Bronx Poems by Matthew Lee c., 1988-2003

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How Many of the Bronx’ Dreams?

            c. Matthew Lee

Lied about, cried about, bulldozed and rebuilt--
How many of the Bronx’ dreams
Have moved from the shadows?
How many were even said out loud?
Clack clack clack goes the train--
How much pain
Was accepted without words
Or, not caring if it was accepted
Arrived uninvited
And didn’t leave?

How many of the Bronx’ sons
Are in prisons upstate
Or buried nameless on Hunters Island?

Does the air still carry the impression
Of fifth floor apartments, love and arguments
Suspended over these vacant lots?

So I will sing to you the madness of one hundred and sixty first street:
Rathole law offices in old ice factories
Bullpen lineup bullhorn metal detector due process
Oil drum day laborers’ humility.
If you don’t have a green card, if you’ve lost your limbs to negligence
Fear not--scrambled egg justice will take what you have left
Lied about. cried about, bulldozed and rebuilt...

* * * * *

Bronx Ghosts

                 c. Matthew Lee 1998

We are surrounded by ghosts, by vacant lots
Where cheap chop suey joints once stood,
On swamps that Jonas Bronck stole from Indians.

              “Yet I will look upon thy face again,
               My own romantic Bronx,
               And it will be
               A Face more pleasant than the face of men.”

--Joseph Rodman Drake, jotting derivative sonnets
At The Grange in lower Hunts Point. Buried now,
With shattered tombstone, where the American Banana
Company shatters its balsa wood boxes
Which provide heat for homeless day laborers
In gloves with the fingers cut off to allow the hands
To toil for twenty dollars a day
Knee deep in oil and transmission fluid
From stolen, stripped and soon-to-be-crushed cars.
The capitol dome was cast here, I am a vacuum of laws.
Innocencia Casanova, now just a name, sent guns
From here to drive the Spanish out of Cuba.
Here they invented egg cream, here we worshipped Machito.
Here we invented break dancing and rap
The good old days become the brutal new school--
The script was flipped and politics followed...

At the corner of Third and One Sixty-First
There was a ramshackle hotel where tobacco traders
Stayed, coming down the Post Road from Connecticut--
In 1906 they built a grand court house there,
The majesty of the law, soon it was the night court
Covered by soot from the elevated train
Then they tore this subway down
And soon they abandoned the court house, leaking.
In 1988 I gratified it with white spray paint
On blackened limestone, under a huge sky with beer.
In ‘92 they fenced it so you can no longer sit there
In 1997 it was sold to a real estate speculator
And it has still never been repaired...

* * * *


         c. Matthew Lee 1998

Tremont and Washington, Part I

When we came to this place, the land was barren.
An old Jewish man raked it, cursing the government.
He’d walk back toward Railroad Avenue, invisible.
He rented the land to Dominicans, who fenced it,
Put up a sign, offering to park cars for twenty a month.
The police shut them down, no license, no taxes.
Months later they got the required franchise
And moved in three guard dogs who howled and ate old rice and beans,
Who slept before the electric heater while rats turned over their bowl.
Toyotas and surfboards and the rusting trucks of restaurants
Were parked, in the shadows of a furniture warehouse
Whose Irish owners visited less and less often.

Tremont & Washington, Part II

Last night I leafed through a book of old photographs of the Bronx:
Elevated trains since torn down, replaced with busses;
The Cross Bronx being blasted through tenements,
Trolley tracks being cut with blow torches
Beer gardens and RCA Victrolas
House boats in rivers now filled with the carcasses of cars
The Mayaguez Shoe Store, at 229 Brook Avenue,
First Puerto Ricans business in the borough--
And suddenly a glimpse at our block,
Entirely different with buildings still standing:
Across the street, where wild dogs howl
Was a two-story building, storefronts with electric signs:
Electric and Radio Shop, Chinese & American Restaurant
De Luxe Chop Suey, Entrance on Tremont Avenue,
F.W.Woolworth & Co., an egg store, a printing shop
And a music school upstairs...
No wonder we here voices still...
On the corner was Poultry in Parts
Telling the world Buy the Part You Like Best.
Next on the strip was Mills Formal Wear,
Dress Suits to Hire, with a neon Fred Astaire.
The De Luxe Chop Suey was Air Conditioned
And italicized, had Steaks and Chops
To go along with Chow Mein...
Upstairs they taught violin and trumpet.
No wonder we here voices still...

Tremont and Washington III

Encyclopedic street corners
         flush like a parfait rose
I am air conditioned chop suey
         the purloined tuxedo
We celebrate the parts of chicken
         blowing on cellos to the warping of wood
Too late, it was, to celebrate
          our dusty-eyed blood of Laredo
So fragmentary, like the curl of a queen
          flash my blade, ‘fore trolley tracked buried
Suck the smog, we accept credit cards
          poker games with ham-faced cops
If I can imagine an era, con clave
          perhaps this thought of your hand is real

* * * *

A Ballad of East Tremont

             c. Matthew Lee 1998

Lonely immigrant working men pissing
In the airless bathroom of the Tremont cuchifritos
The jukebox plays merengue, in the video game
Drug dealers spray the front of an Art Deco
Tenement with sub machine gun fire
Who are you rooting for... pulpo
And morcilla, black blood sausage sliced and pushed
Into a plastic bag, back to the rooming house
Twenty men dreaming of the same pregnant waitress
Each has his dignity, his progeny, his mud castle
Back in San Pedro Macoris, but here is just a laborer
Mixing cement for drunk insulting masons
Drinking at dusk at the counter sipping soup
Mondongo, a stew of entrails and yucca
Pissing one after the other on that same tiled floor
Dreaming like automatons of that same pregnant waitress
The owner choosing girls best suited to trigger dreams
And keep the immigrant bachelors coming here for dinner
Yellow rice and beans for three dollars
With a pork chop will set you back five
For six the aphrodesiac pulpo
The purple suction cups of octopii marinated in vinegar
For a quarter you control the hit man spraying the tenement
With gun fire, without money you are the victim
Gunned down in the Art Deco courtyard
The toilet is stuffed, the jukebox is too loud
The pregnant waitress, her water has broken
Twenty clients rise like lions from their soups
Al hospital, that decrepid training ground
For Indian doctors entitled to enter
With a quota of skilled green cards
Not like the masturbating plaster-boys
Dreaming of San Pedro, alone with their WADO radio
Waking them up screaming at dawn
Buenos dias, Noo Jork
Soon the juke box will be blinking
The floor will be pissed on
The plaintains will grow soft, under the light bulb,
The blight bulb,
The ballad of East Tremont, the pissed-on floors
The soup and dreams of the pregnant waitress while police sirens wail...

* * *

South Bronx, November 18, 1998

         c. Matthew Lee 1998

These are the cities that are glued to the earth,
Orange dusk sloshing on discount stores
Too-hot busses rumbling where a train used to be
The man next to me mutters, the word I heard is “lock down
A teenage girl with her baby sucks her own thumb

Here on the slag heap of history we can listen
About the derivation of words: decimated meant to kill
Only one in ten, but has come to mean the slaughter
Through the static they intone: “usage prevails.”

Buildings that once buzzed at Christmas now
Stand empty, the hot dog man is bundled against the cold
While his wife sleeps in their old red van
“Where do the shaved ice vendors
Go in the winter?” I ask him.
Van para su casa, para su pais,” he says.

O troubadours of tamarindo
Smiling purveyors of cherry rainbow
Where have you gone, this gray winter day
When will I hear your sing song, coco chay-ree
and sweat before the prison, watching dead towers
casting shadows on the pock-marked streets?

There are Christmas lights in dirty windows
And the man still mutters, time for lock down.
The sky has sucked the heat
From the rinds of the South Bronx
And we wander canyons of stone
Under a sky threatening to rain,
And to cleanse...

* * * *


         c. Matthew Lee 1998

The sausage man swings legs of lamb
Onto the hook set back from the door.

The Forza Italia cafe owner
Sadly watches his Brazilian wife
Wipe down the zinc of the counter.

An old man with hands like road maps
Quietly tickers on the chassis of a Chevy.
His grand daughter in pigtails on a metal swing
To the side of the garage, licking lemon ice.

Mexican women in line at the post office
To send international money orders
Back to Morelios.

The cigar-chopping loan shark
Has Puerto Rican Mudo, the mute,
Hosing down his used Rolls Royce
By the fire hydrant.

At night sad skeletal women
Sell blow jobs in the shadows
While teens use eight-year olds
To sell drugs on little banana-seated

Old couples walk slowly with canes
And bags of fruit back to the skyscaper
With the broken elevator where they live.

There used to be an elevated
Train connecting this neighbor-
Hood to Manhattan - it was demolished
Twenty years ago. Those who could move out,
Did, unless the roses in their yards were too sweet
To leave behind.

Now the water pipes are broken,
The motorcycle club burned out
The first floor apartment.

The loan shark is happy: desperation
Is his trade. The police shake their heads
And twice a year buy drugs
With marked bills.

Young bucks, heroic
In another context, are trussled,
Cuffs behind their backs,
Into police vans screaming
Down to the precinct.

The bills are marked; Legal Aid
Plea bargains. Bigger muscles,
And bad tattoos, on a ghetto sabbatical
On Rikers Island.

There was a fat man, in the building
Next to mine, who used to use his kids
To sell drugs. The old women
Were horrified, others thought
He was wise. One day his head
Was bashed in with police night
Sticks, and he was hauled away
By twenty year old cops from Long
Island laughing at his obesity.
His wife moved out
The next month, no one knows
Where his kids are.

The sausage man swings legs of lamp
Into the window for sale...

* * * *

I, Santana of the Bronx, for No One

            c. Matthew Lee 1998

Crossing garbage-strewn rivers on bridges of toothpicks
Freight trains of sewage shipped in for jobs
The simplest of pleasures bloom behind hammer-scarred doors
These are my tenements these are my teeth
This is my testament, in pharmaceutical notebook
In ghetto parks of netless basketball hoops, the whooping of sirens
And sadly not cranes. Graveyards over-grown by weedlike trees...

I, Santana of the Bronx, who have danced frightened
On plastic floors at birthday parties awaiting the release
From jail of the hostess’ cocaine-maddened husband
Will seek to cast my net far above
These slit garbage bags of personal misfortune.
Outrageous tribulation. All that.

I love the rotten orange bricks of abandoned factories
My muse is the forgetten streets, the collapsed ceilings.
These weeds grow in what was once a jail.
Now we are free, as if this were Everest,
To sing for no one
On the remaining rooves.

Even in the corrupted schools
They humor us with similes and metaphor. Methadone,
They whisper, will be our more constant
Companion. I want to dream of angels

I, Santana of the Bronx, mean you no ill.
This is just my nausea on your bridge over God’s river.

I, Santana of the Bronx, salute you. Welcome to my inferno
                   you built and then

* * * *

Art Is In The Street

            c. Matthew Lee 1990

Put a sheet plastic roof
Over a vacant lot
And you’ve got a dance hall.
Just go to Crotona Park
Between Clinton and Prospect
And you’ll see it for yourself:
a live bank playing Eddy Palmieri’s
Mandinga” with timbales and trumpets
And an old man playing the blood-churning
And foot-moving piano parts
on a cheap electric guitar.

Real art was never meant to be in the museum
Which only the rich and the tourists distractedly peruse--
Art was meant to be in the Street,
A live band playing in every storefront
Murals put up directly on the raw brick sides
Of free-standing tenements.

On a cheap electric guitar!
And the older Dominican couples dancing happily
And remembering and the young cruisers
Buying rum and grapefruit juices
In little plastic cups from a bar set up
In an abandoned hot dog truck
And the smell of roast pork
And cars double-parked all the way to the corner.
Art was meant to be in the street like this.

* * * *

Who Will Sing of Southern Boulevard?

         c. Matthew Lee 1990

Who will sing of Southern Boulevard,
Of junkies living in abandoned movie theaters,
Of teenage girls, still dreaming, serving up
Steaming cuchifritos every day from nine to five
When they should be in school,
Or doing something, other than with these old ladies...
The windows fog up as the elevated train screams
And rattles above while on the jukebox
Andy Montanez or is it the real Gran Combo
Groove sad and alive about love and longing
And teenage boys dismantle an abandoned car
And an old lady I know picks up cans to cash in
And buy her dinner and a man and his wife
And their five children walk gingerly
Over broken pavement, veering the stroller
This way then that to go around pot holes
And the carcasses of dead wild dogs...
And old factory sits half demolished and wide open
A pile of long wooden beams left and forgotten
Half a bus lying on its side
Judge’s Corner Grocery Store, it’s called,
With a nice plump lady selling beer and Lotto tickets
Through bullet proof windows
“Prayer Works,” her crumpled sign says
And old men talk on, happy, incessantly
in the entranceway of the Salvation Army
And the bar is still closed, can’t get insurance
And an old sign reminds you of the jewelry store
Moved up to Fordham Road
And a man getting thinner every day crosses from Kelly
Sweating carrying an empty sink salvaged from an empty
Building to sell to quiet his habit.
He does not complain.
He suffers and makes do
Another statistic
Yet sometimes he smiles, sometimes he rests
As the sun glow orange over the vacant lots
And the kids jump ropes and the hydrant sprays,
Sometimes he smiles, and sometimes he rests,
Another statistic.

Who will sing of Southern Boulevard?

* * * * *

There is a poem so excruciating

           c. Matthew Lee 1989

There is a poem so excruciating
that no one hears it
because it burns your face.

Words like nerves like scenes,
constantly repeated,
three men in front of a liquor store,
with sad mad stories and the coming of energy
to forget;
callous-handed women rolling shopping carts
full of flowers, big red peonies, carnations,
baby’s breath and dying roses,
selling them to young lovers in front of the church,
and to older men on their way to meet their mistress.

The raw side of buildings
where another one, now invisible, has been amputated,
speak of death and unspeakable beauty,
speak of the vastness of space and the coldness,
speak from a thousand street corners of the Bronx
and for no one to hear
while mothers walk their breath like smoke
their children to school past the bodegas
of Southern Boulevard and the vacant lots...
Life just continues, the husband was drunk last night
beating of piano and timbales and the earth beneath
and the pain and the human heart,
it is all out there, for all to see,
beauty and reality and brutality
all mixed together,
a poem so excruciating
no one hears it
because it burns your face...

* * * *

The Burning Plain of Pain

              c. Matthew Lee 1989

The South Bronx has a whole flat burning plain of pain.

On 138th Street you can feel the reality
of these crumbling orange brick ramparts
and warm spaced created within the rocky ruins
plants on window sills, religious candles set on alters
and flickering all night in witness to the wailing sirens
and wailing babies, flicking from side to side
as the man upstairs stomps down his dirty work boots
and shouts, cries out from the bottom of his heart, Why
do you do this to me, woman?! Tu me esta matando, mujer
and beats her bloody against the crumbling plaster wall
and later cries like a baby and SHE consoles HIM
as the children lie terrified in the darkness
two in a bed, the light from the kitchen falling
sharp and slanted and burned on the memory
through the doorway of their room....

Moans and wheezing and late night talk of lovers
mixing with the scurrying of rats mixing
in a bound-to-the-earth symphony for no one
in these tenement buildings,
these ragged orange brick ruins
on the burned-out plain of pain...

A plain of pain that reaches up and seeks redemption
from God, reaches up without words, without hypocrisy,
without ritual, in the babbling talk of junkies
bathed in hospital light outside the all-night
cuchifritos on Willis Avenue,
of homeless sleeping shivering under the bridges
and ashamed, as wail the fog horns of the tug boats
in the tenements and projects, pampers and spaghetti sauce
and sanitary napkins and shrunken fetuses
from the garbage of Lincoln Hospital,
all dragged out of the borough, off the burning plain of pain
down through the cool and garbage-strewn river to the sea,
that sees and hears all, and feels nothing,
only slaps and flows and undulates and accepts
all and lies waiting...

* * * *


                      c. Matthew Lee 1988

     Wide vacant lots, the shifting sands of shards of bricks, half-red memories of lives LIVED in these buildings reduced to ruins, these square blocks reduced to countryside, strewn with burned out cars... The pylons of the elevated tracks snake down Boston Road and Southern; lit up graffitied number 5 train from Dyre Avenue crashes across the sky, breaks open the mind throwing sparks like rose petals down on broken streets. A beer from the grocery to cool the nerves, it's a social totality, you are only a piece of it; it's a history controlled from outside, you live in the midst of it. The beer warms you, loosens you, and a voice rises through you from the earth, from the long history of suffering and loving unremembered, dismember, plowed over but infinitely real, the buildings bricked up, the windows all broken...

In the occupied buildings the shades are all down, 'cause the buildings across the street and next door are all abandoned and its scares the children, they dream monsters and molesters in the blackened burned-out windows. When actually it is silent, slow rusting of old stoves and flapping of notes and flags on the walls, notes now meaning nothing, the buildings six years abandoned and no plans to fix them, the people forsaken, assigned to live in City-owned buildings in the midst of the madness, buying milk from bodegas that flash red and yellow with the sirens in the night, in the storefronts of abandoned buildings...

An old man in a wheelchair missing one of his legs is asking quarters for wine. He's got nothing but memories, and a wise pride the humiliation of which is dulled only by cheap chilled wine. Memories of always being on the outside, like tonight, on the outskirts.

It's a social totality, huger than both of us and murderous. The projects stand like fingers in the night, already they're ruins, graffitied and as cold as stone. Containing families, whipped by the wind that crashes the earth and the way we live, the huge machine in which we dream, subsist and maneuver, me with joy, with a two-sided mind that is both here and there, both living and watching, drunk to exploding and sparking like the train with totality, swinging between cold stone and this screaming steam, these warehouse, whorehouse, slaughterhouse streets by the river, about to cry with her quiet beauty, her pain and smile... Must tame this savagery, this hunger, this razor blade exploding in Navy P-coat wandering, this mangling bonfire of culture twisting in the mind open to the ruins in its nerves, this screaming rap music joy flying Boston Road while all are sleeping, this exploding joy of sick totality I want to tell her I want to tell YOU-----

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All contents of this page copyright 1988-2003, Matthew Lee and Inner City Press/Community on the Move, Inc.. All rights reserved.  For further information, or to request reprint or other permission, contact: Permissions Coordinator, Legal Administration, Inner City Press, P.O. Box 580188, Mount Carmel Station, Bronx, NY 10458.  Phone: (718) 716-3540.  Fax: (718) 716-3161.  E-mail: mlee [at]