Unpeopled Eden

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
"Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)," Woody Guthrie

        after the immigration raid

Beneath one apple tree the fruit
lies flung like the beads from
a rosary with a broken string.
Another tree stands amused
over the strangeness of a shoe
that pretends to be an apple
in its redness, though it'll never be
an apple with that lace stem
and a pit where a core should be.

The tree at the end of the row
will weep over the pillage
all week. Around its trunk, debris:
straw hats, handkerchief, a basket
going hungry for what's out
of reach. Somewhere in the orchard
a screech goes weaker by the hour.
A radio without paws, it cannot claw
its chords to end its suffering.

But silence comes, eventually,
and the apple trees will rest,
gathering the shadows to their roots
as the flame inside each apple
falls asleep. All the while, finches
perch among the branches—patient
vultures waiting for the fruit to rot.
For a wasp, intoxicated by the sugars,
this is the perfect place to nest.

The colony will thrive inside
decay: the apples softening until
their wrinkled skins begin to sink,
the seeds poking through like teeth.
The trees will sway without the wind
because the ground will boil
with larvae. A bird will feast
until it chokes and ants will march
into the belly through the beak.


              after the ride by bus

A strand of hair pretends to be
a crack and sticks to glass. A piece
of thread sits on a seat, pretends
to be a tear. The bus makes believe
no one cried into their hands and smeared
that grief onto its walls. The walls
will keep the fingerprints a secret
until the sheen of oils glows by moon.
Rows of ghosts come forth to sing.
Until that keening rocks the bus
to rest, the fumes intoxicate
the solitary button—single witness
to the shuffling of feet and a final act
of fury: the yanking of a wetback's
shirt. The button popped right off
the flannel, marched in the procession
and then scurried to the side. The lesson:
if wounded, stay behind to die. 

The bus breathes out the shapes
turned silhouettes turned scent
of salt and sweat. The steering wheel
unspools, every window shaking loose
the wetness of its glare. And now
a riddle squats over the parking lot:
What creature stands its ground
after evisceration? Roadkill. Clouds
close in to consume the afterbirth.


              after the detention in the county jail

A mausoleum also keeps these gems:
precipitation that hardens into diamonds
on the cobweb stems, streams of urine
that shimmer like streaks of gold.
Lights coax out the coat of polish
on the floor and what's solid softens
into water stripped of ripples. Stilled
and empty, a river that has shoved
its pebbles down its throat.

The cell holds out three drops of blood
and will barter them for company,
hungry for the smell of men again. Janitor,
border guard or detainee, it's all the same
musk of armpit, garlic breath, oils
that bubble up from crack to tailbone,
scent of semen from the foreskin,
fungus from the toes. Without takers,
the keyhole constricts in the cold.


              after the deportation plane falls from the sky

A red-tailed hawk breaks through
the smoke and doesn't drop the way
the bodies did when the plane
began to dive and spat pieces of its
cargo out the door. No grace, the twitching
of such a great machine. No beauty to
its blackening inside the pristine
canvas of majestic blue—a streak of rage
made by a torch and not a paintbrush.

The hawk lands on the canyon
and snaps its neck in quick response
to the vulgar cracking on the boulders,
to the shrill of metal puncturing
the canyon, to the burst of flames
that traps a nest of mice within the lair
turned furnace, burning shriek, and hair.
Stunned host of sparrows scatters.
Fume of feathers, pollution in the air.

Poison in the lungs of all that breathes.
A darkness rises. The blue absorbs it
the way it dissipates a swarm after
the crisis of a shattered hive. Heaven
shows its mercy also, swallowing
the groan that spilled out of the hill.
No signs of tragedy by dusk
except a star splayed over rock,
the reek of fumes—a disemboweled god.


              after the clean-up along Los Gatos Canyon

What strange flowers grow
in the shadow. Without petals
and with crooked twigs for stems.
The butterflies that pollinated them
were bits of carbon glowing
at the edge. The solitary lone wolf
spider doesn't dare to bite
the scorched caul on the canyon.
It packs its fangs for brighter lands.

The footprints drawn in black
do not match the footprints
in the orchard though they also
bear the weight of the unwanted.
The chain gang called upon to gather
the debris sang the Prison Blues
all afternoon: Inmate, deportee,
in your last attempt to flee
every bone splits into three.


             after the communal burial

Twenty-eight equals one
deportation bus equals one
cell in the detention center, one
plane-load of deportees, one
plunge into the canyon, one
body in the coffin although one
was a woman—sister not alone
anymore among the chaperone
of angels with wings of stone.

Manuel Merino, Julio Barrón,
Severo, Elías, Manuel Calderón,
Francisco, Santiago, Jaime, Martín,
Lupe, Guadalupe, Tomás, Juan Ruiz,
Alberto, Ramón, Apolonio, Ramón,
Luis, Román, Luis, Salvador,
Ignacio Navarro, Jesús, Bernabé,
Rosalío Portillo, María, y José.
Y un Deportado No Identificado.
No papers necessary to cross
the cemetery. The sun floods
the paths between tombs
and everything pushes out
into light. No shame to be
a cherub without a nose.
The wreath will not hide
its decay. Cement displays
its injuries with no regrets.

This is the place to forget
about labor and hardship and pain.
No house left to build, no kitchen
to clean, no chair on a porch, no
children to feed. No longing left
except a wish that will never come
true: Paint us back into the blank
sky's blue. Don't forget us
like we've forgotten all of you.




"Unpeopled Eden”: Chris Mahin, commenting on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)" by Woody Guthrie, wrote the following account:

The fire began over Los Gatos Canyon. It started in the left engine-driven fuel pump. The plane crashed 20 miles west of Coalinga, California, on January 29, 1948.

There were 32 people on board that day, but the names of only four are recorded for history. The newspaper articles about the crash describe an accident involving a Douglas DC-3 carrying immigrant workers from Oakland, California to the El Centro, California Deportation Center. Those accounts give the name of the plane's pilot (Frank Atkinson), and co-pilot (Marion Ewing). They mention the name of the stewardess (Bobbie Atkinson) and the guard (Frank E. Chapin). However, the  newspaper stories do not include the names of any of the 27 men or of the one woman who were passengers on that flight, victims who were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. The newspaper reports simply dismiss them as "deportees."
The twenty-eight deportees to whom this poem is dedicated (que en paz descansen):

Julio Barrón, Manuel Calderón, Francisco Durán, Santiago Elisandro, Rosalío Estrada, Bernabé García, Jaime A. Guardajo, Severo Lara, Elías Macías, José Macías, Tomás Márquez, Luis Medina, Manuel Merino, Luis Mirando, Ignacio Navarro, Martín Navarro, Román Ochoa, Ramón Perez, Apolonio Placencia, Ramón Portillo, Guadalupe Ramírez, Alberto Raygoza, Guadalupe Rodríguez, María Rodríguez, Juan Ruiz, Salvador Sandoval, and Jesús Santos. And to the Unidentified One.

Rigoberto Gonzalez, "Unpeopled Eden" from Unpeopled Eden. Copyright © 2013 by Rigoberto Gonzalez.  Reprinted by permission of Four Way Books.
Source: Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013)
More Poems by Rigoberto González