I'm reading the "Court Docket" section of The Driftwood,
     a tally of the week's crime and proportionate punishment,
and Karen comes in from watering flowers on the deck to ask
why I'm laughing so hard. I tell her it's the shoplifter's onion.
     The punchline cracks me up,
even though the setup's lame: A man walks into
a grocery store, he's middle-aged, homeless, hungry,
     it's summer but he's wearing a long, baggy, battered
army surplus kind of coat that reminds me of when I sailed
from Barcelona to Haifa on a Turkish Maritime freighter.
     Getting fed wasn't part of the deal
so every couple days when the boat put into port
we hit the closest market and in Naples,
     right by the side of the dock,
a clump of shifty, unshaven men open their long dark coats,
synchronized swindlers, revealing dazzling displays
     of gleaming watches sewn into the linings—Swiss, real gold,
for you almost free. The shoplifter's picked his coat for its cavernous
pockets, so roomy they can swallow, in one burpless gulp, a can of ham,
     a chunk of cheddar, half a cantaloupe, a can of peas, and in a final
magnificent flourish, if the paper's to be believed, a prime rib roast
before he waddles to the till, listing between the beef and the ham,
     to pay for the single innocuous onion
he's waving above his head—
and I'm no longer laughing but remembering Miguel Hernández's onion,
     hunger and onion, / black ice and frost /
huge and round, in "Lullaby of the Onion,"
Nanas de las Cebolla, he wrote for his son, the lark of his house,
     from one of Franco's jail cells during the Spanish Civil War.
In the cell next to Miguel is the only man
my mother ever loved. He's also dying. He won't return
     from smashing the fascists to marry my mother,
pass on his genes for idealism and impatience
to whoever I would have been had he been my father—
     someone who almost certainly wouldn't be writing this poem,
just as he wishes Miguel wasn't writing his poem,
because with no pencil or paper Miguel's composing
     out loud, memorizing
a stanza at a time, repeating each one over and over,
interrupted more and more by his racking
     tubercular cough and it's driving—let's call him Manny,
my mother never did tell me his name—it's driving Manny crazy,
and the thought even crosses his mind that maybe
     it's supposed to drive him crazy, maybe it's part of a devious plot
designed to break him down. Their respective factions
are likely at each other's throats,
     Manny toeing the rigid line of the Trotskyites of POUM
Miguel, the anarchist peasant, more at home with the FAI,
and who knows what deals an untutored pantheist-anarcho-shepherd—
     a poet—with no party discipline might strike
when the going gets rough? And even if Miguel's motives are pure,
and his poem is just a poem, his "onion, onion, onion"
     is still pushing Manny over the edge. "Miguel," he shouts,
"Why not a loaf of black bread? Why not a fistful
of olives?"—in a lot of ways he's as critical as my mother; maybe
     they wouldn't have made the blissful couple she believed in till her death—
"Why not a kerchief of grapes? Why an onion?"—
Exactly the question the judge can't keep from asking
     as he hands down his sentence of three months
probation. "Why an onion?" It's too late now,

but they should have asked my uncle Herman.

Some went to Spain, and some to Petaluma.
     Herman and his wife, her sister and her husband,
like a hundred other socialist Jews from Minsk and Pinsk, Galicia and Bukovina,
slid from one end of this enormous tilted continent to the other,
     ending up as chicken ranchers just north of San Francisco,
reading into every communal egg they candled,
every communal chicken they coddled through sickness
     to slaughter and sale,
every acre of kale planted and picked for feed,
the birth of a backbreaking better world—everyone except uncle Herman.
     He must have been almost sixty
the summer my cousin and I spent working on their farms,
mixing chicken feed, spooning it out,
     washing shit off each egg before we could grade them.
We were barely fifteen and to us his bitter humour
carried echoes of the beats and Lenny Bruce.
     The contemptuous nicknames he muttered
behind his in-laws' backs, the derisive winks and grimaces
that peppered his conversation—if he had gone to Spain
     he'd have taken more potshots at his comrades
than the Falange—were the dark edge of something
we were too young to know how to name so we called it funny.
     When we came back the next year, on a road trip with my parents,
he had a cow tethered to a stake outside their house.
"Uncle Herman," we asked him, "You're a chicken farmer, why do you have a cow?"
     "Why do I have a cow?" he asked us back—
us, himself, the world—

“Why do I have chickens?”

From Cemetery Compost