I bit the dust in Matanzas
like the Spanish fleet
the indigenous Cubans destroyed.
I bit the dust in Matanzas
where all mornings unfold alike.
The nurse dabs me awake with cold
water from the mountain stream.
She leaves the liter bottle stamped
with the troll to last all day.
All Cubans drink the same fairy-tale water.
All afternoons sleep.
Abuela tunes up, “Ay Dios mio ayúdame”.
Second day I have entered her litany.
She chants, “Ella es Norteamericana y habla espanol.”
By the time she winds down
the nurse brings us rice and a drumstick.
I begin to crave the sour yogurt.
Late afternoon the TV clicks on.
Children march in the streets.
Evening at last. Another drumstick.
The nurses retire
and I creep out to the heavenly unlocked balcony.
Night goes on.
The fiesta convertibles and stray dogs
pass each other in the street.
My Father’s Work
Our teacher asked what our fathers did.
When friends said, “WPA,”
I asked my dad, "What's the WPA?"
To explain, he took me to our post office. A man on a step ladder
painted tunnels of wheat on the wall and farmers with fat legs.
The man climbed down, handed me a paint brush.
“The wheat needs a little more ochre,” he said.
I had never heard ochre.
The most beautiful word,
and I fell in love with the smell of paint,
the art on our travels, the handsome bridges in North Carolina,
and the murals of Coit Tower in San Francisco.
Cowboys and orange pickers painted on walls
meant escape from poverty, dad said.
It meant soup for the first grade.
I paid a quarter for soup and a nickel to see Roy Rogers
at the Saturday picture show.
A friend gave us a loaf of bread she cooked
with bacon grease. My mother’s bread was the best.
We shared it with men who came looking for work.
She baked bread in coffee cans. The loaves came up like mushrooms
cooling on the windowsill.
That's what I loved about the depression. We helped each other.
Decades later, I heard my father’s secrets:
“He bought me my first suit of clothes.”
“He took me off the street.”
“He sent a truckload of coal.”
What I loved most about the depression were the Indian Head pennies
my father gave us to put on the railroad tracks, and the half-dollars
he let us shell out to beggars on Pierce Street.
I was eight years old and wanted to win
the scrap metal drive.
I asked father to dispatch the lumberyard truck.
After Shorty drove back with the mattress springs and dumped them
on the playground, my excitement began to build.
Then more of our trucks came trembling into the schoolyard
with cast-off pumps and windmill blades from old farms.
We piled them against the slide. My brothers donated
their glistening tinfoil bars.
Wait! Is that my grandfather's cast-iron bed?
Would he sleep on the floor? I don’t remember.
After Spam sandwiches and grape pop, the superintendent called us
into the auditorium. He announced my name and pinned the sterling
victory pin, Dot-Dot- Dot- Dash in Morse Code, to my flannel shirt.
He saluted me and I saluted back.
I got sterling silver for asking my father to round up scrap.
I learned a lot. My family would do anything
to help me, especially grandfather who gave up his bed.
The senior boys in the auditorium returned to graduate in uniform.
Their purple hearts.
My Cat, the Shah of Iran
Along with the celadon vases for my mantle
and the dolphin sculpture,
my lover left me his cat, the Shah.
Raised from that feral kitten,
le chat orange, he prospered into the imperious
Shah of Iran.
His jeweled eyes spark my heart,
his watermarked hide presses me with ermine;
his throaty purr buzzes me
as a potentate’s kiss might.
He reclines on my chest,
stills my irregular heart beat
nods as I weave that tale, like Scheherazade’s,
that will grant us one more day.
Poseidon sent the whale, Cetus, to destroy
the shores of ancient Greece.
Scientists call Tahlequah's care for her dead calf unprecedented
but isn't it natural to carry the dead with us, lift them up as she did,
all 800 pounds of her baby, only rising to take a breath, lifting?
On our endangered earth, we, tentative with life, ponder,
"How can the orcas survive when we net their fish, plow boats
into their mating grounds? Can this pod, with only one live birth, go on?”
Massive glacial calves crash into the sea. Ablation and evaporation.
Polar bears lose their footing.
Our calves die of addiction, bullets, transmission of love. We lift them up,
keep them floating with us.
On our last Mother's Day I visited hospice. You asked me
to feed you. After, I wheeled you under the purple jacaranda trees.
Bloom and death. Eros and Thanatos.
You told me the nurse loved to brush your flaxen hair.
"God gave me a mane." You handed me the brush and I took your curls in hand.
"Tomorrow is my quality of life conference." I kept on brushing.
You had to decide.
You loved the stories of the gods and goddesses.
Eros had to choose. Psyche blinded her lover.
Oh Aphrodite, you knew my beautiful daughter and her vanity.
Lend her your brush, your mirror.
Sick Room Story
You name it, we had it.
Flu, measles, strep throat, ear aches, a mastoid operation
not counting the time I ran my arm through the washing
machine wringer, elbow broken, two places.
We landed in the Sick Room
bureau crowded with cod liver oil bottles, my sister's adenoids
floating in a jar, the portrait of General MacArthur.
Mother rang up grandparents in Nebraska.
They came to Iowa by train carrying liniments, snake oil, and the two
Rhode Island Reds I raised from chicks last summer
on the farm.
Fresh eggs, a good start.
They bundled us in grandmother’s quilts and told us stories.
Grandfather told about crossing the prairie in a covered wagon,
two thousand dollars sewn in the mattress,
played Shenandoah on his mandolin: "Cross the Wide Missouri.”
When the Sioux raided, Grandmother hid her birthday cake in the barn.
They took a hog instead.
While we napped she went down
to the river bank to dig turmeric and gather peppermint
for our sore throats.
Then told the tale, “Sacajawea picked herbs from her keel boat,
and Lewis recorded them in his journal.
When Lewis dropped it into the river,
she went in after it, papoose and all. She called it
Chief Redhead’s Talking Papers.”
On my tenth birthday father built me an easel.
Mother gave me paints, a brush and a notebook for my poems.
Father bought a sunlamp for the Sick Room.
A six-foot intruder, it glowed and ticked, did the trick.
We got well, listened
to MacArthur’s farewell on the radio
bought an automatic washing machine