March 18, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsReadingRemembrancesWriting

CantoMundo: Graduation Day

CantoMundo 2015 - Founders & Fellows Photo by Octavio Quintanilla
CantoMundo 2015 – Founders & Fellows (Photo by Octavio Quintanilla)

Carmen, Deborah, Celeste, it’s too early. I’m still dripping wet, a towel around my head. This is not my writing hour. Seven in the morning is the middle of the night, and I’m light-headed from insomnia and hunger. I confess love has done this. I have no appetite without him. Not that I cook.

Yes, Celeste, I know I have only seven minutes to speak. Come over here and stop me.

The room in which I’ve stayed the last four days is cold. From the window now it could be Rosh Hashanah morning. New York, new year. The kind of wind spinnakers swell with, the glacial edges of September. Yet I know if I open the window, I’ll feel only the heat of Jerusalem when I was a student waking in the middle of the stifling summer night.

Carolina, I will never forget we are both Levantine.

I’m putting this in writing: there will be something after Zionism.

There will be something after the heat in the middle of the night—the real talk we’ll have finally when all that’s left is our DNA matching our hearts and kidneys.

But whatever, DNA.

Whatever, like I’m a scientist or saint, looking for peace in the Middle East at Cantomundo. I can’t stand at the window in a towel forever worrying about these words. I miss my husband and New York and my 7 Train and late night walks along spruce-lined Skillman Avenue back in Sunnyside. Not spruces but sycamores. I don’t know if they are sycamores. I know them well. This room is cold. They might be London planetrees. Yes, it’s true: the 7 Train is always breaking down, skips stops without reason. I have to leave much earlier than I plan to—it’s like going to the airport every day, having to arrive hours before an international flight. I see a CantoMundo excursion to last stop, Flushing, for dumplings. If we leave now, we’ll get there next spring.

It’s an odd train to love. There is an odd day in March every year I tell those the trees it’s almost spring. There on the corner of Skillman Avenue and 46th Street, I’m standing perfectly still in the middle of the road. It is midday, and for a brief moment on an unusually warm March afternoon, I am alone. For a brief moment, people on the street have disappeared into their own elsewhere. The Japanese cherry trees have not yet blossomed, nor the tall bearded irises. There are only the giant sycamores, the towering arch of them, and I am looking down into a tunnel they’ve formed.

46th Street off Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, NYC
46th Street off Skillman Avenue in Sunnyside, NYC

I’m ready to go. As Carmen writes in “Caminitos“:

The pathways of my thoughts are cobbled with
        mesquite blocks
                and narrow-winding,
        long and aged like the streets of
                san fernando de bexar
                        y la villa real de san antonio
                y callados
        cada uno con su chiste
                        crazy turns
        that are because they are,
                centuries magic
cada uno hecho así,
       y with a careful
                capricho touch,
They curl slowly into ripples,
       earthy and cool like the Río Medina
                under the trees
                        silently singing, standing still,
                and flowing, becoming,
and always as always
        still fertile, laughing, loving,
                        Río Medina
                                under the trees,
                                        celebrating life.
They end up in the monte, chaparral,
        llenos de burrs, spurs
                pero libres
Running through the hills freefoot
       con aire azul
               blue breaths peacefully taken
                       between each lope
                               remembering venado
                                       remembering conejos
                                                               we came from

Soon too these thoughts materialize into highways, tributaries, railroads. They too undulate, commit to memory even the weeds and dust, snake across broken cobblestone as old as faith. Soon my love and I leave for Asia. Soon we return to Queens. Don’t call it returning. Don’t call it “right to return.” I’m talking about movement that is its own season.

Because I never come back as I’ve gone. I have been the arctic fox in the tundra, the pink acid on Iron Mountain, the lichen-eating reindeer. I no longer pray but dream of lichen growing over the ruins.

How I’ve changed since CantoMundo. How I’m still that young girl writing in the sand on Padre Island, my wash-and-wear sundress-skin-hair, wind-torn and restless, looking into the Gulf for her departed fisherman grandfather. How it wasn’t until much later that I found myself—this younger self—in the poems of other Latina poets. How I first remember reading Deborah’s “The Gulf, 1987”:

The day upturned, flooded with sunlight, not
a single cloud. I squint into the glare,
cautious even then of bright emptiness.
We sit under shade, Tía Lucia
showing me how white folks dine, the high life.
I am about to try my first oyster,
Tía spending her winnings from the slots
on a whole dozen, the glistening valves
wet and private as a cheek’s other side,
broken open before us. Don’t be shy.
Take it all in at once. Flesh and sea grit,
sweet meat and brine, a taste I must acquire.
In every split shell, the coast’s silhouette:
bodies floating in what was once their home.

How I too thought the “high life” was found in the sea, but not the one in which my family made their living. How I too sat in my grandfather’s boat and ate my first raw, quivering oyster as he told me he was dying of cancer. You could die, he’d whispered, in lesser hands; don’t ever trust anyone like this. It was my first raw flesh. I wanted to tear it to bits I wanted it to scream and beg. I chewed until my own lips bled. Here drink a little of this; it kills the bad stuff. I drank the whiskey straight from his bottle, tasted all his salt and ethanol and spit and morning cigarettes. I’m dying, he said again as the sun blazed over us, my mouth dry, my throat tight.

Do you know what death is.

Death is the ocean.

How I could never trust the ocean again. How all the years remain dust, waterfall, wasteland—and yet the silence of this morning struck from stone, this silence that fills this little room in which I’ve written onto the corner of Skillman and 46th, when there is no one in this car-lined street on a perfectly clear, bare-sleeved day; it is almost spring, which too is its own season.

This is when I exhume that poem without salvation from the star-crossed pile. This is otherwise wretched work in another season. Almost spring is the bridge to an avenue in which there is nothing but this poem brought back from the dead. It never died. I remember all those times I tried and tried before I’d buried it alive. Exorcist, executioner, excavator. In almost spring, the poet becomes her own season, a bridge to the next world. The bridge is always burning, and will burn itself up. In the end, there is only this poem of what has been. This is freedom. This is responsibility.

And I could never have done this without you, without all of you, who are without seasons or borders, who I will always carry with me, the petal-to-the-metal riot of you, the multi-tongued, monster-ballad of you, who shake my shoulders as I stand in the middle of the street, who hold me close and whisper: Look closely, the branches are not so bare as you think.

As Celeste writes in her prose poem “Eden’s peach tree“:

Eden gave me two saplings from the peach tree she brought from Mexico, contraband wrapped tightly in a sweater, hidden away from the prying hands of the Border Patrol. The peach tree was from her mother’s ranch in Chihuahua. In Mission, Eden, her husband, three daughters and four sons live together in a two bedroom trailer that the family and neighbors remodeled, securing the hitch to the bed of a cabless truck. She serves me Coke with ice in a recycled Whataburger cup, Whatasized, and points

to each of her plants growing in the patches of grass spotting her dirt lawn: cilantro from the nurse in San Juan, roses from la comadre who lives three houses down, pecan tree saplings from the rancher the family picks cotton for, rosemary from the woman they visit in Minnesota where they pick tomatoes, a watermelon bush from her compadre for fixing his shoulder, a grapefruit tree el jefe gave her for Christmas for filling the most sacks with oranges this past picking season, and the prize of Eden’s garden: a peach tree.

All she touches bears fruit. She says, Todo toma raíz en este país, in this country everything takes root and grows: a peach tree, a rusted trailer, the children’s hair, the lines on her face—even the dirt flowers.

Here’s to contraband trees. Here’s to the contrabands trees we are and that we become. Here’s to the arches and tunnels they form, to the Levantine heat in the Rosh Hashanah morning of summer enveloping me now, this other, other spring, when the trees are spilling over in their silence.

Carmen, Deborah, Celeste, my fellow poets, it’s still too early. I’m standing at that window, wondering what I should write to you, as I look out at the glacial edges of the Hudson, as I climb the winding roads that snakes up the edges of Jerusalem. I am in all these places, at once, and I am with you in this circle. Let’s be silent together, for a moment, and listen.

Tell these trees: what falls between seasons are the seasons for the restless.

And within each, the poet’s season.

—Taken from a letter written during my final CantoMundo retreat, The University of Texas at Austin, July 19th, 2015