The Day the Dictator Died

Today we celebrate the death
Of a dictator, and it is your duty,
Bound by blood, to raise a flute
Of champagne poured from one
Of six bottles your grandfather
Stored since fleeing to New Jersey
In the mid-sixties. Now plant the flute
Down on the kitchen counter around
Which all the dead are felt, the dead
For whom your unchurched grandmother
Prays, muttering Afro-Canarian
Names over a Sacred Heart of Jesus
Votive candle, its wax receding
Blood-slow and which she keeps lit
To wick’s end. Your grandmother—
Ever resourceful for fear of scarcity,
Ever efficient, save for those defiant
Second servings at dinner time.

First among the remembrances
Is her brother, recently buried,
Who pamphleteered against Fidel,
Revolution fresh, on factory floors,
Back in the “wait and see” period.
How he was incarcerated until 1980,
Then shipped over the screw-loose
Straits, one among the deplorables.
He never told us what had happened.
It seems he never recovered.
Once he raised a fist to you, demented,
Rum-drunk with the alligator rage
You inherited. When your grandfather
Passes you the polaroid of him just off
The Mariel, a blue-tarp tent pitched
Mid-field in the Orange Bowl,
You see your loaded grin. Michael,
Predisposition is not destiny.

Then there is her youngest brother,
The poet, dead just months before.
Since arriving in the seventies,
He lived alone in a Hialeah trailer
In the shade of a carambola tree.
In season, he would bring star fruit
To my grandmother in smiley-faced
Shopping bags after that long trek
On public transit to Westchester.
She’d cut the star fruit into wedges
Over the sports page and they’d sit
Together at the breakfast nook,
Silent, working through sour fibers,
Listening like a pair of confessors
To the outrage-worn voices
Blaring from exilio talk radio.
He was always so quiet, so thin.
He also had a story never told—
Attempted suicide in his twenties
Is my guess. Michael, why had you
Never asked for the poems he kept
In a battered guitar case under his cot?

You never asked more, ashamed
Of your politics and broken Spanish;
Never asked more about who you are
By way of them, where you’re from
By way of there, the island, where
You’ve never been yet for which you yearn,
The way a zoo-born alligator must yearn
For a wet expanse of sawgrass
It does not know exists, much less
Ever once stirred and stalked for prey.
You never even went over to
Your grandparent’s house that day,
The day the dictator died. Instead,
You stayed home and bemoaned
The little you know of your pedigree,
The little you will ever know of they
Who harbored whole families
On a covenant, found them jobs,
And swore to memory the little
They had and the little you’ll take.
O, Michael, get over yourself.

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