John Murillo is a two time Larry Neal Writersí Award winner, a New York Times Poetry Fellow, and Cave Canem alum.
A recent graduate of New York Universityís MFA program in creative writing, his poetry has appeared in such publications
as Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, Lumina, and the anthology, DC Poets Against the War. A former instructor with DCWritersCorps
and coach of Washington D.C.ís 2001 and 2005 National Teen Poetry Slam Teams, John has performed his own work in a wide array of venues,
from the Kennedy Center to the Bowery Poetry Club. This fall, he begins his residency as a Creative Writing Fellow at
the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Three Poems by John Murillo
Hard rain and reggaeton score the night. On this block here,
at this hour, when even alley cats know to keep in shadow, backs
to the wall and ears piqued, the few renegade rain-soaked heads
you come across are here on business. Transactions and sales,
give and take in the marketplace of the moon. If you wait
long enough, they say, you can hear the hellhoundsí bay. The cross-
roads—in the swollen tongue of work-weary bluesmen across
geography and generations—is where youíre standing. Itís here,
they say, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to learn the sweet
secret of conjuring moonlight from string and wood. When back-
roads all seemed to lead to the same place, men fresh from their cells
would come to strike deals on a new start in life, to get ahead.
Take this young boy, JoJo. Fresh out the joint, before heíd head
anywhere near his mamaís house, heíd run straight here. Across
the street from the carryout and check cashing spot, heíll peddle
his rocks to anybody who pushes past. Even little Ebony. Hear
she was prom queen once, drove the young boys crazy back
in the days before JoJo caught hold of her. How the weight
melts from face and neck. How skin cankers, and blood and sweat
crust corners of lips licked only in wet dreams. How she gives head
now by the dumpster behind the church, fucks, how fast five bucks
find their way back to JoJoís hands. And Jesus on a stone cross
watches it all from on high. How it begins, ends, and begins again here.
On the corner. Tonight, rain clouds bruise the sky. JoJo sells
like a man with plans, as if he can buy his way away. Sells
as if he were the first to have such ideas. As if moving weight
wasnít just a new name for an old dream. When his mama was out here,
they used to call it pushing. By the time his daughterís head
can fit its first wig, theyíll be calling it something else. The cross-
roads has seen it all. Seven hundred sixty-two JoJos , JoJoing back
to the days of fire-can crooners, doo-wop daddies and off-key back-
up singers, warming hands and running from the police. As if their cells
were hardwired for trouble, theyíd find new lines to cross and cross
again. And find themselves back on the courtyard, lifting weights.
Or back on cots reading or writing letters, letting dreams cloud their heads
like good ganja. After years locked down, they all end up back here.
Youíve seen how they come back. Years lifting or losing weight,
thugs turned sissy or cell-block Muslim, some with heads
full of schemes to cross the system, some half-dead. But all here.
Santayana, the Muralist
--Los Angeles, California. March 1992.
Outside Chongís liquor store, youíll meet a man
spraying corridos along a facade. He carries the soul
of la raza in his cans, he claims. Hopes to change
the world one wall at a time. His bold blues,
greens, and golds bring to mind the photos you pore
over in National Geographic. Paint caps
dot the sidewalk like spilled Skittles. His Dodgers cap
tilts to one side, more pachuco than painter. This man
aerosols Aztlan across barrio brick for all the poor
to see: Aztec warriors, old Mexican washwomen, dios del sol.
See his lowriders and zoot suiters battle badges and bluev
uniforms. "Sabes que, hombre? Things donít change
much around here. Havenít really changed
since Roosevelt and his American concentration camps."
He fingers the pump on a can of crimson. "Blew
me away when I read about that shit. The white man
points at Hitler and calls him evil? Please! His soul
should burn the way he locked up them Japanese." A poorly
dressed elderly man walks over. Santayana pours
a fistful of nickels into his dingy fedora. Fingers more change
in his other pocket. Gives that away too. The sole
heir to the Rivera legacy—let him tell it—keeps
a buck knife close as skin, but still believes that manís
true nature, "beneath the grime," is gold. His blue
sputters. Coughs. Falls from his hand. "This blue
is the hardest of all to match. With aerosol, you canít pour
and blend like the ancients did with plants and clays. Nowadays a man
gotta mix while he sprays. But that could change
the whole piece. Tu sabes? And the cap
donít really tell whatís inside the can. Kinda like the soul,
que no? You can look beautiful on the outside and your soul
be all fucked up on the inside. How blood drips red, but is blue
in your veins? Canít tell shit from the outside, man." His cap
tilted back, a faded gang tattoo wipes a sweaty brow. He pours
suds down his throat, stares down the sun. "Yep, change
gonna have to come. Or we all gonna be like that old man.
Not only in his pocket, but in his soul, heís poor.
Singing the blues, in fact. But check it: Begging change,
you think the man just means the coins in his cap?"
Itís the bone of a question
Caught in your throat,
The first sighs of the next
Dayís traffic, shoulders
Made fists under the skin.
And say itís raining
This morning. Maybe a car
Lingers at the stop sign
Outside your window.
And maybe you know
This song. How long since
A man you called father
Troubled the hi-fi, smoldering
Newport in hand, and ran
This record under a needle.
How long since a manís
Broken falsetto colored
Every hour indigo. Graying
Beard, callused hands, finger-
Nails thick as nickels. You
Were the boy who became
That man without meaning
To and know now, a manís
Life is never measured
In beats, but beat-downs,
Not line breaks, just breaks.
You hear Marvin fading
Into a new day, and it caresses
You like a brick: Marvin, and men
Like him, have already
Moaned every book
You will never write.
This you know, baby. This
[all poems originally published in Ninth Letter]