- Folio, Poetry, Reading, Writing

Seven Poems, by Roberto F. Santiago

Selfie at a Gift Shop in Old San Juan

You can try on anything
for free. My hands are
ready & open dahlias
facing the new wind &
shimmying. My legs are
long as summer nights
ready to wrap around
your body so you’d take
me with you everywhere.
Here    is a better size
for you. My arms are
songs sung in Arabic
passed down by men
who held one another closely
in times of war. My back is
the curve of a hand-
carved guitar. Its strings only
strummed beside a fire
on a tiny island of singing
frogs & flitting birds with
throats of honey & stories of
long forgotten heroes. My hips are
the dance of two lovers-to-be
full on purple-inked Malbec
& lean cuts of meat fed
by hand. A prelude. The sweetlong nectar
spilled down the chin
to be caught by the tongue
of another man. My lips are
the velvet of a prince
as he climbs down his tower
to tug at a subject under
a trellis cloaked in Blue Moon
Wisteria. The fragrance is—
silent hope & pain—
impatient. My chest is
a low-rider, hydraulic
bounced & waiting
to be taken
for another
spin around
Old Town.
You can try
on anything
for free.

 

In Response to an Old White Woman Saying, “I Guess We’re on Puerto Rican Time”

Say it to my face, so I can spit a jungle down your throat.

Say it so I can hear you say it.

Say it till you choke.

Say it so I can interrupt you con una canción Yoruba
so devastatingly brown time itself is recalibrated to
match the clave of Yemaya’s footsteps. A song I can dance to—
all hips & ass. Una baila Taíno so indigenous you can taste the moment we made the Earth.

Ecuo  / yalé  /  yarun mawó  / yalé  /omi aché aya ma-o mi-o

You say “Puerto Rican Time” like it’s a bad thing.
You’re late, bitch, no matter when you arrive.

You think ’cause your daddy came from the Bronx, we cool?
My Bronx is what your papí left behind.
After the fires.
After he reached in & tore my cousins from my Tía’s.
After he forced them back to work in the factories he owned.

You ain’t no kin to me.

I come from a people stronger than water,
& you’re not half the Huracán esa puta María was.

Puerca-traga-sangre-maldita-asquerosa-huele-bicho.

I bet you think this poem’s about you.
This is not a poem.
It’s an incantation
for my mother
& her tongue
& the many before her
that split time open like a concha freeing the salt-sweet flesh so we might feed.

Esto no es una poema.
This is a cocotazo grandissimo.
Knuckles rapping
at the top of your skull.

Now, you are that concha.

 

Little Wings

Across the creek, a boy will collect his belongings from a picnic blanket.
He will place them into his red-&-black gym bag—full of books
& booze & warm-smelling underclothes.

After months without rain, this creek will become a sea.
More than an altar for little wings & rubber branches.

That day will not be remarkable by any measure.
It will be a faded, well-worn corduroy. A hand-me-down sky,
thick like bacon fat—an oily greige.

The second boy will stand less than an arm’s-length from the first.
He will take several beats to register what he just heard
to catch his breath
to find a feeling. Any feeling.
& as he does, the sky will fall to the ground
in fragments of sound like a mini-bar’s worth of glass bottles smashing against a wall
or a drawer of silverware spilling onto the kitchen tile.

The wind will judder the surface of the creek,
like a cough you try to hold in—a dulcet bass.

The wind will birch the first boy’s near-blond curls about his long, sharp face.
He is lovely in an almost unexpected way.
Another person with his features could not have been assembled so perfectly.
They would have been all right-angles & sandpaper.

The first boy looks like an Evan, so Evan he shall be.
His cheeks are cream bruised raspberry.
He is lanky in an elegant way. An egret
fashioned from pipe cleaners & piano wire.

The second boy looks like the hero in a novela
but not as a man, as a schoolboy. Before regret. Before potential
is only seen in retrospect. His face is soft as olive oil.
His hair, unmoving in the wind, knows its place. He looks like a child
soldier before he knows he is one.

The second boy looks like a Ronaldo, so Ronaldo he shall be.
His arms are too long. His torso, too short. He has the legs of a minotaur
built to spar & take on water.
Even through his jeans he looks like a kickboxer.

At this very bank, they will
jab at each other beneath
a sludge-sky.

The billabong will become a river. The crumbling firmament will resurrect
all the mosquitoes that ever lived. The sounds of them hatching from their wintry graves
will awaken a battalion of blue-jeweled dragonflies.

Dragonflies can lie
dormant for years.
They thrive on
yearning.

The rain, like most good things,
will only last a few short moments.
When the sun returns to its rightful place,
the zither of insects will fill the creek.

Evan will apologize as he is wont to do.
Ronaldo will accept, mapping a constellation
with his fingertips from the hairs along Evan’s jaw.
The ones he always manages to miss.

& there
in the mire
Ronaldo will undress Evan.

Perhaps it will be the other way around.

A dance
of buttons
& sleeves.

Evan will be so eager,
he won’t remove his socks.

Ronaldo will take his
time. There will be nothing, but
gravity on him.

Gravity, near blond, & the wings of a million dragonflies.

 

Kissing David, 1994

            —after Luna Luis Ortiz

In a cascade of hammers, I ferret around
for what your voice sounds like.
To hear your name thrashing through the teeth of anyone that knows you
summons giants & psalms. I collect each of their stories
& cleave to wonderment.
What must it have been
to be so beautiful
for your whole life?

I imagine aloud the lines of the rose on your forearm
while doing the chores you did without me
ever having to ask. The dishes & the way you got more water on you
than in the sink. I try to hold onto whatever’s left of you
that I didn’t lose. Or burn. Or chose to forget, but mostly I dance
to house mixes & hold myself like you would.

To keep me sharp, I grip my own neck
the way I would yours. I want so much
from our past. I want to replay & remix; to revel in
black & white. From afar,
I realize you have been beautiful for my whole life.
Or at least for however long I knew of you.
Staring back at me.
Thirstily aware that you were love. & by that measure
so was I.

 

You, Therefore

after Reginald Shepherd

When I try to remember myself
before there was you, I stand between
orbits of memory too distant to reach.
& in the time it took to surrender,
I have never been more free.
It is in the seconds that burn away,
razing me just enough to pull you
down into—& onto—my loss
of breath. I belong wherever you are,
& hope, & dream. I give you shelter within
my trappings of skin & synapse.
All the while proclaiming you to be the sole heir
to my oscillating limbs.
Each of your words sakura still
to the rise & fall of my chest
when you finally see me
seeing you from the distance of arms.
May our story catch fire amongst limb
& freckle, & hair, & bone. Burn
ember, & writhe into whatever water
whispers wet. To quiet whim & will
in favor of wanton want in every sense
we acquiesce & evanesce the evidence
of ever since the very first days we ever spent together night forevermore.

 

Natalie Wood

I’ve been looking for my body in the middle of an ocean since
this whole thing started.

Lock the bathroom door behind you.
Take my hand.

My body—which looks like most bodies: creaky & ready to feed on creatures
that look like it—has grown weary.

When he’s gone, I will    |     you will walk around with a silver bullet
on my     |     on your tongue

& when I pull     |     you pull the trigger, I will find you      stuck
in the middle of last night’s mess.

Let the faucets run.
Sink & tub. Run.

Running, we are     |      I am & out of
my mind.

I am     |      we are hardly the woman I once was       |       you were
& the same could be said of many women. I am

treading helpless waters         my natural urge to be
swallowed up               in an ocean.

A place to which he might return.  An any-ocean.
A place to furl naked, numb & raveled          again.

An ocean full of my flesh,
of foam & song. My him was
heavy machinery & I shouldn’t     |     we shouldn’t
miss him—deserts & rain—but I am     |      you are everything, but the girl.

My biggest fear is that I am
Natalie Wood. Unsolved. Murky.
Underneath. A body
under a body    of hydrogen.
of oxygen.         of hydrogen.
& I almost am.
Almost was.

I’ve found a body        a dragonfly
four tiny wings emblazoned
among the weeds.

Hand me a bobby pin. Watch me rig this toilet tank.             Like so.
Bend the pin’s legs                   into a l o o p ,             this way.
Prop up the float arm. This will cause the tank to             overflow.

Are you sure you locked that door?

He’s gonna know
the door’s locked.
He’s gonna keep
slamming his shoulders into it.
Left.                 Bang.
Then left, again.
Still locked.      Bang.
He’s gonna twist
the knob.
The right shoulder.
Tattoo-close, then pause.         S l i d e.                                      Breath.
Left, again.       Smash, release.

Now I hide     |      you hide beneath the sink’s skirt
beside a mop-bucket filled with silverfish,                                almost dead.

 

Holdyourbreath. The
water is higher than you can breathe.
When the door spills open, the pulp will slurry through.
Borders crossed
by force
by man
by him & fat fingers
by hips & bones smashing into & through       no
& please
& stop.
& then, nothing.
No one. Just skin
& barely that.

Keep your knees bent to your chin. Pull me closer
Holdyourbreath.
Fall in.

Close isn’t close enough if I feel       |     you feel
the cold hit the parts where I am    |     you are not.   The ocean floor is
a much more fitting end than me         shrunk down to what is left
after a man is done.

 

 

all my life i’ve been made to feel
as if there was something wrong
with me    something broken
unfinished / i was /taught to hold my anger
in my two hands / call it prayer
pray it into penance / a secret
something i had to be ashamed of

men taught me: not to cry
crying is for women
women are less than
woman is made for man
to lie with a man as woman meant I was less than
women taught me: faith / to have it
faith in no-good men
faith en la familia
faith i’d get out of / wherever the fuck  i was /  one day  soon
faith in a higher power / patient enough / for us / to get it right
before our final days

faith taught me: to keep secrets
secrets taught me to lie to people
people i love
people i love / leave
too soon / people i love / never knew the truth

growing up & being taught you’re broken is corrosive
it burns / deep /
eating away / rust-red / it starts
at the wrists / where pulse becomes fist
balled up / like tissue / sometimes crying is
the only way / to let out the poison / sometimes violence is

growing up / i had to / quickly /
growing up / i had to / raise others
onto pedestals / high / higher / & so high
their rights negated my own
& my wrongs carried loftier sentences
& worse conditions in schools / parks / hospitals / housing
till they deem our homes fit for their consumption

keeping my rage / a secret / made me think i was dirty
i pushed it down / hid from myself / from my power
like women / & queer people of color / have been taught
for thinking about rights / & love / & how it feels
to love someone down to nothing

i don’t remember much / about how i wound up / in anger management / but
the counselor told me: i ran after a bigot boy in gymshorts

carrying brandishing a hockey stick
i explained shouted i couldn’t take it any more
i launched the puck across the field and smashed through
his shitty smirk face
i remember                  his taunts
his laugh
his head bouncing off the grass
i don’t remember raising the stick i don’t, but i wish i did

anger management blamed me / for my circumstances
tattooed me weak / dirty / broken
absolved him of his wickedness/ punished me
for my anger / but it never left /
i kept it / because that shit is mine

 

Note: These poems are part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writer’s Folio: A Hauntology

Website | + posts

Roberto F. Santiago received an MSW from UC Berkeley and MFA from Rutgers University. His work has appeared in Apogee, Anomaly, Big Other, Ninth Letter, and The Acentos Review. Santiago was awarded the Alfred C. Carey Prize and has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, CantoMundo, Community of Writers, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Lambda Literary Foundation. His debut collection, Angel Park, appeared on the LA Times list of 23 Essential New Books by Latino Poets and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Santiago lives in San Francisco, where he works as a social worker and Editor-in-Chief of Sancocho Press, a queer and trans AfroLatinx imprint with Kórima Press. His debut album Bu$$yCat is now streaming on all major platforms.

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