They spoke habanero

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

exquisite.

Before

Let’s start over — before

there was a before,

year 0, 

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.

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