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


Jeff Tagami

Jeff Tagami

About Jeff:

JEFF TAGAMI is the author of October Light, a collection of poetry, and has co-edited four anthologies, including Without Names and Monterey Poets and Writers (Quarry West).  His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies; he has read for the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. He has also been a featured poet on NPR radio.  In addition, he reads and lectures at universities on the West Coast and Hawaii.  Jeff is one of sixty American poets to be featured in the PBS film The United States of Poetry (Washington Square Films). Jeff is a former lecturer at UCSC’s Oakes College, and now teaches Writing, Composition and Literature full-time at Cabrillo College. He is married to poet Shirley Ancheta and they have two sons, Miles and Travis.

Mussel Rock: Low tide, Santa Cruz, California, 1959

Fog lifting above the fields
and the camphouses of many windows.
In a small cove, the families of Filipinos
gather mussels, stooping over rocks
that rise up, dropping, from the low waters.
The girl who suffers from elephantiasis
collects starfish, pushing her enormous legs
from rock to rock.  The boy, who grows old
before our eyes, pokes a stick at the washed-up jellyfish.
He is a tiny, wrinkled man
dressed in the clothes of a child.  Her moves on
to stab the heart of the opening sea anemone.
All the old-time bachelors, off from work,
join the married men on the rocks and loosen,with crowbars,
the clinging mussel shells,
stacking them into burlap sacks.
They are called names that sound like
Cook song, Sip Pee, Cowl Bo, Long Hand, Bar Tick.

Laughter and the clanging of pots
on the beach, the American wives
start up the fires with driftwood
and steam the mussels open. They are happy
in their one-piece bathing suits and hairdos,
their hard liquor and gossip.  When one bends
over the pot, there is a loud popping, and cinders
fly out from the fire.  Then come the squeals
of the other women, pointing to the puckered cup
of her bathing suit where her falsie slipped
out into the flames.

After everyone crowds around the steaming pots
to eat, somebody’s wife makes a joke
about the mussel’s orange vulva lips and black
pubic cilia.  The giggle spreads among the women,
the husbands slurping soup, the timid bachelor
who blushes and the children asking, “What, what?”
Mounds of discarded shells, grandmothers go back
to sunning themselves, peeling their thick nylons
down ankles, children drag branches of balloon-like
seaweed through the sand, fathers and mothers drowse,
arms wrapped around each other.

Sun low on the horizon,
the last door slams shut, packing in all the tired,
the girl clutching starfish to her breast and smelling
of the ocean, the boy, dying of old age, who points
 to the rocks slowly submerging as the waves of his own
hair slowly whiten.  Along the bumpy road, the cars
stir dust that rises and settles on the young heads
of brussel sprouts, on the single men walking home
to their bunkhouse and its windows
burning, now, a brilliant orange.

My Father Takes to the Road

My father, who never owned a new car,
brings a used one home every Friday
from Tom Lawson’s Used Buick.
He takes me along for a test drive,
and I admire the almost new
tuck-and-roll and cherry paint job.
“Are you gonna buy it?” I ask,
forgetting last week’s disappointment,
the station wagon with the fold-down seat,
which fit my seven-year-old body.
“We’ll see,” he coos, teasingly.
Still dressed in his work clothes,
he drives ever so slowly
down the dirt road that divides
the strawberry fields, trying not
to stir up the dust.
I laugh when he steers with no hands.
He points the car west
toward the ocean, the same one
he crossed on a steamer at thirteen,
leaving behind an island boyhood
of bare feet, a bamboo hut with floorboards
 you could see through.
He doesn’t have to say anything.  I already know.
I know my father, who, after a hard day’s work
relishes this drive which must come to an end:
before the hired braceros
return to the bunkhouse
and break into song;
before the hot smell of flour tortillas
permeates the air; before my seven
brothers and sisters are bathed;
before Mr Kralj, the Slavonian landlord,
arrives in his Ford pick-up
to pick up his share,
his half of the week’s profit.
My father, who pushes back the car seat
and unlaces his boots, who will not buy
this car today or any other, is trying
to bear down on the wheel,
is steering with his wide brown feet.


But Susy’s place is clean and she got nice
chairs.  don’t let no goo-goos in, neither.”
          --John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Because George wanted to go to Susy’s
where the girls were clean
and he wouldn’t have to walk around bow-legged afterwards

Because Filipinos were allowed into Clara’s
though she charged more
and watered down the drinks

Because ranch hands
were “the loneliest people in the world”
and so Filipinos must have been lonelier

Because my father performed his own
circumcision at twenty-one in America
so he wouldn’t be different

Because that one Pinoy I heard about
had placed the lit end of a cigar to his penis
so that the cankers might be closed

Because Lennie, the man-child, was impotent
and longed for his own place
though he wasn’t the only one chastised

Because for Filipinos
to own a piece of land
was forbidden by law

Because of what
The Negro stable buck knew about desire
and what Steinbeck didn’t

Because every man
had to lie down in his bunk
and think about it

Because Salinas is only seventeen miles away
though most of those Filipinos are dead
or dying, each to his separate dream

And because they were almost left out, unnoticed
like the bleached telephone poles along this road
bearing messages.

Ancheta || Atkinson || Crux || Dancing Bear || Freeman || Glick || Ifland || Moody || Omosupe || Robbins || Sirens || Spencer || Sullivan || Sumrall || Tagami || Teutsch || Weisner
  Co-sponsored by Poetry Santa Cruz and phren-Z   A publication of Santa Cruz Writes