Poems of Cruelty and Compassion

Poem with Too Much Rope in It                     

After the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice


I’m thinking of humans who cut the testicles off other humans, who string up

their fellow humans and laugh. Of people who set other people alight for the crime of

uppity, for the crime of gay, for the crime of, I refuse. I’m worrying about

my fellow humans, who can hang a pregnant woman upside down, disembowel her,

leave the fetus dangling—


I’m thinking of the many loving humans I know. Sheltering humans. I’m worrying

about how many people after the war still thought Hitler’s big mistake was

not killing all the Jews. Wondering, too, about those who hid entire families in

a few small rooms, risking the murder of their own. How do we reconcile this—

the fervidly brave, the fervidly cruel. Happy informers. The disbelieving informed. Them

and Us. Who did this to you? I want to ask victim and perpetrator—


I want it to be someone’s fault: twisted leaders, bad parents, beatings.

Or maybe it’s a Darwinian experiment. Something coiled in our genes. Here are

the conditions: let’s see who lives, let’s see who fouls their soul. Either way,

I walk down the street with affable people who would do these things—dangle

suffocating humans from branches, drag them behind jouncing pickup trucks and laugh,

roast alive the very humans who maybe—in another life—they dearly love.

Is there a life in which I’m laughing along with them?



Tomorrow, my father gets his foot

cut off—too much pain for too long—

time for another divorce.


For years, he declared

he was too old for this.

Maybe he was too young.


What a shiver—sickness,

wheelchairs, walkers,

canes. There’s been talk


of complications,

of a cut above the knee—

like the hem on a sexy skirt.


But he will insist, he says,

on below the knee. March—

a bit of snow clings


to the ground, but in his garden

he’s planted spinach already.

By my front steps this morning,


the hyacinths just beginning

to bulge out of the ground

remind me of knees—


how green and incipient

we can always be.

Below the knee—


all the things

he has done,

has not done,


could do,

can still do,

on his knees.




It was the way he tended to the orchids that let me know papi still held love inside him. The way he gently held thin branches between thumb and index finger, the way he cusped newly bloomed flowers in the palm of his hand, how he clipped slowly and with care, the fear of irreparable damage plain in his eyes. It’s the only thing he did with care anymore. Nothing else in life seemed to be permanent or irreparable.



I tried not to let myself cry in front of him, a difficult task for one as young as I was. Children crave company when in misery. Wanting an audience while you cry seems to be something we just eventually outgrow.  The few times I couldn’t help crying in his presence, his face went sharp, all lines and angles, and he said the same thing, “A llorar pa’l cuarto,” Go cry in your room. This must have been the seed which turned into the weeds that still hold me in solitude whenever I’m feeling blue.


At least the man practiced what he preached. There was a night during those days right after it happened in which I stumbled out of bed, my small bladder tight and bursting, only to hear muffled whimpers and moans coming from his room. What a sad, terrible sound that was.



Papi’s garden was all colors, bright and blinding; all scents, flamboyant and proud; all life, all hope. Papi’s garden was everything he was not.



The house on my walk to school. The house, as papi and I referred to it. As if the “the” had some kind of accent mark. Thé house with the garden, with the Rotchschild’s orchids and the Saffron crocus. Papi always believed they had a Shenzhen Nongke orchid hidden in there somewhere, a plant so expensive he assured me multiple times was worth more than our house. He could not afford any of the plants in that garden because keeping me around wasn’t cheap. He looked at those flowers with longing. I looked at them with disdain.


V—Terrestrial Pulmonate Gastropod Molluscs or Papi’s Tiny Nemesis

It frightened me how easily he stepped on snails, how hard he stomped on them, how he swiveled on his heel from side to side, an act of dominance—unnecessary and cruel, seeing that you could crush a snail with the palm of your hand. Once, I suggested moving the snails, collecting and transferring them somewhere else, and in an attempt to sound cunning—hard, maybe—I even suggested transferring them to our neighbor’s backyard. Papi didn’t like our neighbor, he said the neighbor hugged his kids too much, that he was a little too nice, if you know what I mean. I never knew what he meant, but I would always nod silently, trying to imagine what it would feel like to be hugged too much. Surprisingly, he agreed to my plan, he said, “Vamos, tratémoslo,” Let’s try it out.


It was the hardest I’d ever worked in the garden. I wanted to collect and save as many snails as I could and as quickly as possible. I feared papi would change his mind. I plucked snails like grapes from the vine, one by one, delicately and efficiently. After about an hour or two my hands were caked in mud, my face brown—browner than usual—with dirt. I was proud of the haul. I felt like a hero.


If you are an adult, as I am now, you can see where this is all going, you—same as I—have experienced enough, seen enough in life to know that people don’t change just like that, that parents are sometimes harder than they need to be, even when they believe they mean well, when they believe they are teaching lessons.


I cried myself to sleep that night.



Some days I wished I was a snail, able to disappear within myself at any moment. Papi would have hated knowing that.


VII—An orchid with no light will grow, but not bloom.

Maybe it was the snail thing, how I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily they cracked and popped beneath my feet, how the sound lingered in my head like a song of death. Maybe it was the fact that mom and I used to pick out snails from that very garden and race them.


I pulled those orchids from the ground like they were bad weeds. I pulled hard, with determination. Some of them I pulled using both hands, the way I had to pull on the lawnmower’s chord to get it started. I ruined the orchids, but only the orchids, because we both knew those were the ones my mother loved the most.


When I was done I ran straight to my room. I got in bed as I was, covered in dirt and mud, covered in sweat and an overwhelming pain my young body had never felt before. A llorar pa’l cuarto.