Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Fields of memory

This past week I read Bent to the Earth by Blas Manuel de Luna (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2005), which is filled with poems of compelling story and moving simplicity. The author, who was born in Tijuana, Mexico, worked for a number of years as a migrant farm worker in the United States, and many of the poems speak of his life during that time. Spare, direct, uncompromising. These lines from the poem "Today":

Today, where my mother works,
a young man,
no older than myself,
lost his hand
in a machine.
He screamed when his hand came off.
My mother told me
she could not get the scream
out of her head. All around them,
the pistachios, on the conveyor belt,
and on the ground, reddened.
The difficulty of living in the world, a world weighted with economic scheming and political predations of powerful people, and -- in the face of these -- the struggle to survive and grow, are never far from the surface of de Luna's poems. Many of the poems deal with the nearby presence of death, death of family members and other loved ones, death on the job, death in the search for a brighter life.

In high school we would test each other,
five high school wrestlers walking home
along the tracks, listening for trains.
When we heard one, we would line up
fifteen feet away, would start taking
little steps toward the tracks,
would give up, always,
before it got too close.
(From the poem "Trains.")

Many of the poems make references to photography (and the front cover photo of the book is by the author), and the poems themselves often hold moments in the manner of photographs, in the place before words come. De Luna's poems are fearless in their insistence on holding the moments of memory, no matter how difficult or painful. From the poem "Your Eyes at Night":

I sit up, I touch your face,
I pull back your eyelid. In the weak light
that passes through our curtains,
I look at one of your eyes,
at its lack of moisture.

In photography,
we call them catchlights,
the way light is trapped
by the wetness of the eye,
the way we know if the person
in the photograph is alive or dead.

I let go of your eyelid. All my love
will not save you.
In one of the poems that touched me the most, "What to Save," de Luna tells the first moments and the first hours after learning of the death of his younger brother, after the phone call in the night that brought the news.

Tanya came out of the bedroom.
She wore my old T-shirt.
The T-shirt was gray. I could see
the outline of her body
through its thin cloth. Remember this
I thought, Remember.

She asked what was happening,
and an animal sound came out of me.

We made it to California
in fourteen hours. When our father
walked toward me as I got out of the car, I knew
to remember the coat that he wore,
its faded denim, its dark brown buttons,
its pockets pushed out by his hands,
how it had grown loose on his frame,
its smell of him as he embraced me and I darkened
one of the shoulders.
Memory is the beginning of history, history which is the beginning of a common life and purpose. To hold and sustain memory is to begin to preserve history, to make possible the flowering of culture, acts of beauty in the world. The poems of Blas Manuel de Luna are essential, of the essence, telling us things we need to hear and to remember, and to tell again.

In the poem "Bent to the Earth," de Luna tells of being in a truck with other immigrant workers, which is run off the road by immigration police:

spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots of the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.

They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was his sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths

revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.

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