Tony Robles

SOUL MEDICINE

Barbeque and corn bread and greens made by black hands. Adobo and rice eaten with thick brown fingers. A handwritten love note with a #2 pencil. A street sax blowing colors across the sky. Tortillas and rice and beans and abuelitas’ voices rising through rooftops. Murals on our skin, wet with our stories, our lives, our revolution. Palleteros pushing cool cool cool flavors that paint the tongue a picture of community, finger painted portraits of our dreams. Grandpa with a wrinkled racing form, transistor radio broadcasting voices of spirits dancing, splashing like flowers in the throats of babies. Wrinkled photos and longhand notes written illegibly legible on the palm lines of leaves. A belly full of pork noodle soup. Familiar faces on Frisco streets. Terry on the corner of 7th St selling slow jam CD’s—Delfonics, Isley Brothers, Dramatics. Nella planting collard greens and kale and everything that is good, her brown Filipino hands offering her gifts from the soil in the Tenderloin. Stories written in Russian rye bread. Rice noodles whipping around block after block of the TL, Dreams fermenting on the corner of Turk and Larkin. Black voices that never die. Samoan church food passed from hand to hand, elder to child, heart to heart. Sacks filled with Chinese vegetables. Fish eyes looking through tanks as rivers flow down Chinatown streets. My grandmother’s cane that kept our unstable world stable as she walked to and from St. Patricks Church on Mission. Mission Street palm trees that tell us home isn’t too far and can be heard in the conga drum that dreams of freedom from the pawn shop. Fog horns moanin’ wetness as the sun breaks though for the first time over and over again in my city.
 
 
INCHOATE (For Lou and Oscar)

In Banaue
In a hotel
In a rice terrace

We have lived a bit,
Some reaching
Manong stage

But somehow the
Seedlings inside
Are ready to sprout

Into laughter
Into memory
Into debate

And we discussed the
Meaning of the word
“Inchoate”

How does one
Pronounce such
A word?

Lou pronounces it
With an emphasis
On the “CH”, as in
Lechon

Oscar pronounces it
The way of the
Dictionary

As
“In-Coh-ate”

(Or in Kuwait)

Inchoate
Definition: Just begun and not so fully developed

Which was how a
Literary critic of
Note described
Filipino literature

Always in its
Embryonic
Balut-like stage

And we are in
Banaue walking
The rice terraces
That were developed
Over thousands
Of years

We watch those
Terraces, seeing
The terrain

Our balance
Fully developed
On the streets
Of america

With potholes
And cracks
That we somehow
Learned to navigate

Until it
Became
Second nature

And we walk those
Terraces with a grace
(And style) that is
Ours to claim

Hardly inchoate

Developing further
Our feelings
And words
That we define

One rice terrace
Step at a time
 
 
BLUE AMPALAYA

Nothing grows in
This room but
Debts
Swallows of beer
And stretches of
Time bending both ways

Stretched out
Waiting for the
Darkness to cover
Makati

And the elevator
Defies gravity

Sometimes
Failing

And we climb
The walls with our
Eyes as houseflies
Scale impossibilities

And she came
And spoke about
The ampalaya that
Her Lola grows

And things started
Growing in the
Room

And her tongue
Tells ampalaya
Stories

Her ampalaya
Eyes turn the
Soil over in my
Mind

And the fresh
Sweet ampalaya
Grows, its perfume
Leaving traces on
My skin

She speaks of
Slicing the backs of
Fish and filling them
With mountain vegetables

She says she
Doesn’t like her
Ampalaya nose

She says it’s
Ugly

But everything in
This room grows
Since she arrived

In this
Short

Season
 
 
WHITE AMERICAN (A deli counter encounter)

The customer approaches
the counter

She looks as if she
has had more than her share
of trips to the make up
counter

I offer her a
hello to go with my
brown face

Working the deli
counter, slicing turkey,
ham, salami, pastrami
chicken and cheese

scooping potato salad,
cole slaw and ambrosia

I want White American
she says

a half pound

White American? I ask

Cheese, she replies

I search the meat
case

I search and search
and come upon it

White American
cheese

I had been somewhat
familiar with the government
variety, a big block with an
orange tint

I didn’t know White American
cheese existed and I am
thankful for the extended
education I am receiving from
the deli that employs me

I slice that
block of cheese

White American

Wrap it with
my brown hands

in plastic

to go with the
words: Thank you, come again
 
 
THE LOFT

In the Blue Ridge Mountains
of North Carolina far away
from blue Hawaii, the voice of
Elvis comes through the speakers
as you work your first day in
the kitchen

“When My blue moon turns to gold again”

Through a hiss of static
The boss says, slice the potatoes
while chomping quickly on a
Barbecued rib

the potatoes sit on the counter
like shapeless Buddha’s
one by one you put them through
the slicer

fresh chips to go
with burgers

The thinly sliced potatoes
resemble tongues submerged
in slightly murky water

next are the onions,
purple, cutting the tops
and running through
the slicer

plum colored tears
well up in your eyes

the cheese is next,
a cut above the
government variety

and you shave slices
from that block of orange,
tears still in your eyes
wondering if you’ll lose
a finger or hand in
the slicer

How would you write
Poems?

On the shelves above
are thyme, basil, oregano,
Balsamic vinegar
soy sauce, chopped scallions,
Chili flakes, Dijon mustard
sesame see oil, Worcestershire
sauce and a bottle of 4 Monks
cooking sherry

close by sits some white
wine in a cardboard box,
a spout on the front

You look for a dimple
of moon in the darkening
sky while contemplating turning
the spout and letting it fall
into your gaping mouth

Elvis’ voice fades
and you cut and slice
with the discipline

of a monk


Tony RoblesTony Robles, “The People’s Poet” was born in San Francisco and is the nephew of Filipino-American poet, historian and social justice activist Al Robles. He was a shortlist nominee for poet laureate of San Francisco in 2017 and the recipient of the San Francisco Arts Commission individual literary artist grant in 2018. His two books of poetry and short stories, Cool Don’t Live Here No More: A letter to San Francisco and Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike (both published by Ithuriel’s Spear Press) take on the issues of eviction, gentrification and police violence in communities of color. He is also the author of two children’s books, Lakas and the Manilatown Fish and Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel, published by Children’s Book Press and Lee and Low. Based in North Carolina, Tony was named the 2020 Carl Sandburg Writer-in-Residence and is currently pursuing his MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Link to Table of Contents