Wednesday, October 04, 2006


To be born of dust

I've recently read Pity the Drowned Horses, poems by Sheryl Luna (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005). A remarkable range of tone and voice moves through Luna's poems, carried by a powerful storytelling impulse. Tough poems of hard truthtelling and muscular lyricism.

Interior and exterior landscapes often mingle together and merge. Many of the poems draw on memory of the poet's earlier years in the border towns of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. From the poem "Woman as a River Between Borders":
I grew into the silence of third person, a landscape,
a mesa. I flew hard into the silence of gray smog,
my chest burning, my throat dry with the songs
of women with sagging faces, children
strapped to their bent backs.

They have become a river metaphor, a border,
a soulless chant to believers. Maquiladora workers slain
and buried in shallow graves. My palms refuse
to fold in prayer and god giggles in my red ears.
The first poem I read by Sheryl Luna (in her blog Chicana Poetics) was "Organ Failure," in which the poet speaks about her grandfather, what his life and his being say about the world of struggle in which we live.
He sold grapefruits in a wooden stand;
his daughters sold eggs along dusty streets.
And I am learning the hero's dry soul,
the way hot sand darkened the streaks of his tears. [...]

[...] Was it beauty? Adonis' blood flowering the snow?
When my friend's liver gave out she had grown thin
and selfish as any drone! How death carries a fifth-
grade pout, and the body cramps half-glorious.

The poor buy their way to aloneness.
I can hear the organs give out in rooms
where white walls echo as seashells.
Nurses scurrying to some future jet-plane vacation.
And the body a shell of liquid, swells, sways,
forgets to know.
Much of Luna's poetry conveys a sensation of being questioned, interrogated, the grappling with unsympathetic bureaucracy--an experience not uncommon in the modern empire of United States. From the poem "Poesia de Maquiladora":
I am swept into sadness, still
and unspeakable in sterile rooms where

men might as well wear white coats
and drink my breath from stethoscopes.

They were happy to show us
the habits of locusts, drain blood
into plastic bags of their manufacturing.
Tell us, Latina, was it what they
assumed it was, broken language,
poetry of a lesser nature, a wound?

The way my brown knees
slammed hard in the fall
from what was left of grace.

My eyes shrunk to slits, my only
salvation came in the flight of grackles,
the way the moon swelled, striped
with orange-red light.
Many of Luna's poems deal with the confrontation with religious belief, with search for belief and meaning, in tension with a skeptical mind and the hardness of the world. Through all of Luna's poems runs an urging to bring differing wills and desires to a meeting and joining, or at least a mutual tolerance.
Be Light in silence, light in noise.
I hold my rosy cheeks, my butterfly shape.
Time is breath smoked away. We were young
and flowered. We were silent
in a perfect trance of sleep.

Endless husky-throated voices of rage
turned to snow one night. Voices of women
nearby rose lighthearted with the sparrows.
I mourn the way we were afraid to kiss
beneath the oaks, the moon laughing,

the moon crying. Us at the center of the small universe.
We two stars lingered in the bodied voice of time,
rising from dirges and requiems
like dancing stars, on the chaos of a blood-sonata.
(From "Sonata on Original Sin.")
In a number of the poems Luna groups the lines in uniform stanzas of three or four or five lines each. I sometimes felt that the division into stanzas of standardized length put too much restraint on the voice in the poems; the regular stanza divisions sometimes seemed a bit arbitrary. I often heard a voice freer and more vital than the uniform stanzas suggested. The poems I liked best were those where the insistence of Luna's voice overcame the tendency to maintain order.
And the sky sang and the birds hopped along the sand
as if the world were young and the music came forth
like the parting of the red sea, like the burning of bush,
like tea-leaves falling and darkening the sea;
and the shadow of a red hawk fell across my face
as I walked along the driest mountain in the nation,
and there were no camels,
and there were men carrying cardboard signs, begging
for something other than a song.
(From "An Agnostic Learns to Pray.")
In passages such as the last one quoted above, the voice and urgency take on the force of prophecy. At their strongest, Sheryl Luna's poems carry a light into the world to illuminate stories we know to be true, the real lives we live, the telling of which we have longed for deep in our being.
And yet, each October, this old woman rises
like the blue sky, rises like the fat turkey vultures
that make death something beautiful, something
towards flight, something that circles in a group
and knows it is best not to approach death alone.

Each October she dances, the mariachis yelp
and holler her back to that strange, flexible youth,
back to smoky rancheras and cumbias, songs
rolling in the shadows along the bare Mexican hills.
She tells me, "It's in the music, where I'll always
live." And somehow, I see her jaw relax,
her eyes squint to a slow blindness
as if she can see something I can't.

And I remember it is good to be born of dust,
born amid cardboard shanties of sweet gloom.
I remember that the bare cemetery stones
in El Paso and Juarez hold the music, and each spring
when the winds carry the dust of loss there is a howl,
a surge of something unbelievable, like death,
like the collapse of language, like the frail bones
of Mexican grandmothers singing.
(From the poem "Bones.")

Pity the Drowned Horses is available from the publisher, here. Sheryl Luna's blog Chicana Poetics is here. Go and read her.

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