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In my words, January 21 – 27

Roman augurs

The word inauguration comes from Latin. An augur was a Roman priest who studied the flights of birds to predict the future in their patterns. The prefix in can mean no or not: immeasurable, incomplete, immoral. It can also mean a location. An inauguration takes place on a certain day for everyone to see, in great numbers hopefully, engendering prosperity. Perhaps flying birds do forecast, who knows? Rome became an empire that controlled the world. If George W. Bush had studied the flights of birds before he invaded Iraq, could it have turned out any worse? The advice of a bird would have been as good as Dick Cheney’s. I’m so glad Barack Obama is president, I can’t begin to tell you. Akram and I watched the inauguration together. Akram, a citizen since March 2011, sat up a little straighter, I thought, when the president spoke. I was happy to hear Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall mentioned in the same breath. He spoke of we, the people. Yes! I have students from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Yemen who have recently become citizens. My Yemeni student said that of course she had watched the inauguration, after all, “I am a citizen.”

Mouse art

I have a mouse. The whole wheat roll meant for Akram’s lunch has been gnawed into, a perfect half circle, a pretty mouse sculpture with pleasing symmetry. At the corner of my eye a shadow appeared and vanished into a box where letters are stored. If only it hadn’t done that. I once left a box of books under a bed in the 70s. When I went to get them later, some had been chewed into nests including The Sex Life of Andy Warhol, a book I could pay a month’s rent with now if I had it intact to sell. I have a Victor mousetrap (snap: it’s over: that’s that), set it, then unset it again. My heart’s not in it. Mice do chew through electric wires and start a lot of fires. That’s why you should never kill a snake. My mother sometimes used a snake when we had a mouse problem in the house. I remember, at one of her parties, a corn roast probably with girlfriends, Mom saw a black snake in the bushes, and went to get it. The snake snapped at her and curled around her arm as she got a good hold. The women scattered screaming as Mom went in to deposit the snake in the cellar. Because I don’t have a snake, I’m putting my bread and my letters in mouse-proof containers.

I once had a cat named Cachito who kept my apartment free of mice and rats. I wrote a sonnet about him.

Cachito brought me a mouse while I slept.
I woke to find the gift dead at my hand
When all at once the mouse jumped up and ran
For the surrounding shadows. The cat leapt
After, out of the dark batting the mouse
Into the air. It stood its ground when it
Came down squeaking a futile defense, its
Final reprimand ended in the pounce
That caught it in its sharp and gentle jaws
Alive like a delivered baby, raw
Fetus with its fur torn off, a red ball
Licked well beyond recall, what I just saw
On silent haunches bravely cowering
Nothing now—Ah! but nothing was something.

Cachito and Dad

I gave Cachito to Dad when Mom was dying. By the time I did it, the cat had been living with me for eight years. I often traveled, sometimes teaching in China over the summer. Then Cachito would go to Pennsylvania and stay with my folks. He got to know the house inside and out finding all the sunny spots, the mice in the field and yard up to where the woods start. Unlike a lot of cats, when people come, Cachito goes to greet them. That tickles Dad. Cachito will go outside and smell the visiting car’s tires, get up on the warm hood to curl for awhile—ahhh this is good!—then stand with his paws on the windshield to look inside. Who are these guys? In NY when I had a meeting or a party, Cachito attended, listened and was always interested. In those good old days, we’d start every morning in bed, me drinking coffee, Cachito curled beside me while I worked on a sonnet or looked out the window where the day was beginning to begin.

When it was time for work, and I opened the door to go, Cachito would run out and roll around in the hall. I had a toy mouse I’d show him moving it back and forth so fast his head would blur until I threw it into the apartment and the cat ran after following. A cat is part cuddle and also part claw. When we played, Cachito would bite me and I’d bite him back, gently of course; even if you bleed a little, you know the cat could rip you to shreds if he wanted. Dad doesn’t like bite and scratch. Or anyway not too often. “He’s more like a dog,” Dad says in reference to the fact that Cachito would fetch little green apples he’d throw to him when he was a kitten.

Back in New York for a week after Christmas, Cachito dragged his carrying case out of the closet and into the living room for me to see. He hates his carrying case; he wanted to return to the South Mountain. Easter 2008 when we were visiting, I said to Dad, “I’m going to China in a couple months. Just keep the cat till I get back.” In September I said, “Let’s let the cat stay here. He’s happier.”

Mom had congestive heart failure, emphysema, and diabetes. She’d turned 80 in August and didn’t remember who she just talked to on the phone. One of the last things she ever did was get out of bed to vote for Barack Obama. She had liked him since she heard him speak at the 2004 Democratic Convention. “That man is going to be the president,” she said to me then. Mom didn’t like the Bush administration nor was she a fan of the Iraq invasion; murderer Mom called the president when she saw him on television. I’m glad she got her two cents in. Meanwhile, Cachito accompanied Dad burning the trash or working in the garden, sometimes wandering off after a squirrel or a mouse. When Dad went upstairs at night, after the news, the cat went with him and watched from a chair while he played solitaire.

Cachito meows now to be let out in the morning. Dad sits by the French doors to watch him make his round for mice in the garden, moles in the yard, birds at the spring house, and squirrels scurrying up the boughs looking for dried apples or pears they might have missed the last time around. Even when the cat’s out of sight, Dad keeps watching, and I imagine remembering. At 88 with his bad hip, he walks with a walker, and takes it with him when he drives to get the mail, visit his sister, and go to the bank chatting with friends and even strangers whenever he gets the chance a lot like his cat trekking around the yard smelling the wind and watching for things.


I translated a poem by Baudelaire, La Beauté, in my thirties and was wondering if I should change big eyes to large eyes now. The poet uses the words larges yeux so why don’t I? Large’s five letters pronounced go on a little longer (larger?) than big does and that r there in the middle raising its little roar is kind of nice too. I like the way big sounds though, its three letters said in a shorter amount of time than large is, but with a little more force, a little more clout. “Grandma, what big eyes you have,” Little Red Riding Hood says to the wolf in English. In the original French (I have the book and just looked it up), Le Petit Chaperon Rouge says, “Ma mère-grand que vous avez de grands yeux!” We would never say grand eyes. That settles it. I’m sticking with big.

I am beautiful, O mortals, like a dream of stone
And my breasts where each is murdered in his turn
Are made to inspire in the poet a love
Eternal and mute as matter.

I’m throned in the sky like an unfathomed sphinx
Joining a heart of snow with the whiteness of swans.
I hate movement that mixes up lines
And I never laugh and I never cry.

Poets before my great poses that I seem
To have borrowed from the proudest monuments
Will consume their days in austere studies

For I have to fascinate these docile lovers
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful
My eyes, my big eyes constantly bright, eternal.


Baudelaire said poetry and cooking are the highest art forms because each must appeal to the five senses. Et voilà! Here is my salsa with an onion, celery, celery leaves, green pepper, jalapeños, and two lemons squeezed in place of salt. I’d just about give anything for a Pennsylvania tomato in August right off the vine, its meaty flesh a meal in itself filling you up with warm sun, but it’s January in New York City and tomatoes at the market taste like cardboard. I’m going to use canned tomatoes, whole ones, not sauce or crushed. When you chop a canned whole tomato up, the tomato still has a sense of itself, adding its flavor alongside the pepper, onion and celery; each vegetable sticks out, brilliant together, shining separately. Tomato sauce does to every ingredient what was done to it, it blends, which is its purpose, covering your ingredients and making them a little dulled like pebbles in a stream covered by mud you’ve stirred up.

After stirring in the bright tomatoes, I clean and chop so much cilantro I can’t add it all, and chew on some full strength, pungent as soap or body odor perhaps, but if you like it as I do, well the sky’s the limit, what the heck. I stuff it in. The first time I tasted cilantro was in Colombia, December 1973. I was traveling on a bus from Cartagena to Bogota; a trip that was supposed to take a day, but wound up taking two because the bus kept breaking down and being fixed by the driver and his sidekick who never slept, nor did I bumping along over the mountain roads holding on. When we arrived in a town at noon, I ordered el sopa del dia, which turned out to be chicken claws served in a bowl of broth sprinkled with parsley I thought. Where I grew up, chicken claws were something you tossed. You chopped off the head, let it flop till it was quiet, scalded the feathers making them easier to pluck—some singed them in fire, but not Grandma. Boiling or burning the feathers stank as you gutted and washed out the chicken, chopping off the claws when you were done, throwing them in the offal.

Colombia was different. They put the claws in a bowl for you. The digits had been sliced so as they simmered the skin on them folded back revealing the meat on the bones. As I chewed on a claw, I noticed a taste I’d not tasted before, distinct, strange (it was a chicken claw after all) and different. That evening, when I ate steak with rice and beans in another mountain town, I tasted chicken claws and suspected the rice had been simmered in them. Then in Bogota wherever I ate, whatever I ate, I tasted chicken claws again and again. My god I asked myself, do they put them in everything? First impressions are meaningful, but often not true. It took awhile before I knew I was tasting cilantro. Well, the salsa’s done. It shines, looks good, smells great emanating lemon, feels fresh, healthy, alive in my mouth crunching as I taste all its flavors bitten bursting on my tongue. Come on, my friends, let’s eat some.

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