Rumor is that all the 7/11s in El Paso will soon be putting in Poetry Machines near the candy bars. To learn how to get your own poetry machine, check out MOLOSSUS, an online broadside of world literature. Good stuff. Viva for everybody who makes poetry machines.



"I’m part of the story, it’s my story now and it goes on and on and on."
--Susan Klahr

Artist Susan Klahr died before dawn New Year’s morning. For the last several years, she had been struggling with cancer, and finally the disease asked her to cross to the other side. She is survived by her husband David and her two sons Sito and Arlo.

Susan has long been an important force within the intellectual and artistic community that makes El Paso/Juárez unique along the U.S./Mexico Border and in the United States. Her art spoke of the world she witnessed before her, especially the people that populated her imagination, people who in her paintings radiate a spiritual presence through Susan's imagination. A few years ago Lee and I asked Susan, because of her own Jewish immigrant heritage, to paint the cover image for the YA novel Double-Crossing by Eve Tal that Cinco Puntos was publishing. (Last year, during her illness, she painted the cover for its sequel, Cursing Columbus.) During our conversations about the novel, we expressed our admiration for the two paintings I’ve pasted above, Celia and Rose. [Excuse the poor snapshot quality of the images. I took the photographs this morning inside the office with my little Nikon.] One day she showed up with the paintings and asked us to hang them in our office. She wanted people to see them, she didn’t want to roll them up and put them in storage. They’ve been on loan to us ever since.

The paintings are really one piece--Celia is Susan’s grandmother, who died shortly before Susan was born, and Rose is her mother. Rose died when Susan was 14. Susan painted black and white death masks of her grandmother and mother from old snapshots, she then dressed herself in their clothes and was photographed holding the masks in front of her face. Then she painted portraits of herself as her grandmother Celia and her mother Rose. We’ve been lucky here in the offices at Cinco Puntos to see these paintings everyday and to tell admiring visitors about them. Her illness made these paintings even more poignant and powerful, revealing how our presence continues to live in our families and in the work that we do.

Below, beneath the close-ups of Celia and Rose, are the inscriptions that Susan wrapped in the blue border around each of the paintings. And below those is the story of her grandfather Max and grandmother Celia and mother Rose that Susan wrote for the display of the paintings.

I never saw her.
The one of five sisters.
The one that Max picked.
The mother of Rose.

It's a painting of my mother.
How I never saw her.
She's in my body
and I was in her body.


Whenever I think about telling a story, I think about Max. Max was my grandfather and he had one of the two bedrooms in our apartment and he had a big steamer trunk in there. When he opened the trunk for me it was like magic. It was like this… Once upon a time there was a strong young man named Max and he lived in Chernobyl, near Kiev, in the Ukraine. He called it Russia and he had brothers and sisters, and the youngest sister, in the photo he always showed me, so many years later, looked out at me across time, across the ocean with eyes so large, so luminous (like my son Arlo’s) and hair so black, I wished I could have known her but Max came by himself with his trunk; he braved the unknown alone. He was young, 17 or 18. He made his way across Europe to England or Scotland, speaking not a word but Yiddish, and got on a freighter or a steamer or something and his cousin Joe met him in Philadelphia and gave him a banana and he started eating it with the skin on and what a joke! You greenhorn! Laughed his cousin and Max loved to tell it over and over. He went all the way back a year or so after and came back to America and that was the very last he ever saw any of his family again.

In Chernobyl, Max’s father was the town butcher. I would see them in my mind wandering over hill and green fields, going to neighboring towns to do business. Back there was green and wintry snow and the old life and here (he loved America) was opportunity and no pogroms. Everything was Yiddish, he didn’t need English to make good--leave that to his children. And he was strong and handsome and tall. His shoes were size thirteen and he worked hard. He was young and he worked in a butcher store in New York and upstairs from the store lived a mother with five daughters and this mother came from the old country by herself with her five daughters and she was tough and she was strong and nobody seemed to know how many husbands she had and what happened to them. Her daughters all looked different and she lived to at least one hundred years old and she was my mother’s grandma and she was bubbe to me.

But Max was handsome and he visited upstairs and they would giggle and talk and there were five girls: Celia, Clara, Fanny, Esther and Becky. Clara was the oldest. When I knew her she was a big, square woman with legs that looked like tree stumps to me. Fanny I never knew. In the pictures, she looked thoughtful, exotic. Becky never married. She was fussy and critical, the corners of her mouth turned down. Esther looked like a shiksa. We thought she was pretty. Not dark and mysterious and beautiful like Celia but she was pretty and she put rouge on her cheeks and she was always smiling and kind and generous.

One day the Mother looked at robust Max and put her hands on her hips and said “enough! Which one do you mean?” And Max picked Celia, the most beautiful of her sisters. And she had deep eyes and dark hair and a delicate face and he courted her. So he married Celia and he worked hard and he opened his own butcher shop in the Bronx and he had his picture taken behind the counter and he’s big and strong and proud. In America. And Max and Celia had a daughter and they named her Rose. Rose, an American name for an American girl. Rochel was her Jewish name.

Rose was my mother and this story goes on and on and on. Celia died shortly before I was born and Rose died when I was fourteen years old. I lived with three men, my father, my brother, and my grandfather. It was amazing for me to put on the faces of Celia and Rose: to feel them in my very being. I’m part of the story, it’s my story now and it goes on and on and on.

--Susan Klahr


Happy New Year Cooking Beans

It’s 2010, a New Year, a new decade. In Memphis where I grew up Tula (Darthula Baldwin, the black woman who worked for my mother and who helped raise me) would cook up black-eyed peas and turnip greens to celebrate the New Year and bring good luck for our family and all of our loved ones. Usually she served the feast with pan-fried cornbread. Good and cheap delicious stuff (1). Now that we’ve lived in El Paso these 30-something years we’ve traded in the black-eyed peas for beans .

A while back I wrote a poem about my beans and folks have asked me how I cook my beans. So this is the way I make beans. Pinto beans, that is. I live in the El Paso and so if I say I’m going to make beans then I’m going to make pinto beans. Refried beans or ranchero beans or gringo vegetarian beans. Beans are pinto beans. If I’m going to cook black beans or navy beans, then I say I’m going to cook up some black beans or some navy beans(1). Now, be forewarned, I cook gringo vegetarian beans. And I make a big pot of them, three or four cups of dried beans at least. No sense of having beans on one day only. We like them for a main course the first night and then from then on we eat them however we want them. We garnish them with chopped onions, tomatoes, Monterrey Jack cheese and salsa, and I chop up a clove or two of fresh garlic and drop them on top of my beans. That way I’ll live forever.

So before I go to bed I rinse the beans, cover them in a pot with lots of water and then soak them overnight to soften them up. In the morning after breakfast and coffee I drain those beans. And then I pour in a box of Pacific Organic Mushroom Broth. Good stuff. It was worth a shot. After cooking beans for at least 30 years, I discovered mushroom broth a couple of years ago. Brilliant idea that really happened by accident. We had a box lost in the pantry for some reason and I'm always experimenting with my beans, so why not? The broth adds a dark and earthy taste to the beans. I put the beans sitting in the mushroom broth on the stove and get them started toward a boil. I also set the oven at 250 degrees. And I start throwing in stuff. I find the biggest onion we have, chop it up and throw it in. At least four large garlic cloves chopped up. 1½ teaspoons of ground cumin. 1 teaspoon of curry powder. Maybe more. 2 or 3 teaspoons of salt. Same with pepper. Just how I feel. I never keep count. 4 tablespoons of Extra Virgin olive oil. Maybe I shake in some Italian Seasoning. Whatever. When it all comes to a boil then I stir it up and open another box of broth and add another inch or so of liquid. Sometimes I just add water if I’m tired of wasting money on my beans. I need to make sure that there’s enough liquid in the pot so I can forget about my beans. I get distracted. I like to cook things that don’t need me to pay too much attention. Before I finish I might add a can of organic tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes or even tomato paste. Cooked tomatoes are supposed to be good healthy stuff for being a man. I think about things like that. It makes cooking more interesting. I put the pot in the oven and go away. The beans cook for five hours or so at 250 degrees.

Like I said in my poem, people like my gringo vegetarian beans, but I’m not averse to meat in my beans. You can’t eat beans in a Mexican restaurant in El Paso without getting some meat in your beans some way or another. If you’re eating refried beans, then those are usually are flavored with some lard. That’s okay. There’s no better place in the world to eat beans than in El Paso. Still, if I cook vegetarian beans, more folks can enjoy them. Lots of vegetarians running around these days. Son Johnny Byrd's novia Ailbhe is a vegetarian. Joe Hayes is a vegetarian (well, he eats fish). I used to be a vegetarian. Still, I will use meat under one condition--Somebody gives me a hambone. Especially a Honey-Baked hambone with flakes of ham still hanging from the bone. Those bones make delicious beans.

So that’s how I make beans. With my first pot of beans in this New Year, I wish for good luck, peace and justice for our friends and neighbors—our brothers and sisters—in La Ciudad Juárez across the river from where we live. My first pot of greens will be for our children and grandchildren, for all of our friends—may we all be blessed with good health and spiritual well-being.

Happy New Year.


(1) I still cook the turnip greens, and I cook them mostly the way Tula taught me--lots of greens, onions, garlic, spices but I do them vegetarian style, olive oil instead of a hamhock, sometime I use vegetarian broths of some kind or another. I simmer them all day long on the stove top so that the smell and the humidity from those greens saturate the house and make me want to weep with all those memories. Lee, by the way, is in charge of the cornbread. It’s juicy with butter. It’s the grandkids’ favorite. 

(2) I’m sorry, JB, but that’s the way it is. That’s life, the way we live it here.