Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Two
On Poetry as Family Bond
A few weeks ago I was sitting in front of my alma mater’s library, where I was tickled to discover that a coffee shop had been set up at the entrance. What a handy idea for Arizona State University students who need that caffeine to keep the late-night research going and the midnight oil burning. Anyway, in 10 minutes I was about to participate in a panel for distinguished alumni, four of us invited back to give an informational, practical chat to students about how to help themselves and their careers while still in college. My cell phone rang. I knew by the area code that it was one of my relatives from Bakersfield, the California town where I was born.
“Tía, how are you? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, of course. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“Well, I have a few minutes before I have to make a presentation. I’m in Arizona.”
“Oh, well, a few minutes are all I need. Listen: I wrote a poem.”
My aunt Marta, the woman who married my father’s brother, who worked most of her life sorting carrots at a packinghouse alongside my mother and grandmother, wrote a poem. My aunt Marta, who took lessons in cooking desserts, who had me read and translate recipes on the side panels of cereal boxes, wrote a poem. My aunt Marta, barely literate and always laughing, whom I’ve seen cry only once, when I came to visit her after she separated from my uncle and was run out of town by my disgruntled relatives who were furious at her for bringing the González family its first divorce, wrote a poem.
This was a special moment indeed. And it was not the first. After I gave my brother Texaco Alex a copy of my first poetry book, which I had dedicated to him, he was inspired to write a few verses of his own. He wrote two short poems. One was in honor of his recently deceased pet dog, Coqui (a phonetic pronunciation of Cookie—the dog was little). The other was titled “I Wish I Could Cut My Own Hair.” He shared with me these two pieces and then, like a true intellectual dummy, I proceeded to analyze them.
“The first poem is about how you are trying to understand death and mortality,” I told him. And then I made the terrifying connection between the death of his beloved pet to the death of our beloved mother, and how he was still grappling, like I was, with that loss. How writing this poem was like grieving.
”The other poem is about how you want to be in control,” I told him. He stared at me with disbelief, affronted by this act of turning the intimate moment into a lesson, and worse, into an analysis of his state of mind.
“It’s just about my dog,” he said, flatly. “And about my hair.”
“Right,” I said, and then I shrank into my seat.
“But you should read this poem, though,” he said, pulling out another sheet of paper from a folder. “Our father wrote it.”
“Father wrote a poem?” I said, flabbergasted. My father, with a third-grade education and a unique penmanship that made his letters parade across the page like stick figures, wrote a poem.
“What is it about?” I asked.
“It’s about you and me and our mom,” my brother said. “I think he wants to tell the story.”
The story. I had been writing my own version, which I called Butterfly Boy—a nonfiction account of a young man who’s coming out and coming to America. Though I had been born in Bakersfield, I was raised in Michoacán, Mexico. My father’s poem was about meeting a beautiful Mexican lady, marrying her and raising two sons together. We were not named, exactly. We all appeared in the poem as symbols. My mother was “la estrella”—the star that shone brightly, and then faded, leaving behind two smaller stars to carry her memory into eternity. There was no mention of the fact that “el corazón”—the devastated heart that loved that star—abandoned the two smaller stars to fend for themselves in the fierce open skies. The poem ends on a more hopeful note. Butterfly Boy doesn’t.
“What do you think he’s trying to tell us?” my brother asked.
I didn’t want to say.
So when my aunt Marta called to read me her poem over the telephone, I have already learned this—that family members who write poetry are trying to communicate something important. So different from all that college-educated poetry I have been hearing and reading over the years that says nothing. I also know that they simply want another poet, their kindred spirit who understands the role and purpose and impulse of poetry, to listen, to hear what they have to say in the special language of personal expression.
“What is the poem called?” I ask my aunt Marta.
The poem is called “Luz”—“Light”—and it is about how life is full of storms and thunder and tempests, how we must each travel through the seas like a lost sailor, looking into the darkness of the clouds, despairingly. But in spite of all that grief, we should be reassured that there is a ray of light worming its way through, biding its time before it strikes its hopeful light upon the soul. She wrote it, she tells me, to give me comfort. Two weeks before, my father had passed away.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“It’s beautiful,” I reply. “It’s the most beautiful poem I’ve heard in a long time.”
We said our quick goodbyes. I promised to call her later in the week and I asked her to send me a copy of her poem. She sent it. It is now part of my treasury, tucked inside the special folder reserved for my family’s art.