When the new year arrived, I started my second quarter at UC Santa Cruz. To my disappointment, I was the only Latina in my advanced fiction class. My visit to Mexico over Christmas, though painful, had once again reinforced my need to write about the place of my birth. It was by writing about the people I knew, describing their plight, that I could honor their difficult experiences and keep them in my heart and mind. I had to remember each of them, write their stories, share their pain, so that they knew they weren’t alone. The ten days I spent in Iguala had inspired me to write that story collection I claimed I was writing to get the grant from Kresge College. I had gotten the funding, gone on my trip to Mexico, and though the money was given to me with no strings attached, I felt an obligation to follow through on what I had said I would do.
The stories were all set in my hometown, so every assignment I turned in to my fiction teacher was about a world—an experience—neither she nor my classmates knew anything about.
“You have a wild imagination,” my teacher said of my story about a flood that devastated the whole neighborhood, forcing the people to spend a week on their roofs, navigating makeshift canoes to retrieve the floating bodies of their dogs, cats, and chickens.
“Your work is over-the-top and overwritten,” my teacher said of my story about a young girl who was forced to go to school barefoot because her family was too poor to buy her shoes. And just like I had been, she was physically abused by her teacher for being left-handed.
“Your work is too flowery and full of clichés,” my teacher said of my story about a young mother who falls into the community well where she was getting water for the wash, leaving her two children to be raised by their abusive, alcoholic father.
But when it came to the work of white students—who wrote stories about drinking, doing drugs, going to parties, and having sex—the teacher praised them as if they had just written a masterpiece worthy of a Pulitzer.
There were times when I wanted to run out of my classroom and never come back. What am I doing here? I thought. Who do I think I am to even consider that my stories are worth telling?
I thought of my fifth-grade teacher who had rejected my story because it was in Spanish, and by doing so had also rejected who I was. Now I was experiencing the same disapproval. The experiences I put on the page were so foreign to everyone in my class, I might as well have written them in another language.
I could choose to leave. I could choose to drop out of the creative writing program, to be silenced. I could choose to believe that my stories didn’t matter.
Or I could fight.
Hadn’t my own grandmother survived the Mexican Revolution?
I thought I had made it when I had a green card and could travel to London for the weekend, but then my eyes were opened whenever I came back through customs and got pulled out of the line to be fingerprinted and questioned as if I were openly carrying a weapon. I thought I’d made it when I received my citizenship and a U.S passport, but then a saleswoman at the Beverly Hills branch of my favorite store, Club Monaco, snidely told me that certain necklaces I was looking at were “too expensive” for me to try on. She not so subtly reminded me that no matter what papers I had, and no matter how much money I had in the bank, I still didn’t belong in her store, off Rodeo Drive, simply because of what I look like: Mexican.
So here’s how I know I’ve finally made it in America. I’ve made it not because I assimilated, or because I have a little bit of money, or because my story made headlines. I know I’ve made it because I have earned the right to question the system in which I live. I’ve made it because I’ve earned the right to have my voice be heard. I’ve made it because I can disagree with and question what America is really all about. I’ve made it because I can demand more from my country. I, like millions upon millions of other immigrants both documented and undocumented, am a part of America whether certain people like it or not—and therefore I can work hard and make lots of noise in attempting to create a system that works for me. When political candidates say they will work for the American people, I want to say, I am the American people. Will you work for me?
As a child and teen, I loved the X-Men of comic and movie fame. They gave me hope because they walked among us, often as ghosts that just blended in. People walked by them without noticing them, not knowing that they were different. They knew they were different, talented, and amazing. Yet they feared being found out. They feared being known. I feared being known. I tried to blend in as much as I could, and in the process I lost so much of myself, of my culture, of my Mexican-ness. In that regard, I am a recovering American elitist. I am trying to find myself, to find out about my culture in this country, about my ancestors, what they lost, and what was taken from them.
IT IS only when one struggles with death—mentally and thoughtfully—that we are given access to true life, for death is the great criterion; anyone who works in fine art soon realises this, the idea or concept of death and not merely physiological demise. As humanists this current time is one of the crucial periods of history that we are now experiencing upon earth and as a poet I would like to describe how it is that I move through such a domain of all creation: how it is that we might conceive of travel and how goodness moves concurrently and simultaneously within our pysche.
For me, all of life has been a pursuit of metaphor or pursuit of the genius of Poetry: in the Americas, in Europa, in Asia, and in Africa, and that kind of progress has always composed my distance. To travel is a means for approaching and for arresting metaphor; look at Joseph Conrad, for instance, the old voyager, and how he attempted throughout his life to understand what he was not.
So we travel on earth seeking the terrain of Poetry, walking through wilderness and empty landscape or visiting those ancient sites like Dholavira in far-western Gujarat, or Mykenai in the Greek Peloponnese, or the Arawak campsite on eastern Carriacou in the Grenadine Windward Isles, pursuing that authenticity of experience in a form of antique material reality...
There are three conditions or virtues in this endeavour. Firstly, without friendship we are but tinkling cymbals, without the love or amity—and I do not mean sexual union with all its precision and sensuous hierarchy—that mimetically joins two individuals so that they replicate each other’s likeness. Without that goodwill of companionship there can be nothing that is true in life for such unbreakable affinity is the primary foundation of our existence.
Then secondly, prayer or meditation or what some might refer to as recitation, are all nominal dimensions of what in Sanskrit is called dhyána or ‘profound reflection’. These conscious actions are central in the advance towards what we consider to be TRUTH and the experience of our mastery of awareness where verbal language cannot go, is not to be reproduced anywhere else in the world. Similarly, the knowledge supplied by these kinds of contemplation is impeccably unique and matchless, unequalled in diurnal and practical life.
Thirdly and paradoxically, in this pursuit solitude is not social but mental and affective and it is there that one secures resilient strength. When nothing exists—and this is difficult to achieve conceptually for it demands pristine discipline and tensile rigour—then we are truly tested and yet we might only then accomplish our vision. Ultimately, if we are certainly free and liberal we might only pray, entering that realm of unwitnessed reflection so that our interior light might become stable. Such truthfulness or veracity is completely tenacious and yet without this persistent resolve nothing can be feasible on earth, not in terms of psychic or spiritual manumission.
Friendship, meditation, and solitude convert us and none of these can be effective without resolute conviction: this is not faith but is founded upon experience and knowledge and that nature of immaterial vision. It is this which I would refer to as the YOGA OF POETRY or the Art of Travel. This certainty is mysterious for it is neither rational nor derived from anything memorable; it is a certitude which cannot be taught nor transmitted for it bears an unusual and inexplicable inevitability about its visual ways.
These three circumstances underlie, integrate, and cause to inhere what becomes acoustically, literally, and aesthetically the place or occurrence of Poetry and its versatile character of human measurement.
In such perfect invocation there is no entity and that is the work, to create and to establish a vision of all potential, unworldly, untimed, and never discrete. This in fact amounts to true love or the single kernel and core of friendship: that fundamental worth of human amity which seeks to exchange but only in terms of giving and not of reception. That is our only firm meaning in mortal life, to give and not to receive, that is the true labour where all effort is to be directed. The transparency of candid Poetry imitates this.
In such action solitude—being that is lone and sole—is not emotional but abstract and ontological, a state where we affirm our cognisance of others and our admission of what we are not. Those who possess or who carry no capacity for despond or despair do not perceive or apprehend this kind of encapsulation or infolding of knowledge, for desperation is simply the initial and personal ground of anything that is exposed and revealed.
So we travel on earth seeking the terrain of Poetry, walking through wilderness and empty landscape or visiting those ancient sites like Dholavira in far-western Gujarat, or Mykenai in the Greek Peloponnese, or the Arawak campsite on eastern Carriacou in the Grenadine Windward Isles, pursuing that authenticity of experience in a form of antique material reality. These are places, strange and vague situations where death is manifold and thoroughly extant to the careful eye. There are women’s bangles made of shell to be picked up from the saline dust or small copper beads and thin chert blades, or tiny obsidian arrow-heads that can be unhidden and disclosed beneath those bloody grey walls about the Lion Gate, or beautiful indented potsherds and ceramic fragments at the waterline where the Atlantic rolls out its long blue visceral waves.
All these rare and disjected objects come to us from millennia ago and can be read for their quiet validity and record of ancient humanity, for in these places we are travelling in time and passing through the unseen tissue and blind gateways of an absolute and unsigned dissolution. That is where Poetry begins, alone in an unaffected and untroubled world where the initial traces of humankind can be raised and admired, particularly for its stains of human loss and grief, in its burial and cremation.
For me, walking has always been a medium of thought and one always approaches those ancient sites on foot and patrols them as a pedestrian, for Poetry has always remained the ultimate medium of travel, the only good yoga that I know and which is practicable: how we move from metaphor to metaphor, usually on foot and walking in regions—the obdurate coast, the blond hills, or alkaline desert—where in solitude there is a stripping away of our intellectual and habitual clothing so that we might receive some few loose grains of the genius of this round earth and sky, where light is actually marked with the invisible signs that take us away from the informed and fungible world and its bounds; for original genius only possesses one power of truth. Think of Charles Darwin as a young mariner, pacing the decks of the Beagle and pondering the qualities of material transition and temporal life.
Before we can comprehend these indications we must abandon our own station and its establishment and this requires terrific individual dominion and a mind that is almost athletic in its ability not simply to reach the margins but to continue further with that veritable exertion: one that is mental and not physical. Friendship is sovereign, like heart-beaten breath, in these circumstances.
Consciousness is our master and neither words nor thoughts go there, only we move in that fashion with Poetry and the yoking of our humanity with its animal strength, with the hawk-eyes of limitless vision; walking among the powdery dust of those chalcolithic cities far out in the desert, where—in the company of friends who are completely unlike ourselves—we share an experience of a passing and indelibly indestructible truth. Who can stand unique in such a sure void?
This is what Poetry attempts to emulate and to reserve for us, engaging various platforms and conversions of metaphor to serve the incidence of perfectly lucid and transparent images of beauty, and to serve them with a near amorous devotion which is able to be clearly victorious even in the presence of death. If we do not perceive that presence then we cannot follow any truth, and then, there can never be any Poetry. In this the fire of alert contemplation is like a spear, an arrow, or a javelin whose aim is true.
❖ KEVIN MCGRATH ~ VERS LA FLAMME ~ TWO THOUSAND & SIXTEEN ❖
My Guadalupe River, it pulled me to it, always and often I made my way to its water.......my first year here, I was hungry for water ...Though my first year here was 2001, the year I became friends with that river and spent more time there, however, over the years, a quiet secret hiding place.
I needed this river, and I came to it, my transitional water, an hour from my home and the forever-returning, after Mother's Syria and the wild longing for the sounds and scents of spices, and walking the Damascene souks, ya mal i'sham, y'Allah, ya mali, tar il mattar, ya hilwa, ta'ali----the castles, the seaside Lattakia streets [the first I'd visited my parents' and siblings' home, my grandfather's built slate stone home, behind his own, for guests; and having spent nearly a month there, sad over the leaving, a world away, the embroidered souks, the central water fountain in the big city, our trek to Aleppo, and the high wall of the fortress, Krek de Chevalier, where Asian tourists laughed and looked upwards, to a friend, on top of the Rapunzelian tower, the photographer friend below, urging her to smile, screaming upward in air, Soura, Soura!; and the castle of Salahidin, Zenobia's Palmyra, [think before the Arab Spring, as if time knew we had to go, and then].
The doleful Arabic sung voices over the speakers in restaurants, the khibz el saj, the thin bread baked over a steel mound, pregnant belly of heat; walking the streets at night with sister Sada, one night, alone, after we came back from a bus tour of Homs and nearby places, the rest of us in the hotel with the phone number that carried 777, I begged Sada to come, not for protection, but for fun, as I wandered the big city streets, and we heard the tabl and zummer, the percussive bold sound of the drum, and the celebratory horn, people clapping and ululating, a wedding on a patio behind the stucco and stone arches, and Sada and I began to dance and sway, our own moment, there, among them, on the sidewalk, three blocks from our hotel; and later, walking back, a parade of drummers and another zummer, and the wedding-goers marching past us, many weddings this summer night.
Once, nearer a river, in the small village of Kamea, or was it Kafroun, Bryan and I heard the same festive sounds, as hundreds of people, we found, after our stepping up a flight of stairs, leaving, for a moment, our own beautiful dinner gathering, the long tables filled, us there, dining, by the slow river, at the invitation of Father Michael, and his lovely wife, Bryan and I stepping up, after we ate below the rippling sounds of a wedding gathering, there we were, later, peeking in; there they were, under a tent, a man with a grey and silken sheen of hair, the long of it pulled back and banded, a Hawaiian shirt, white cotton summer pants, the open sandals, there he danced, arms raised up; his tall, slim body, and grace.
The last festive days of summer, before the subsequent spring.
Tierra que amo
Desde las montañas (Valle de San Gabriel)
Al océano (Condado de Orange)
El sueño americano
Lo que mostraron en la televisión
Land that I Love
From the Mountains (San Gabriel Valley)
To the ocean (Orange County)
The American Dream
What they showed on Television
Education, lots of it
Despite giving all that they asked, because of greed, money hungry, power, lust, and above all power of control, we are unable to even buy land. Buying a home with the white picket fence, flowers, plants from Home Depot, barbecues in the front yard is no longer possible. If we do, we must work 10 hour days 6 days a week. Our home would only be a storage unit, a place to sleep, shower, eat; it would not be a home. Living in America has become difficult. There is racism; there is corruption.
I want to move to Mexico. I want to live. No country is perfect…every country has its flaws; Mexico has some corruption, but in Mexico people are able to live.
In Mexico, we can afford a home, eat without pesticides; everything is already organic…I won’t have to work two jobs to make ends meet.
I want to move to Mexico because it is healthier. There isn’t commercialism like there is here…there aren’t people fighting to encourage, aka brainwash, to eat fast food, soda, and candy. In Mexico, we don’t have a million commercials playing on our televisions. There aren’t people trying and fighting to influence the manner in which we drive, or what we wear. People in Mexico drive what they can; they wear what they want with no judgment.
Did I mention cancer and other diseases are almost unheard of in Mexico? There is no “Walk for Cancer,” no “Children’s Hospital,” no chemo hospitals…yes, some have diseases but they are such a small number, it is shocking, those people are featured on the news. How much cancer, how many diseases do we have in America? How many drug commercials play constantly on our televisions? Why do I see 80- to 90-year-olds living on their own in Mexico? How are they able to walk to the market and do as they please? Seniors in America wear buzzers in case they fall. They need people to stay in their houses with them and take care of them. They’re only 70 and they have 3 or more pill boxes.
America discourages me. America makes me sad…I never felt this way, but my Country gives me nothing now and takes everything. America has lost its way and doesn’t want to try, to open its eyes, to have empathy or share; America no longer is the Land of Dreams.
Soy un triste soñador
I am a sad dreamer.
America is sending back the Statue of Liberty; she can no longer uphold her motto. The Statue of Liberty is tired of the sick, she’s full of the poor, the smog, the second-hand smoke…The light of liberty is now off. Every shadow of this land waits in the dark.
Yo también tengo un sueño. Sueño que un día, todos en todo el mundo se darán cuenta de la importancia de salvar la tierra, de vivir unidos como uno solo.
I too have a dream. I dream that one day, everyone all over the world will realize the importance of saving the earth, of living united as one...
When she died, they gave me her porcelain cat. White, with orange markings and a red collar, curled into itself in perpetual sleep. I knelt beside it, close to the ground, peering into its face, imploring it to wake. On the days I missed her most, I fell asleep with it, my body curled around the cold, silent object, like a comma.
Years later, a picture hanging above the cat came loose from its hook and fell on it, shattering it, disturbing for the first time the slumber of the cat who never woke. Its remnants dispersed across my bedroom floor. I considered using one of the fragments to carve a name into my arm. But I didn’t know if I should use her name or my own. As I wept, my mother swept up the pieces.
In time, my mother repaired the cat. Reconstructing it piece by piece, gluing it together, but not seamlessly. When she was done, I traced the cracked lines on its back with my fingertips. This became a habit.
My daughter was born with her eyes open. At night, her curved, warm body, sweet with sweat and dreams, nestles in the crook of my arms. Like a comma, like a question.