The title of Blas Manuel De Luna’s National Book Critics Circle–nominated Bent to the Earth suggests a tree or a bough—you’re reminded of Frost’s birches, “arching in the woods.” But De Luna’s book isn’t that kind of pastoral. The poet isn’t talking about trees, he’s talking about bodies, bent by labor. The title poem tells of watching as immigration officers beat and handcuff the narrator’s fellow Mexican workers.
. . . I was a childThe immigrant labor experience permeates De Luna’s spare, forthright poetry, from his depictions of border crossings and INS beatings to his evocation of “bitter dust” and carefully tended tomato plants. De Luna himself was born in Tijuana, the only one of his parents’ children born outside the United States—“which means I can’t run for president,” he says with wry humor. His father came to America under the bracero program, an exploitive agricultural initiative that brought more than four million Mexican workers to America starting in 1942. “They would work under contract to farmers and then be sent back to Mexico,” says De Luna. After the bracero program folded in 1964, his mother and father came back to the United States as field workers. “My parents were economic refugees,” he says matter-of-factly.
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.
They eventually settled in Madera, California, where they continued with agricultural work. “They picked grapes, tomatoes, all the Central Valley tree fruits, even figs once in a while. That was during the harvest season. Then, in winter, they would prune and tie vines.” Growing up, the children worked alongside their parents. “I could go work in the fields right now,” says De Luna. “You don’t forget how to do something like that.”
His studies took him away from home. At Fresno City College, he happened to take a class on literature of the post–Civil War period. “One of the first poets we read was Whitman. Right away I knew something had happened to me. I started to write. Those first poems are still on my hard drive.” He pauses. “I hope never to see them printed.” After getting a B.A. and an M.A. at California State University, Fresno, he went on to the University of Washington for an M.F.A., then to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he won a fellowship. Now he’s come full circle. De Luna currently spends the work week teaching high school English in Firebaugh, California, and the weekends in Madera—“even when I was in Seattle or Wisconsin, I thought of it as home.”
Home and its life of rural, working poverty are two of the major themes of De Luna’s poems. He lays bare the dear costs and secret truths of such poverty, often in just a few sharp images. “Huron,” for example, tells of the death of a little girl working the fields: “The black wheel, wet with crushed / tomatoes, moved over Monerak’s head.” That refusal to look away from what is painful or unpleasant gives De Luna’s work a political energy. “I’m a political person,” he says, “a leftist from way back. Seeing the world as it is, which shouldn’t be a political position, has become, by default, a leftist position.”
But like any writer worth his salt, De Luna knows that truth can be told with tenderness as well as with cruel grace. In “My Father, Reading Neruda,” he tells of coming across his dad “in the yard in July’s evening heat,” reading a copy of the Selected Poems—“my father’s day gift to him.” De Luna, the son, watches carefully the child assessing whether or not his gift has succeeded: “Do I see poetry moving him? . . . Does he look smaller / or bigger? Or neither? Or both?”
De Luna then gives us the reach of his father’s life in a few short lines:
In America at fifteen—into its fields,
Tennessee and Texas, Alabama and Arkansas,
north to Washington for cherries in the spring—
there was no time for poetry, for nothing beyond
perhaps reading a cruelly small total on a check
or a letter from a wife read over and over
for the two years he will not see her.
But now, Neruda. Now, poetry. Now, poems.
The passage from rural fields into poetry has a quiet power here, in part because of De Luna’s frankly autobiographical tone. That tone, he says, “was never by intent or design. I’m not by nature the kind of person who reveals himself, but it just kind of happens in the poems—the willingness to go to the place where you’re revealed, but always in service of the poem, never in a purging kind of way.” De Luna’s willingness to reveal himself has given us a book that’s like a keyhole into an unseen chamber of American life.