Nicaragua Night Hotel

The man who guards the front door sings to himself as he guards the front door. There’s one huge roof over the squat hotel, hovering over the rooms on columns. The rooms are a set of cement walls and a few flimsy doors.

Most of the guests try to bathe before trying to sleep through the slow tropic heat, and the showers have elaborate tiles which are old enough to be covered in something that looks like rust. Only near the door are the tiles smooth and bright, worn by feet into a thin trail. There are cement washtubs built into the corner of both small shower rooms. The guests never used to bathe with running water. Above, a single fluorescent tube is screwed into one of the vigas, the spiderwebs around it have become so clogged with dust that they have become the ceiling.

At night there are only the sounds. Men murmur to their lovers, water falls from a plastic pipe in the shower, the singing man guards the front door from a rocking chair. He will stand naked in the shower at dawn.

Then it starts to rain like teenagers throwing fistfuls of water against the fired-earth tiles of the roof. The drips start through the spiderwebs. Empty rocking chairs nod with the wind coming off the lake, which is running down the empty streets, looking for open doorways. If the guests were to take showers now, they’d run across the patio, trying to avoid the rain. They run their fans all night long, for the mosquitoes. For the sound.

A dog is echoing somewhere outside. Most of the guests are old. They’re asleep now, or laying awake waiting for drips, listening to the fans.

The man in the rocking chair also whistles. His tongue is a cello bow drawn across a bending handsaw. The flimsy doors are closed. Snoring harmonizes with the rain that harmonizes with the fans. The dog must be stuck on a roof somewhere.

The curtains are thin. The sheets are thinner. And the man who whistles a handsaw is the thinnest of all.

La Arquidiócesis

La Antigua, Guatemala, C.A.

Querido Adán,

I had to stop in for an americano after the experiencia that I've just had, and for that same experience it occurs to me that I should write you. It's true that there is a lot of tourism here in La Antigua, Guatemala, so much that a friend calls it "disneylandía." But the overall effect of wandering, sunburned foreigners, hostels and internet cafés is but a veneer––similar to the veneer of gringo culture that I've described as covering the southwest U.S. There are murmurings here in the still-rough streets. There is blood in the adobe of the collapsed churches. These are things that globalization can't touch. Sure, they gutted a colonial building and installed a puto McDonald's inside, leaving only the historic façade. In the end, it will matter little. Globalization's supposed danger is also its weakness––it is quick to spread, but stays shallow. Even as free trade agreements seek to change the course of Guatemala's history, they can do little against a volcano.

I'm thinking of the ephemeral nature of human civilization today, Adán. The experience that I mentioned at the opening of this letter has given me a good shake-up. Centroamérica is land of earthquakes and volcanoes, hence the shake-up. This city in particular has been hit so many times by earthquakes that the government decided to call it quits in the 18th century: they up and moved the capital to more stable ground, to what is now la Ciudad de Guatemala. Hence, this city became the "Antigua" Guatemala." Until the time of independence, it was nearly completely forgotten and abandoned.

Which, again, is a long intro (I'm one for long intros, no?) to the experience at hand: wandering the ruins of La Arquidiócesis de Guatemala, a giant cathedral ravaged by earthquakes. Soaring cupolas with their middles fallen out: standing below them and staring straight up, they form a decaying picture frame around the shifting clouds rolling off the volcano. The centers of arches have fallen to the ground, laying giant where pews once were, where exotic weeds now are. This is the leftovers of human civilization, immediately making it clear that nothing we do is permanent in the sense that we hope it will be.

The whole scene gets more complex when I start to think about what we were talking about in front of El Palacio de Cortéz that day in Cuernavaca: that nearly all churches in Hispanic America are built on indigenous holy sites and are constructed of the rocks of dismantled temples. Ritual remix in conquest, I think we called it. In the case of the Arquidiócesis, there are steps near the front of the main chamber which lead down into a smoke-filled crypt. Nine steps, somehow relating to the Mayan view of the underworld and its relation to the world of men. Candles are still kept burning here, hence the thick smoke that scarcely allows one to make out the dimensions of the chamber.

And who, querido Adán, has been buried here? Noneother than Pedro de Alverado, el conquistador de Centroamérica. Also his wife, killed a few years after him by torrential flooding. Still more impressive to my artsy-fartsy sensibilities is that Bernal Díaz del Castillo is also buried here. He was an early 17th century author that gave us what is the first approximately "peoples' history" of the Americas. He broke with the official line with "La Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de las Américas," which is a first person account written in response to the other histories which primarily concern themselves with glorifying Cortéz. Sometime-professors like me still use "La Verdadera Historia" in trying to teach the history of this continent. Fucking epic to be standing over his bones, carnal.

I then stood in another chamber of the crypt and––taking advantage of a burned-out lightbulb––I studied echoes and reverb for a time. Those rooms go beyond echo and let linger a solid tone, man. I've never heard anything like it.

Then I left and got a Happy Meal, which I ordered by shouting English at the Mayan descendant working the register.

Te mando un abrazo,


Arizona Freeway Sunrise

The grasses are always dancing in the median,
headbangers, seed sowers, dry spines twisting.
Freeway flowers face early decapitation—
guillotine tirewind, lit by skyfire:
here the sun is literally a star,
made of beaten copper, sharp, imperfect.
As the star pulls itself up again, 
the sky goes streaked, the improbable
pattern of yellow-red, vivid. 
The radio stations are just murmurs in the static.
The cities hide behind the horizons.
The tires break grass necks.
The flowers throw themselves
like colorful, suicidal philanthropists
into the eastbound, into the westbound.
Saguaro shadows are twirling sundials
on the clock face of burning sand,
they tick, they spin, they speak
until they’re spoken to, torn down,
paved over, left in piles, sold.
The rush, the hush, 
the hiss of wind and the
immutable silence of light. 
The piston explosions,
the cellphone syllables.
Two realities in the same moment.
Two landscapes that never touch.
Arizona freeway sunrise.
A breeze blowing through barbwire.

Amanecer en carretera de Arizona

Los pastos siempre bailan en el camellón,
de atrás para adelante, esparcen la semilla, sus secas espigas se tuercen.
Las flores de carretera enfrentan temprana decapitación;
viento-guillotina de llantas, iluminadas por el fuego del cielo:

aquí el sol es literalmente una estrella
hecha de cobre forjado, puntiaguda, imperfecta.
Mientras la estrella se levanta de nuevo,
bandas cruzan el cielo, el improbable
patrón de amarillo-rojo, intenso.
Las estaciones de radio sólo son murmullos en la estática.
Las ciudades se esconden detrás de los horizontes.
Las llantas rompen cuellos del césped.
Las flores se arrojan
como coloridos y suicidas filántropos
hacia el este, hacia el oeste.
Las sombras de los saguaros son manecillas
que giran sobre el cuadrante de la arena hirviente,
hacen tictac, giran, hablan hasta que se les habla,
derribados, asfaltados, apilados, vendidos.
La prisa, la calma, el silbar del viento y el silencio
inalterable de la luz. Las explosiones de pistones,
las sílabas de celulares.
Dos realidades en un mismo instante.
Dos paisajes que jamas se tocan.
Amanecer en carretera de Arizona.
Una brisa silbando entre alambre de púas.

Trad. de J. Emilio Rodríguez

The old man rides an old bicycle

The old man rides an old bicycle in slow rhythm along the bay, on his way home to his wife after watching the technicolor sunset on the old dock. "¿De qué año es su bicicleta?" I ask him as he peddles by me. "Tiene 50 años," he says, smiling as he stops the bike next to me.

"¿Es un tipo Schwinn?" I ask, being into this type of thing.

"No, se llama Super Rex," he tells me, and pulls out of the breast pocket of his half-open cotton shirt the ancient registration card, which is paperclipped to his carné de identidad. "El gobierno me dio este papel pero como no saben escribir bien pusieron 'suder res.'" We laugh.

He asks me where I'm from. "Oh!," his eyes flush with emotion as he folds up his thick glasses. "I lived for five years there! In New York! Nineteen Fifty Five until Nineteen Sixty. But I think, not because I'm Cuban, that here, Cienfuegos, has the most beautiful sunsets in the world."

"Looked pretty good to me," I tell him.

"How do you like Cuba?"

"Me facina," I say, smiling.

"The same for me in New York," he smiles too. "I love my country," he says the words slowly, as if describing an ache, "but this situation here... it's not good. I stay against my will because I love my country. But this system doesn't work."

"I agree with you," I tell him. I realize he only has the courage to say these things because we are speaking in broken English. By this time we've stopped walking and we're leaning close to each other. He starts laughing.

"I must go," he says, "my wife is waiting for me. It was a pleasure to talk to you and practice my broken English."

"For me too. Tell your wife I say hello and take care."

"Ok, goodbye."

The Cuban Writers' Union


Some writers working for the state
have clandestine dreams of smuggling
out a manuscript to the presses
of the capitalist world.

Others just rearrange the same adjectives
around the words revolución and Fidel
because Customs has long forbidden the importation
of new words into Cuba,

so the remaining writers
are like everyone else in this country,
making do, shuffling the same broken puzzle pieces,
searching for new endings.

The writers here are just like the men
who sit on the sidewalks behind dirty wooden stands, injecting
new aerosol breath into old disposable lighters
and the womens’ fine hands in the relojería,
fixing old watches with skill,
then searching for the hour
to set the watches by, the hour
that this country lost long ago.


On the edges of this living city there are piles
upon piles of all the abandoned thoughts,
dirty and wet, buzzing with flies,
putrid in the tropical sun.

And there are coasts
where the government allows no one to swim
because there too they have dumped all the aborted
ideas of the island, coasts
where the waves mumble unintelligible promise
and people stop on the seawalk to gaze at the hollow horizon.
Sometimes the weight of their unintended sighs
is enough to push the cool breeze back out to sea.

Here for every kilo of true creativity
the streets are polluted with a hundred liters of tears.
Maybe it’s no wonder that the bookshops
read like the dictator’s personal library
and all the true writers sit in buildings
about to collapse, trying to inject new breath
onto thin sheets of cheap paper, while others
have stopped writing altogether, and spend
their days folding their quota of paper into airplanes
which they bring down to the shore
and toss into the sea, hoping they’ll catch
the warm propulsion
of an entire nation sighing.

The world has gotten so small
that now there’s no more room
in the oceans for so many bottles
containing the words of so many trapped peoples.
The few boats that do manage to leave
set sail to the deafening sound of shattering glass
and sinking letters. No more messages, no bottles.
Here in Cuba all the writers know better than to trust
the sea, they study the sky, trying to guess the hour
and the best flight plans for paper airplanes.

Todos Santos, Presentes


Three hours of chicken bus, blasting
radio, excessive horn, half pavement, half
dirt, half sky, blue diesel thunderclouds
hanging over my head, guitar between
my knees, trash thrown out the window,
climbing out of Huehue shitsville, seventy
people in a school bus, three to a seat,
ropa típica, bright pants, sleeping heads
swaying, smiling children, dirty diapers,
drunks stumbling in front of the grill
with lost eyes, more horn, silver teeth,
bicycles faster than busses, walls made
out of stacked rocks and yucca, sheep
and slingshot children, mercado sábado,
broken accelerator, broke down bus,
mumbled prayers, start again.

Dicen que nadie es profeta en su propia
tierra. Che, Emiliano and Jesus have each
earned the right to have their faces made
into stickers and stuck at the front of the
colectivo bus.