Janine Pommy Vega

The Shaker

Clicking seed pods in Amazon canopy
crickling knees of a cricket in dry grass
urgency in the rhythm coming
across great bodies of water
to seek you out

Lifeline of the singer,
        the story-teller
     the dancer in flight
who lands on the moveable surface
of grumbling stones

Arroyo of rattlers
who have eaten the water
and spit out insistent noontime heat
insects that harry the sleeper
aphrodisiac dreams

O traveler
close to the bones across evening prairies
shaman's apprentice, salute
to the threshhold between
the worlds.

                                   Soledad Prison, CA, January 98.


I stand at the head of a long line
perhaps you do not see
behind me is Eusebio, with his crooked arm,
and the child Tomas
at four he has known fears
that would shatter most grown men
the line snakes into the distance
the disappeared, the lost, the ones running
in broad daylight from the bombs

I have stepped up to your door
Senor Juez, Honorable Judge, because
you called a contest
a concurso on our homeland
for the literary voices, an opportunity
to honor the pedagogues, who make
small coughing noises
and the sensitive poets, who throw
educated roses at your feet

I am not one of these.
I am here because the line behind me
pushed me forward, just someone
with a voice,
and I am here, Senor Juez,
to testify.

                                      El Salvador, April 94.


Mad Dogs of Trieste
        ( for Andy Clausen)

We have never been in a war like this
in all the years of watching
the street at 3 a.m.,
kids lobbing cherry bombs into garbage cans
the last hookers heading toward home

It used to be, stopping in Les Halles cafes
after a night we could find the strong
men from the market
and the beautiful prostitutes
resting in each other's arms
Le Chat Qui Peche, Le Chien Qui Fume
alive with Parisian waltzes, his hands on her ass
We could pick up raw produce from discard bins
and have lentil stew for tomorrow

Things have never been like this.
Cops square off against teenagers in the village square
take the most pliant as lovers, and re-rout the rest
into chutes of incarceration
The mad dogs of Trieste
we counted on to bring down the dead
and rotting status quo, give a shove here
and there, marauder the fattened and calcified order,
have faded like stories

We used to catch them with their hat brims
keeping most of the face in shadow
and sometimes those voices
one by one
turned into waves
like cicadas in the August trees, whistling
receding, and the words crept under
the curtains of power, made little changes,
tilted precarious balance, and brought relief

Those packs don't crisscross the boulevards
now in the ancient cities, no political cabal
behind us watches the world with
eyes entirely
the lyrical voices rainbow bodies
your friends my friends nobody left
but the mad dogs of Trieste as we
cover the streets.

                                      Willow, NY, August 98.


Maybe I shouldn't attribute human feelings
to a forest, maybe it doesn't cry
when its single trees are culled and cut and dragged out
maybe if the doctors said your grandma had gangrene
in her hands, you would let them chop off
her fingers, one after one
her ring finger she hated to part with
she howled as her thumb and forefinger
hit the ground. She is quiet now, stumps
where fingers were. How will she hold you?

To someone like me, who passed her house
and pulled her berries, and dug her leeks
out of the hillside, and lost myself
in the dappled leaves,
I guess I took her for granted
waving at me sometimes from her porch.
I'll miss those hands.

               Flanks of Tremper Mountain, NY, Valentine's Day, 1998.

        (for Raul, Giannina, and the black stones of Huacho)

We can track down the old patterns
through customary alleyways,
the way we take our beer in the cafe
for instance, always at room temperature
the way we lie on the left side
gathering in our infancy

This is my home. Isn't it likely
I would be happy here?
I work, I laugh, I love
I meet friends, we work together
I walk the immense earth under this sky
I am not satisfied

I forgot the carriage jostling
along the cobblestone bridge, its interior
full of wheels, the clanking irons
revealed in mechanical splendour
separately, like snakes
engorged and stretched out on the sand

Where will we sleep?
Did you make a bed for me?
Did you think of me when you fondled
your jeweled casket?
A bundle of wheels lurches into the market
and none of us discerns its purpose
or direction

I prefer the threadbare rugs
and stained tablecloths of old tearooms
I prefer the communal disgrace
of garbage heaps
and maggots the size of your thumb
the land black for miles with vultures

I prefer it to the geometry
of prayer
the nodding and naming without belief
the failure of Eros to compel us
the clanking wheels of obsolescence

I prefer the primitive belief in breakfast
the sound of cattle
shuffling feet in the dirt
and the ladder to our sleeping room
where a crescent moon moves across
the window

We dream of snakes coiled and stretched out
on the beach, we lay our towel down
to sleep among them
the sound of clanking wheels is drowned
in the tide receding and the growling stones.

                               Miraflores, Lima, Peru, September 89