, besides being a professor of Graphic Design at UTEP and is the principle designer for his own graphics art firm, has designed many of our prize-winning Cinco Puntos Press titles, and on a number of occasions he’s collaborated with his father Antonio L who is one of our most important illustrators. They are good men, good artists, good friends and good role models for young artists growing up on either side of the border. They are at home on the border and they feel a terrible sadness for this on-going tragedy.

We all wish peace for the City of Juárez.


The Gates of Paradise, La Ciudad Juárez, Summer 2010

An 8-yr-old boy was killed yesterday in Juárez in an attack apparently aimed at his father, in the Francisco Madero neighborhood in western Juarez. Both were outside of their house at about 7:30 pm, when a group of sicarios drove by and shot them. The bodies were left strewn in the dirt street and the attackers got away. The adult was not identified, but it was reported that he was known as “The Buddha.”
—from a post on the Frontera List, 6-13-2010
In Juárez, since January 1, 2008, when Presidente Felipe Calderón declared war against the drug cartels, 6,000 people have been murdered. The number for greater Mexico is over 28,000 but Juárez is certainly the epicenter of the bloody vortex. The government blames the vast majority of the violence on a turf war between cartels, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juárez Cartel. The normal human response to such violence is more violence. Calderón dispatched the Mexican army to Juárez but the army has become part of the problem, responsible for murder, disappearances, home invasions and other human rights abuses.

Yesterday afternoon, Gabriel, a man who lives in Juárez and who works for us here in El Paso, came by to talk with me. He needed to tell me something. Gabriel was whispering. It happened on the street that becomes the Zaragoza highway. That’s where they built the new American Embassy. In fact, he was walking down the street toward the American Embassy. Gabriel is an American citizen, but his older son was born in Juárez. Gabriel needs to get his son all the right papers to bring him across. It’s not a simple task. The red tape is a net to stop poor people like Gabriel, an American citizen or not. So Gabriel’s son is growing up in all that murderous violence. The streets are dangerous. He’s not going to school, he’s in his house all day, waiting for his father to come home.

So Gabriel keeps hacking away at the red tape.

Gabriel was wondering if he should catch a bus or should he walk? He’s always balancing time and money. He needs to get to work, he can’t spend too much money. The bus stop was crowded. Gabriel is whispering all this to me. A street vendor, he says, was rushing across the street. He was lugging along a large white ice chest strapped across his shoulder. The strap broke and paletas and sodas and ice scattered on the hot street. The vendor turned his head and stopped. Cars rushed by, swerving to miss the man. One car came almost to a stop close to the man. An SUV with dark windows. A window slid down and a man leaned out with a gun in his hand. A large automatic pistol. He shot the street vendor three times, once in his head, twice in his chest. Blood and pieces of flesh and bone exploding from the body. The SUV sped away, the man with gun waving and laughing at the startled bystanders waiting for the bus.

Gabriel looks at me and says, “That’s exactly what happened, Mr. B.”

He’s told me three or four stories like this. Usually, the stories are about stuff that he didn’t quite see, stuff that happened before he came by, pop pop pop, the gunfire so peculiarly a piece of the white noise on Avenida Juárez, a man staggering out of a restaurant and dying on the sidewalk, more gunshots in the night, a little tienda that sells burritos where gunmen barged in and told everybody to leave. They had business with the owner. The poor guy was late on his extortion payments. Gabriel whispers these stories to me. Like they are secrets.

It’s not unusual hearing these stories if you know somebody living in Juárez. Everybody has a story to tell. Another friend told me once that when people on the streets and in the bars and even in their living rooms talk about the murders they whisper. They don’t talk out loud. Like they’re worried other people are listening. And the conversations have the feel of men and women talking about family problems or spiritual and religious questions. They are deep exchanges of stories and feelings—not argument. It’s become a small comfort to share these stories and to work at understanding their sorrow.

“Did you see this body or that body on the corner of such-and-such street? That guy was walking off to work. He was Guillermo’s friend. He wasn’t dirty. They pulled up in a car and shot him. Twice in the head. Three times in the chest. He was a family guy going to work. I think it was the army. They made a mistake. I hope it was a mistake. I mean, I hope he was not dirty.”


Death and the terror are the facts that matter in these stories. What does a man or a woman do? How will you be when an SUV pulls up next to you, its windows black, the electric window glides down, a gun is pointing at you? Statistics are irrelevant, even if they were considered true. Who is doing the counting and what are they not counting? What about the dead buried in the desert or burned at the dump and shoveled under? Nobody trusts the authorities, the mayor is a liar, the president is a liar, the army is in cahoots with El Chapo, the people don’t trust the cops, they don’t trust the newspapers or their TVs. They certainly don’t trust the killers. Why should the killers speak the truth? And the soldiers and the police are just other gangs of killers. So the citizens pass along rumors and innuendos and fables because these fictions stink of the truth. Just a little bit of the truth is like food. What is truth anyway? The number of dead people on a Tuesday night? Those are black ink in a newspaper. A very clean abstraction. The people on the streets know what is happening, they can see the rivers of blood seeping from the mountains of corpses. They want stories from the people who have been there. People who have seen it with their own eyes.

Here’s another story from another friend, a man who grew up in Juárez. He said when he was a kid his granddad used to tell him that every town or city has its wise men and wise women hanging around in the shadows of cities and little towns. His grandfather was talking from his experience as a little boy during the Revolution. So many people had died then. But no matter how forlorn things became, there was somebody out there who understood. His grandfather had met some of these men and women. He would sit at their feet and listen to them. Mexico, his grandfather told him point blank, is rich with such wise men and women. They have stepped off the railroad track. The train rumbles by with all its chaos and confusion, but these men and women have found a little something that let them be at peace with themselves. And they have stories and wisdom and even techniques and pieces of herbs to help others along. But as my friend grew older he began to laugh at the memory of his grandfather telling him about the wise men and women who scatter themselves through the cities and countryside. His grandfather didn’t trust God, he said. “God doesn’t listen.” That’s what his grandfather told my friend when he was a little boy.

As the violence grew worse my friend began remembering his grandfather and what he said. He wished it were true, but even if it was, he figured that Juárez didn’t buy the right ticket. Juárez feels like the unluckiest city in the world in the summer of 2010. So much blood and death so it’s no surprise that all the wisdom sort of was leached out of the city.

Then six months ago his mother told him the story about an old man named Jacobo. A small wiry man. Half-Mexican, half-Lebanese or some Arab-thing. A hodgepodge of roots. Puro meztizo. He was very brown, almost black, the color of mud. His hair and his beard were speckled with white but it was difficult tell his age. A strange looking guy. He liked to hang out behind the cathedral downtown Juárez under the flag of Mexico. The tri-color. He wasn’t comfortable in front of the plaza. So many people there. Jacobo loved those people. They are the color of earth, he said, and sometimes in the hottest parts of the day, he’d sit with them on the benches and the walls in the precious shade of the trees. But there was too much bustling and commerce for Jacobo. Too much religion. The Catholics scurrying off to mass, the Pentecostals preaching in the plaza, and even the Aztec dancer with his crown of feathers and his leather breechcloth and the rattles and drums. Jacobo said he felt happier behind the cathedral. Not so much chaos. He could do his exercise movements—like a dance, his skinny legs and arms slowly swirling around his meager frame—and he could sit at peace, his eyes half-shut, the noisy world a fragile shell in which he rested. And besides a bookstore was across the street connected to the art school. The art school has a nice clean bathroom with toilet paper, and the bookstore clerks liked him because he read books. They let him use the bathroom when he wanted. He could take a book into the bathroom where he could read and do his business. It was a cool clean place to spend a little bit of the hot afternoon.

Anyway Jacobo would show up most afternoons around 3pm. When he was there, a few men and women would come talk to him. It was like a ritual, a way to pass the time away, get something in their hearts to carry home and to think about. They’d bring him a bottle of water or a diet coke. Maybe cold slices of mango or a banana. Jacobo liked fruit. They’d pester him with questions. They wanted to know why is it that Juárez had to endure so much suffering. What about God? Didn’t God care? Jacobo would look over at his interrogator and whisper little short answers. He didn’t want to talk about God. God is another question. And the wrong question at that. He asked them instead questions about themselves. About their families. He wondered how they spent their days with all these big questions. He told them stories. Little teaching stories from all over the world. Sometimes he’d give little talks. Short things. About living in the moment, the right now, the heat in the sky, the nice cold slice of mango. He never gave them any answers, he didn’t tell them how to live but still the men and the women seemed satisfied. They’d show up the next day with more questions although one or two would disappear. They’d get a job. Something needed done at home.

One day a tall man showed up. He had a big square head and a black moustache. He was dressed up to look like a rich cowboy. He was wearing a big white Stetson hat and hand-tooled cowboy boots, and tight blue jeans, an expensive black silk t-shirt, a black windbreaker. Black aviator sunglasses. Thick in the chest. A paunch starting to hang down over his silver belt buckle. He looked dangerously cool. And mean.

“Are you Jacobo?” the man grunted.

Jacobo looked up at the man. The guy was a giant compared to him. He asked, “Who are you?” Jacobo’s voice was so soft the man could barely hear him.

“None of your fucking business,” the man said.

“Well, so be it,” Jacobo said and turned to talk to a young woman. But the woman was gone. She was afraid.

“Look, old man, don’t fuck with me. I came here to ask you a question.”

Jacobo turned back around. “Yeah? About what?”

“I want to know about heaven and hell.”

“Heaven and hell? Why do you want to know about those places?”

“I’ve killed a man. I’ve killed 12 men. Maybe 15 men. What’s going to happen to me?”

“So I ask you again, who are you?”

The man looked at Jacobo. Then he said:

“I’m one of the Aztecas. That’s who I am.” He pulled out a pistol, an automatic that was tucked into his belt under his windbreaker. The other watchers, like birds on a wire, drifted away. One lady murmured a prayer. She was almost running. A clumsy awkward gait, pulling along a shopping bag.

 “The Aztecas,” Jacobo said, “they were a handsome race. They had handsome noses, they had long shining hair. You don’t look like an Azteca. You look like a thug. A stupid ugly thug. A thug with a big gun in his hand. A fucking common gangster.” The profanity sounded coming from Jacobo’s mouth.

“Shut the fuck up,” the man said. He put the gun to the side of Jacobo’s head.

Jacobo looked at the gun. He took a deep breath. He didn’t want to die.

“So you have a big gun. And that makes you a man? It makes you an Azteca?”

The man was breathing hard. At least a minute passed, Jacobo and the thug staring at each other. Then the man clicked off the gun’s safety, he was locked and loaded. He was leaning over Jacobo, close enough so that the two could smell each other’s sweat. And Jacobo could smell the clean oily smell of the automatic. The man took good care of his gun. The city rattled in their ears. They could pick out little pieces of the white noise. A kid’s whimpering in her mother’s arms. Sssh. Sssh. A bus coughed and roared down the street. A man and a woman were laughing somewhere across one of the streets.

Jacobo, almost whispering, said, “So here open the gates of Hell.”


“You are walking through the gates of Hell. Right now. This place. The gun in your hand opens the gates of hell.”

And again there was silence. A long silence like before. The men looking at each other. Jacobo was such a little man. He didn’t seem afraid. Like he was at peace. How could he be at peace if he was about to die? The man took a deep breath and clicked the safety back on. The gun dropped to his side.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He took a few deep breaths. He could feel his heart beating. Like a time clock. He was still bent over, leaning down close to the old man’s face. He said, “And thank you, old man.” And then strangely, he reached his big hand and touched Jacobo on his cheek.

“Here open the gates of Paradise,” Jacobo said. “Right now. This place. Your hand.” The man let out a deep sigh, his hand trembled. He stood up straight, he slipped the gun back into his belt.

“Thank you again,” the man said. And he walked away.

That was the story my friend told me. “And it’s the truth,” he said. “It’s exactly like I heard it. Word for word. That woman who was there. She is a friend of my mother.”

It was one of those strange magical stories that you hear when people are talking about Juárez these days. I didn’t want it to end.

“Well, what happened next?”

“What do you mean, what happened next?”

“What happened to the killer?”

“You gringos,” my friend said, “you never want a story to end where it’s supposed to end.”

“Come on, tell me what happened next?”
“I’m not sure. The cops came. They found a pistol in the gutter. The big man had disappeared. Jacobo had disappeared. But the cops could have put the gun where they found it. And they could have killed the man.  I don’t think so, but that’s possible. Nobody trusts the police. They’re assholes. They’re cold fucking killers.”

“And the old man, what happened to him?”

“I don’t know. My mother says he doesn’t hang out at the cathedral anymore. He got to be too famous. He’d have 15 or 20 people gathered around him. He didn’t like that. My mother said she heard rumors. People have seen him over in the Chamizal Park. He sits under a tree there sometimes. Reading a book. Others say he lives over under the mountain in the west. Near the Rio Bravo. He has a family. A beautiful wife.”

“You think this story is true?”

“It’s the story my mother told me. It makes sense to me.”



Peace for the City and the People of Juárez.

NOTE: Every morning I click through stories about Juárez collected by Molly Molloy at Frontera News Service. I find it very distressing, but important reading. Not only because my family and I live only a few miles from where this bloody vortex has descended, but I consider this on-going tragedy emblematic of our world’s future. Now our leaders can respond to violence with more violence. The violence, as we’ve learned over and over again, leads nowhere. So I wrote this piece—part fiction, part non-fiction—after hearing Gabriel’s story one afternoon. That morning I had read the little story “The Gates of Paradise” in the classic collection of teaching stories and koans Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I’ve always wondered how to put those stories in a contemporary story. 

If you're interested in following the Frontera List, you can go to the google list page or write Molly Molloy at mollymollow@gmail.com



The Great Pat Smith American Dream Poem

I have been teaching poetry for too long
I know this
everyone else thinks so too
the trick’s to clear out before they say so

In a dream I am leaving
crossing Central Avenue
wider now than the Rio Grande
heading down and west
past Jack’s and the bloodbank
past Gizmo’s and Blazer finance
saying hello
to my sad downtown that was always waiting

I am taking a job
becoming the best cashier in Albuquerque
my register sings
I call out orders:
sunnyside up
once over lightly

I smell like french fries and Evening in Paris
my nails are polished
my smock is pink
my hands drip nickels

all the regulars call me Patti
spelled with an i
they eat me up
while the juke box plays
Lacy J Dalton
Willie and Waylon
I hum right along
I know all the words
I am cashing in

One day my customer is Busby Berkeley
He leans on my counter  lights a cigar
looks me up and down
likes what he sees
and says in a wise voice
Girlie, can you swim?
I show him my medals from the 400 freestyle
the 1958 First Annual Pine Point Maine Open Water Classic
He says Esther Williams is making her comeback
They are calling the movie Born to Swim
if I meet him tonight at 8 at the Y
he’ll let me audition for the chorus

Suddenly it is all so simple
there are no limits
to all the color light can turn water
my stage name is Tammy Aphrodite

I am one of the girls
we swan dive from volcanoes and Grecian Columns
stroking tandem, we angle down
then bubble up like spangled lilies
slim fish chlorine virgins
who cares about tenure
I lose the need to breathe
I could stay down forever

In a world all light and water
I am the wet,
the wordless angel

 Last Tuesday Lee and I (with our granddaughter Hannah) drove up to Albuquerque to the memorial for our friend Patricia Clark Smith. We've known her for a long time. Indeed, on the drive up I tried to remember when I first met her. I think it was in one of those great bars that Albuquerque and Santa Fe used to have back in the 70s. The Thunderbird in Placitas, Claude's in Santa Fe, Smokey Joe's on the corner of Central and University in Albuquerque, Raphael's Silver Cloud out on the highway north. It must have been summertime, 102 hot like it was last Tuesday, muggy, some nameless band playing, maybe a jukebox. I was drinking and standing looking at the dancers and this little woman appeared out of the crowd of rockers. She was dressed part-Indian, part country and western. She had a roundish smiling face and her eyes twinkled. Yes, her eyes really twinkled. Who would guess she was a PhD from Yale? Who would even care? I certainly didn't. She asked me to dance and she grabbed my hands and out we went into the crowd of dancers. And we danced.

Since the memorial Lee and I have been mulling over Pat and her death. For whatever reason we have been feeling sort of empty, like something is not there. She was my generation, and like so many of our peers--important workers in the fields of culture and literature--, Pat's not very well represented on the internet. The talks people gave were wonderful, but mostly the people talked about Pat as a wonderful friend and colleague in the university. It was good to see old friends, especially our publishing colleague John Crawford, Pat's lover (aka husband), the longtime independent publisher of Westend Press. But only poet and performer Joy Harjo represented the alternate universe of poem-writing outside the university, that place where I feel most at home. Well, that's not quite true. Poet David Johnson, who like Pat has roots in each world, was the last speaker. He was  Pat's friend and colleague in the English Department at UNM, but he also shared with her the love of literatures that range far beyond the accepted canon (especially was back in the 70s when they started stirring the pot)--the poetries of Native America, women and men of color, of the various nations of Latin America. In concluding his talk David read from her book Changing Your Story "The Great Pat Smith American Dreampoem." Listening to the poem (a man's voice, a woman's poem) I thought then that I would put the poem on my blog.

I lose the need to breathe
I could stay down forever

In a world all light and water
I am the wet,
the wordless angel


Patricia Clark Smith (Valentine's Day 1943-July 11, 2010)

Poet, writer and activist Patricia Clark Smith and her John Crawford (Westend Press publisher)

I lifted this obituary from the Albuquerque Journal. I'm sure John wrote it, with the help of many friends and Pat's two sons, Joshua and Caleb.

Patricia (Pat) Clark Smith died peacefully at Women's Hospital in Albuquerque Sunday evening, July 11, 2010. She had been admitted four days earlier and died of successive organ failure. She was surrounded at death by her husband John Crawford; her two sons, Joshua and Caleb; members of her extended family, and her friends; She is survived by her two brothers, Mike Clark, 64, and James Clark, 61; and her two sons, Joshua Smith, 43, and Caleb Smith, 40. A memorial service will be held at the University of New Mexico chapel at 5:00 Tuesday, July 20, 2010. The public is invited to attend. Patricia was born on Valentine's Day in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1943 and lived with her mother, grandmothers, and aunts while her father was serving in the Army Air Corps. When her father returned from the service and the war ended, the family moved to Hampshire Heights, a project on the outskirts of Northampton, Massachusetts. While she was later renowned as an accomplished scholar, poet, and teacher, she always stayed close to her working-class Irish, French Canadian, and Micmac Indian roots. Her childhood friends from Hampshire Heights, whether or not they left New England, remained close to her to the end. Following the war her two brothers were born: Mike, later a sea captain, and Jim, later a musician. Patricia graduated from Deering High School in Portland, Maine in 1960. She attended Smith College as a scholarship student, graduating with a B.A. in 1964, and Yale University from 1964 to 1970, when she was awarded a Ph.D. in English. Meanwhile she married Warren Smith in 1963 and had two sons, Joshua in 1966 and Caleb in 1970. She and her husband taught at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa from 1969 to 1971. From the beginning she attracted the attention of helpful and kindly mentors. The distinguished English professor W.K. Wimsatt, his wife Margaret, and their family befriended her during the Yale years and thereafter. In 1971 her husband Warren was offered a position in the Classics Department at University of New Mexico and Pat followed, soon joining the regular English faculty. She taught English at UNM for thirty-two years, from 1971 to 2003. Early in her career at UNM she also taught at schools connected to several Navajo Indian reservations (Ramah and Sinosti) in New Mexico with a new mentor, pioneering New Mexico early childhood teacher Lenore Wolfe. In the late 1970s she and Warren Smith were divorced. She taught courses in Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as American literature and creative writing. She began to expand her interests in Native American studies. One of her early Ph.D. students, Laguna Pueblo author Paula Gunn Allen, published a revised version of her doctoral dissertation as The Sacred Hoop, a groundbreaking approach to feminist studies in Native American literature, in 1986. Among Patricia's companions throughout this period were Native American writers Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz and Luci Tapahonso. She published the first book of her own poems, Talking to the Land, in 1979. She married teacher and small press publisher John Crawford in 1987. She published her second book of poems, Changing Your Story, in 1991. She and her husband joined UNM Professors Paul Davis, David Johnson, and Gary Harrison in editing and publishing Western Literature in a World Context, a two-volume college anthology, in 1995. She also published As Long as the Rivers Flow: Stories of Nine Native Americans, with Paula Gunn Allen in 1996; On the Trail of Older Brother: Glous'gap Stories of the Micmac Indians, with Michael RunningWolf in 2000; and a younger reader's biography, Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets in 2003. Those who have known her deeply- and there are many-have praised Patricia's generosity, her ability to bring out the best in others, and her gift of encouragement. She has started many a young writer or scholar on his or her career. Her advocacy for women scholars, multicultural writers, and especially Native American students has moved the teaching profession powerfully in this region. She has also befriended many people she recognizes as her own kind-waitresses, nurses in hospitals, receptionists, clerks in stores. Arrangements are being made for gifts to be donated to Native American educational funds.

She was a good lady, a wise lady. May she rest in peace.


Dreaming Martino's, Dreaming Juárez

Dennis Daily--musician, musicologist and library archivist (@NMSU at the time)--took these photographs at Martino's Restaurant on Sunday March 23, 2003. These waiters, busboys (see note) and chef had served me, my family and friends for years. I have their names in a file somewhere that I cannot find. The last time I was over in Juárez, Martino's was simply a bar that opened at 6pm. I don't go across that late to find out what's going on. The on-going counting of the murdered dead continues to overwhelm the city. This last Sunday was election day. 13 people were killed.  Families are leaving, businesses are closing. But Martino's has always been an important place for me. A piece of the culture and ambiente of El Paso and Juárez. For those of you who don't know Martino's or Juárez, I'm pasting below an article I wrote around the year 2001 for a local magazine. It gives you some gist of what the restaurant and the city used to be. And below that is a sweetly humorous photograph, taken by good friend Michael Wyatt, of the famous parking sign that stood in front of the restaurant.

[NOTE:In a restaurant in Mexico, to get a waiter’s or mesero’s attention, you use the word “Joven” which translates literally as “young man.” I never was comfortable using the word in Mexico, especially at Martino’s. As you can see from Dennis' photographs, these guys were all grace and style and for many years they were my senior. Especially my all-time favorite, a man named Moises II, a Peter Lorre look-alike who retired sometime in the 1990s. So when I wanted another beer or martini, I said “Señor.” Even in speaking with the busboys. I felt more comfortable like that, even though sometimes it took a while for them to realize I was trying to get their attention.]


Things You Can’t Do in Austin or Santa Fe, #3
(Written sometime around 2000-2001)

This is a message to those thirty-something and forty-something and fifty-something paseños who worry themselves silly because they’re not able to spend enough time and money in Santa Fe or Austin:


Walk south along El Paso Street past the Camino Real, the pawnshops, the shoe and clothing stores and the peculiar assortment of other thriving businesses. You will come to a bridge that crosses a river. On the other side of the river the bridge will miraculously unburden itself in another city that exists in another country. This is a foreign city and a foreign country. Indeed, you can go to London or to Paris and you won’t be in a country as foreign to you as the city and country on the other side of that bridge.

If your heart is open, you will be amazed at this journey. It’s like you have walked into a story that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is writing. You remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez, don’t you? You read his books in college. If you didn’t, you should have. Make a note to yourself to buy 100 Years of Solitude the first chance you get.

If you are a little bit waspish, or if you look perhaps like someone who will vote for George Bush, then the people in this foreign city will look at you like you are a foreigner. Trust them. They are right. Suddenly you are a foreigner. It’s like walking through a mirror. That’s okay though. They want you to enter their country because you probably have money in your pocket and credit cards in your wallet. In fact, you might think about giving some of the change you are rattling nervously in your pocket to the indigenous women and children who will greet you with their outstretched hands. These families--the tiny women in the colorful dresses, the men in the white pants and shirts, the children hungry and forlorn--are the Tarahumara. They have fled the Sierra because of the never-ending drought and their fear of the druglords and logging companies who are usurping their homelands.

You might be overcome with sadness, even remorse, seeing the poverty of the Tarahumara. Likewise seeing the poverty of some of the other citizens of this country. Maybe this is why you have forgotten about the Bridge from our country into their country. You didn’t want to look into the heart of such poverty. I can understand that. They can understand that. But give them a quarter. Or even a dollar. It won’t hurt you. It might even help you. Just please don’t sully their proud history by naming a polo club Tarahumara. This would be an arrogant and ugly act.

But this is not the reason you have crossed the Bridge.

You have crossed the Bridge so that you can go eat at a restaurant that is a few blocks further down the street. Don’t bother telling this to the cab drivers who want to take you to the market or to the bullfight or to a girlie show which is only around the corner anyway. Just ignore those guys and walk straight to Martino’s.
Martino’s is waiting for you next to the historic Kentucky Club. You might even want to have a drink at the Kentucky Club before going next door to Martino’s. Fine. The place has a wonderful old-fashion mahogany bar and a long mirror where you can sit on a stool and contemplate the meaning of things. The bartenders serve ice-cold Mexican beer, and they fix a decent and inexpensive drink. The bathrooms sort of stink, but that’s okay as long as you sit toward the window. If you see friends of your sons and daughters--indeed, if you see your sons and daughters--ignore them like you ignored the cab drivers. You are in a foreign country, they are in a foreign country, and you are turning another page of the story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

So it’s time you enter Martino’s.

Before entering, however, peer inside through the big plate glass window. You will notice two things--first, the very neat and semi-elegant motif is bronze with red and white table clothes and huge mirrors, and, second, there are not too many customers inside. In fact, if you look closely, you might notice that there are more waiters inside than there are customers. This always mystifies me. Martino’s is my favorite restaurant and it is never full. Why? Because people like you are not crossing the Bridge to eat there. This is why I have brought you here. I love Martino’s. I want to see the waiters and the busboys and the cooks and the owner making money. I don’t want Martino’s to disappear like Julio’s disappeared.

So don’t be worried about the emptiness. You will enjoy yourself.

Entering Martino’s is a pleasure like an oft-practiced ritual is a pleasure. You push open the glass door and a waiter neatly dressed in a white jacket will be waiting for you. He is glad to see you. He and his colleagues quietly organize your table, they insure that you are comfortable. You soon realize that--no matter how good the food will be--the real pleasure of Martino’s is how the waiters treat you with respect and gentleness. They are never in your face, but they appear miraculously when they are needed. Like they too have read 100 Years of Solitude and they have learned the genuine meaning of service. My favorite is Moises II who looks like Peter Lorre and who first waited on my wife Lee and I in the 70s. But two or three others rival him in the soulful practice of the art of being a waiter.

Now that you are seated at Martino’s, I want to give you some advice

If this is your virgin crossing, don’t worry about the water. It’s bottled water. The ice is from bottled water.
Once you’re beyond the question of water, I recommend you order a martini straight up (derecho) with either Tangueray or Beefeater’s as your gin of choice. Vodka, of course, should not be considered. Although other devotees of Martino’s praise the traditional Margaritas, or the icy exotic drinks of greens or blues, or even the exquisitely cold beers, I believe my recommendation leads you deeper into the mystery that I perceive at Martino’s. The waiter prepares the martini at your table. It is a ceremony worth watching, a sacrament to enjoy, and it’s certainly well worth the 4-bucks you pay for the pleasure. Especially since it’s a double.
Like many restaurants on the other side, the menu at Martino’s is huge, and I have never come close to eating everything. If you want something before dinner, the shrimp and octopus cocktails are good, the escargot (or so says my friend Willivaldo Delgadillo) is delicious. When you’re choosing an entrée, stick with the steaks and fishes. Under no circumstances choose a Mexican dish. They don’t know how to cook Mexican food at Martino’s. Also, stick with the simply prepared foods. Our experience with the paella, for instance, is that it was excellent one visit and lousy the next.

I usually get the chateaubriand cooked on the grill or pan-fried French-style in butter. I order my steak medium-rare, and the chef has never disappointed me. The meat is very tender and very delicious. It rivals any steak served in El Paso. Guaranteed. At $10.95 it’s truly one of the great deals anywhere near our city.
The fishes are a number of different fillets, or whole Black Basses, cooked in a variety of ways. They also have lobster and shrimp dishes. I don’t know anybody who has ever had the lobster. All entrees come with a soup, salad and potato. My favorite soup is the French onion. It’s delicious. Even my snotty New York friends say it’s delicious. But Martino’s has other soups, each with its fans--a hot potato soup and two cold soups, avocado and a gazpacho.

Sadly, the salads are commonplace--iceberg lettuce and tomatoes with the usual suspects for dressings. Oh, well. I eat them and am happy I did. I notice, however, that my friends sometimes don’t eat the salads. I don’t know if they’re worried about getting sick or simply don’t like iceberg lettuce. I never ask.

After dinner, the waiter will offer you a wide selection of deserts ranging from a raging flambé to the traditional flan. Lee and I usually get the flan with a bunch of spoons for everybody. It’s truly rich and delicious. I may even go whole hog and get a good shot of brandy in a snifter and a cup of coffee. Why not, huh?
I hope you enjoy Martino’s. I hope you sit close enough to the big front window so you can watch all the different kinds of people walking by. Doing so is an act of meditation, one that is amplified by the fact that you’re in a foreign country but close to home. The waiters somehow recognize the fact that you are meditating and they leave you alone.

If you’re a man, I hope you visit the bathroom so can enjoy the old-fashioned pleasure of melting the ice in the urinal.

When you’re done, pay with a credit card because you get a much better rate of exchange. BUT tip the waiter with cash. U.S. dollars. Twenty-percent at least. The staff will have earned that amount easily. Besides, you’ve had a truly wonderful dinner for somewhere around $20 a head. That’s very good for the excellent evening you’ve had.

The waiters will shake your hands as you leave. Go back outside into the noise and the traffic of the night. All sorts of kids will be on the street full with a wild energy that you lost long ago. They might frighten you, they might worry you. That’s okay. You can remember the confusion in your own heart at that age, no? Walk back to the Bridge, poking your head into the stores and into the discos.

I hope you’re full of wonder...

 (Photo  by Michael Wyatt)


Poet Bill Deemer

This humble little book was waiting for me when I cam home from New York City. I was tired and confused with all the stuff I had to do. Stuff for work, stuff for writing, family stuff, etcetera. Lee gave me a 6x9 manila envelope from Oregon and said, "Here, Bobby, this came for you." There it was—a signed copy of Variations by Bill Deemer. “Compliments of the author” a hand-written note said. Oh, wow! Bill Deemer is one of my  favorite poets. And a wise man. Full of wit and Basho-like understanding. A part of that breed that Ron Silliman calls the New West Poets or Zen Cowboy Poets. This is Silliman’s way of saying that Deemer doesn’t belong to any group. A republic of poetry governed by anarchy. Deemer has the usual virtues of the citizens of that anarchy. He lives in the West, he has roots to Philip Whalen and to Jim Koller's Coyote Journal and he doesn't belong to any identifiable group. He just lives his life—a very full life, a rural life, a contemplative life—in Oregon, his eyes wide open, and from there he writes his poems. Of course, being who he is, most folks haven’t heard about him, much less read his work. The little book (4½ by 5½) only has 31 poems, many of which are “Variations on a Theme” (the delicate and beautiful title poem). Variations on WCW’s red wheelbarrow, Zen rock-skipping, etcetera. Only a few are bigger than the one small page. I sat down and read it and have re-read it twice. The poems make me joyous. Here’s the last poem in the book.


I waited for a letter to arrive,
I waited for the phone to ring,
I waited for water to boil.

I saw the wood rose between gray fence posts,
I saw her asleep beside me in the morning,
I saw the moon glowing in a puddle.

I heard the blue jay’s reveille,
I heard Lew Welch read his poems,
I heard her whisper to me in the dark.

I remember it rained a lot.

What a great little poem, huh? And so much mystery suddenly to think about Lew Welch reading his poems. I wish I had been there. Oh well. Bill Deemer seems happy to be our Basho, our Issa. I looked for images of him on google and came up with nothing. I’ll let him be. But I want to thank him here for such a wonderful gift.

And likewise to Longhouse Book Publishers, publisher of Variations (1999). Longhouse--an essential independent press and on-line bookseller of poetry books that matter--is the remarkable business owned by Bob and Susan Arnold. Bob and Susan have indeed walked the walk all these many years on River Road in Guilford, Vermont. Bob Arnold is likewise fine poet and writer himself. His book On Stone: A Builder’s Notebook (Cid Corman’s Origin, 1988) still reverberates in my heart. Bob and Susan, although they live in Vermont, certainly would qualify as indigenous citizens in the anarchy of New West Writing.


Self-Portrait in a Bathtub, New York City

Many thanks to Sylvia and John Gardner who kindly lent me their apartment so I could spend some extra time in New York City.


The Lessons of Mr. Wu

I'm in NYC for a few days between the sales conference for Cinco Puntos (Consortium Book Sales and Distribution is our distributor) and the Book Expo next week. I'm trying to get some writing done, putting together a poetry manuscript, looking through old journals, writing whatever I want. And every day for a few hours I get to wander the streets. This is something from my journal.

Monday around 2pm I was deep in the hubbub of New York City, leaving Times Square on the “R” Train going south. I like the "R" Train. It's not so crowded, the cars are newer. A couple of young people were smooching a couple of seats down. In her excitement the girl dropped her can of Coca-Cola, the boy tried to grab it, but he was too late. A puddle of the dark sparkling sugary stuff spilled out onto the floor. The girl giggled. The boy apologized, he picked up the can before it was completely empty but what else could he do? She snuggled her head into a comfortable place on his shoulder and hugged him around the waist so he went back to the more important business of fondling her. A black woman, old like me, hurrumphed at their activity. The train started off and the puddle began to flow, becoming a long tiny river reaching inch by inch back toward where it came from. Like it had its own intelligence, like it had something to say to me--the Tao of Coca-Cola. I watched it slither toward the end of the train. It never came to a logical or physiological conclusion. The train screeched to a halt at 34th Street and the river reversed, understanding the laws of its existence, and snaked back the other way, its integrity intact. Once more a tiny crest of the Tao flowed past my feet. The woman looked at me and pursed her lips. She too was a student of the little rivulet. Weird, huh? 23rd Street. The Coca-Cola repeated its performance, but this time half-heartedly. I suppose this is entropy. I’m always trying to figure out what that word means. Although I can feel it in my bones.The girl and boy got off at 14th to play kissy-face in Union Square. That was my wish for them. The black woman watched them go, gave me a big smile and rose majestically for her exit at the 8th Street Station. A few others came and went, but nobody stepped on the river of Coca-Cola. It would have been a foolish and unlucky act. Bad mojo. I got off on Canal Street. I had business with a Mr. Wu.

When the weather is good he sets up his card table on the south side of Canal near Mott in the swirling humanity at the edge of Chinatown. His business he calls “Grass Arts.” He cuts small thin strips of bamboo and thick grasses, he dyes the strips various colors and then he braids them into exquisite little animals. Like palm crosses the church ladies make to celebrate the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, but these animals are lovely and very delicate. Real craftsmanship. I bought a mouse and two swallows, gifts for grandchildren and friends. $20 bucks I gave to Mr. Wu. Happy for my success I took the slow way home. I’m on vacation and I get to enjoy the bustle and chaos that is New York City. After walking around through Columbus Park, I took the #6 to Grand Central Terminal and walked to Bryant Park. I clutched my bag of Grass Arts. I didn’t want to lose it. I sat in the green grass under the library and read my book. And then after a while I hopped the #104 bus, still clutching my paper sack and my purse.

Oh, it was a beautiful springtime ride up Broadway toward my borrowed home on the West Side. People came and went. I got a place near the window and went back to my reading. The book is Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes. It's gotten great press, I was given a galley (one of the bennies of being a publisher) and so I brought it along. The book has swallowed me up. The first half of the book is about a platoon of soldiers (boys really, 18 and 19 years old, some as old as 23) struggling through the gunk of the jungle in the rain and mud, little or no support from their command. Their clothes are rotting off, pus is oozing from all their sores, their feet are swollen with jungle rot. They are fighting and suffering and dying, their commanders and the chain of command lost in their own mechanical psyches of ambition and fear and delusion. I was one of the young men who dodged that war. For good reasons too--I never wanted to go to Vietnam, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam, I didn’t believe anything that was told to me, and I was afraid. But I have friends who did go. Now all these years later I am sure that violence answers absolutely no question of politics, nationality, ethnicity or whatever reason the power brokers use to stir up their pot of madness,. But how do I know this really? It remains an abstract idea. So I study violence like a man who has misplaced something in his house. Something that I need to find and understand. Sure, this is crazy, but it’s who I am and it's what I do. I'm an old man now. At 107th I got off the bus. I was hungry and somehow sad. The sorrow inside the book was sinking into me. I went home and ate.

This morning I got ready to send one of Mr. Wu’s little birds to my granddaughter Birdie. The pink one. Birdie loves pink. But the sack of Grass Arts, I realized after searching frantically around the apartment, is still on the #104 bus. The bus went into Harlem, my sack of Mr. Wu’s gifts like a piece of flotsam in that puddle of Coca Cola, moving along to wherever it goes. I hope somebody found them and passed the beautiful little animals to their children or grandchildren. Or maybe an old man found the sack and he needed the money so he sold them to somebody on the street. I hope so anyway. I hope those little creatures of grass found a good home for a while.

Tomorrow I will go back to see Mr. Wu.



Everyday I pray for the people of Juárez. Literally, I pray. I light a stick of incense and pray for peace, good health and spiritual well-being for the people of Juárez. If you pay attention to the news, you know my praying does nothing, but it keeps the city and its people in my mind and heart. Like most everybody else I’m overwhelmed by the bloodshed. I don’t go over there much anymore and I don’t write much here on my blog about the city. Other people do the writing much better that I ever could. Especially the journalist Charles Bowden. I emphatically suggest you read his new book Murder City:  Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (Nation Books). Juárez has become his tar baby. He’s slapped it across the head a couple of times (see Note 1) and each time his fist gets stuck deeper in the goo. The bloody mess of flesh and bones. And the River Styx washes away the names of the dead. Violence, Bowden shows us, doesn’t work, no matter its scale. The citizens of Juárez must repeat this truth everyday of their lives, but the sicarios, the killers, they aren’t listening. Nor would they care if they were listening. As I write this well over five thousand people have been killed since the bloody reign terror began in 2008, over 800 have been killed in 2010 alone, and the homicides in April have been approximated at 205--more than double the number of 90 registered in April 2009 and four times the number of 55 cases in the same period in 2008. The month of May is keeping pace (Note 2). A few weeks ago, on just one day the killers found 22 more souls to dispatch to the other side. The governments and the mainstream media want to ascribe causes to the carnage. They are either liars, or they still believe in solutions. They certainly don’t look deeply into their mirrors. But the violence in Juárez is proving to be more like a viral epidemic, like AIDS or the Black Plague, except the host body is culture and government. There is no cure, no silver bullet. Its beginning is hypothesis, its end will not be found in the blather of politicians and talking heads, and certainly not by more violence--whether sanctioned by the government or not.

Murder City documents the year 2008, the year that the murdering began. It coincides, of course, with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s infamous and duplicitous declaration of war against the cartels. Bowden, like Alice, does decide to walk into the mirror and see what awaits him. More than ever now, he becomes a subject of his writing as he wanders the streets of death with his list of names and places, trying to catch hold of some sort of understanding. Some theory to serve as anchor in the flood. Factual school-learned journalism doesn’t work. Statistics, names of the dead and descriptions of murder scenes don’t carve real substance into the readers’ heart. They don’t or won’t listen sincerely, the statistics become mottos for cocktail parties and e-chatter, the kind of abstractions that remain arms-length from the human heart. But Bowden wants his reader to feel the terror and inhuman evil of the epidemic. It’s the conundrum, although contrary, that a religious mystic confronts—how do you explain the experience of God to somebody who hasn’t experienced God? Bowden is pointing his finger at the blackest of moons. He finds us real live people to create a four-headed Virgil to guide him through this 21st Century inferno, these peculiar buoys that float up almost unbidden in the muck to direct him toward the deepest ring of hell:

Miss Sinaloa: a beauty queen from the state of Sinaloa. Her story begins as the archetypical story of the beautiful Mexican woman, but because of the glories of her body, she becomes trapped in the web of the narcotraficantes. She goes to a party in Juárez to have a good time, she's fed drugs and booze, she’s raped and sodomized for three days and then she finally re-surfaces at the “crazy place” where El Pastor looks after her. She becomes Bowden’s imaginary, but very real, companion in the City of Juárez. She’s a vision of lost beauty, she whispers truths in his ear and she understands the needs of the human heart and body.
El Pastor: the rehabilitated drug addict who went out into the desert and finds Christ (Note 3). On his return he builds “the crazy place” from the rubble of Juárez and there he houses and cares for the lost souls of the city, the lepers and untouchables of Juárez, people like Miss Sinaloa. He teaches Bowden about compassion and the meaning of love. He is no romantic. He is afraid. He knows he might die. In fact, as I write this, he might already be dead.
El Sicario, the hired killer: as far as I know, this is the first extended recorded interview with a Mexican narcotraficante since Terrence Poppa interviewed Pablo Acosta and documented it in Drug Lord. It’s a frightening interview. Not only the interview itself, but the details of finally getting in touch with this man who, because he has felt the presence of God, wants somehow to find a little bit of peace. Like with El Pastor, the discovery of God has found him some relief but the residue of his many murders still armors his body and mind.
El Reportero: Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a reporter from Ascensión, Chihuahua (Note 4). He fled with his son to the U.S because the Mexican army was looking for him. They wanted to kill him. In 2005 he had reported about a specific incident of an Army patrol walking into a hotel where migrants stayed before their journey north in search of work. Migrants carry money and valuables, their tickets through their illegal passage. The Army knew this, and they robbed each and every one of them. Now the Army had threatened to kill Emilio. He fled for the border. He hoped he would get asylum, but what he got was a jail cell and a seven month separation from his son. Listen to what Emilio teaches Bowden:
It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don’t think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United Stataes would be hard pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight a way on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: The war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government-financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children (page 202).
And Bowden plays himself, a reporter, a character like Dante who is really no longer Charles Bowden, but the character who he must stand up in his place. As a poet, I find Bowden’s personal improvisations riffing off the confrontations and conversations with these four persons the most interesting writing in the book. Sure, Murder City is full of facts and first-person accounts and description, but he employs the methods of novelists and storytellers, and, even more radical, of poets to tell the fractured stories of Juárez.

The only other writer to come close to Bowden’s writing about Juárez is Roberto Bolaño. The great novelist, like Bowden, came to see the city of Juárez as emblematic of our new world. Of course, Bolaño doesn’t write about Juárez. He writes instead about the city Santa Teresa that he invents from the cloth of his imagination in “The Part about the Crimes” in his epic 2666: A Novel. In fact, Bolaño wrote from Spain as his own life was running to its conclusion. He used as source material El Huesos en el Desierto by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, as well as a long correspondence with Gonzalez, who appears in a fictional role in 2666. I’m pretty certain that Bowden used El Huesos also (Note 5). Bowden and Bolaño tell all this much better than I, so I’m going to shut up soon. I do want to emphasize to you to read Murder City. When you’re done, read 2666. These are not only important texts for now, but for the years to come, even those years when the killing fields move from Juárez to the next place. They will still be the same killing fields. The same ignorant federal laws of prohibition and the human greed which capitalizes (as in “Capitalism”) on those laws will still be feeding the global killing fields. I wish I could say differently, but I can’t. These killing fields are one of the by-products of the Age of Globalization—our brave new world, a world of centralized corporatization and governmental regulation that segregates us further and further from a real understanding of ourselves and our planet.

I will continue to light my stick of incense for the people of La Ciudad Juárez. And for us all.

Note 1. Juarez: A Laboratory of the Future and Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family.
Note 2. I get my figures from the Frontera List Serve. Molly Molloy at the New Mexico State Library monitors newspapers on both sides of the border and daily tabulates the ever-growing figures. I also recommend following Frontera del Sur, which also originates at NMSU through the Center for Latin American and Border Studies, especially the work of Kent Patterson. Thanks to all you guys. You do important work.
Note 3. People who write or talk about Bowden and his work rarely mention his ability to let others do their own talking. Both the Pastor and the sicario have had experiences of God. Those experiences are the foundations of their conversations with him. Bowden, on the other hand, is a big gregarious and hard-headed intellectual who did his apprenticeship with the likes of Ed Abbey deep in the outback, and he carries around a large backpack full of doubt like the rest of us in the intellectual community who read his books. Yet, he reports faithfully on these two men’s experiences of God without remark. And he likewise gives the late Esther Chavez Cano, an atheist, full voice in his description of her. Indeed, I think his writing on Chavez Cano is truly the greatest eulogy to this great lady that I have read  Bowden understood her like he understood Miss Sinaloa and El Pastor and El Sicario and El Reportero. I applaud him. I applaud them all. And I might add, it’s almost impossible to write about Mexico without letting its peculiar and very complex spirituality seep into your writing.   
Note 4. To read about Emilio in particular, you can read Bowden’s article online in Mother Jones:We Bring Fear: A Reporter Flees the Biggest Cartel of all, the Mexican Army.”
Note 5. Maybe I’m wrong but I bet $10 that the woman Heidi Slauquet (page 31, Murder City) is the same party-hostess for the rich and famous who turns pimp for the narco-traficantes that Bolaño describes. She eventually ends up one more dead body on a road leaving Juarez.