Back to Issue Twenty-Four.

mama's heart



Like all our mothers, she was one of the lucky ones.
           She passed her citizenship test studying English

out of our first-grade notebooks. She was too sick
           to work the day of the raid. She gave her social

security number to her sister, so she could work.
           She told us who to call and where to find important

documents. She prepared powers of attorney
           in case she didn’t return home. She couldn’t attend

the Know Your Rights workshop. She sang us Spanish
           lullabies every night. We didn’t know a thing about

where we came from. She crossed the desert
           blessed no man touched a strand of hair on her

head. Birth control made it so she wouldn’t
           have a stranger’s baby. Rape was a risk she took.

She saw what they did to our men: shaved
           their heads and gave them a gun to fire far

into families for a flag or else beat them to death
           like communist dogs in broad daylight in the middle

of the street; tattooed their skin and gave them
           a gun to fire fear into families for a tag or else

beat them to death like anonymous dogs
           in broad daylight in the middle of the street.

Our women always flee to save their children
           from being slaughtered. Running is in our blood

and our blood has always been running.
           What is a son but a reason for her flight?

What does that make me but an Aztec,
           the same empire that made conquer sexy

before Cortes y las Tlaxcaltecas,
           that made murder a sport before las policia

y las maras, that made terror our textbook
           before the School of the Americas? Before ICE?

What does that make me but the obsidian
           below her breasts, the man’s hungry fingers

swimming away like an octopus,
           purloining the heart and her heart beating

in his hand as if to give him life?
           My blood knows just as much murder

as it does martyr.
           Whose hand can it be but mine?


love poem where a stranger accuses me of speaking in tongues



Amor, I wish I could tell you te amo
means as much to me as I love you,
but once after a week of diarrhea
and two days of fever, my family
drove me to a clinic in Jiquilisco.
The room was narrow and hot
as a needle. Behind the counter
sat a lonely woman with dirty
glasses. She couldn’t speak louder
than a whisper. If I had to guess,
she was seventy years my senior.
Once upon a time she worked
for hospitals, cutting umbilical cords
from greasy bellies and amputating
mangled limbs during the war.
I did not know that at the time.
The bottom half of her body
could not move. My primo went
behind the counter to help her
search for alcohol. Her fingers
fumbled to unwrap the medication
for three minutes. There was no
backroom for me. Two doors
to the streets were kept open.
A shaky dog nosed an abandoned black
plastic bag spilling its intestines
onto the road. I dropped my pants,
and she injected me with a needle
the length of my middle finger.
I still do not know what she put
inside of me. I laughed and said
I felt seasick. Mama told me to sit
down. Numb rainbows leeched
the color out of her face. I laughed.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t
breathe. I couldn’t—

I do not want to say I almost died.
I did not feel any pain. A pickup truck
full of shirtless men drove by, each
sweating off the dust and shouldering  
an empty stare. Two locals walked in
from the street to holler advice. A man
with a moustache rusty as his machete.
A woman who had balanced a basket
of red beans on her head. Mama, forever
faithful, forever Mormon, called down
all the Catholic saints. I returned to her
cry of mijo, mijo, and the embossed outline
of her face through a dazed shield of purple.
I breathed. I seized. My neck curled  
the way paper twists when thrown
into a flame. I rocked back and forth,
my arms whipping to and fro like limp
limbs in the wind, a quarter century
of muscle convulsing like a possessed
man. Understand, we all thought I had died.
I begged my family for forgiveness
as I kicked back their arms. I thanked
Mama for her patience as I shook
from her grasp. Tranquilistate, hombre,
my primo said, clenching my wrists.  
The doctora sat serene as a hen
hanging by her feet from a line.
It took five minutes before I stopped
seizing. It took five minutes before
I could see their faces clearly, Mama’s
skin stretched like a bag over her face,
the twitching size of her eyes. I love you,
I cried, holding her shaking hands in mine.
I love you. I love you. Over and over again.
¡Dios mío! Ya empezó a hablar en babosadas,
cried the señora with her basket of beans. 
No, no son babosadas, I told her. Es inglés.
Es inglés


mama's head



Severed by the neck. Hanging
            by its hair. I find her
red and crooked as a peach pit.
            Hidden in the mangroves,
moaning in a voice that drips red
            into the river. They say
my mother is vengeful spirit.
            Swinging in the wind
like an echo through the trees.
            Her mouth is a cave
of wasps. Her eyes sewn shut.
            I hear her prayers
in the chorus of flames that torch
            the shanties, the singed
singing of burning forests.
            Each wasp is a prayer.
Each has a deadly sting and eyes
            black as the soul
of an emptied barrel.

            If I slit my throat, my neck.
If I let my head roll down the river
            merciless as a grenade.
If my tongue tastes the blood
            in the water. If my ears teach
my mouth the broken language
            of drowning. If my eyes
learn to reconnect the nameless
            limbs. If I could hold her
head in my hands. If I could crush it
            over my shoulders. If her eyes
opened. If my muscles twitched.
            If my body could flood
with her memory, and if only,
            for moments, we could share
the same heartbeat before she said,
            este no es mi carne.
This is not my flesh.




Willy Palomo is the son of two immigrants from El Salvador. His poems and book reviews can be found in the pages of Vinyl, Waxwing, Muzzle, the Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, and more. For more info, visit

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