Tag Archives: heritage

Getting On My Nerves

Originally posted 2016. Revised.

Longing this morning
to trade back my boots
for the soft soles
I surrendered to get them.

I can’t feel the ground
when I walk in these.
Doctors try to tell me it’s
neuropathy from my diabetes.

They’re half right, I suspect;
certainly some shiny whiteness
is to blame and whether it’s the sugar
or the culture, it’s killing me

from the feeling parts up
to the thinking parts.
If I still had ancestors to ask about it
I would but they’re gone and they 

never knew me anyway. Maybe
it’s for the best that I’m numb
and becoming more numb the older
I get. Fewer things terrify me now.

I didn’t belong to those earlier times.
I don’t feel I belong in the ones we’re in now.
If I am afraid of anything anymore
it’s of finding a place where I truly fit in.

I still want to trade these hard boots
for the moccasins I had as a kid,
the moccasins people used to say
I should trade for the boots I wear now —

good tall boots made to hold you
separate from and untouched by earth,
the way it is these days;
even when you are put into that earth

they put you in a box
and that box goes into another box.
How is it right that even when I’m dead
I’ll have to lie forever in that tiny space?

Colonized in death as in life,
forbidden the right to return
to my own soil. It’s why I long
to trade my boots for moccasins

and walk away to find my own resting place
somewhere; if my feet burn
the whole way there, at least
that pain will be of my choosing.

Even if the grave I choose
turns out to have been dug from lies,
at least it will be mine. Any debate
over whether I belong there

will not be mine to argue.
I’ll decay and disappear 
like moccasins and boots do.
I’ll be as much of a myth one day

as I always knew I would be.
That’s the truth. I walk toward it
deliberately, my feet on fire
in boots not made for walking

or for feeling. I still feel
for now, if not as much
as I once did, which I guess 
is a bit of a blessing, anyway.


For The Fancydancers

Within days
of the contagion’s start

something inside took over,
rolled my hands
into chafed red fists,

and started punching through 
my pale shell. 

I spend my mornings now
watching fancydancing videos:
little girls in jingle dresses,
little boys in full regalia
stomping, tall men and women
raising their arms 
against the contagion
on small and common snow-iced lawns,
on the edges of empty roads, 
in furrows left in winter land
by spring and summer plowing;
all of them elsewhere,

west of here, beyond this city
crowded still with unbelievers
shopping for safety from what
they don’t yet fully believe 
is already among them,
is no longer a rumor of plague
east and west of here,
but no, not here.

West of here
is where the people are dancing
toward healing. 

I think of my sister,
sick as sick can be now,
in her jingle dress
at eighteen.

Whatever is inside me
pokes me gently, reminds me
of smallpox blanket stories,
says: this is how we survived.

This is how we got through so much.


Buzzcut

“I got debts no honest man could pay”   — Johnny 99, Bruce Springsteen

Months since my
last haircut

Money’s so short 
that a few dollars means so much
I stay shaggy to save what I can

but how I long for a buzzcut again

so I won’t have to fret
over care and time
when I’m on the hunt
for scraps

Also if I could have no hair at 60
at last I wouldn’t have to listen
to my mother at 92
praising my curls as she
has never praised
anything else about me
not a word I’ve written
not a thing I’ve done
or my father at 87 
asking me
back when I wore it long
why I did not braid it
as he used to do his own

How I looked
occupied so much of their time
for so much of their time
a competition to see how close I could get
to who they wanted me
to seem
to be

A friend of mine once shaved
twenty years’ growth of locks
I asked him why and he said
all that time and weight 
locked up energy
he needed for other things 

Man I wish a buzzcut
could lift my load
from the top of my head

Put a dollar in my wallet
against these debts
no honest man could pay

If I’m to be an honest man
I think I was born
to pay my parents’ debts

I know I could lie a bit
and get free of all this

Let the wind flow
over my scalp
on my way out of this town
to anywhere else

But where would I go
where their debts wouldn’t follow
Not Italy
Not New Mexico
Neither Rome nor Mescalero
Not Providence

Not NYC

Run your fingers through my hair
All you’ll feel
is what’s underneath

A memory
of the rare times
I gave loss
nothing to work with


Dissolution

To become as small as I can get
in their presence. That’s my goal
for when I see them at last.

I want to stand before whatever survived
the slow dissolution of flesh and bone
and look up to them.  I want them 
to feel like the giants they are to me

as I kneel 
and fold myself up
and call them grandmother,
grandfather;  

other names beyond those,
names for the distant ones.

I want to know those names
so badly I would 
give up my own.

 


Sand

My ancestors gave me
a belly stuffed with sand:

some from desert north
of the Rio Grande,
some from stony hills
in Calabria. 

All my contortions
to shift this heaviness
led to this sand
abrading me
until it wore me thin, and now
the hole has widened,

sand has leaked free;
all that is left is

the hole.

I have filled it
with all manner of things

from whiskey to 
fire, from bullets
to monstrous tears.
Nothing has worked;
all I take in leaks away.

I’m so hungry now
but all I consume
tastes like sand — 
and not like my sand;
stranger sand. Sand
full of ash and broken glass.

You stare at me and say:

why don’t you get that hole fixed
if it’s killing you?

You don’t see
how large it is.
You don’t see that it is 
all of me. I am a ghost
from my ancestors’ lands,
made entirely of
emptiness and stray grains
of forgotten soil.
You don’t see 
that death, at this point, 
will be simply a gust
blowing me away. 


Early To Rise

I take a moment upon rising
to adjust my Whiteness
for the coming day.

Set the beard straight,
suppress irrelevant facets
of my core being, put on
the palest face I have.

I’d turn on 
the television
for background noise
as I fetch coffee
but I’m so damn tired
of Europe and its tropes.
Sick of Thor and Halloween, 
the fat man in the red suit
for equinox 
ritual. Sick of Jesus, 
sick of Karl Marx, sick of
donuts and latte, 
grand theft disguised
as industry, the right way
to walk, the proper way
to talk — 

I have so little of who I am
beyond that,
having been robbed
of most of my Other before birth;

after, found myself pummeled 
with family expectations
and contrary exhortations,
explanations as to why,
in spite of my White body 
and White schooling
and White Messaging,

I’m still Other and
don’t ever
forget it, son, said my dad
who tried not to forget
the little he had left of 
his Other.

Don’t ever
forget it, son, said my mom
who had set herself up
for never quite loving
her Other. 

Don’t ever
forget it, kid, said the members
of the family who couldn’t
forget it either though
they did not quite approve
of Other.

Before the year begins
I take one more moment
in the mirror
and there is all that Whiteness
spilling out of my pores and 
look at that hair and
diabetes and depression and
loveless moving through clients
and taxes and worry and
face it, I’m too near unto death 
to change; maybe it’s time
to just fall all the way into the bleach
since when I strain to hear my Other,

most days all I hear 
are gasps and screams
in a tongue I can’t understand.

They tell me
the source of my Other
met the source of my Whiteness head on
over 500 years ago
and did not win then but 
oh, it survives in me

in spite of Jesus and Thor and Marx
and John Maynard Keynes and 
white sale linens pressed hard over my face,
in spite of 
the Vikings and the chiseled superheroes;
the way they wear their hats;
the way they kill low-key.

No, I say as hard as I can, no, Europe;
no to your culture and your counterculture;
whatever it offers
I don’t want any more of that — 
I am Other. 

Except I’m Whiteness.

Except I am Other.
Except I’m not.

Like petals pulled
in that kids’ game —
love, love not,
embrace, repel;

I bet that game 
of destruction as play
came 
from Europe too.


Resurrection

Somebody left a lot of words
on this table.

Someone felt their own tongue
and what they already knew was
enough.

Someone felt
that if they couldn’t
pronounce a word, it wasn’t
necessary.

Someone felt
that changing the words
did the trick
so they mauled them, then stole them,
called them their own, leaving the rest 
unsaid. 

Someone forbid
these words over here:
names for God, maybe,
or for plants no one’s seen
for a long time. Same thing,
really. 

Someone slapped stolen words
all over their map
and made up cute definitions for them
in their own
language. 

Do you know how many words
they left behind of the ones you
were destined to speak before
they came in and robbed you
of the perfect way to shape your
voice?

Someone left many of your words
on the table. Hard wind blowing now and 
they are drifting, lifting off; dissolving
into thick air — unless you want them?
Catch them, stuff them into your
throat

to wait until the time comes
to open up and sing them
out?

Someone is terrified of the things
you know how to say, the things
they cannot, things they’d hoped you would
forget.

Someone’s standing silent
now.

What you could say
using those words,
they will likely not 
understand.

Go ahead,
speak
.

It has been
an age since the last time you could,
and no doubt, someone is straining to 
hear.


Pug And Wolf

I had just left the trash at the curb
and turned back to the house

when I had a flash of fantasy:
a pug was sitting 

on the porch, speaking to me
of winter. 

Back in the house
with coffee and comfort now,
I can’t recall what the dog said.
Rolling possibilities over themselves

I try to jolt myself
into falsehood, telling myself
it was not a pug
but a wolf
and ancestral truth had been
offered to me at last,

but I know it was a pug.
I know I cannot recall the message
precisely because
I want it to have been a wolf.

I want to have been chosen
by something
stereotypically pure,
faithful to what my whiteness demands of me:
that any time nature speaks
it must speak to the brown in me
and not to the hybridized me,
most certainly not to the aging urban poor
me, the crumbling me who 
spends his vision quests at a keyboard.

What’s happened

is that even when I am given a vision
I can’t see it
because I’m wrapped in a lie
and cannot see the truth 

that I’m a pug here myself,
a pug in winter; cloud forming
before my nose, so close to my eyes
I am blinded by
my own breath.


Thanksgiving Eve

Revised. From 2008.

Yes, I know the first official Thanksgiving Day 
was ordered to celebrate 
the massacre of 700 Pequots 
in 1637.

Yes, I feel accountable
to those dead 
for joining the annual amnesiac rush
to hide behind the lie
of a feast 16 years earlier in Plymouth 
that is used these days 
to screen us from how we cruise 
upon an ocean of blood.

Yes, I annually balance 
that shame on the end of a fork.

Yes, yes, to holding tight to the memory
of death in the fields around villages
burning like candles on the shore
of Long Island Sound.

Yes, yes, to the horrid past alive
in every bite of every American dish
eaten every day.

Yes, yes, though,
to days off and family
and people unseen since last year;
to knowing some of these faces
will likely be not here next year,
perhaps not even 
my own.

Yes, yes, yes.
Yes to our own remaking.
Yes to surviving the remaking of others.

Yes to the remaking of myths
through truth applied more as lesson,
less as bludgeon.


The Painting

In daily disguise as an average man
I keep my crazing under wraps.
This craquelure is not for the casual viewer.
I’ve never been able to explain what underlies it but now

this Average White Man-boy seeks closure.
Certainty. The ability to look the painting 
I have made of myself straight in the face
and call it artifice. To see through

what my parents made of me
and what I made of myself, 
point at something peeking through a crack
from under the surface, and say:

there I am, Average White Man-boy
through and through –or, look, there’s
the Mescalero, the Old One. There’s the Other
I was taught to believe was my canvas

and my truth. But what if, 
under all the trappings of Average,
I am in fact pure Average and Privilege
and it runs all the way through? What if

everything I have been schooled to show
while holding back a darker, better truth
is in fact all I am? Where will I begin again?
Why would I bother?

Straight up staring now
into the mirror and it’s pure Art there
looking back and even I can’t tell
if I was ever a good point to be made.

My parents whispered to me every night
that inside I should never paint myself White.
Then they started making sure
I’d never show a bit of what made that true,

and when I got my hands on my own pigments
and brushes, I kept it right up. I put crazy work
into that and kept telling myself it was all for show
and now I look and cannot see a damn bit

of what I claimed I was. I painted myself
into one sharp corner, and now Average White 
Man-boy can’t get out without slashing himself
to pieces and burning himself to ash.

It’s a choice, always a present choice.
How much of me is a lie, how much of me
is underlayment for the lie, how much am I willing
to live from, how much truth does the world require

of me? If I am to be honest, I trust
nothing of how I have existed until now.
Average White Man-boy. Pretty average picture.
Pretty much the same as all the others. Pretty much

as disposable as a sad-eyed clown
paint by numbers mess in a thrift store.
Buy me cheap for the novelty. I would.
Hang me in a guest bedroom. I would.

Laugh at me till
the novelty wears off
then toss me. I would.
It’s what anyone with any sense would do.


Suppose

Suppose you looked hard at your life, your existence, your being, the fact of your physical presence on the planet; looked at it and saw that you, the watered-down remnant of the combination of Native and Italian ancestry, were the site and the desired product of the Genocide.

Suppose you were raised with the words “never forget you’re not White” hammered into you and yet you ended up looking in the mirror at that which was undeniably White-passing and privileged and saw, to your eyes and upbringing, the image of a great Evil.

Suppose you could never shake the constant whisper of “you shouldn’t exist” in your ear.

Suppose that as you aged and decayed and body parts began to betray you and your abilities, you found it increasingly wearying simply to get up and go, yet more and more you understood how important it was to get up and go.

Suppose you lived in the incipient days of a Fascist takeover spearheaded by a man whose hatred of people like you was becoming more and more palpable at the moment you were least equipped to confront it.

Suppose people kept assuming you were ready and able for the War you knew was coming and did not see you as anything more than their expectations of you.

Suppose this all came together for you on a hot summer morning in a pool of sweat in a soaked bed sheet on a couch in the kitchen staring out the front window at an empty bird feeder two empty feeders and birds staring back at you.

Would you go outside and water the garden?


Minou Minou

Fifty thousand cats
owned by twenty thousand grandmothers
in my hometown and
every last one of those cats
was named Minou

That should tell you 
everything you need to know
about my hometown
but if that’s not enough
you need to know

that naming a cat Minou is in French
the same as in English naming it Kitty
We all knew at once what to call 
any random cat we ran across
so every Minou belonged to all of us

Fifty thousand cats we shared
with the twenty thousand grandmothers
who shared us among themselves
All those eyes in windows felt at times
like care and at others like fear

In the evenings when the streetlights went on
twenty thousand voices calling “Minou Minou”
as well as “get yourselves home it’s dark”
and who were they calling out to 
but cats and kids eager to play in the night

We knew the kindly nature of those
who watched us as we tried to live and grow
all the replaceable cats and kids
with the interchangeable names 
long lines of us stretching back to Quebec

from where the ancestors came 
with armloads of cats
all named Minou
and kids with names
that varied little until only recently 

If they still call the cats Minou 
back in my hometown where I do not go
because of how hard it was
to play in the dark when I was young
then I have no need to go back

In my new dark home I take comfort
in my own cats who are not named Minou
far from twenty thousand pairs of eyes
working to make sure I’d end up exactly like 
all who’d come before me

It would have killed me
to end up there listening every night
to voices calling Minou Minou
taking little notice
of which cats showed up


Jumble

Someone says to me
that if I don’t dig it here then
I should go back to where
I came from. 

You are asking me to choose
what stays and what goes.
Which half of myself
should I send back,
and to where?

Divest myself of legs and cock
and balls and ass
and say unto them

go, run back
to Napoli?

Keep the top half
here, call it my Indigenous 
game piece, make moves
as best I can?

Do I have it
backwards and it ought to be
feet don’t leave here now
while the chest and arms and head
are boxed up and sent to Italy? 

I should perhaps split down the middle?

Or carve myself to pieces and
distribute this to there, that 
to here? Say, this finger is
New Mexico, pass it over
Sierra Blanca before
letting it fall to rest
on the rez where I’ve never lived? 
Send this elbow overseas 
to Caserta, to Marciano Arpio
where I’ve never lived?

What cells should go where
if I am to go back to
where I came from?
None of me is directly from right here
so I already feel dislocated
on my own land, after all.
Perhaps I should consider
the land of my birth,
New Jersey? Land of my 
conception, Germany?

All you care about is that I’m gone,
you sneering so certainly
with your comfortable masses behind you.
You never trusted
a half-breed anyway, right?
According to you I’m a mistake.
According to you I’m an anomaly,
an aberration, a never shoulda been.
I’ve only lasted this long
because I look like you — 

and right now, considering 
the white stench suffocating all,
I wish I could discard 
my Whiteness
as I’m not sure, ever, 
that it’s not me
who stinks —
no matter how true, 
it frightens me to say it out loud.

Absurd.

I’m from here, though
I am a jumble.

I will pull the pieces together and say
and do and love and try for
wholeness, not half this,
not half that, try to belong
to myself and be true to myself
and everyone before me
and behind me
and far ahead.

You don’t like it?

You. Go.


Tiny Spiders Of Cultural Appropriation

You know the old saying
about never being more
than a few feet away

from a spider,
no matter where 
you are — 

sources say
it’s not true, bit
of an urban legend,

but people love it
and repeat it
to illustrate some deep fear

of how close danger
or simple unpleasantness always may be,
of how close nature is,

how we’re not-as-dominant 
as we’d like to presume we are
even in the splendor

of our well-built homes
and the perfect turf
of their invasive lawns

and planned non-native gardens,
our imported birds,
our disruptive states of easy being;

strange how no one speaks this way
of the demonstrable swarm
of tiny spiders known as cultural appropriation,

the savage venom brewed
of captured spirit
and web-caught dreams;

how we are never more
than three feet away
from something stolen

that is often underfoot, that other times
is floating by in music and air;
we don’t shudder thinking about what’s inside us,

what has made a home within;
most only dimly aware
of how the tiny spiders hold sway,

crawling upon us daily, 
minutely, second to second;
why we don’t run screaming into deep water

to cleanse ourselves
of all this is a mystery;
it is as if a screen has fallen

before our eyes, websilk
woven thick and strong 
that shields us

from seeing the tiny spiders
of cultural theft we are never more 
than skin-thick away from,

tiny spiders like ghosts
of a past we took, visions
of futures that never will be.


Dragged Along

It feels, always,
like inside me
there’s a documentary 

about vanilla
playing on repeat: sometimes
it’s at full volume;

at other times
it’s barely audible
under my head chatter;

but it’s always on. There’s
a episode where
a man in a monocle 

purchases an escalator
that no one else gets to ride.
There’s the one with

a princess who gestures
from the top for me to come to her,
but I never get there.

There is that one where
I see myself riding a unicycle
up a long hill.

I’m sure
I have never ridden one before
but somehow in this film

I’m straining and
making slow progress.
I begin to wonder 
when 

this was filmed, is it the reason
I’m such pain here and now?
A spokesman comes on,

a voice over extolling
the wonders of vanilla.
A documentary voice

that makes a compelling
case for the dry factual,
the obviously correct

flavor of vanilla. It doesn’t matter
how hard I drive the sticks
into my ears, how much I bleed,

how hard I squeeze the throat
of the man with the monocle
or cry out my rejection

of the princess; my skin
is caught in the escalator.
I am bleeding;

dragged along, the scent of
vanilla deep in my nostrils,
voiceover yelling my name.