Mouths Full of Flowers



A bouquet of squash blossoms will disappear by lunch, their orange flowers pinched from the green, minced into quesadillas and eggs.


The fifteen-year-old poses, hands full of marigolds and carnations, chrysanthemums that echo the pattern of her dress, a bright textile from Oaxaca’s coast. Tonight, she will receive her first bouquet of roses, will dance with her father. Will dance as if she is still his little girl.


Even aphids could not deter my own father from deadheading the roses to devour them stop iceberg lettuce. Alarmed, sister and I worried about insects and poisons.

He tasted good dirt, the right mix of shade and desert sun.


The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers. ~Basho



Maybe it is because you’ve spent twenty days alone, but you see your sister’s cat everywhere in Oaxaca; he’s unmistakably smoking a pipe, posed with a storm cloud above his head.

Some days you write home to see if you are still real.

One afternoon, your mother slyly offers: you’re as real as your sister’s cat.

So, still, you have no answers.


  • What does it mean to be alone? For a week? For a month? In your home? In a foreign land?

Alone for a Week


I washed a load of clothes

and hung them out to dry.

Then I went up to town

and busied myself all day.

The sleeve of your best shirt

rose ceremonious

when I drove in; our night-

clothes twined and untwined in

a little gust of wind.


For me it was getting late;

for you, where you were, not.

The harvest moon was full

but sparse clouds made its light

not quite reliable.

The bed on your side seemed

as wide and flat as Kansas;

your pillow plump, cool,

and allegorical. . . .

I Have Wasted My Life


You grab the blind man, wrapping your left arm under his right to shuttle him to the spot where a flower is painted on the blue wall.

He knows you by the scent of your shampoo and your silence. You don’t doubt your Spanish will sound worse given his heightened senses just as you know you’d waste time announcing yourself. The breeze told him you were behind him a block before you even noted his hat.

How much sharper would your senses be if you weren’t watching the pomegranates ripen on their trees, if you couldn’t see the swallows scavenge for rice, if you didn’t waste entire mornings trying to precisely name the sky’s blue?






you have journeyed with intensity. You should regret nothing, neither hours waiting for buses without schedules nor long evenings vigilant for summer’s abundant rains to pass.

Traveler, these are the reminders that the roads zig and zag and, by design, demand you rest enough to be rested, ready to throw yourself into the next and the next glorious adventure.

Traveler, you have taken every opportunity to sense this place, looked into the eyes of the children, the animals, the weather.

You can predict what comes next in the afternoon’s plot, you have done your job, you know this story, their story, by heart.


Listen to this piece, and write to yourself about your own travels.


The Synthesis of Hyacinths and Biscuits


On the plaza where the artists show fresh pieces and work while you select your favorite recollection of your travels, you find: a gallery’s worth of lovers positioned on park benches entirely unaware of the surreal gigantic ladies floating in space close by and as naked as stars.

The canvases are wild with color as if these ladies sail on Zapotec rugs; traditional landscapes feature this valley in the rainy season: Mexican green grasses and hills and nothing grazing, not a single dusty goat.

These plains are plain.

Three Oaxacan sky blue sheets of plywood overflow with insects as terrifying as a nightmare you had as a child: wasps swarming darkness and your pillow.

No one smiles in portraits. Not even the lovers. It is as if no artist has mastered the fine art of teeth.

A still life seems to spill from an upset bowl, pomegranates defy gravity, a flute of champagne has mostly vanished. In another composition, voluptuous pears and golden peaches march as soldiers, led by one green grape. Or, they are a symphony with a grape conductor. Either way they are loud and in motion.

Of course, you are neither surprised by the entwined lovers nor the magic.

Even the charcoal wooly mammoth in a parade with a band along the Alcala pedestrian avenue makes sense. You have seen her yourself.

  • “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits…and echo asking a shadow to dance.” –Carl Sandburg

What kinds of strange combinations can you imagine? Offer us the most surreal synthesis to make magic.


In Spanish class, my second teacher asks me about the intricate, creative lessons my first teacher plans for me. And then he says he has prepared nothing, but there are two words on the whiteboard, leftovers from the last lesson, and I am welcome to take one.
He recommends tela, fabric, and says, okay; write.
I think, yes, it is really that easy to just go, no fancy instructions are necessary (though they are appreciated).
I want to take a side route and get all of the cliches out of my system, the fabric of life bits that float to the surface of this broad prompt.
The hard thing about writing in Spanish is the limitation on my words and what I have the capacity to narrate.
In Oaxaca fabric stores line one of the streets off the zocalo. I am often drawn into these labyrinthine businesses as hummingbirds seek petunias, impatiens, day lilies, and lupines.
I do not know the names of these flowers in Spanish. Thus, they are banished from the poem. And, I’m off in search of another inspiration that will match the 20% claim I have on this language. I assess the value at 20% because people consistently ask me to quantify my language knowledge in these terms, something i go along with (therefore, reporting 20%), but I insist it is absurd.
Even if I really did know 20% of the language, my lack of knowledge of idioms and culture would cause me to register at a negative number (-40% or something equally preposterous).
The dictionary guesses I want Portuguese and reports that tela is screen. I think of telanovellas (soap operas), the television screen, and the broad cloth that makes a movie screen like my teacher’s white board that contains this broad prompt and that becomes its own large cloth, like a sail, to send me off into the ocean to sail.
  • “The fabric of existence weaves itself whole.” –Charles Ives

How does “way lead on to way,” as Frost warned/reminded in “The Road Not Taken,” how does the fabric seem to weave itself?


During English class in Arrazola, we played with cootie catchers* to practice the future tense: you will find your true love: you will find satisfying work.
I did not know what the word cootie was. It turns out to be lice (and that’s a whole different conversation, involving lice eggs). Anyway, I said, it’s what my mother told me boys have.
And one of my students, impatient and confused, politely inquired, “Excuse me, do you mean a dick?”
Certainly blushing, I said, “I can see how you arrived at this question, but no, the word I am looking for is lice, piojo.
The young man’s fortunes were hilarious (mis)fortunes (perhaps curses): you will be eaten by a shark, you will lose your job, you will have ten sons. I asked why he hadn’t added “you’ll be bald and toothless.”  He simply lacked the vocabulary, not the cruelty.
We were still laughing about this activity when my friend, who’d arranged this exchange, arrived and commented that the terraza had been filled with laughter all afternoon.
We agreed but dared not offer any explanation.
Instead, we laughed some more.

* A cootie catcher is also known as a fortune teller, a chatterbox, and because of its appearance, a salt cellar (picture it upside down), a whirlybird, and a paku-paku (think Pac Man).

  • Show how misunderstanding can lead to hilarity. Show what happens when our limitations in vocabulary and/or understanding can lead us to great laughter.