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About this poet

In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area. Involved with gangs at the age of 11, he had lost 25 of his friends by the time he turned 18. His autobiographical account, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone, 1993), received The Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.

His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger : New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Press, 2005); Trochemoche (1998); The Concrete River (1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (1989), which received San Francisco State University's Poetry Center Book Award.

He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children's book, entitled América Is Her Name. He currently resides in California and manages the Tia Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.

The Concrete River

Luis J. Rodríguez
We sink into the dust,
Baba and me,
Beneath brush of prickly leaves;
Ivy strangling trees--singing
Our last rites of locura.
Homeboys. Worshipping God-fumes
Out of spray cans.

Our backs press up against
A corrugated steel fence
Along the dried banks
Of a concrete river.
Spray-painted outpourings
On walls offer a chaos
Of color for the eyes.

Home for now. Hidden in weeds.
Furnished with stained mattresses
And plastic milk crates.
Wood planks thrust into
                thick branches
                serve as roof.
The door is a torn cloth curtain
                (knock before entering).
Home for now, sandwiched
In between the maddening days.

We aim spray into paper bags.
Suckle them. Take deep breaths.
An echo of steel-sounds grates the sky.
Home for now. Along an urban-spawned
Stream of muck, we gargle in
The technicolor synthesized madness.

This river, this concrete river,
Becomes a steaming, bubbling
Snake of water, pouring over
Nightmares of wakefulness;
Pouring out a rush of birds;
A flow of clear liquid
On a cloudless day.
Not like the black oil stains we lie in,
Not like the factory air engulfing us;
Not this plastic death in a can.

Sun rays dance on the surface.
Gray fish fidget below the sheen.
And us looking like Huckleberry Finns/
Tom Sawyers, with stick fishing poles,
As dew drips off low branches
As if it were earth's breast milk.

Oh, we should be novas of our born days.
We should be scraping wet dirt
                with callused toes.
We should be flowering petals
                playing ball.
Soon water/fish/dew wane into
A pulsating whiteness.
I enter a tunnel of circles,
Swimming to a glare of lights.
Family and friends beckon me.
I want to be there,
In perpetual dreaming;
In the din of exquisite screams.
I want to know this mother-comfort
Surging through me.

I am a sliver of blazing ember
                entering a womb of brightness.
I am a hovering spectre shedding
                scarred flesh.
I am a clown sneaking out of a painted
                mouth in the sky.
I am your son, amá, seeking
                the security of shadows,
                fleeing weary eyes
                bursting brown behind
                a sewing machine.
I am your brother, the one you
                threw off rooftops, tore into
                with rage--the one you visited,
                a rag of a boy, lying
                in a hospital bed, ruptured.
I am friend of books, prey of cops,
                lover of the barrio women
                selling hamburgers and tacos
                at the P&G Burger Stand.
 
I welcome this heavy shroud.
I want to be buried in it--
To be sculptured marble
In craftier hands.

Soon an electrified hum sinks teeth
Into brain--then claws
Surround me, pull at me,
Back to the dust, to the concrete river.

Let me go!--to stay entangled
In this mesh of barbed serenity!
But over me is a face,
Mouth breathing back life.
I feel the gush of air,
The pebbles and debris beneath me.
"Give me the bag, man," I slur.
"No way! You died, man," Baba said.
"You stopped breathing and died."
"I have to go back!...you don't
           understand..."

I try to get up, to reach the sky.
Oh, for the lights--for this whore
                of a Sun,
To blind me. To entice me to burn.
Come back! Let me swing in delight
To the haunting knell,
To pierce colors of virgin skies.
Not here, along a concrete river,
But there--licked by tongues of flame! 

From The Concrete River, published by Curbstone Press. Copyright © 1990 by Luis J. Rodríguez. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

From The Concrete River, published by Curbstone Press. Copyright © 1990 by Luis J. Rodríguez. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Luis J. Rodríguez

Luis J. Rodríguez

By the age of 11, poet Luis J. Rodríguez was involved in gangs; he used his personal experience to author several collections of poetry and a memoir