Hillbilly Transplant: Pondering Park Dominoes and the Death of Celia Cruz

July 16, 2003

In other places, slick, smooth plastic clatter
across family formica tables,
bright white bars and black divots
so round and perfect they might hold
plump orange caviar, a smattering
of pepper and sea salt,
or seat for pungent capers.
But across the burroughs,
in Far Rockaway, Bensonhurst, Washington Heights,
Saturday streets smell of sweet onions,
barbacoa, huancaina, the parks
with their chess tables convert to dominoes,
old Dominican men and Eastern European boys
sit to a game, pieces move in careful
patterns, groups of men on either side
sweat and chatter and gesture.
No language barrier, they speak in forehead slaps
of flawed moves, claps on the back when it’s well done.
Plates of grilled vegetables, brick oven breads
and meats spiced from oceans apart passed
around both sides of the table bring fingers to lips,
groans of appreciation.

There is no shared language for grief,
but there is food, so plates of ropa vieja,
rice and sofrito are laid across the tables,
dominoes put away, heads nod, hips salsa
as Celia Cruz’s smoky voice carries from speakers
across the parks, from parked cars lining Lenox Avenue,
air split with timbale and great belling brass notes,
and even the youngest of European boys grins
and finds the words La Negra Tiene Tumbao,
the old Ukrainian men shout Azucár!
and grasp the forearms of the Cubans,
cheering them when the dominoes
are brought back out, smacking their lips
in approval as they move pieces, clack
and clatter lifting again beneath guitar and claves.

Lisa J. Parker is the author of the 2010 Weatherford Award-winning book This Gone Place and her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Pennsylvania State University, and has been awareded the Randall Jarrell Prize In Poetry, the National Allen Tate Memorial Prize In Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets Prize.

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