17 Santa Cruz Poets — The 17th Annual National Poetry Month - 2012 PreviousNextHome


Doren Robbins

Doren Robbins

About Doren:

DOREN ROBBINS has published nine collections of poetry, most recently, Amnesty Muse (Lost Horse Press). His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Letters, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals.  He has two other recent collections: Driving Face Down (awarded Blue Lynx Prize, Eastern Washington UP 2001) and My Piece of the Puzzle Eastern (awarded PEN West Josephine Miles Poetry Award, Washington UP 2008). He lives in Santa Cruz and teaches Creative Writing, Composition, and Literature at Foothill College.


It's not much better
in the room containing masks.
You have to know them:
the iridescent feathers,
the intense labial shells—
not only the dominance 
of the lower side, the least
competence, the least excess,
not only the husks or the animal teeth
that also order you around
to serve them. You have to know
masks, and you have to know
when the betrayal is coming,
or is it insight you think you
don't want until you see
the mask below the face,
what doesn't come raised
in recognizable features, acceptable
expressions? You have to be able to read
that too, read how you speak and what
you speak through it. You have to know. 
But what does it do? I think you have to
part away the wood of masks completely,
especially the kind that opens
into another mask: the feathered faces
risen from underneath: story teller's masks.
Feathered. Shell-strung. Others with cheeks
covered up by splayed lower teeth. Absurd
because we don't live with or really care about
animals or the sea, and the hermits inside their shells
don't need us at all. I live without celebrating the old
masks, the story teller's masks, I stand against them,
all masks, really. I think the inward face
isn't enough, or the mask that refers to it.
I want to talk at the instant of the impulse
to attach them, that's all, that's
enough, for now. 

And I catch myself in that room

not looking at them, but only
at the fir wood of
the stand they rest on,
the vertical grain
alert in my mind.
It's dangerous to celebrate masks
too much. And it's not important
that we tend almost with nothing
wood or images
that don't stay long.
You have to know about masks,
then you have to get out quick
and not pay too much attention to them.
Otherwise, you may find it tolerant
to be meek.



to Raphael Escamilla

I always thought if it came down to it I would take off again,
go to the seaport of Tampico and continue that life
of drifting around, working my way as a cook

on a freighter to the Far East. I thought I could just
turn away from the straw through which everything bland
and everything functional swallowed

my forgettable name. I would stand in Tampico ready to leave
the Gulf of Mexico, the surf dark as burnt fat—and the whores,
absurd in their clothes that don't fit them, coming on to me

at the dock. And I would drink and eat with them while feeding
the skinny dogs prowling around the tables for scraps. And I would
admire those dogs because of their persistence, their sharp teeth, their

dexterous paws with unclipped nails. And maybe I would see
Raphael Escamilla in Tampico, that Indian face of his
more feminine than Vallejo's which was itself neither

male nor female―that face uncomplainingly driven along some
high wire without a net.  I would like to have seen again
Raphael Escamilla with that Indian face the clerk looked at impatiently

while he counted  from a roll of singles and fives
that would get his last two sisters smuggled into Mexico.

Out there in Tampico, where my life would
change,  I would like to see Raphael who first put the idea of
cooking on a ship in my mind, who therefore put Tampico in my mind.

Escamilla, whom I was always paired with, working weekends, overtime,
hustling the waitresses, pointing, hinting, and leering at what hung
to the middle of his leg. He said he would've worked his way to Indonesia

if he had to, cooking on a ship, to escape what was happening
in Morazán, to escape los diablos, to escape the university of
the Green Beret, and Immigration. I would like to have seen Raphael

Escamilla again in that moment when he was sending the money back
and he was confident―how could a man not be confident
who hid in a pile of corpses when the National Guard came busting

and poking with rifle butts cracking two of his ribs, and he lay still
not making a sound? I would like to be there watching him count
the money for his two sisters. I would kiss his face, awkwardly

the way males in my family kiss their brothers or fathers, I would kiss
him having thought I would never see him again, glad neither of us
had to end in L.A. for good―as long as it wasn't Morazán or at

the Río Sumpul, but in the seaport of Tampico with our cook's knives
each wrapped deep in a towel―standing at the dock with the whores
in their tight audacious clothes, and the skinny dogs I admire for 

their mindless tenacity, and with Escamilla as I always see him, confident
with that roll of singles and fives, confident as though what he sensed
was coming might not come―even though, I remind him again,

what's coming isn't going to take the least hesitant step
off its course.



He kept hitting rewind listening to Satchmo sing
on the way into the central Valley.
They tried memorizing the sentimental lyric.
The pain in the voice made it sound without flaw.
He kept hitting rewind.
Only she knew that part of him.

You come into Lost Hills, all fruit orchards,
farm labor slaves, striking farm workers’ murdered
ghost memories,

prop plane chemical crop sprayers,
the cheapest workers’ housing,

land-owner cannibals on all sides of the agricultural tracks.
The whole place was Satchmo’s voice.

She went into the gas station mart for pistachios and water.
A rancher with red sideburns to each corner of his mouth
looked at his beard and sunglasses and spat on the asphalt-gravel.
He went into the paper bag, he sweat down his ribs,
he split open an avocado with a pocket knife
and cut the meat out of the shell.
Before Lost Hills, before he hit forty,
he would’ve put the spit back in that asshole’s mouth. Not now.
His instinct now was to taste inside the avocado’s green mound,
the avocado’s metallic ovary, in his mouth, in his Kodak brain.
The longer he lived the more it had to be that way.
She didn’t have that struggle.
She was all gratitude to not have to live through his life again.
The judge, that other man, before he was forty. The fury.
Only she knew that part of him.

He looked down at the avocado skin before tossing it.
He let his eyes rest on the ripe burnt still red stain.
He drank from the river of its inner leather.

Ancheta || Atkinson || Crux || Dancing Bear || Freeman || Glick || Ifland || Moody || Omosupe || Robbins || Sirens || Spencer || Sullivan || Sumrall || Tagami || Teutsch || Weisner
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