LEARNING TO BOX
Summer called for it. Miguel said
to his brothers: What are you
little bitches waiting for?—tossing
the gloves onto the front lawn.
In 8th grade, what Miguel had
I wanted: girls hovering close like kids
to a lit Christmas tree; the ability
to bloody a boy in one swing. The yard
became a ring. No bell or timer. Just us
and his brothers, yanking the gloves up
their skinny arms, lacing them
tight with their teeth, talking shit
between knots. Calling each other
putos like hocking loogies until
our mothers called us in to eat.
Juan was ten. Brian, two years younger,
and not a good listener. You know
how it goes: Brian swings like a carnival ride;
Miguel yells, Keep your hands up
and, You better not cry. That summer
I learned men are born from torn muscle tees,
sharp teeth, and pink scars on smooth faces.
There, motor oil combed over the lawn,
Bud cans crunched sunlight into silver
blades, and sweat slipped along foreheads
like commas between every other word
those boys, desperate to leave kid-dom,
spat out. We didn’t want to stop. Years later,
Miguel would go to juvie for breaking
another boy’s jaw. Police photos of his knuckles
and all his homies proud. Brown boys of July,
bobbing, blocking from getting bombed on.
Swift with a sharp jab. No one told us
we moved with such grace, or that passion
didn’t have to be violent. Then, a long arm
through a target in the air. Brian on his back,
rising before Miguel got there first. I thought
I too could be tough enough, transfer that,
somehow, into a confidence for the girls
of high school Spanish class who knew
only the answers to last night’s homework.
Once, after helping him in with groceries,
Miguel told me how, at Food-4-Less,
a condom slipped from his father’s wallet
at the check-out line. How his father winked
at the cute cashier when he picked it up,
and said to his son, Cuz you never know.
Miguel laughed and I couldn’t tell if he meant it.
What choice did I have then but to wring
laughter through my throat? That summer,
I learned laughter is a type of leaving. Maybe
that’s not what we wanted. But if our mothers
called us in for dinner, we stopped hearing them.
The lights came on around us, inside each house
on our block. And we just stayed there. Laughing,
shouting, and swinging at the swelling eye
of the evening, closing it for good. Not even
our fathers, who approached the doorway
to stare with their arms crossed, but said nothing,
not even they could get us to come back in.
THE PACHUCO’S GRANDSON SMOKES HIS FIRST CIGARETTE AFTER CONTEMPLATING MASCULINITY
Just because I don’t say love
doesn’t mean it doesn’t stir
inside me. I’m too young
to think it brings anything
besides problems—but it’s 2AM
in the donut shop parking lot
and Diana’s smoking. I don’t care
for any. I sip hot cocoa, I devour
a bear claw. A night this quiet means
my homies are elsewhere, leaving me
unfolded. Diana and me, we have this
game: If you could be anything else,
what would it be? I’ve been waiting
for her. Her kissing lips blow smoke.
I’ve been the moon. I’ve been a coyote
on a hillside, howling at myself. Finally
she says, Cactus, and turns to exhale
away from us. I know why, I start
but stop. She socks me anyway, because
it’s true. I imagine needles on a plant
that also blooms flowers. What men teach
boys to be, girls witness as well. We want
no one to know us. But here we are.
Diana reaches for her pack, passes me one
I decide to take. Lighter in her hand, cigarette
like a flag planted between my lips. Tonight,
what country does my body belong to?
I hear the hornblare of a distant train
neither of us can see, and I want to be it, too.
I want to be here, with her, and far away. Alone,
and unquestioned, with my homies. And if
there is a word for what it is I am, it stirs
in my gut, I assure you. Diana spins the wheel
into fire, wraps a hand around the flame.
Holds it there. What did I know
how to build except something between
myself and the world? I’ll get close.
I’ll stay there longer than I should,
long enough for her to see me in this light.
STOP LOOKING AT MY LAST NAME LIKE THAT
Nothing in my life was crooked or broken.
Or potholed. Not haggard or tired. Not poor
and unfortunate. Nor merely lucky. No one’s
father returned from work with calloused palms
every evening. No one got to where they were
in life with the help of a new-to-the-area teacher,
who stopped at nothing until our dreams came
to fruition. Please. Our parents paid for those
university tours. On weekends, we went out
like families do. The zoo, science museums.
Summers, my parents said I love you, leaving me
at camp where I earned badges spinning twigs
until sparks spilled out. In September, no one
came to class with torn or tattered clothes.
No one got beat up for being less than. Please.
Boyhood was a ballad. Our parents sang
when they bathed our brothers. No one
became what this world carved out of desperation.
When it rained, we got picked up from school.
At home, a change of clothes on our beds. Yes,
we all had our own beds. Yes, each of us had
our own room, as well. We made boats
out of egg cartons. There were no gunshots
or helicopters to stop us from sailing those ships
along the curb’s current. With the world ahead,
we opened our small yellow umbrellas,
some sudden burst of sunlight to walk right into.
-from AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF NAMES (Beacon Press) selected by Spring 2023 Guest Editor, Gerard Robledo
Michael Torres is a VONA distinguished alum and CantoMundo fellow. In 2016 he received his MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato, was a winner of the Loft Mentor Series, received an Individual Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and was awarded a Jerome Foundation Research and Travel Grant to visit the pueblo in Jalisco, Mexico where his father grew up. In 2019 he received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and The Loft Literary Center for the Mirrors & Windows Program. A former Artist-in-Residence at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France as well as a McKnight Writing Fellow, he is currently a 2021-22 Jerome Hill Artist Fellow.
His first collection of poems, AN INCOMPLETE LIST OF NAMES, (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020, and was featured on the podcast Code Switch.
His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2020, The New Yorker, POETRY, Ploughshares, Smartish Pace, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Georgia Review, The Sun, Water~Stone Review, Southern Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The McNeese Review, MIRAMAR, Green Mountains Review, Forklift, Ohio, Hot Metal Bridge, The Boiler Journal, Paper Darts, River Teeth, The Acentos Review, Okey-Panky, Sycamore Review, SALT, Huizache, online as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week, on The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith.
Michael was born and brought up in Pomona, CA, where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. Currently, he teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.