For a whole week they spoke habanero — and coconut pottery,
lime squeeze, bright mint walls with piggy pink trim, papaya
lintels and periwinkle roofs, yuba on a goatskin stretched
across a rum-barrel, delight in the bite of night midges,
and fermentation of everything: mauby, pikliz, chicha, pulque.
They believed it was their real life, real language, real food:
primordial, liberating, and they wanted nothing else.
Back home, they stammered.
The language from that magical week
suddenly sounded dense and incoherent.
The food was too hot, too sour, too fierce.
Only upon resuming compliance with familiar
curfews and deadlines, the snipped words and matte
colors of the censor’s list, and flavors in identifiable
shapes, did they accomplish their important tasks.
And their first accomplishment was to abolish
everything carnivalesque and everyone
who reminded them such vivacity was possible.
For they preferred clarity to episodic joy,
assurance to memory, prim food and cautious words
to anything syncopated or too too
Let’s start over — before
there was a before,
the year after before
Christ and before anno Domini —
the Capsicum annuum growing on a shrub
outside Teotihuacan before
the fibula from Praeneste declares in Latin,
Manios me fhefhaked Numasioi, and before
Latin can reclassify chiltepín, the flea pepper,
as the potato pepper — before
Latin begets Spanish begets Latin America, before
the flea pepper seeds the jalapeño, bell, and cayenne.
When fiery seeds spit laughing
on La Calzada de los Muertos upon a dare
turned to a lick was still just a harmless lick,
and there was no one else to be.
The flaming seed grew to a flea.
Steven Ray Smith is the author of a two minute forty second night (FutureCycle Press, 2022). The book was shortlisted for the Steel Toe Book Award in 2020. His poetry has been published in Verse Daily, The Yale Review, Southwest Review, The Kenyon Review, Slice, Barrow Street, Poet Lore, The Hollins Critic and others. He is an assistant editor for THINK: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction, and Essays. More information about his work can be found at StevenRaySmith.com.