November 30, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsLiteratureRemembrances

Strangers Meant (to be) Un-stranged

is marred
by borders
that become a sieve
of history, straining the wild
from the willing. Missions and malls encroach your sun swathed
villitas where flowers battle and murals proliferate like thirsty brushfires.

—Vincent Toro,
Fibonacci ekphrastic for “The Birth of a City” by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz

My husband and I flew to see my family early for a holiday we don’t even celebrate. As my mother would say, one should always be thankful and give thanks every day to those around us. I agree with this. It is dangerous to worship some battered, idealized version of history, its many untruths, its many smokescreens.

And although we flew home early, my husband and I spent part of the time working remotely. We are grateful we can do this because my parents cannot. My father, in fact, was originally working on Thanksgiving because he started a new job working at a chain auto parts store, and because chains compete, the store was open on Thanksgiving from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. When a coworker heard we were coming, he traded hours so my father could have that one day off, so we could be with my mother’s family, celebrating a holiday we don’t even celebrate, which just happened to fall on my uncle’s 68th birthday. I’m grateful for that coworker. Although none of us can always be in the present (I’m writing this now in a car while my husband talks border politics with my parents), even though my father will work Black Friday and most of the weekend—for taking that one day off—I’m grateful that we can be here, talking together, spacing out together, arguing, sharing an unintentional prayer in remembrance of my belated uncle, the patriarch of my mother’s family, his presence kept extant, grandparents too, the stories of many Mexicos and crossings, many Rio Grandes, although the map might say one river, one country.

I listen into their conversation, and suddenly I hear my father say to my mother and my husband: Elizabeth Bishop . . . she had a very tragic upbringing. She never saw her mom again. Sent off to a number of different relatives. . . 

There follows an unintentional moment of silence for Elizabeth Bishop outside the city of Kingsville, which we are passing through, and I imagine the four points of a rectangle of my own childhood: San Manuel-Linn in the northwest, McAllen in the southwest, Raymondville in the northeast, and Harlingen in the southeast. And the many towns scattered around like stars in the sky: Edinburg, Mercedes, Weslaco, Brownsville, Matamoros, Los Fresnos, South Padre Island.

Elizabeth Bishop once said: “All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper—just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something.'” My father once said that most of his family, very observant Jews, kicked him out of their lives not because he married my Mexican mother, but because they truly believed he went “wrong.” Because they never said her name. Because my mother was she, stranger.

I’m thinking of my father—who is non-native to these parts of South Texas and Mexican borderlands, my mother his original tie to these parts, her family he now considers his own blood—when I recite these towns like a litany in my head.

Why would you need money in heaven? I hear my husband say suddenly, and my parents laugh, the discussion continuing while I’ve been writing this, and we pass another town called Sarita, a rural community not exactly a ghost town, but a place without gas stations, stores, restaurants or bars. But there is a church in Sarita, where once we stopped so that my mother’s mother might pray, as she wanted to pray in every church regardless of domination—or was it in Ricardo, another “unincorporated community”—and the prayers were for her parents, especially my maternal great-grandfather who was very strict with my grandmother and never approved of my grandfather, and this is perhaps why, when my Jewish father came to ask for my mother’s hand, that my grandparents said yes, they welcomed him into a geography more complex than their familial ties, a geography of shifting, erratic borderlands, and how my father cried when my mother’s parents died, and he still says Kaddish for them, for her Catholic parents who would sit and listen to me recite my Hebrew lessons, nodding in agreement for a language they could not speak or read.

In-laws: a compound word my parents have never liked.

Like non-native.

Or stranger.

What it means to go wrong.

What it means to channel another.

* * *

Still dons his guayabera at church. Still scuttles
across rooms reliving the soccer matches of his youth
in Barranquilla. Still hears his mother declaring, “In this house we are ruled by only education and God.” Still sings his favorite cumbias as he waters the garden.

—Vincent Toro,
Alzheimer’s Suite (for Sammy)”

Before we proceed, please read and listen to this first.

This past summer, my friend Vincent Toro held a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in celebration of his debut collection Stereo. Island. Mosaic. Vincent is one of the most generous, open-hearted people I know. He walks the walk. He gives much of himself to the various communities in which he belongs. On the page, his work, as Ed Roberson has said, “moves forwards and backwards through itself, and collides in bursts of poetic beauty everywhere.”

Off the page, we enter an entirely different world. Believe me when I say if you ever have the chance to hear Vincent read in person, clear your schedule. He is one of the most powerful readers of our time. And I dislike using the word here: “reader.” Or “performer.” Vincent channels the music we might no longer hear, music we lose in the white noise of other responsibilities, routines, distractions. He does not read at you. You are with him. And this past summer, his reading was one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever been a part of, along with poets Grisel Y. Acosta, Marina Carreira, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Ellen Hagan, Kamilah Aisha Moon and Carlos Manuel Rivera. It was, as Vincent put it and other echoed, a gathering. Each poet shared a poem. I shared one about my father-in-law, and since none of us knew which poems Vincent would read from his book, it seemed serendipitous that one of his most haunting poems was also about his own father-in-law, “Alzheimer’s Suite (for Sammy),” which I’ve linked to above so that you might at least hear the audio.

In this particular poem, white space gradually replaces narrative in the poem. As the illness robs Sammy of his speech and memory, the poet also channeled on stage the struggle in which the speaker tries to hold onto his stories and histories, to the names of people and places, to his very person. The last section (5.) is all white space, a terrible clearing, a void in which Vincent filled with quaking resistance, embodying a speaker who refuses to give up, who fights the very white space entrapping him, but it’s off-the-page, in the performance, that on a warm Sunday afternoon inside the darkness of the cafe, that all were drawn into one of the most devastating conflicts the human mind can face. We were all on the edge of our seats, imploring the many dimensions that he’d become— as the poem’s speaker, as the poet’s real-life father-in-law, as Vincent himself— to fight for the words. We wanted to hear him speak, to tell us again how he’s “Still smitten with the scent of aguacate, the taste/ of butter pecan. Still hides for his grandchildren to seek him.”

But the words never come.

And yet the poet finds a way to honor the words lost by giving the shuddering silence time on the stage, by giving it just as much importance, just as much regard.

And so son by marriage becomes son by blood.

* * *

They are
Once they declare themselves
defenseless, defenseless
Once they declare themselves

—Vincent Toro
“Crab Canon for the Marooned”

On a nature show I watch with my parents and husband, a family of snowy owls nearly starve because of climate change. The chicks are barely a month old. The runt of the flock cannot fight for the few rodents that are caught for sustenance; its brothers and sisters take all. We and the documentary crew watch the runt starve as its mother tries to care for it, as its siblings bully it, refusing to share what scraps the father can find. The mother takes the runt protectively under her wing, and for a moment I’m certain of some parent-child bonds are infinite and unyielding.

Until, as the cameras reveal, the next morning comes.

And of course deep down I knew this was coming.

The next morning, the mother owl discovers the runt is dead. The family is starving, my father says to everybody and nobody in the room. We watch as the mother tears into the runt’s unmoving body, ripping its flesh into pieces, which she then divides up as meat among the existing chicks.

She can’t smell its scent anymore, my father says to us, to the sudden uncomfortable silence and white space that had formed among all of us, the four points of us, each a different point that creates a fragile rectangle of a churning new geography. My father is speaking to it as he is speaking to us when he says: She has to because the scent is gone. So she doesn’t know it anymore. Her own blood.

I say silently: This is not the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is not the story of our own country in which golden calves abound, and people aren’t burning books just yet, but are bowing down, minds made up, dialogue endangered.

I say without a word to the silence that follows the words of my father: Maybe as humans we should all go wrong.

Maybe to evolve is to go :: wrong.

Not to go around and around :: anymore.

To make extinct the language that makes others go extinct.

To make extinct the language that makes others go extinct.

What if we allowed ourselves to chance upon a stranger who is meant to be un-stranged?

What if, like the poet Vincent Toro, we channeled each other’s silences and blank spaces, even when one’s defenses are down as they are up, long before we take that first breath to speak?

What if this alone—this painful fumbling of an attempt— would be to make the most sublime of contact?