Poem of the Week | September 17, 2018

This week, we’re delighted to present an excerpt from Michael Torres’s “All-American Mexican” series.

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Southern Indiana Review, and Water~Stone Review, among others. He has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation. Torres is a VONA alum and a CantoMundo Fellow. Currently he teaches creative writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at: michaeltorreswriter.com


All-American Mexican Story #3

Here’s a small story about the sky. It’s yours,
if you want it. I’ll leave it right here. It’s the
size of a 2016 Toyota Corolla windshield and
begins with a song on the radio, the name of
which I forgot to write down. I was too busy

being someone better in my mind. It was
summer there. A river, a raft. Excuse me for
making this story about myself. This isn’t
what I’d planned. Through the windshield,
clouds formed over the prairie and chopped

the song into static. Bits of gray-black clung
to the air. The song ended and I turned down
the radio. Clouds so dark and heavy with rain,
it seemed a task for the them to hover. They
resisted, like eyelids, to stay awake.

                                                 I know a man who’ll never begin his novel
                                                 because he hasn’t gathered enough data. He
                                                 obsesses over weather. He asks me how
                                                 much I trust the rain. With his fists, he shows
                                                 me what a cloud is willing to do. How it will

                                                 reject its weight. All of it. And suddenly. It
                                                 has no choice, really. And the wind?—has
                                                 nowhere to go but with the water it carries.
                                                 It’ll take trees with it. Kids’ bicycles, your
                                                 shadow, if you’re not careful.Imagine: an

                                                  Olympic-sized pool coming down on you. It
                                                  can take a commercial jet, he says, right from
                                                  the sky. Ground barns. His list of feeble
                                                  objects takes days to say. It’s as if he’s sure
                                                  I’ll forget once I walk away.

                                        Only I don’t. I remember each item and plan
                                        to build a bomb shelter, a suit of armor. I want

                                        to live longer. I stop eating red meat. I call
                                        my father and tell him I love him and say I’m

                                        sorry, though not for what. I buy a golden
                                        retriever, research how to stimulate neurons.

                                        Anything to keep me from ruining. Because
                                        I wanted to age with grace, I became

                a poet. It made sense. Truly. I could not see
                myself age into, say, boxing: stepping into
                the ring, weak and sleepy. With a cane. But
                in poetry, I saw a casket to ease my failing

bones into.
                      At a Halloween party my first
year in Minnesota, I walked into a house
where people I did not know chatted away in
small circles. I walked, dressed in the gauze
it took me an hour to wrap myself in. I wanted
to be invisible or unliving. Or both. I met a
woman and told her about California. When
I mentioned my homies, she laughed. I stared.
She stopped and said, Oh, you’re serious.

Later, a shirtless man in a mask held up a
Styrofoam sword and asked if me and my
homie/white friend were a couple. Through
his eyeholes, he followed my tired arm over
Brad’s shoulders. I paused. My mind circled
the room and reported back that I was the
only brown man there. I said We’re just a
couple. Of guys. Drinking beers.
He laughed.
I did too. But it was more exhale than elation.
His Styrofoam sword shook as he walked
away into a cloud of his own laughter, which
hovered over me.

Laughter fell across our shoulders like rain.
The sort of which you can’t move through.
An Olympic-sized pool of funny. A thicket of
drunken bodies swayed. They watched me. I
tried to go on unnoticed and American. Beer
pong and bad jokes. Isn’t that it? Isn’t that a
way to disappear? But they did not know who
I was, where I was from, or what brought me
here. I had to explain what they were seeing.
They pinched and picked at my bandages. I
came loose and held a heap of gauze guts, put
it to my nose. To remember who I was. They
laughed. Then a laugh track played
throughout the house and I knew everyone
was watching. I bundled my bandages and
found the door. It was that simple. At least I
believed it to be, and so, for a while, it was.

                                        Onstage, I tell the audience where I grew up,
                                        what that means. I point to my chest. That’s
                                        what poets do. Somehow, we end up at Love.
                                        Every time. How it fails, how it saves. How
                                        it belongs to us, after all. When it’s over,
                                        someone approaches and thanks me for my
There is nothing to say to that so they
                                        continue with how glad they are
                                        I turned out alright, growing up the way I did.
                                        This is how you become an artifact with ears.
                                        This is what I’ve come to warn you about.
                                        I’m just a poet who knew he couldn’t
                                        put the gloves on forever, who knew, one
                                        day, he’d be too tired to lace up and would
                                        only want to ease his body into a small,
                                        closed-off space. I walked home
from that Halloween unraveled. Leaking
gauze that led back to the party.

Under every streetlight, I did not talk to my
shadow. I did not ask how it was doing.

                                                           Please don’t mind this suffering. There’s not
                                                           much to see here, anyway. But if you must, if
                                                           you absolutely must look, please do so in an
                                                           orderly fashion. The line starts right over
                                                           there. Keep your voices to a whisper.
                                                           Whoever gets used to this sadness first, wins.
Because I am
                      a poet, I carry a notepad in my back pocket
                      for when I am alone or because I’m sure to
                      forget. Once, back in California, my homie
                      saw me pull the pad out, and called me the
                      Sensitive Poet. Thus, I was. It doesn’t
                      surprise me now, how easily I come apart.
                      But around the guys, he traced a tear down
                      his cheek. My homies chuckled with their
                      chests, all muscle tee and tattoo. I did not
                      mind. Not for a long time. For years, maybe.
                      A cloud is only a room that fills and fills.
                      Then a door opens, everything barreling out.

                                                           I never retrieved the gauze. I’ve made maps
                                                           like this all over the country.

                                I have a confession to make. I am more
                                mummy than I thought, something gone, a
                                ghost perhaps. Something you find in a room
                      gone dark. Are you there, wind?—it’s me,
                      Michael. What I mean is, sometimes I don’t
                      have to be my homie’s homie. I can be no one
                                to those foos. I am so far away, here, in
                                Minnesota, so small and unraveled
                                nowadays. I am not how they remember. I see
                      it in their eyeholes. Somehow, I am less. And
                      when I say homies, I’m talking about those
                      south-side-Pomona homies; right-by-the-60-
                                freeway homies; down-the-block-from-
                      his-way-to-8th-grade-one-morning homies.
                      By where Nacho’s shoes flew off. And we
                      joked about size 10 Pumas growling through
                                the intersection. That’s fucked up. Right
                                there is where I grew up. That driveway and
                                sidewalk where my homies used to pull up to.
                      The homies I’m trying to tell you about. I’m
                      leaning into an apology. Trust me, I’m a poet.
                      There’s always something to be sad about.
I got this list of people I hate that I don’t
know what to do with. It grows and grows

like a cloud carrying rain and all I have are
their names and my thoughts. I fold those

pages into my back pocket. Right next to my
notepad, where all the unwritten poems

gather when I cannot sleep. I lean to the right
because of these people I hate, because of

these poems I can’t finish. When I sit, I
always think I’m going to fall over but

I don’t. I’m still here.

                                                           Fuck your butterflies, your lilacs and sunsets.
                                                           Fuck your hillsides, your candlelight of fear.

                      I’m building my own country. It looks like
                      my 7-year-old self, rocking a Looney Tunes
                      Raiders tee and throwing-up the Westside.
                      My country doesn’t speak Spanish but

                      it knows when you’re talking shit. My
                      country fits onto this very page. My national
                      anthem keeps getting remixed. We’re
                      working on a website.

                                This is American-manufactured masculinity
                                at its finest. And yet, I am responsible
                                for the raised trumpets, the snapped-into
                                Slim Jims. I am responsible for the mutation

                                of the word triumph, for the Igloo cooler
                                heavy with beer bottles and an ocean of ice.

            In the dream, my homies don’t recognize me.
            I show them my tattoos, but nothing. I name
            the scars on their bodies and I tell them where
            we were when it happened, how the plan
            went south, and what we learned that day.
            Jesse takes the longest to convince.
            Remember watching Knight Rider, I say?
            After school, every day, for 2 months. Until
            the doctors left a grave of staples from where
            they pulled the screws?

This morning, thunder woke me and I knew
it was only God. This doubt, it is so
American. Still, I walked outside. Of course,

all the neighbors were there in their bright
parkas. Fools. I wore my armor, ready.
We tilted our heads and kept our eyes open for

the heaviest rain. Grey-black clouds paraded
the sky but did not speak. Far off into the
western distance, where it was still night,

flashes of light showed us the valley’s teeth.
We turned away knowing it was useless. At
the door, I could smell coffee, but knew

it was only my memory of coffee, something
I wrote down once, something I added next to
a list I don’t know how to finish.

Author’s Note:

I’m fascinated with the term “All-American.” It refers to something of excellence, something pure: “All-American Towing,” “All-American Foods, Inc.,” “All-American Pressure Washers.” At the same time, though, “All-American” is a way to identify. If I say, “I’m an All-American,” I’m telling you where I come from, or the way I live, or what I represent. That term led me to imagine what an All-American Mexican might look like—considering identity and quality. What I kept going back to was: in what ways does/can an All-American Mexican exist?

For about a year I’ve been teaching at a prison. It takes me an hour to get there and an hour back. The route is mostly farmland; the occasional lake. There’s a lot of sky to stare at. That’s where this poem begins. (I straight jacked my opening line from work by Alberto Rios, an OG, my OG.) My poem’s speaker is such a fucking poet, watching clouds and thinking. I love it. In this poem, as well as the rest in my “All-American Mexican” series, I think the struggle is less with the numerous identities a single person might contain and more about desiring to be one identity over another at a given moment. It’s about who the person is in proximity to where they are, it’s about how place affects their choices, and what to do with all those, often contradictory, desires.