Across the street an old woman hobbles by.— from “Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park”
My mother tells me: She is unhappy here.
She thinks she would be happier
But she has forgotten.
Today’s read: Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park: Poems by Nellie Wong – Kelsey St. Press – 1977
The place of this poem still exists. It is no longer a railroad park but still lives on as a one block garden park that also houses a child care facility and help center for immigrants. As well as one of many refuges for Oakland’s homeless population. I have driven past it many times and always enjoyed how it breaks up the rows of Chinatown small homes with a small splash of lawn and a modest pagoda that never seemed out of place. I have wondered how it has survived so long through the waves of gentrification. The poetry optimist in me imagines that Nellie Wong’s collection and title poem may have something to do with it. This image of generations of women, native and displaced, asking questions, speaking answers. You can see this cycle still happening in that same corner. Who deserves to be here? Where is the happiness? What does it mean to belong?
The Central Valley is an aging— from “Southpaw Curse”
fruit tree breaking concrete
with the knuckles of its toes
The sidewalks stay warm
under naked feet slapping
from one street lamp to the next
Today’s read: Shadowboxing: Poems & Impersonations by Joseph Rios – Omnidawn Publishing – 2017
I miss walking through New York City. It’s always been a different thing for me. When I first moved out to Oakland I walked around but it wasn’t the same and it’s still not the same. Oakland is the city I have learned how to run through. A city that I can spot old architecture and bright murals. So many murals that tell me bits of story but I don’t have enough personal backstory to fill in the gaps. Even fifteen years later and I can only fill in small cracks in the asphalt. New York hit different. I remember walking hours through the Bronx as a kid because I had to make a choice. I could either get on the bus twice, or I could walk the whole way and have money for a slice and paper cup of soda. I was young and loved pizza so I walked, got lost, then found my way under a train line. When you walk like that in a city summer, the heat compounded by the sparkle of cement, your mind goes places. It turns those trapped crystals into mirrors. You see more than gum stains, piss marks, and blood trails; you find your way home.
Shopping bags, pulverized by branches, contort into a new— from “We Used to Call it Puerto Rico Rain”
nation of black flags. Our block was our island.
Today’s read: The Crazy Bunch by Willie Perdomo – Penguin Books – 2019
It has been a pleasure to read varied poetry collections that have taken me to some unexpected places. Today, I decided that I wanted to return back to New York. And not just NYC but the barrio of my teenage years. So I took a ride on the #4 train from Mt Eden Ave down to 125th St via The Crazy Bunch.
Even fifteen years in Oakland and I still feel like I am taking that subway ride every morning. I have so much Bronx in my speech and approach that it comes through both in English and Spanish. Mexicans routinely mistake me for Puerto Rican. Anglos often imagine that I am Italian-American and by that they really mean that I must be a New Yorker but they can’t quite figure out what to do about my light skin tone.
In this collection, I don’t need to worry about that. I can walk through as a visitor from Uptown. I can get off by Lexington Ave and be sure to walk down with the supermarket to left because if I start heading in the direction of the Mickey D’s then I may not find my way. You definitely don’t head down the direction of the Metro North because it”s the 80s and every other empty door is a crack house.
You follow Lexington and watch the street numbers go down and the street narrow until you find my favorite tostones across the street from the museum that looks like a school but there is a real school down two more blocks but not the best habichuelas but not-so-good is still better than anywhere else.
This is how you navigate this island in the middle of an island. You go by memory and swear to the legitness of your experience without the need for rubrics. Though I do know that any time I visited El Barrio I was doing exactly that just walking through and hearing project whistling in the background knowing it wasn’t my business.
A few months back Barbara found a near-mint copy of Puerto Rican Obituary at the San Francisco Public Library’s used book bin for $3. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I held on to the copy for quite a bit of time before bringing it to the counter as if I was waiting for someone to come by and snatch it away. “Excuse me, sir, the book you’re holding in your hands is much more valuable than three dollars.”
Cuz if that did happen, I would have been forced to agree with them and give back the book. But once I actually paid for it? Different story, broski.
“Excuse me, sir.”
‘No, you excuse yourself, papa. I know exactly what I got in my hands and you best believe it’s worth more than three bucks but I already paid for it and unless you’re willing to argue the merits of quid-pro-quo in an open market economy in civil court… step off!’
Or I would’ve run like the wind with the book under my arm yelling ‘Catch me if you can’ like a homeboy gingerbread man.
Either way, the book is now in the happy confines of the Sexy Loft Library alongside some other great used book bin finds. And on days like today, Pietri’s birthday, I can flip through it (gently) and find a great gem of a poem like “Unemployment.” A poem as true today as it was nearly forty years ago. The colors, the scenery, the details; all so specific. No ambiguity. Nothing coy. The thing, the idea, the person, the City, the sentiment; all at the forefront so the poem can continue speaking for the poet who saw it all.
he gets on the train
at 125th street
and st nickalaus avenue
white shirt black tie
gray suit shoes shine
new york times help
wanted ads under his arm
his hair is neatly
process his wristwatch
does not function
the diamondless ring
he wears costs five dollars
on the block after
all the stores
close down for the day
on the train he takes
out his wallet & counts
500 imaginary dollars
after 59th street
came 42nd street & 8th avenue
& he gets out the train
& walks to the nearest
& deposits a nickel
for a pack of dentine
& stares into the broken mirror
of the vending machine
for the next fifteen minutes
that he is looking good
and then he proceeds
to the employment
agencies and five
hours and three
hot dogs and two
hamburgers one pack
of cigarettes and
one pint of wine later
he is still homeless
© Pedro Pietri
from Puerto RIcan Obituary (Monthly Review Press, 1973)
I’m getting ready for my feature at Writers with Drinks tonight and I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous for a feature.
If you’ve been to a Writers with Drinks, then you know what I’m talking about. The energy is incredibly kinetic and the caliber of writers is always top notch so I’m feeling some serious pressure on what I should read. I can go with the set that I’ve been used to doing the last couple of readings or go with all new stuff. The way I’m talking about this, you’d think I was doing these same poems for five years or sumthin.
Segue: Watching the National Poetry Slam finals recently through live internet stream was a nice experience cuz even if I didn’t like the poems per se, I do appreciate the spirit of competition. What I didn’t appreciate was the asshattery in the chat room. Way too many internet jerks saying things you know they would never say in real life. But, one comment did crack me up, as a poet came up and did a poem they’ve been doing in competition for a long time, and one of the commentators types “This is their Stairway to Heaven!” And as someone who used to have his own Stairway to Heaven I cracked up. End segue.
Ok, time to really get ready and I do want to try to add at least one really new poem to the mix because I don’t ever want to be that poet that does all the same things at all the same places. Been there, when I was younger, and done with it. I know all the reasons poets do the “hits” all the time but I really don’t care if there is “at least one person” in the room who has never heard that poem before. You know, that poem guaranteed to change lives. What I most care about is that the only way I can write that poem—the one that if I’m extremely lucky might get remembered 100 years from now—is by writing new stuff.
Speaking of new stuff. Here’s the latest revision of a poem I started at Martín Espada’s CantoMundo workshop. There’s at least three good stories behind this poem but that’ll have to wait for latah. See ya at the Make Out Room!
The Neighborhood and Tenant Association of Tremont Avenue, The Bronx, Gather to Erect a Statue for Robert Moses
[Poem was here. Can now be found at CrossBronx.]