Tula by Chris Santiago

Chris Santiago reads five poems from his debut collection, Tula, published in December by Milkweed Editions.


Because my son thinks I am a citadel—
soundproof. A repository. 

Because horsing around at bedtime he pierced
my cochlea with a pencil. 

The first time I saw the inner ear
I thought it looked like a little life, thriving 

but not yet big enough
for me to feel for it any kind of empathy. 

By what were such things fed?
Would it overgrow its carapace 

& make of the body a coppered bell?
And then I was sixteen & crossing 

Saint Paul with my father. A seashell
in his pocket which for his own reasons 

he refuses to wear. He can’t hear
the Chicano keeping pace behind us, 

lean & loose-limbed,
clucking, “Gooks, gooks.” 

For years, he’d sat a little further from us
each night at the dinner table 

hollowed out by the roll of stock tickers
all through his graveyard hours. 

It’s a remarkable machine
the nurse slides into my ear canal, built 

to detect lies & arrhythmia & the trembling
of incalculable tranches of earth. 

I pulled his pace toward mine but declined
to parse his solitude for him—planes 

of salt-haloed stone refusing
to let footfalls cut to their holdings.



An immigrant’s son
I have ears like the blind. 

Music comes easily;
night frightens me. 

Home late from the hospital, she comes to my door—
I fake sleep. 

She sings a soothing song
in the language I never learned: 

prayers against rain.
Catalog of mythic birds. 

As many names for music
as English has for theft. 

Using them I invent
a country with only two citizens. 

The word I choose for mother
sounds like the one for dream.


 [Island of Fault Lines] 

It was Tōjō.
It was McKinley.
It was Mauser & Krag
& Arisaka & three hundred years
of brands & chalices. It was rain
& the collarbones of women
bloomed by heat & miscegenation.
It was shoes.
It was corrugated iron.
It was homegrown & inequitable.
It was nephews, friends of friends, the good
life that wanted to keep on keeping.
It was smokeless.
It was capital.
It was the logic of the emerging
global market.
It was ramping up.
Bleeding. The prepared-for guest
called away across the water.
It was called across the water
but still it was not American.
It followed this form: a. wandering
b. acceptance c. cast out again.
It was hungry. It went to meetings.
It spent a tenth of a day’s wages to dance
with Riot & Exclusion.
It was not American.
It learned how to swim
but could still remember not knowing how to swim
& drowned.
It was evening.
It sat at the bottom of the Pacific & listened
to its eyes being eaten.


Night Letter to Rilke

Roses, you said, are ruthless in their desire
under so many lids 

to be no one’s sleep. So you left Ruth
& went walking 

barefoot through empty castles
to feel around you the silence 

grow wider. But there’s always an upbeat.
Always the strung readiness 

of knowing that someone might cry out
& who will hear it 

if not us. When I saw his new torso
suffused with purple light 

as though not our son after all
but an organ—a heart 

I’d sung into each night
before they cut him out looking big & angry— 

I knew I must change my life. How badly
you wanted to feel your own death 

to account cell by cell
for your own body’s passing. 

Is that so different from enduring the most menial
of tasks, the grind 

& counterweight, the tedium & vigilance
of seeming to be a god? 

Isn’t the preparation to be abandoned
also the prick of the bodied life, 

the left arm swelling first,
then the right, finally the body 

reduced to a bell?


A Year in the Snow Country 

                                        Later I married, in
the careless zoning of the American West,
the sense of not only all the time in the world but
the space too.
                             Amid the sun-struck strip malls
of Torrance & Gardena we found markets
that smelled like Tohoku’s:
stalls with stewing pork-bone broth;
skate & mackerel bright
with brine & ice; flags
of komachi rice bento’d
& bloodshot with umeboshi: & daikon
cut down to spindles—
                                        radishes I’d seen
grow long as oars
washed white of earth & draped
to dry from the eaves of farmhouses;
roofs thatched of water reed
winter-cut & singed to strong
stems, steep-sloped against one hundred
and eighty days of powder & drizzle; all that rain
& reckless growth—
                              grated, to help my mother-in-law,
a fierce & endless task
to produce a mere garnish, mild as apple,
pinched raw with cheek
of blackened pike; this side of
root & accumulation.


From Tula by Chris Santiago (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Chris Santiago. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org