2018 Academy of American Poets Prize

serpent crown lined with marrow

by Brandon Melendez
 
 
The Aztecs had eight omens that foretold
the arrival of the conquistadors 
& almost all of them ended in fire.
Orange plume against the moon,
a burning temple & the storm of light
that cleaved the sky. Lake Texcoco 
boiled up & singed Tenochtitlan down 
to the bone. Eventually, a mirror appeared
on an ashen crane. Eventually, war horses
descended from salt & brought with them
a god with skin of abscess. What is the end 
if not a new fire? If not the spectacle of silver
unsheathed for the first time? If not hands that
reach out in awe before vanishing? 
 
                         [::]
 
I reach out in awe before vanishing
into my father’s shoulder. My father vanishes
into a single tremor. I’ve never seen him break
like that: a wave pounding its head against
hospital doors, demanding they spit his father
back out & the man be brought back unmarked
by grief, grayslick & glossed with bloom.
This country tested my grandfather with a knife
of bone, a bottle, an endless unlit street, 
& finally won. I wasted so many years listening 
to his stories before understanding them as history
that must survive us. It’s too late for him
to hear me, I know. But I haven’t stopped trying, 
I’ve only started to name my grandfather. 
 
                         [::]
 
I only started to name my grandfather abuelo 
after he died, Jesús instead of Jess after
he could no longer correct my Spanish.
This is poor magic for resurrection. I cannot
chant Jesús, Jesús as incantation & expect
abuelo to rise three days later. I can practice 
his name until it no longer sounds like an apology.
But it will still be an apology. Music playing 
into an empty room. The room fills with guitarróns,
then fades. Escucha, escucha: somewhere,
the distant thrum of ranchera & a bald man laughs,
swings his brittle hip, & curses his bones 
for their bad memory. A boy refuses to dance 
& he ages; cursing his perfect memory.  
 
                         [::]
 
Cursing his perfect memory for its decay,
my father says childhood is a starved fog. 
Labyrinth of locked doors, if only he saved
the keys. If only he kept a better atlas. He once 
travelled this country to archive its scroll 
& scripture, to carve a space for us. He’s never 
stopped, really. So how far must he go before 
it’s considered exodus? How many people 
must know the story before it’s canon? It’s strange
irony; a historian glutted with so many centuries
that decades start leaving him in the night.
A good son, I memorize his hands, careful
joy, arroyo between resilient teeth, but I am 
a reckless historian, I get ink on all the bones.
 
                         [::]
 
A reckless historian, I get ink on all the bones,
rewrite their stillness as reliquary, mistake 
headstone for gemstone. Forgive me. If my hands 
stop moving they will forget where they learned 
this choreography; how they reach down time’s 
infinite throat & find a spine, a snake. Salvage
its tongue. Forgive me. I was born to my father
already mid-story & I haven’t stopped listening.
As he tells it, there is empire before empire,
history before historia. It starts with a skull
in a jaguar’s unflinching jaw. Crack of stone 
against the mountain. Moctezuma climbs the temple
steps, burns copal. Quetzalcoatl appears at the tree
line. Then, thunder, the smell of gunpowder.
 
                         [::]
 

 

                                   the storm of




                              salt
                                                                 end
                                                           of silver
                                                           hands

I                                              vanish
                                                    My father vanishes




     marked by grief


          country
of bone
                                                                          listen
to                                                                                 history
                       survive us

                                     name my grandfather

                                                                   abuelo

This                          magic for resurrection
chant Jesús                                                 expect
abuelo to rise                                                  practice
                                                                                 apology

into an empty room
                  Escucha
                                 ranchera                                       laughs

                                    A
                                    perfect memory







                                                   for us


                  the story
                              glutted with


joy                                    resilient



rewrite
headstone for gemstone



                                         I was born
             -mid


                                                             crack of


                        thunder


This poem first appeared in Black Warrior Review

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