Death Range

Mr. Brogan always
Seemed younger than
His almost 70 years

And his sporting
Hip hop pieces of
Clothing made him seem
Closer to 50 than his actual age

He was nearly 6 feet
Tall with taut tendons
And a sharp keen mind that
Stoked his thoughts and formed
Words with a quickness of tongue
That shaped sayings and phrases
That could later be coined

He was involved in community
Equity and justice struggles
And proclaimed once at a
Rally, “I’m so broke I can’t afford
To go window shopping”

And there he stood at the
Memorial of a friend who’d
Recently died

And he was close to the
Deceased, remembering things
Such as his love of singing and his
Genuine concern for people

He looked out at the people
Gathered, most of whom were
His age, more or less’

And he looked at his peers
And said, “You know, most
Of us here are in death range”

And the gathering was

And Mr. Brogan’s voice
Was a strong, line blending
Into line until a song

Within the range
Of Poetry

and everybody
joined him

finding their

(c) 2013 Tony Robles


We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this Ellis Act Alert

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this Ellis Act Alert

By Tony Robles


We interrupt your regularly

Scheduled program to bring

You this Ellis act alert


Mom and pop are missing,

Pry open your eyes

Let your ears hear


Mom is 79 and pop

Is 82 and have lived

In San Francisco all their lives


Mom and pop–unplugged,

Displaced in a city of wireless wires

Where friends that never were are

Flung into heaps of the unfriended,

Replaced by holograms that begat

Other holograms who slither behind

Tinted glass bus windows


In kitchen pot silence

In floorboard splinters

In the skin of torn rugs

We search for stains like

Maps for clues, traces


This is an Ellis alert

And mom and pop are gone

And with them the smell of



Black eyed peas


Bitter melon


We looked for mom and pop

In the book of landlords

And that book, whose edges

Were a knife, whose pages were

Not stained by a single memory,

Read only one name:  Ellis


Ellis cover to cover

Ellis front to back

Ellis open and shut

Case closed


And we searched for

The book of the evicted

Whose pages and spines multiplied

And were strewn on street corners and

Garbage bins and the names of the

Evicted were written in the streets by

The shrill talon of the raven to be

Paved over by the machinery of

No memory


This is an Ellis alert

And mom and pop

Are out there somewhere


Pry open your eyes

Let your ears hear


With the click of the

Tongue, and not the mouse,

Pop made the birds come and bring

Together philosophies from every

Corner of the world




Mom is your mom,

Is my mom, is your skin,

Is my skin, is my memory

Is our memory


Pry open your eyes

Let your ears hear


Mom and pop

Are missing


We now return

To your regularly

Scheduled program



© Tony Robles 2013


Fallen Apple

Fallen Apple

By Tony Robles

On Mission Street the








And watermelon are real

Apples don’t have buttons and screens

And switches and pushpads

They are just apples

With seeds

And skin and core

And there is a grocery

Store named in honor of

The apple called “Apple Grocery”

Where unadulterated, unbitten

Apples lie in the cradle of crates

Before seeing the

Mission Street sun

And a short

Distance from the market

A woman sits at the bus stop

I get off the #14 bus

Through the rear door

And come upon her face

In the apple moist air

She must have been

In her late 60’s, early


She held a straw hat,

Shielding her head

From the sun

She was beautiful

And I imagined her

As a young woman

The red life in her lips

Sung out as her eyes

Looked through a pair

Of sunglasses

I crossed the street

Knowing that at one

Time she could have stopped

The flow of both human and

non-human traffic

And she knew what I was

Thinking and she knew

That I knew that she

Knew and we kept it to


And the apples


© 2013 Tony Robles

Whisper, Carabao

Not long ago I saw an interview with a Filipino writer who spoke of cliché’s that Filipino writers—mostly beginning Filipino writers—use. He cited such things as mango colored suns, white sand beaches and, of course, the obligatory carabao as hindrances to the literary landscape one is trying to create. This writer’s comments made me think of my own writing and the role the carabao has played in it. Firstly, I have never seen a carabao in person. The carabao is a beautiful animal—hard working and loyal—I’ve been told. The people who have told me this of the carabao also happen to be hard working and loyal (and I have been told that I have displayed just the opposite qualities, namely by my father). I have seen the carabao in pictures—National Geographic and in numerous books showing the landscape of my indigenous ancestral home, the Philippines. I felt somewhat guilty in regards to the writer’s comments because I had used carabaos and mango colored skies as metaphors in my writing. “You’re a sham” a friend once told me. “You’ve never seen a carabao in your life, nor have you been to the Philippines”. This was true. But I began to think about the writer, who is quite well known since the release of his book, which has been well-received. I looked at his face, his clothes, his hair—all were immaculate, all impurities swept away in the Arkipelago winds. I was curious if this writer had ever stepped into a steaming mound of carabao dung in his oxfords or boat shoes and subsequently fallen? Or did he ever wake to find carabao crust in his eyes, or walk with carabao mud between his toes or carabao snots running down his nose? These and other questions remain—the mystery persists.

My Uncle, the poet Al Robles, wrote of carabaos. His book of poems, “Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos In the Dark” are carabao tracks on the page, tracing their journey in the Philippines and in the US. Each poem is stained with the mud, saliva, tears, tae—the life of the carabao, the memory of the carabao, the music of the carabao—the heart of the carabao which is the heart of the manongs. The sound of the carabao brings us closer to home, closer to the earth, closer to ourselves. Carlos Bulosan wrote of the carabao in “American is in the Heart”. In the story his brother Amado beats a weary carabao with a stick, to which his father responds by slapping him sharply across the face. What are you doing to the carabao? I think of one of my uncles poems and the reverence he had for the carabao:
He’s nice one, you know
Carabao is nice to you
When you come in the afternoon from the ricefield
He go home too, by himself
After the sun go down he lay down
Goddam! Like a human being.
International Hotel Night Watch
Manong –carabao
I ride you thru the I-Hotel ricefields
One by one the carabao plows deep

I recently took a walk to the grocery store in my neighborhood. I picked up a few things and headed back home. A couple blocks away from my house I came upon a garage sale. I approached and saw the usual—books, plates, clothes, knickknacks—all kinds of stuff. It all belonged to a young white guy wearing a Giants T-shirt. His face had a pinkish tint due to the unusually hot weather. He sipped on a Pabst Blue Ribbon as people browsed through the items making up his life. I looked at a few things but didn’t see anything I wanted to buy. I was ready to leave when something caught my eye. It was on a table, a wooden figure that looked worn but beautiful, crafted by someone I’d never met but whose feelings I’d feel as my own. I reached for and touched the figure. Its eyes whispered. I tried to make out what it was saying but was interrupted by the guy with the beer. “You like my yak?” he asked before taking a swig of beer. He took a very long swig before proceeding to crush the empty can with one squeeze of his freckled hand. He stood examining my face. I looked at the wooden figure and realized it was a carabao. It was beautiful. It had eyes that were alive. But before I could tell the garage sale guy that what he had was a carabao, not a yak, he went to the cooler and pulled out another beer. He walked back over and told me that his yak had belonged to his ex-wife, who had gotten the lion’s share in the divorce. He made fun of the Yak, saying it needed another yak to fuck (a yak to yuk, to use his exact words), etc. I looked at the carabao, it looked at me. We knew. Then the man started rambling about this and that—a rant of belligerence mixed with a twinge of sentimentality; his words spilling forth in a spirited froth of beverage-inspired verbiage. As I recall, it went like this:

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak
Yak yak….yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak yak yak
Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak
Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak
Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak
Yakitty yak

He yakked my head off for almost half an hour. Finally he stopped. Then I uttered two words: How much?

Five bucks

I dug into my pocket and the carabao seemed to say: if you don’t get me out of here and away from this fool, I’m gonna back up and run as fast as I can, dead at you, and ram one of my horns up your ass.

I found five dollars, gave it to the guy and picked up the carabao that had to endure being called a yak for who knows how long.

I brought it home where it belonged.


Sulyap (For Carlos Hernandez)
By Tony Robles

A fishhook caught
In rust of throat
A curled note’s
fetal rest

A snarl in water
Skipping beats of heart
Over salt skin sea

A word tucked
Away until
He walked in

An older Filipino man
About 60-something
Looking more like

He was looking for a job
And he sat across from me
At my desk covered with
Forgotten notes, candy wrappers
And used tissue paper

He said it had been
Hard trying to find a job
Because you have to apply
Online and he doesn’t know

He said that his daughter
Had a laptop but that was
Is very hard prying it from
Her lap

He was very polite
And humble and I
Found out he was from
The same province as my
Grandfather in the Philippines


And I mispronounced it and
He made me repeat it
Until I got it right


It was a security guard job he
Was looking for and I could
Tell from his eyes that he was
Much too good for a job like that

I was an employment counselor
At a desk sitting in a chair with
The knowledge that I’d been fired
From almost every job I’d ever had
(Including security guard)

I asked him what
He liked to do
And he said, dance

He said he could
Do it all

Cha cha
Texas Swing
Electric Slide
And any kind of hustle
You can think of

He got up and cha cha’d
Around my desk and showed
Me each step that he had saved
For a lifetime

And at the end of the dance
He glanced over his shoulder at
Me and smiled

That’s sulyap
He said

A glance and
Smile at the


And I got up from my desk
And danced for the first
Time in my life

He smiled

And my heart spoke
Free the glances


© Tony Robles 2012

Carving a Life

(Author’s note: My father, James Robles on the left, my brother Asian Robles on the right–with my sister Jade and step mother Tai)

I recently spent an afternoon with my father and brother. My father had just arrived from Hawaii. He called me and told me he’d be picking me up in a small red rental car with shiny rims. I walked out of the steel gate of my house (or more appropriately, my landlord’s house) and looked around. No red car. I looked some more and saw him. He had missed my house, overshot it by half a block. Hey dad, I called out. He waved. I started towards the car but he motioned for me to wait. He got into the car and drove in reverse for a half block, stopping a few feet from me. He leaned over, sprung the lock.
“What’s happening man?”
“Hey dad, what’s going on?”
He looked good. He wore black pants, a black coat and a pair of bright jogging shoes. We drove for a while. I looked out the window. The fog and salty air from Ocean Beach lit the sky.
“I got you something”
My father pointed to the rear with his thumb.
“What? I asked.
I reached over and took it. I opened it. It was a fruit tart, with custard.

Dad put it in drive. I looked at him from the corner of my eye. He looked good, a little older but he WAS older. I had read somewhere that a thousand people a day this year were going to turn 60 years of age. I thought about the fact that he was 62 years old. Had it been that long or had I failed to pay attention? I took the wrapper from the fruit tart and lifted it to my mouth. My concentration shifted to the strawberries and kiwi fruit. Suddenly my father slammed the brakes. I became kiwi and strawberry. My father laughed.
“Hey, sorry man…let me help you”
He took a napkin and began wiping. Each wipe tended to smear more custard. The horn from the car behind us began to sound. I took the napkin and wiped myself.
“I left my glasses at your auntie’s house” said dad
“You wear glasses?”
“Yeah…mostly for reading”

I never associated my father with glasses. He only wore shades when I was growing up. I remember him as a young man. He’d switched jobs and women and one day he came home with something new. It was a board with black and white plastic pieces. We’re gonna play chess, he said. He showed me how to move the pawns, rooks, bishops, etc. He explained the objective as capturing the king. We played for hours. I lost every game but I started to get the hang of it. After each game, he’d explain what I’d done wrong. I was impatient and somewhat of a little prick. I wouldn’t listen. I almost beat him but he saw every move, always looking 2 or 3 moves ahead. I was in tears after, having victory in the bag, he, with sleight of hand, pulled that very victory out of my ass.

We continued driving. We stopped in front of a Victorian flat. At the bottom was a fish and chip restaurant. Dad got on the cell phone.
“We’re outside”
He put the phone back in his pocket.
“Your brother is still sleeping”
We sat. A woman walked by with a group of children. Each child was attached to the other by a plastic cord.
“I used to run up and down this street when I was a kid” dad said. “We used to get into trouble. We’d…”
The door opened. A young man came out wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the hood covering most of his face. He opened the rear car door.
“Hey what’s up?”
Dad looked at my brother through the rear view.
“I’m ok”
My brother touched my shoulder. We drove. I looked back at his face. It had my father’s shape, much more than mine. He was taller. We drove for a while, taking in the city, the city that all 3 of us were born in. Dad rolled the window down. The wind ran freely, kicking up a few wisps of his hair. I hadn’t noticed a small pony tail at his neck. Not enough for a fully pony tail but a good beginning. Dad began razzing my brother.
“So tell me…”
“Who is she?”
“Who’s who?”
“Come on man…there’s got to be a girl involved somewhere. Look at you, your clothes are wrinkled…you look like you just came out of a clothes dryer”
I laughed under my breath. My brother looked out the window as if nothing was said. We drove for a time. We didn’t say much. I look out at the old buildings and the trees bobbing in the wind. I began to wonder what color the wind was.
“Hey dad, can you pull over?” my brother asked. “I want to stop at the liquor store”
Dad pulled over, my brother opened the door.
“You want anything?”
“Yeah, get me some licorice” dad said.
“Nothing for me” I said
I remembered the first time I met my brother. I didn’t know he existed. He had a mother, I didn’t know her. He was in a restaurant in his mother’s arms. My dad said, “This is your brother”
So it was…

He came back with a small paper bag. He took out a canned beverage and handed the bag to dad. Dad pulled out a black licorice vine, handed one to me. He bit into it and broke a piece off with a tug of the mouth. He chewed with much vigor.
“I’m gonna take you guys somewhere” he said. He turned the radio on and searched for a station. He landed on the Beach Boy’s—not his music, but his era. We drove up a few hills and around several blocks with apartments and liquor stores with flickering neon beer signs. Dad began pointing in different directions. We were in the Western Addition of San Francisco.
“See this liquor store…that wasn’t here when I was a kid. This whole block had nothing but jazz clubs. I used to sneak in when I was a kid”
“How did you get in?” my brother asked.
“I’d climb in through the window in the back. All the heavies played in this area, Miles, Coltrane…
I looked at the rows of old apartments and flats. I tried to hear the music, the jazz that my father spoke of. We drove past a parked bulldozer near a police blockade. It appeared to be on its haunches, ready to leap and pounce.
“Here it is”
It was a park, mostly grass with a few benches and very tall, very old trees.
“This used to be a hill. It was covered with dirt. We used to run down this h ill. We’d make carts and race them. Used to be a cemetery before I was born.
“Where’d they take all the bodies?” my brother asked.
“Hell if I know”
We sat down on a bench. A dog was running off its leash. An Akita. It ran over to us.
“Hey partner” dad said
The dog licked my dad’s hand, placing its front paws on his lap. The owner called out its name and it ran off.
“Later fella”

We sat for a while and dad began to speak.
“You know, you guys turned out good. You were smart kids when you were growing up. You know, I would have done things different had I…”
Dad stopped talking. My brother looked at the trees. My brother and I knew what he was trying to say.
“How’s things in Hawaii?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Dad straightened up. His eyes widened.
“Everything’s cool. You know, I gave up the janitorial business. Too much stress. I’m working at a condo now doing routine repairs…changing light bulbs…then knocking out a few sit ups and push-ups”.
“You like it?” my brother asked.
“It’s alright. I meet a lot of people. I met that guy who used to be on that TV show, the guy with the baseball cap”
“Oh yeah” I said. “I know who you mean”
“But my main thing now is carving. I go out to the tropical rainforest and get wood, different types of wood. I carve masks, walking sticks, all kinds of stuff”.

I thought about the van he had when he first started the janitorial service 20 or so years ago. It was before he’d moved us to Hawaii. He took some wooden panels and covered them with shellac. He screwed them into the interior of the can, giving it a very comfortable look. I’d almost forgotten about it. It was the first and only time I’d seen him work with wood. But I thought more about it and remembered his collection of African and Malaysian masks, and some from the Philippines too. It all came back to me. I wanted to share it with my brother; he was too young to remember some of it. I stayed quiet.
“You know a lot of guys I grew up with have died” dad began.
He looked at my brother and I then stopped.
“Let me show you something”
Dad walked, my brother and I followed. We came to a big tree in the middle of the park. It had a huge trunk and limbs that appeared to wave.
“I think this is the one” dad said. “Help me up”
I was about to cup my hands together so my dad could place his foot into it but my brother stepped forward.
“Let me do it”
Dad stepped into my brother’s hands.
“What are you looking for?” I asked
“My name” dad replied. “I carved it in this tree when I was a kid”
And we watched as our dad hoisted himself onto a thick limb. He looked at the sky and then down at his sons.
“Come on up” he said, offering his hand.
My brother and I looked up at our father. He climbs higher and higher. The tree is him.

Soul Face

I miss the soul of my city. I miss the soul people of my city. I miss the heart of my city. I miss the soul faces, the soul places, the soul music, soul poetry, soul memory, soul skin of my city. I miss the soul shadows that shaded us with the scent of sisters who stood tall and watched over our community. I miss you. I miss your soul eyes, your soul voice, your soul lips that whispered prayers that asked the creator to bless us, to keep us together. I miss the soul cupboards, the soul pots and pans slick with soul grease. I miss the soul music of your mind. I miss soul laughter, the most beautiful sound in the world. I miss your soul sweat and soul passion that can make something out of nothing. I miss your soul tears that created a soul soup of life. I miss the black heart black tongue black mind black pulse in the alleyways, corners, small rooms, parks, buses—talk that made the grass grow under our feet for a thousand lifetimes. My city is empty without your soul heart, your soul face. Give us back our soul mama’s, our soul daughters, soul sons, soul elders, soul children—our soul life. Your soul face has been used for far too long. Your soul face in black and white pictures glued to the walls in coffee shops in neighborhoods that betrayed you, desecrated you, showing the faces of dead blues singers and jazz musicians as if that makes everything ok. I miss your soul life, true laughter, true life. Without you the city isn’t the city, it is snow thawing into nothing. The soul has thawed and what remains is an army of nasal voiced mickey mouse clones whose pedicures can’t hide the dirt of their minds, the callowness of their presence, the emptiness of their canned laughter, the obliviousness of their arrogance. The killing of the soul of the city was conceived long ago through charts, graphs, paper trails and lies that trace their line of blood with the first swindle of native peoples on Turtle Island. I miss my city. I miss the soul of the city. I miss your soul face, soul life, soul everything.