I don’t know how I let the time get away from me like this. We are already well into National Poetry Month, but I wanted to remind you that now is the time to sign up for the Academy of American Poets daily poem! This is really how I make sure I’m reading enough poetry. No, I don’t get to it every day, but if I have even just five minutes to spare, I can read a lovely poem chosen by the Academy. They choose a variety of poets, styles and forms.
So that’s your friendly reminder of the year, now onto Poetry Wednesday!
Oh, what a happy find this poem is! I’ll be honest, when I don’t have an idea for who I want to feature for poetry, I’ll usually read through a bunch of shorter poems until I find one that is right. Mostly I prefer short poems, but also I think more people will read the poetry I post here if it is short.
Well, break out your attention spans kids, because this poem is awesome. And it is long, but it does not feel long. I love poems that play on languages and being bilingual and “Cultural Stakes” does this perfectly. (Please also see one of my absolute favorite poems “Speaking of the Devil” by Leslie Adrienne Miller.) This poem is beautiful, gritty and surprising.
Cultural Stakes; or, How to Learn English as a Second Language by Kevin A. González
Wait on the corner of Isla Verde & Tartak
for your father to pull up in his Bronco.
Your mother will be right: he will not show up
at noon. At 12:20, you will recognize the horn,
its wail like an amplified conch,
but you will not recognize your father—
the gray stubble, the violent tan.
When he asks where you’d like to go,
say the movies, say La Feria, say the moon:
it won’t matter. You will go to Duffy’s.
When your father says, We’re only here for lunch,
his voice will be as straightforward
as a sandwich menu. The bartender
will greet him like a cousin
in a language you cannot understand.
A stick of incense will burn slow
& its ashes will sprinkle into the tip jar.
Fruit will be rolling inside the slot machine;
darts will flash by like hubcaps. There will be
mirrors with bottles drawn inside them
& not a word of Spanish in the air.
When your father gives you a Coke
with two cherries in it, bite the stem
& bite the stem & swallow the juicy red wounds.
When he gives you a stack of quarters for pinball,
recall the chips he’d stack on the counter
after the casinos closed. Recall the night
your mother left him on the loose stitching of a chair,
the living room as silent as a funeral mass
where nobody stands to give the eulogy.
Don’t ask him what compelled him
to call you today, eighteen months later,
& never admit that his absence
was a moist towel stuffed in your chest,
a constant fatigue of wanting. Don’t tell him
what the nuns at school said about divorce,
that tin bruise on the spirit, & don’t recount
your mother’s remarriage to a man
who is as plain as his own mustache.
Your father will tell you many times
he is not perfect. There will be a sunset
on his cheek & a bonfire in his Adam’s apple
& a coaster beneath his drink like a giant host,
the Scotch putting his tongue to sleep
like a pale stingray on the ocean floor.
When your mother asks what you did,
tell her you watched baseball all weekend
& bury your smoke-swamped shirts
in the bottom of the laundry. Every Friday,
she will watch you climb into that Bronco
& slide away till Sunday, your face
eclipsed by the tinted window’s twilight.
At Duffy’s, the women will be blonde
& they will seem as lonely as broken barstools.
When they speak to you, wait for your father
to translate, then reply to him in Spanish
& wait while he translates for them, & smile,
always smile. There will be something soulful
about this: the way your words become his
& his words become yours, as if the two languages
were shaking hands, casting one long shadow.
When your father brings a woman home, know
that laughter will leak through the doorframe,
that the body is an office always on the verge
of quiet. If she stays the night, the next morning
she might pull out a chair & gently say, sit
& this is how you will learn to concede
whenever a girl with sunlight digging into her cheek
taps your shoulder at the water fountain at school.
There, you will sit in the back row of catechism
& wait for the bell to trill its metal tongue.
You will stumble on the words of prayers
as if the short rope of your faith
was hindered by knots, as if religion was a field
with landmines scattered across. At Duffy’s,
shed the red skin off the bull’s-eye
with the lethal tips of your darts,
slide the smooth grain of the cue stick
over the wings of your thumb. Call all your shots.
Touch the chalk to your forehead
& trace a blue cross. When your father
begins to feed the slot machine’s pout,
remind him to save a ten for the Drive Thru.
He will sit on a stool, pushing the Bet button
as if he believed that if he pushed it enough
he would fill with an air that could raise him.
When the language comes, it will be
as if it had always been inside you.
You will look at things & their names
will drip from your tongue. Abstractions
will be archived as events, & there will be
a history you can instantly shuffle through
whenever a word is uttered. For example,
hustle will be the night your father challenges
a stranger to beat you at darts. Discretion, the night
two of the blondes who cooked you breakfast
sit on stools on either side of you. Impulse
will happen over a rack of pool: your father will say
you have an invisible brother who is better than you
& you will spend the rest of your life competing
with a ghost. Abandon will be your first beer,
a squeezed lemon wedge inside the empty bottle.
Independence will be the moment you realize
the only hands reaching out to you belong to clocks.
Irony, you will come to understand, will be
when you ask your father about those expatriates:
who are they & what are they doing here,
so far from home, & why would anyone
ever leave the place where they were born?
Fortune will be every time your father hits
All-Fruits on the slot. Innocence
will come right after Fortune—every time
you say, Let’s quit while we’re ahead,
not knowing how far behind you really are.