Homo labyrintheus spins
the magic thread that guides and saves
the fateful thread that leads the killer to his prey
then guides him out to freedom
lets him escape after he carries out his deed.
Double-edged thread spun by the dead man’s sister
who provides the clue to find the marked man
imprisoned in the center of his multicursal maze
the sword to slay him
and the thread to guide the killer to the exit.
She gives him a ball of fleece thread
to unwind from the entrance
through the twisted, convoluted, passageways
to the center of the prison
where he finds her brother sleeping
an easy target for his murderous intent
then, after slaying him
rewinds the red thread back to the exit
and to the sister’s waiting arms.
In exchange for clue and thread
he had promised to wed the princess wench
but, as it is not hard to betray a betrayer
he abandons her while she sleeps
on the Isle of Naxos
and goes back to his land a hero
for having rescued
the young Athenian men and maidens
who had in the labyrinth awaited
to be devoured by Ariadne’s half-man
half-bull hybrid brother.
They were the yearly war tribute her father
King of Crete, had exacted from the Athenians.
Theseus had volunteered to slay the monster
and rescue his countrymen, and, succeeding
becomes an Ionian founding hero.
But what happens to faithless Ariadne
when the object of her lust abandons her
while she sleeps alone in Naxos?
Some say that Dionysus
rescues and marries her.
Others whisper that following the examples
of Arachne, Erigone
and other weaving goddesses
she hangs her wretched spite
from the branches of a tree.
And why does Minos, King of Crete
want to keep his stepson
locked in the prison built by Daedalus?
Could it be he wishes to conceal
the fruit of his wife’s betrayal
the undeniable proof that she cuckolded him
not with a mortal or a god
but with a bull
a snow-white bull of extraordinary beauty
Poseidon sent forth from the sea?
Minos asks Poseidon to send him the sea bull
that will certify him worthy of the Cretan throne
but attempting to deceive the god
he sacrifices in his honor an ordinary bull
instead of the snow-white gift from the sea
he intends to keep as leader of his herd.
Poseidon takes revenge
and causes Minos’s wife Pasiphae
daughter of Helios
to develop an uncontrollable lust
for the handsome bull of the splendid horns.
She begs Daedalus to help her gratify her passion
and he builds for her a hollow wooden heifer
disguised with the pelt of a live one
to deceive the bull into engaging in amorous intercourse
with the lascivious queen who hides inside the timber cow.
When her son Asterion is born
with the body of a man
the head of a bull
the destiny of a star
they call him Minotaurus
and ask the royal architect to build
a winding, convoluted, prison
to contain and hide the hybrid fruit of her betrayal.
The half-man, half-animal monster
imprisoned in the center of the labyrinth
is testament to the queen’s lust
for life’s darker powers
and to her betrayal of the king
but the stud bull that, deceived by the sight of
a healthy heifer grazing in a sunny pasture
fathered the Bull-man
would not have tempted Pasiphae
had Minos sacrificed it to Poseidon and
by honoring his promise to the god
internalized the virile prowess of the bull.
But protecting the honor of the ruler is only
the expedient raison d’état
for the unconfessed motive for ensconcing Asterion
is his very nature
and our fear of the other
the foreigner, the immigrant, the barbarian
who speaks words we do not comprehend
the mestizo, the mulatto, the half-breed
all those of mixed bloods or uncommon yearnings
in our midst
the poet, the mystic, the visionary, the madman
we dare not look in the eye
for we push back into the deepest recesses
the ctonic force
the unresolved conflict
the formless restlessness
the desire we dare not utter
the fear of coming face to face
with what we sense and long for
but cannot name
the nostalgia for all the darkness we bury
in the bottom of our minds’ oceans
and all the light that would crown us gods
if we dared look in the distant galaxies of our hearts.
With the Minotaurus locked in the sacred mandala
the Bull-man’s pulsing heart rises
as Helios in the firmament
to the realm of spirit
and, except for Ariadne’s fratricide
Minos might have learned to walk
the winding pathways of his labyrinth
to reach its mysterious center
and become the Sol King
with no need of schemes
or double-edged red threads.
Autumn Still Life
(After Pablo Neruda)
I bring home three, make plans for a feast
look up recipes
take pleasure in imagining them stuffed with oysters
à la Prudhomme.
Stunned by their fullness
I dream of being Benjamín
painting them over rose petals.
When other activities intervene
the artichokes spend the night in a black clay bowl.
The next evening I prepare garlic and tarragon
and ponder the advantages and disadvantages
of amontillado vinegar over lemon juice
for the steaming basket.
I remember alternative uses for the pale green hearts
that in Seville I ate them fried in olive oil and
reveling in their Spanish name alcachofa
remember it comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf
also that Neruda praises them for their proud martial posture.
I had never seen artichokes like these
with such long stems and large, lustrous globes.
I admire the terseness of their olive skin
their complex, rosaceous structure
the bracts that curl around in circles of succulence
cloister the translucent purple leaves
protect the silky choke.
After a week
I acknowledge they are past their savory prime
but continue to admire their fading beauty
insisting that, surrounded by pink roses
they would still fulfill their vocation
as a theme for Benjamín.
On the underside of the bracts appear creamy tones that
flowing in coppery brown striations
blend into the skin as it loses its terseness.
Their succulence becomes brittle
develops a rich wooden patina
that highlights their rosaceous complexity
their architectural integrity.
After a fortnight, I understand that their tender hearts will forever remain
but with the dance of lights and shadows of their decline
the aura of roses persists
perfumes the night.
The third week I take them out of the black clay
discover the blue lavender striations
growing on their undersides
position them in my daughter’s old basket
over coppery foliage of the smoke bush
cradled in old roses.
Baskets of Gold or Lemons Are Not Limones
--After Frank Gaspar
(For Kameron Dawson)
El limonero lánguido suspende
una pálida rama polvorienta
sobre el encanto de la fuente limpia,
y allá en el fondo suenan
los frutos de oro...
- -Antonio Machado, "Soledades, VII"
I have no childhood memory of lemons
for I grew up with limones.
I remember limonada
té de limón
my mother's pastel de limón
and flor de limón fragrance
wafting through Aunt Olga's Cuernavaca home.
On warm summer evenings
looking at her picture
I can smell it still.
The dictionary says "lemon" is English for limón,
but lemons are not limones, and
for the limonada I enjoyed as a child
I need limones, not lemons.
The nieve de limón I made when Tito Nacho
bought me a hand-cranked wooden bucket
for making my very own sorbet called for limones.
That was the only time I asked him to buy me something.
Tito was a general in the Mexican army,
and Father had said only generals could buy neveras.
He was just a captain, and I could not wait.
Aguacates call for limones when they wish to become
guacamole, and so do chiles when they are hot
to be salsa.
Limones are needed to squeeze into broth
sprinkle on fish, summer tomatoes
salads of watercress
to rim margarita glasses, and mingle with
Cuervo añejo and Grand Marnier.
Ceviche is in need of limón
British gin prefers it too,
but Bananas Foster and Spanish sangría
with their international preference
blend the lemon with the limón.
Limón is what I used as a child
to bleach the blue ink that stained my sheets
when I studied in bed,
but lemon might have worked as well.
For a child's stand where Grandfather can quench
his summer thirst, and, for a nickel, make Kameron
feel like a tycoon, lemons are de rigueur.
The lemons that Mom can cut and Kamie can squeeze into
a pitcher of water sweetened and iced
will make of him a young American entrepreneur.
While I think the flavor of the limón is superior
I must admit lemons have the edge in the history of art.
There are more famous paintings of lemons in baskets
next to decanters
cut into slices on platters of fish
than there are of limones.
It may be their fit-in-the-hand voluptuousness
their thick, textured skin
or, as I believe,
for forsythias stirring from their winter slumber
dress themselves in lemon yellow
which can also adorn fragrant freesias
bashful pansies, joyful canaries
a baby's bonnet, the polka dots
on a girl's white cotton dress.
As golden as the lemon are Easter’s dawn
I’ll cherish you forever in a beloved’s ring
a locket with a baby’s first hair
the Virgin's halo
the heart of the honeysuckle
light on earth
the bees' holy offering.
(For Nora Nickerson)
now she knows what happened and can bury him next to his father
have a place she can visit
talk to him
say she worried when he didn’t come home
her face hurt when his was struck
her back ached when his was kicked
peed blood for weeks
felt nauseous when he had to lick his slop off the floor
whisper she yearns for his bones at dawn, even now
she can tell him Muhammad, his little brother
married and has three daughters
that his young sister is childless and a widow
together they can talk about the sons he would have given her
the bag in her hand, like all the other bags
in all the other trembling hands
some missing a finger, a rib, a toe
but who found the grave, who identified the bones?
his bones, like thousands in the mass grave
indistinguishable to the police
the indifferent eye
did she identify him by his faded shirt
the one she made for his last birthday
all those years ago?
his skull, not like any other
does she recognize his determined brow
can she see the pain where his lips were?
the smile in his eyes
that disappeared when the beatings began
can she see the smile in the two holes
with which he saw too much?
and his ears
with which he listened to the oud
and her gentle moans
what happened to his ears?
with which he heard screams
that made him wish he was deaf
even if he could never again hear her murmurs
and his mouth, his smiling mouth
his sweet, playful lips
now open like a chasm
that splits life
and dug with the bones, the questions:
what does it mean to die all this death?
she had the life of him, the hunger of him
the play, the questions
the song of him
but for an instant
she had the worry for years
now she will have the death
all his death
for the dawns of her life
and her sister-in-law, and her neighbor
and the women from the next village
the women she just met
picking up their bags
they will have all the death of theirs
all the days of their lives
what does it mean to hold in your hand
the bones that pressed against yours
the virtuoso bones that played the dulcimer with yours?
and who will imagine the cause for his death certificate?
the eyes that smiled too much?
the lips that kissed too tender
the lips that could play soulful tunes on her musical reed?
the plectrum fingers that could play her like the oud of heaven?
or will it be the loneliness of the dictator
that he was tone deaf
could not produce deep, mellow sounds
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.
- Revelation 12
Abdul, you are so right
your dictator and mine, everybody’s dictator
they’re all nihilists.
They rape and kill
torture, pillage, imprison, and silence.
They murder the soul
because they don’t know they have one.
They destroy our civilization
because they are the children of Chaos.
They stomp on our humanity
because they don’t feel human.
Your dictator claimed he was afraid to kill sparrows.
Mine had a fun-filled childhood stuffing frogs with fireworks
blowing them up over proud Texas skies.
Your dictator’s smiling picture is in the coffeehouse
the brothel, the marketplace.
My dictator has a stupid smirk.
Our cartoonists have immortalized him
with huge floppy ears, small beady eyes, a tiny body
and silly cockroach legs stuffed in high-heeled Texas boots
dressed as a twelve-year-old playing Napoleon,
Superman, a monarch with tattered crown,
a pawn on a chess board where his vice-president is king,
the bride of the Religious Right,
a pouting child standing on a pile of books on top of a chair
handing out medals, stuttering
we don’t torture
it’s only enhanced interrogation.
Now, really, Abdul
do you think those pictures could hang over
every bed in the brothel,
especially in The Emperor’s Club
and other Washington establishments that cater to senators,
gobernors, and ambassadors?
The customers would laugh so hard
they would pee in their Fruit of the Looms
and the poor whores would be all out of business.
Your dictator banned the solar calendar
and abolished Neruda, Márquez, Amado.
My dictator doesn’t read, has never heard of Neruda
his wife is a librarian
who in her first year in the president’s house
invited a few poets for culture and tea.
When she heard they were planning to talk about
war and death, torture and freedom
she said, no, no, no, you naughty boys
we won’t have any of that.
It’s true we invaded two countries
but it’s for their own good,
we’re teaching those poor souls
about malls and Sunday shopping
and letting us have all that oil they don’t need.
Your dictator has given his name
to the squares, rivers, and jails of his homeland.
Mine wants his on a library.
He would also like to have it on a Washington monument,
Mount Rushmore, and the silver dollar.
If he’s lucky, they may rename Guantánamo after him,
create the Bushit Institute for Pseudo-Science
and call waterboarding the Bushnique.
Your dictator burned the last soothsayer
who failed to kneel before the idol.
They do that.
They burn, fire, demonize, and do extraordinary renditions.
They abu ghraib. They guantánamo.
Your dictator has doled out death as a gift or a pledge.
Mine doles out destruction to avenge his father’s honor
(in truth, to show his mother he’s more macho than the old man)
and for reassurance that he is “The Commander Guy”.
Your dictator’s watchdogs have stolen the people’s food.
My dictator and his Geppettos
have stolen the fruits without pesticides
the fish without mercury
the beef without additives
the shade of the trees
the sweet waters of the rivers
the fresh breezes of the morning.
Your deposed dictator was executed at home
because mine decided he should.
The hourglass restarts counting the breaths
of the dictators lurking everywhere
in the fund-raising party and the Supreme Court
in the Senate and the brothel
or are they the same?
From the Caribbean to China’s Great Wall
the dictator-dragon is born every day.
it’s April and Andalucía
with its tunic violet and blue
which is the color of blue aura and blue flame
and somersault of heart
which is jacaranda in bloom
and spring in paradise
for the tree of paradise
is not the apple
no, the apple is an invention
of scholars and scribes
who want secret and only for themselves
the tree of temptation
the tree that is rib, nerve, marrow
arms that clamor to heaven
and mouths that light up the night
lips and tongues and teeth that whisper
and are the thousand mouths of the tree of desire
which is the color of lilac and lavender blue
and all the blues
of the jacaranda of Andalucía.
Lilvia Soto has taught Latin American and Latino literatura at Harvard and other American universities. She was the Resident Director of a Study Abroad Program for students from Cornell, Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania in Sevilla, Spain. She has published poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and literary translations in journals and anthologies in the United States, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. She has published essays and given lectures on Spanish, Spanish-American, and Chicano writers (Leopoldo Alas [Clarín], Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, José Emilio Pacheco, Alejo Carpentier, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, Guadalupe Villaseñor, Laura Esquivel, Lucha Corpi. She is a participating poet in the We Are You Project international (www.weareyouproject.org).