Undesirable – Race and Remembrance is a collection of poems by Robert René Galván, inspired by a boyhood raised in the heart of Texas, days spent between his folks’ home in San Marcos and family in San Antonio. René has a way not only of shaping the meaning of words but how he wants us to see and feel what he has seen and felt: in this book, his memories become ours.
Born in San Antonio, he now lives in New York City, a noted Chicano poet and multi-talented musician. He is the product of a legacy fashioned by Galván’s antepasados who survived the Great Depression, the WWII years, the decades of discrimination and deprivation–a communal memory that he treasures and preserves in this book.
antepasados who survived the Great Depression, the WWII years, the decades of discrimination and deprivation–a communal memory that he treasures and preserves in this book.
Galván tells of his elders riding on aging trucks to harvest a few dollars from the fields in the ’30s and ’40s, of his writer father filling his ink pen, its “barrel, incandescent as opal,” of the childhood home bought through a white friend so his family could buy it, even of the relentless reach of racism when recently a white man cursed him for being brown in a NYC supermarket.
The subtitle, Race and Remembrance, speaks to the dark undertones of the obras in his book; the cover hints at the seemingly fun trips his elders made from Texas to California to harvest the grapes, pick clean the beet fields, and whatever other crop farmers were hiring workers to pick.
The cover photo shows his mother, Eva Mireles Ruiz, third from the left, with some of her siblings and cousins, seated, legs dangling, on the bed of Abuelito Toño's truck, which carried the family to California and back as migrant workers. His Aunt Belia is far left and his Uncle Reyes (of the poem, “Hero”) is on the far right.
An earlier collection of poems titled, Meteors, was published by Lux Nova Press (1997). He is also featured in Puro ChicanX Writers of the 21st Century (2020). Another book of poems, The Shadow of Time, is forthcoming from Adelaide Books in 2021. Other poems are found in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Azahares Literary Magazine, Gyroscope, Hawaii Review, Hispanic Culture Review, Newtown Review, Panoply, Somos en Escrito Magazine, Stillwater Review, West Texas Literary Review, the Winter 2018 issue of UU World, and Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought.
IN HER OWN WORDS
CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE
I think I was just under 3 years old, and already had 2 younger sisters, and we lived in Bremerton, Washington. My Dad was a truck driver. We were all three baby girls in a small, crowded room — it could even have been some kind of back porch, it was very light, sunny. I was standing in my crib, and my dad came in. I recall him looking at us, smiling in delight, as if he was thinking, Look at what I’ve created!
All my memories of those early years, up until the time I was around 11 years old, are pretty good. Due to the Second World War, we did some moving around. My dad was drafted into the Navy, so my mom took us back to their home area of South Dakota, where we lived with her parents for a while out in the country. Then my dad was stationed at Treasure Island and we came out here and lived in Hayward for a while. My mom was fine with driving back and forth cross country. Once he shipped out, she moved to Sacramento; we lived in the garage of an old friend of hers who rounded up beds and cribs for us.
My dad was probably a bigger influence on me than my mom. Later, some of my first poems would be about him. We had good conversations and he always paid more attention to what was going on in the world. I am a feminist, but always interested to hear the male point of view.
I don’t write about those specific locations, but I do realize that I became an observer at an early age, Some might find this now hard to believe, but I was a pretty quiet kid and on the shy side. Usually very obedient. We were strong on rule-following. I can look back at all those years like a slide show, scene after scene, in my head.
Going to school was where I became more outgoing. They were Catholic parochial schools from 1st grade through high school. At first, we lived in public housing. In retrospect, it was kind of dumpy, but with a post-war housing shortage, everyone was in the same boat. This was before the days of air conditioning, and the insides were small and crowded, so we all spent a lot of time outside. I walked through Southside Park to get to Holy Angels School, and we played at the park. Before I started school, my mom taught me how to print my name. I was satisfied to spend a lot of time on my own. I wasn’t rebellious, but I was pretty independent.
In 3rd Grade, with my dad’s VA-FHA loan they bought a house in a little subdivision, with railroad tracks and empty fields around us.
I think the religious sisters who taught in our schools were okay, but favored well-behaved girls. In those days of corporal punishment, even I got my hands whacked with a ruler a few times. But the boys got the worst of it. Even worse, in our school at least, there were often 50 or more kids to a classroom. One thing my sisters and I recall is that there was no sharp demarcation between not-reading and reading. It was just something we flowed into, like a creek into a river.
Also, we were strict-practicing Catholics. It’s almost 50 years since I left the church, but I have a great sympathy for writing that includes spiritual aspect, including the idea of mystery. And many of my poems directly or indirectly refer to Catholic terminology or ceremonial practice.
About age 10 or 11, I read a lot and loved movies and wanted to make my own stories. Of course I didn’t understand about plot or structure, so the stories might start with a description of a heroine, but then just trail off with no conclusion
I loved words for as long as I can remember, and would read everything, breakfast cereal boxes to comic books to Reader’s Digest. I read the newspaper funnies and, before long, some articles and letters to the editor. In high school I wrote some letters to the editor myself.
I generally got good grades, but don’t recall creativity being encouraged. The emphasis was on learning the correct answers and responses, especially related to the catechism. But I will always be grateful to Sister Mercy in 7th and 8th grades for giving credit for poetry memorization.
We were part of the pre-Boomer generation, my friends and I would create little skits or dances and might perform them at lunch time on rainy days when we had to stay in the classroom. I didn’t know anyone who took piano lessons, although I took tap lessons for a few years. I would add that I was very daydreamy, but that fantasizing didn’t get written down much.
During elementary school, drawing was a more usual artistic outlet for me. The topic of fairness was on my mind from an early age. This would come up in my assignments for speech or debate classes. And I always wished to have more beauty in my life. I also saw life as struggle and that often surfaces in my writing.
In high school, after turning in some essay assignments, I was recruited to be editor of my school paper. I became deeply involved in all kinds of writing then — interviews, reviews, profiles, etc., and also began to understand about layout and some basics of journalism. This was never seen as a real career prep, though, just an extracurricular activity.
Easter 1999, to my Dad
I’m thinking of you and thinking of Mom,
And many Easters now long gone;
Thinking of eggs and candy rabbits,
Of jelly beans and pastel baskets,
Of Lenten churches, purple-clad,
And Easter pancakes we sometimes had.
From out of the house, we’d all of us file
And into the old green Plymouth pile.
Some of us sang then, in the choir
While showing off our new attire –
Our shiny shoes and new straw hats
– and briefly put aside our spats.
I remember those days, and I’m glad we had ‘em;
Memories that can still warm and gladden.
Now, thinking of flowers and alleluia,
Again I wish Happy Easter to you!
Neri’s Sculpture: “Nude” (Written sometime in the late ‘90s)
She isn’t whole, doesn’t know if she
ever will be. Since her shatter, she has started
to disappear. Her once-strong edges
of sweeping curves, elegant angles
demarcated her world. Sometimes she
misses what was solid, sometimes not.
Unexpected barbs cannot hook
her now, nor tear her substance.
As the abrupt world flows around her
shards of her being chip off. She is amazed
at what can pass through.
Once somebody’s memory, now a faded
dream of essence that uses space, shifts,
casts shadows. Exquisite tension holds
the stones of her in shapely structure,
a cairn. She tries to move in fluid shimmer
gatherer of river gravels that lead to dissolve,
shuffling rocks that glint and reflect what pours
into yet never fills her. Somehow the shaky
sculpture keeps moving forward.
She is seen as through frosted glass,
and knows well the force of her yearning,
but not whether she yearns to be whole
or to fully dissolve.
The Chagall Lovers October 2003
(Written for Arturo and Christina Mantecon)
Ascending each evening, they float in the sky
drawn up by kisses and each other’s eyes.
We hold our breaths, but they are buoyed up
above city streets on thermals of love
Their bouquets trail petals marking their flight
through satin blue evenings of levitation
They stair step the roofs in the forest of dusk
glisten as moon rise whispers its secrets
And gaze past their radiant halo songs
to stars chiming softly in heaven’s seas
Tender as tulips emerging from earth
they hold each other in night sky gardens
Up there with fiddlers and gods and devils
dancing with goats and calves and doves
Nourished on scents from the orange trees below
veiled in the rapture of fortunate love
Their hands round the necks of roosters and
horses, tangled in garlands braided in manes,
The town beneath is a chorus of wishes
that rise up like bubbles, like scarlet balloons.
They smile. They smile at gravity
that has nothing to do with them.
Secrets of a Babysitter
As if she were a robot with no curiosity,
They wave themselves away
Sure she has homework, they say it’s okay
To have some snacks or use the telephone.
She bathes the children, reads to them
Spoons ice cream into slack pink mouths.
Once they are in bed, she eyes drawer pulls
And door handles, cupboards and latches
She knows where the crème de menthe
Sits stickily on the pantry shelf
Where the glossy Polaroids are kept
In the back of the lingerie drawer
While children sleep she fingers coupons
Foreign coins and keys in the kitchen drawer
Examines paperback books, CDs and videos
Turns album pages, sits at the computer
Shakes each pill bottle in the medicine cabinet
Removes and pockets one from each prescription.
Sprays herself with golden scents from a mirrored
Tray, slips on a silky camisole that skims her nipples
Smacks her lips as she tries on lipstick in shades
She’d never wear, wonders at its fruity, slippery taste.
The News March 2007
No news is not good news
No news means something is
in a gather of foreboding, lurks
under snarled brush, just beyond
the darkened horizon.
No news means a smudge on the old
photograph, a missed chance to
reclaim that patient sepia image.
Stains only worsen when rubbed.
To fray lacks the order of ravel.
There was a song, a vinyl record,
a larkish trill of hope rising,
now scratched by disregard.
Something once held with care
set now among danger.
Imagination both helps and hurts.
News keeps breaking into or out.
Patch the shattering — tape or spackle
may soften the force, but it comes.
Seepage will enter, its outline remain.
Boy’s Ranch November 2010
Before you arrive at the gate,
you have wound through the
clefts of pale yellow hills.
You have seen flocks — wild turkeys,
then Canada geese — and shallow pools
reflecting blue skies. Further, like old
men, crouched turkey vultures
pause in their pavement feast.
Beyond fences: cattle, tilting trees.
Drive on through the oak grove where
a loping coyote stares back. The gate arm
lifts, lets you pass. Not such a bad place,
you say at the last curve, as jays and
woodpeckers fly through the double rolls of
razor wire atop the 20-foot steel fence.
My To-Do List April 2013
I checked off the decision to
have two failed marriages.
And children who lacked confidence
in me: checked. The pet dog
who ate the poison. Checked.
There was the boss who made me cry.
Check. The one who made me crazy.
Check. Plumbing that corroded,
beloved serving dish that broke. Check.
Wrong turn that took me out
of my way for two years. Check.
Many checks for arguments on
religion, race, sex, politics.
Laughing in the wrong place. Saying
Yes, saying No. Saying too much.
Not enough. Check, and check.
Unfiled income tax. What I owe family,
former lovers. All checked off.
Sleeping one more time with that man.
Not sleeping with another. Saying
I’m sorry too often. Double checks.
Saying ‘sleeping with’ instead of sex.
Saving the money, getting the
cheapest substitute. Oh yeah, check.
Fearing dogs and horses. Check.
Smoking, check. Being persuaded,
checked off again. In heavy ink.
The days I don’t know who I am.
Or why. Checking. Then, checking in
too late. Checking out too soon.
Source June 2015
Was I, then, in her? That serf girl, many
centuries past, who hauled hay. Potato
digger who sought small branches in the woods.
Who paused to stand, wipe sweat from her brow.
Was there ever a wondering of what lay in
far castle, or further down the road?
Probably an unwilling or unwanted suitor,
to plant in her as she planted beans for
another crop, wondered how much to raise,
how much to keep, or pass on to the owners.
And what of her child, or several, wrapped
and slung against her soon worn body? And that
child’s child? And so on. Where in me is
planted the something of her? In how I
pause to touch a day lily, to smell a melon,
to note the lowering clouds? In how I have
birthed children? And now, these poems, planting
words in a line for her who could not read.
Word of Mouth March 2016
I watch you sleep and lay beside you
and want to go where you go, behind
your eyelids. At times, you murmur
soft indistinguishable sounds, urgent
but amused, and I know you are not
speaking to me. I try to imagine that
language, that realm: if you are in
a cabin on the mountain, or on the
mountain looking birds in the eye.
They would understand you, shy looks
and cocked heads. Trust. Your voice
resembling chirps, assenting to flight
that’s regardless of wings, needs nobody.
You start a little. You must be tasting
the air, finding the currents, riding the
updrafts. I want to be the one you
return to. You can always land on me.
A Day Muy Frio (date unsure)
Como esta? Estoy bien.
Oh yeah? Explain, por favor:
Where is your sombrero?
Your jaqueta? Your dinero?
Donde es el carro, to ride
to the supermercado?
Donde es tu amigo?
Captured by la migra?
NEWS poem: (January 2020)
“Inmates Released into ICE Custody”
What do they try to carve when they slice
this man away? What shape beautified
by loss of his hands and eyes, when he
becomes swiped off leftover clutter?
Look for the resignation, sour, like rain’s
stain already marking his worn surface.
Instead of putting away the pain, and
anointing what has healed,
their hands rip off the new skin,
throw it to the desperate dogs.
PLÁTICA: JoAnn Anglin (JAA) and Lucha Corpi (LC)
LC: By circumstance, being an immigrant wife in the Bay Area, having no family here, being the mother of a young child, and years later going through a divorce, I began to write just as an exercise on spiritual and mental survival. I needed to know who I had become after getting married, and coming to the U.S. So many questions I had to find answers to. I felt that putting my feelings and life experience in the U.S. in writing would help me to make sense of my life and survive emotionally. It did. And I discovered I was a poet and writer in the process. You’ve told me the following about your beginnings as a writer:
JAA: We had no creative writing classes (in high school), no literary journals. On my own I wrote poems, which I rarely showed, and song lyrics which I never showed. These were mostly imitative of popular music, show tunes, or church hymns. It would take community college to really open my mind and awareness of other creative or philosophical paths.
My reading expanded, sometimes via assignments, and sometimes from recommendations from other students. Sometimes at home, I would want to talk about the reading, much as I’d liked to retell the movie stories when younger, but my interests made me the ‘odd duck’ in the family.
LC: Was there a mentor/Teacher? Other poets at the time, from whom you learned your craft?
JAA: I wish I could say yes. One community college English teacher, Margaret Harrison, saw potential in me. I can see this looking back. She wanted me to apply to Holy Names College in the Bay Area, but I was positive this wasn’t something my family could afford. I knew nothing of scholarships, loans, or work-study. I didn’t see a way. I never saw a counselor. I soon dropped classes so I could work and afford a (junky) car. I even went to the draft office of the Navy, but was discouraged from joining. By age 20, I was married and pregnant. My husband’s story was similar. Later, after divorcing, we both finished college, me graduating with my BA at age 41!
LC: You are a member of Escritores del Nuevo Sol group in the Sacramento area. Later you and some of the poets in Escritores also became members of Círculo de Poetas y Escritores in Oakland and the East Bay Area, including Santa Cruz. The late Francisco X. Alarcón was instrumental in establishing both organizations. As a matter of fact, I was invited by Francisco to attend a workshop-meeting of Escritores. I met many of you there. I was very impressed with the group. I am also very impressed with Círculo de Poetas y Escritores members:
Could you share how and when you and Francisco X. Alarcón met?
JAA: I have to give huge credit to La Raza Galeria Posada, the Latino Art Center in Sacramento. I became aware of their work when I was a public information officer for seven years at the California Arts Council. At the time, I knew vaguely of the Royal Chicano Air Force, the Chicano artists group, and of José Montoya and Esteban Villa. A couple of my co-workers were the artists Juan Carrillo and Loraine Garcia, and also Tere Romo and Josie Talamantez, so my consciousness was really being raised in this area.
I began going to public LRGP events, one of them a poetry reading, organized by Galeria board members Art Mantecón and Francisco Alarcón. At the reading, Francisco announced the decision to start a writers’ group, the Taller Literario. The next week I called Tere Romo who became the Galeria director and curator. I asked if I could join, although I’m not Latino. Her answer: of course! Later the name was changed because people were confused by the word Taller when wrongly interpreted as referring to height.
As I recall, Francisco and Art came up with the name of Los Escritores del Nuevo Sol, mainly because of Francisco’s fascination with the Aztec calendar. José Montoya stressed to us the need for preserving Latino arts and literature. We met monthly at LRGP, eventually having public poetry readings, usually related to major holidays – Mother’s Day, Day of the Dead, and such. When the Galeria went through some major inner turmoil, we began to meet at members’ homes.
I cannot give enough credit and praise to Francisco Alarcón. Whether personally, socially, in poetry, or in politics, he was the most generous, kind, and forgiving person I have ever known. And I still remain in awe of his talent and energy. I believe that he was at times subjected to prejudice due to his accent or to his being gay. If he felt bitter about it, he never turned that bitterness on anyone else. Like others who knew him, I will never stop missing him.
When the Crocker Art Museum hosted the Latino art exhibit, Our America, he invited several of our most active Escritores to be part of a project of ekphrastic art – each participant choosing a painting to inspire a piece of poetry. He also drew on his friendship with and knowledge of poets throughout California, particularly the Bay Area, which led to the positive interactions among the two areas. Some, reluctant to let the interaction fade, later founded the Círculo. We continue to be enriched by it.
LC: How has (or not) being in the workshop helped you focus on your poetry in a more productive way?
JAA: One major thing: my membership in Los Escritores made me realize that my aptitude was for poetry, not fiction. We took turns facilitating exercises at our meetings, and I began to understand better the difference between words spoken and words on the page. Sometimes I’d bring a poem to read, and realize as I read it that segments of it, or just one word, didn’t really work. One of those exercises, by the way, was to give human personality to a non-human object. Francisco’s poem was called “Laughing Tomatoes,” which inspired him to write a series of related poems and became the title of his first children’s book. He also urged us to put together our first anthology of writing by Los Escritores.
LC: I love your “My to do list,” poem. Do you remember what you were doing when the muse showed up? What was the first line, the first imagined “when”?
JAA: Thank you! Interesting that you refer to the muse. I recently read a writer’s comment that if you wait for the muse, you will never write. However, that poem did come to me more easily than most. I would say that the more you write, the more you will be able to write. In this case, I had made an off-hand jokey remark about something that I’d have to put on my To Do list, and then that the list was pretty long. I followed that train of thought and the poem came together rather quickly, with fewer drafts than usual. Audiences always like it, too.
LC: As a published poet, what advice would you give to younger poets who are just beginning to make their poetry known and establish their authorship?
JAA: Write a lot and submit a lot. Read your work at open mics. Read what others are writing. Anthologies are wonderful for this. Do not be discouraged by rejection. It may or may not mean your poem needs more work. Often you will realize that your poem wasn’t quite right for one publication, but will be perfect for another. I have heard of poets submitting a particular poem dozens of times before it’s accepted.
I had an instructive exchange at a writing conference a few years ago. During a break, somebody next to me at a table heard I was from Sacramento. An editor, she asked me if I knew Indigo Moor. (He later became our poet laureate.) She said, He’s a wonderful writer. She had been a judge in a contest he submitted to. He hadn’t won the contest, but his name had become familiar to several people who would be paying attention next time his poems came across their submissions desk.
JoAnn Anglin has taught poetry writing in schools, at Shriners’ Children’s Hospital, for a program with Crocker Art Museum, at a senior facility, and most recently, for 8 years at California State Prison, Sacramento (New Folsom).
JoAnn received a District Arts Award from the Sacramento City Council and the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. A coach for 10 years for Poetry Out Loud, she is a member of California Poets in the Schools (CPITS), the Sacramento Poetry Center, the Círculo des Poetas y Escritores, and Los Escritores del Nuevo Sol/Writers of the New Sun. Several journals and anthologies have included her poems, most recently, The Los Angeles Review of Books.
LC: Also, are you participating in any programs/readings in the area in the near future? How can people contact you about future programs and presentations? Do you have a newsletter? E-mail? Please tell:
JAA: The pandemic has pretty much stopped everything for now, although I’m encouraged with what people are doing via the ZOOM platform. A local publisher, 3 Bean Press, published my chapbook Heat in late January. I had one reading, and another scheduled, when everything was shut down. My work at the prison is now being done in a remote learning format and I really miss the in-class participation. Once the world evolves into whatever new shape it takes, I’d love to do more readings. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
LC: It’s been wonderful getting to know you through our mutual work with the Círculo de Poetas y Escritores, JoAnn. Mil gracias, JoAnn. Hasta pronto.
THE POET: IN HER OWN WORDS
I was born in San Francisco, and then around the age of four or five we moved to the Los Angeles area. We lived in many L.A. suburbs, Downey, Pico Rivera, Cerritos, and Torrance. We moved around a lot. I went to a different school almost every year. I learned to adapt and understand U.S. suburban culture. I also learned how all fluctuates and is indeterminate.
My love of writing and ability to play between two languages arose from the randomness of my childhood. My early years were filled with what can best be termed chaotic love, and so I came to understand how the world is not set in one place, language, or mode of seeing, which just happens to be the perfect upbringing for a poet in a post-modern world! I have done a lot of inner work analyzing and articulating my childhood. My family, my memories, mi pasado, fuel my poems, though perhaps not directly in a one-to-one translated narrative.
My early memories focus on my father. In one, he is carrying me from the car to the house. My head rests on his shoulder and I have my arms wrapped around his neck. We lived in San Francisco, at the time. We are going up the stairs to the door. In the other, I am in the same doorway, and someone asks my name. I reply “Adelita.” He tells me that my name is Adela and that Adelita is a term of endearment used in the family. Of course, he didn’t use those words since I must have been around four years old and this would have taken place in Spanish. I also have a memory of standing at the top of a street in San Francisco and looking down. I fear falling.
My parents and grandparents were born in Nicaragua. Some of my cousins were born here in the U.S. while others were born in Nicaragua. Nearly all family members are now living in the United States. I’m sure there are a few distant cousins in Nicaragua. I don’t know them, but I would like to. Instead, what I do is travel to Nicaragua through my imagination—what was Nicaragua like for my mother, my father, mis abuelas? I love to imagine los pericos in the tropical rainforest and iguanas sunbathing in the branches of barren trees.
I have always written. I have memories of writing poems in elementary school. I write to understand my place in the world
THE POET'S BIO
Adela Najarro is the author of three poetry collections: Split Geography, Twice Told Over and My Childrens, a chapbook that includes teaching resources. With My Childrens she hopes to bring Latinx poetry into the high school and college classroom so that students can explore poetry, identity, and what it means to be a person of color in US society. Her extended family’s emigration from Nicaragua to San Francisco began in the 1940’s and concluded in the eighties when the last of the family settled in the Los Angeles area.
She currently teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Cabrillo College, and is the English instructor for the Puente Project, a program designed to support Latinidad in all its aspects, while preparing community college students to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. Every spring semester, she teaches a “Poetry for the People,” workshop at Cabrillo College where students explore personal voice and social justice through poetry and spoken word.
She holds a doctorate in literature and creative writing from Western Michigan University, as well as an M.F.A. from Vermont College, and is widely published in numerous anthologies and literary magazines. Her poetry appears in the University of Arizona Press anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, and she has published poems in numerous journals, including Porter Gulch Review, Acentos Review, BorderSenses, Feminist Studies, Puerto del Sol, Nimrod International Journal of Poetry & Prose, Notre Dame Review, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.
POEMS FROM TWICE TOLD OVER
Early Morning Chat with God
This morning I’m back to asking for patience.
With my cup of coffee I sit outside to say hello
to you God, my Jiminy Cricket, my salsa
dancing quick-with-a-dip amigo. We have
a very collegial relationship. I laugh
at all your jokes and praise the wonders
of a sky’s watercolors. I know you like me,
a benign affection and tolerance as I run
around like a chicken with its head cut off,
a truly gruesome image, nevertheless
hilarious like a grisly cartoon. The blood spurting.
The body winding down to zero. The crashing
into unforeseen objects. I think if I
were back on my great-grandmother’s farm,
the farm that I know only through stories
my mother tells of Nicaragua, Bluefields,
a tortilla filled with just enough, and I saw
the long scrawny neck and the axe,
I would be sick to my stomach: the aimlessness
of her final strut, the reality of blood
loss, her claws scratching the dirt, kicking up rocks,
a panic. But when she stops, into the pot
she goes. A meal, what we need to continue,
her flesh simmered off the bone. Truly delicious
in a tomato sauce flavored with green peppers
and onions. Transformation. The feathers
plucked, soil and dust washed away. The table set.
Goblets of red wine, white china plates,
a cast iron pot twirling a bay leaf
scented steam. Then a prayer and gratitude
that we have enough to make it through
another night alone, a night filled with longing
whispers and the turbulence of dreams.
Between Two Languages
Misericordia translates to mercy,
as in God have mercy on our souls.
Ten piedad, pity us the poor and suffering,
the lost and broken. Have mercy. Ten piedad.
Misericordia, a compassionate
forgiveness, carries within
miseria, misery, the stifled cry
on a midnight bus to nowhere,
and yes, the hunger, a starless night’s
piercing howl, the shadows within shadows
under a freeway overpass, the rage
that God might be laughing, or even
worse, silent, gone, a passing hallucination.
Our nerve-wracked bodies tremble.
Our eyes have trouble peering into night.
Let us hope for more than can possibly be.
Señor, ten misericordia de nosotros.
And if we are made in the image of God,
then we can begin heading toward
the ultimate zero, the void
that is not empty, forgive ourselves,
and remember the three
seconds when we caught a glimpse
of someone else’s stifling cry.
Compassion, then miseria, our own
misery intensified by the discordant
ringing of some other life. Our ultimate
separation. Our bodies intolerably
unable to halt the cacophonous
clamor of unanswered prayers.
But nevertheless we must try
for no reason at all. Once more,
Señor, ten misericordia de nosotros,
forgive us for what we cannot do.
I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm simple,
like my mother, my grandmother, father. All of them
from Nicaragua where time goes back further.
Here, wagons and rifles, the prairie plowed
into fields of soybeans and sunflowers. Sunken wood
barns and tombstones rattle as a six-by-six tractor-trailer
rumbles through exit 41a and on past peach cobbler,
a shot of Jim Beam Whiskey, and the Stop'n'Go, 7-11,
Circle K, whatever name on that one corner, in that one
place, where someone calls the intersection of a convenience store
and a gas station their town, their home, their grass. Paint or
aluminum siding. A kitchen and carpet. Photos
of Aunt Edna and Uncle Charlie. That summer Chuck
went for a ride on a Harley under redwoods and past
cool stream shadows while Julie, as little girl, slept
in a Ford station wagon. Faded blue. Wood paneling
peeling open to rust. The back flipped down
for her and Ursa Major poured out sky.
In Nicaragua the colors are electric water in air.
The weight of clouds on winged cockroaches
and crocodiles in streams. La Virgen de Guadalupe. My cousin,
Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, on a bike with Brenda through
a suburb of Managua on the handlebars. The streets
were Miguel, her brother, with a rifle shooting iguanas
from a tree in a pickup or Jeep. The huge overbearing
green of myriad plants inching their way past
monkeys and chickens to a patio whitewashed
and cool. The distance away from grandmother. Actually
great-grandmother and her son, the witch doctor
who could stop malaria with powder or a gaze
into trembling hearts. The known ancient crossing
to psychology, biology, chemistry. The workings
of ourselves. A railroad blasted through mountain.
I want to dance during the Verbenas. I don't know the word
or correct spelling. V or a B? Just a sound from a one-time visit
to Nicaragua. A celebration. A truck lined with palm fronds
in a parade, then dancing. At three in the morning,
it was still warm. Verbenas. An old colonial colonel's name?
A street? A time to celebrate the harvest of bananas, yucca,
corn, beans? I don't know. There was a monkey on a leash,
on the roof. The tiles curved from Tía Teresa and Tío Rafael
to me being pretty sitting at a table with my first rum and coke.
The loss of my virginity was to be a golden icon mined
from history where my grandfather was a child hidden
under a loose brown skirt and delivered to a convent. Mi abuelita
with her eight kids. My aunts and uncles. My mother with us.
In college with Philip, a boy standing naked looking out
a window, his butt prettier than mine, it was California.
There were palm trees. I was correctly 18. I had gone to visit
Planned Parenthood. The ladies behind a desk were asking
questions and taking notes. With a brown paper bag
I waited on grass, in the park, knowing already Interstate 80
divides this nation in two, beginning in San Francisco
cutting straight through to New Jersey on the Atlantic Coast.
IN CONVERSATION: ADELA NAJARRO (AN) AND LUCHA CORPI (LC)
LC: Adela, I have enjoyed listening to you read some of your poems a few times. Mostly, when we happened to coincide at meetings and readings sponsored by Escritores del nuevo sol in Sacramento and Círculo de poetas and Writers in Oakland. It’s been a treat every time. But quite a double and triple treat now to read and reread your exquisite poetry in solitude, as I prepare for our charla here today. And I am in awe, not just for this pleasure of hearing and reading your poetry. I have also had the opportunity to see you organize public events with an ease that never ceases to amaze me. Also because reading your biographical material I realize that you are a wife, mother, indefatigable professor, community organizer, a “dynamo” poet… and so much more.
Above, in your biographical information of your early years, you close your narrative with a line that immediately held my attention: “I write to understand my place in the world.” Could you elaborate?
AN: That arises from the idea that poetry is discovery. A rant, a diatribe, a polemic , all make statements about what is already known. The rant is yelling, screaming, crying on the page over events that have happened; the diatribe is an attack; the polemic tries to convince through astute argument. All of these begin from a standpoint of knowing, knowing how one has been wronged, knowing the wrong itself, and knowing how to correct and proceed. That’s not poetry. Poetry has to begin with an open mind that follows language into a discovery or truth. It is through writing that I discover the truth of what surrounds me, in the past, the present, and even in the future; in that sense I come to understand my place in the world.
I have no fear. If the truth I find is one of betrayal, hatred, violence, anger, then that is a part of the world I live in. Even so, it surprises me over and over, how writing always takes me to hope. Even when I write about issues that have broken others or myself, I always find beauty. Maybe it’s about being alive, being able to breathe, being able to wake up one more day. Praise God and sing Hallelujah! Poetry and religion merge onto the same roadway in that they both seek the human spirit and lead us to compassion, again, our place in the world.
LC: In “Redlands, California,” you tell the story of living in the United States while imaging life in Nicaragua. Could you talk about the context you had in mind when you imagine a homeland, Nicaragua, that you don’t know since you grew up in the United States?
AN: My brain developed a duality of language and culture as I grew up. I learned English in pre-school while my first language was Spanish. I was living in U.S. Anglo culture while at home it was all about Nicaragua. So—"Los dos fit better than one alone.” That’s my line from “Conversation with Rubén Darío's ‘Eco y yo’,” which was first published in Nimrod International Journal of Poetry & Prose and appears in my collection, Twice Told Over.
Los dos. I view myself in terms of Whitman and Anzaldúa in that I contain multitudes in my mestizaje. I seek an American literary tradition that contains the Anglo, the male, the Latinx, female, and all the range between. There is no set answer, just the flux of words, our thoughts, the daily wakening to a new day that somehow seems old and familiar.
“Redlands, California,” has three sections, the first is about life in the States; in the second, I imagine life in Nicaragua; the final section tries to create a new juxtaposition between these two states of being, and, of course, it ties in with sex because what else captures the union of two distinct bodies?
The Nicaragua I know is the Nicaragua of my imagination and that of the stories told by my parents, abuelitas, cousins, tías y tíos. I tell and retell their stories to bring them into the literary conversation of the Americas. They matter. They are part of the American story. As a writer it falls to me to create poems that capture this duality of language, culture, immigration, las penas and the joy.
LC: Tell us what you will about your creative process. Do you sit down to write at certain times of the day on certain days? What happens if you get inspired while driving or in other similar situations? Do you memorize the lines for the time you finally write the poem where they belong? Or hope for the best?
AN: There was a time when I wrote nearly non-stop. I remember being at a job training and writing a poem. I have written poems on napkins. I have written using big orange markers. I feared that if I stopped writing, then the Muse or inspiration would vanish. But it never has. As I accepted that writing was part of my identity, of who I am, and what makes Adela, Adela, I took a couple of days off. Then I wrote about those days. Then I took a few more days off, then wrote new poems. Eventually, I realized that my mind collects ideas, images, language, every waking and sleeping moment. When I sit down to write, it comes out. Then the work becomes revision. Editing. Cutting that which doesn’t belong and expanding that which is hidden, all the while finding the exact words and rhythms. Doesn’t that sound like joy? It is to me. When I write, I am at one with everything. I accept whatever shows up. The pain, the horror, the laughter, the jokes, the image. Right now there is an owl in the eucalyptus tree outside my bedroom patio. Earlier coyotes were howling at sirens, not the moon, but sirens. Someone on their way to a hospital. Tomorrow, a mint leaf will open in a pot. There are spiders in the eaves. Every waking moment holds something and then the world of dreams, the imagination, the possibilities. Here are the final lines to “Conversation with Rubén Darío's ‘Eco y yo’”:
Out of the delirium,
the sweat, the anxiety of every morning,
we weave a soft and tender sea,
the mermaids, the song,
and all begins again.
Thank you Lucha for this conversation. It is always such a pleasure to see you and collaborate! Hasta la proxíma.
Mil gracias, Adela.
© Adela Najarro: the poems that appear in this interview are from Twice Told Over, published by Unsolicited Press, 2015, with permission of the author.
More information about Adela can be found at her website:
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
For My Not So “American” Mother