BY DERRICK AUSTIN
for Marcelo, Rubi, and JD
1. Cocktails at the Palacio de Bellas Artes
except for the bartender this space is all yours
anonymous in your blackness safe
with friends be especially fey it complements the art deco
plumed serpents and other gods
in the European style don’t let Rubi order your drink
briefly stumble through the Spanish think of the murals
above you while JD and Rubi kiki
shackles cracked gunfire
marching Mexican workers indigenous
people flogged and gored a brown man chained
face down on a slab back raw cannibal
of images don’t make a fetish of suffering
it is distant you hold the whip sip your drink
when Marcelo asks what you’ll remember
mention history all the delicious food you’ll eat
when Marcelo says I’ve never seen such poverty
drink again thankfully it’s mostly gin shame
becomes a tonic order another cocktail
watch the sun brighten a bronze of St. Michael
stomping the devil make note of the police everywhere
in the square with their riot gear tip as much as you can
2. Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Despite the cathedral’s vaulted roof,
the Altar of Forgiveness
bright with imperial gold, it’s hard to see.
What little light there was
had the quality of stone.
There were paintings barred to me by shadows, rails.
I knew these images of grief by heart,
mother and son, tenderness and brutality,
cyclical as a soap opera.
The night before, drinking tequila at a spot overlooking the Zócalo,
we watched people crisscross the square.
(It was days before an election. The air seemed to buzz.)
Glowing against a lilac sky, the bell towers,
made of stones from an Aztec temple,
seemed to be aflame.
We know the names of architects and priests.
We know the laborers
as anonymous. This is not a gallery.
I tried remaining aloof to those praying,
leaving bouquets at the altar.
Women on their knees, like the men.
I wished I could touch the brown Christ,
read the psalter.
I was looking for an antidote
to Europe and America.
When we entered,
Rubi dipped her hand in water and crossed herself.
Not even the gods would have begrudged us
that view. Perched on the Temple of the Moon,
Rubi took our picture,
none of us looking particularly out of place
for the most part, black or brown and thankful
to be there.
Clouds like fine, old cloth
covering crystals fray and shine.
We saw why the gods
dwelled where stone leopards and serpents
refuse to become dust:
vistas broad and old
as the first uttered sound. To think of it
still makes me sweat.
Climbing behind three Mexican women,
I gripped the lone cord,
terrified of stairs
not cut for my clown feet. They engaged us—
JD and I—though, shamefully, we could not communicate.
They wanted a picture
under a sun and wind-ruined shrine,
we linked arms, smiled—
I was happy to be away from home
and the slaughter of black people,
though they were still killed,
4. Obsidian Mirror
Don’t take anything from Teotihuacan, JD.
Watch it be cursed and I gotta fly back with your ass.
The man who sold it was sweet,
and it was a gorgeous, polished stone.
Night entered the mirror and brightened
like water where we saw our unburdened faces.
We were black men in a city
sprung up like well water where we need not
flinch at another’s approach.
This city never was ours.
On the train ride back, I saw a politician
on the front page, recently elected,
bloody and strung-up. We walked avenues
where the poor with open palms called me
moreno, and men cursed our English advances.
5. Porn Church
Avoiding rain we dipped inside a church,
where dreaded whites, hair like the Grinch’s hands,
watched German women shouting at their subs
barking in latex shorts and canine masks.
We listened to Teutonic syllables
ricochet off columns, into the dome,
still bright with the wings of angels
and St. Peter holding the keys to another heaven.
A perfect kind of sacrilege, I thought,
this global festival of sex, delight
in porn that’s nothing less than Genesis
uncut, no shame, forbidden fruit, humanity
made fluid, out of that first water,
mask for mask no more, and vulnerable.
6. Casa Azul
Marcelo lost his iPhone in a taxi, so we lost our photos of Frida Kahlo’s house.
Still, I can’t forget seeing her easel and dried paints.
Marcelo, said Frida’s death mask. He touched the shawl wrapped with flair around her face—no docent to yell at him this time. He whispered back, but I was not there to remember it.
And her kitchen! Painted the colors of the sun, vines, and sea, filled with pans which warmed tortillas and pots for the best pozole.
I remembered a picture Marcelo texted me, his bronze face framed by a swarm of tulle. Rubi on My Mind, he wrote.
On the wall, broken pottery spelled their names—Frida, Diego—though I misremembered: thought of plates smashed and thrown. They were simply stones, stones one would gather to skip across water.
Mostly, I remembered the four of us walking through her garden, how easy it was to fall away there, among the lavender eaves and gray shades, to laugh and talk low as fountain water.
7. Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
I want to do it for my mother,
We found an empty aisle and joined O Mary, Mother of Names,
Unchurched, unbaptized, polite,
I tried following
along but fell back with Marcelo. the many
JD, in the row behind us,
never stood, unmoved
by a God who’s done many no good. hemmed to your starry cloak,
It’s the order I adored:
listening to the call- how many shine
and-response, watching Rubi,
one sea rose among many, still?
rise and kneel, pray and speak,
to old rhythms
washing over us. Even those of us O Mary, Mother of Leaving seated, unable to speak,
were offered a hand, a few words of greeting. Roses in Your Wake—
I was a stranger,
and they welcomed me. A man crawled O Mary,
on his knees
toward the Virgin’s image. Mother of America,
He must have worn
his joints and flesh for a while,
supported by a sister I only pray to love,
or friend. I’d only ever seen
this in paintings
or documentaries. one day,
I remembered statues we saw
climbing to the original church: my American soil,
indigenous men, women, children
offering all that will one day claim me
they have—cloth, fruit,
freedom—to the Virgin. hopefully,
The man had a ways to go before
his pilgrimage ended
when Rubi told us it’s time to go. not before my time.
8. Chapulines at Las Tlayudas
Spritzed with lime
they still didn’t taste like much
but Rubi and I ate them
after a reading
I didn’t speak Rubi’s not a poet
We’d been sipping little pots of mezcal for hours
After a while Rubi stopped eating noticing grasshopper
parts like little hairs on our plate
Drunkenly I raised my drink pinky up as if
queen of some realm Here’s to the world
and all it’s garish colors
and the sun-stung agave
may it never run out in our throats
You got a little leg in your teeth Rubi said
9. Ballet Folklorico
Sitting next to Marcelo
was almost unnerving.
Excited, his body
was like a drum’s vibrating skin.
When the dancers
flooded the aisles—
white scalloped skirts
like whipped sea foam,
and the papier-mâché heads,
those large, startling figures,
like family I had forgotten
because I had forgotten how
I have been. Lost
in confetti and streamers,
I speak our names
though no one hears.
It was as if we were all dancing.
Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions). A Cave Canem fellow, his work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Nimrod, and other anthologies and publications. He was a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.
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