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Laurie Ann Guerrero
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(ed. note: This is part 4 in a 4 part series. Read part 1 here, two here, and three here. sdh) …when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. -Joan Didion In 2012, I learned that my first full collection was going to be published, and I rushed to grandpa to tell him my news. When he opened the door, he knew immediately that the dream I had been waiting for since I was a very little girl had come into fruition and he hugged me tight, tight: You got it? he asked. Yes, you got it. You got it. I didn’t have to say a thing. We celebrated with coffee and pan dulce, and he recounted all the times he got after me for writing my name on the studs of buildings he was building, for scribbling Beatles' lyrics, lines from Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem quotes on my bedroom wall when I was a kid: puro graffiti, he used to say. But on this day, he beamed: I shoulda known you were gonna be a writer! he said over and over that one day in 2012… you wanted to write on every damn thing, yo se. That was true: I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted him to love me--to see who I was and love me for it. When I was working on the crown of sonnets, I often curled up in grandpa’s arm chair, trying to conjure his old-man smell, his gruff voice—half in English, half in Spanish. I’d bury my own cold hands under the heat of my own sad legs, dangle them off the left arm of his chair like it was his arm. I pressed my face against the wide and chesty cushion—it was almost his chest. When he was alive, he never held me like this. When he was alive, I was his right-hand man. When he was alive, I was all Guerrero, all warrior. I learned how to fight young. There was no kind of fight I didn’t have in me. Never thought my right-hand man’d be a girl, he’d say. We shocked each other all the time. When he died, things were different. And when I read the above quote for the first time in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the possibility of becoming someone other than who I was baffled me. I was taught to live up to my name. But all I really knew is I felt very tiny. Very soft. Very weak. I hated it. Grandpa never saw me like this. I wondered, could he love me weak? But I have been split open. It has taken me two years to understand that the fight in me—which helped me claim my education, helped me seek equal access, helped me demand respect, even helped me redefine the role of women in... Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
(Ed note: This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.) We need a dead (wo)man to begin. -Hélène Cixous overlooking border, El Paso, 2013 There were realities I could not fathom, even as I stood there watching my grandpa’s casket sink into the same dry Texas land he walked weeks before, where he was born, where I was born, where we shared meals and grew things: his body will stay there forever, he will decompose. The fact of decomposition consumed me and soon I walked the earth very aware that there was decomposition happening all around me. That there were probably bones and strands of DNA under the soles of my feet at any given moment—from this century or that. Sometimes I didn’t know why I was writing anymore. I wanted to lay flat on the earth and be with the decomposing things of the world, including my grandpa. It seemed the decomposition of him composed the earth. I wanted to do that. I wanted to help build the earth. But I had to keep working. I arrived in El Paso to do a couple of readings at El Paso Community College and UTEP 61 days after grandpa was buried. I had never been and I had never been so close to Ciudad Juarez, so close to the brutal femicides that had taken place there, just a few short miles from where I was. I could look over the wall and see Mexico and probably everywhere I looked, someone was decomposing. This felt familiar. But while the land where my grandpa lay was quiet, this land was pulsating. I remember the violet peaks and red sand of El Paso. And I fell in love with the Ocotillo, a cactus I was unfamiliar with. I remember thinking that the folks in El Paso were such sad bunch—the waiter at the restaurant, the store clerk, the mothers with their little babies trailing them in the streets, and the men who looked like they might collapse if they had to lay one more brick, swing one more hammer. El Paso was quiet, but I was so split open by my own grief that I was privy to sounds I don’t think I would have heard otherwise: I could hear, faintly and in the distance, the screams of women. And maybe then, I knew what the people of the border knew. Maybe you have to know grief to know the border. Or maybe you have to know the border to truly know grief. The students I met from Ciudad Juarez were the ones I most wanted to talk with. How many of them had lost a sister? A daughter? A niece? Mother? Did they feel the pulsating ground? For the first time since I lost my grandfather, I felt that there were people around me who knew what I knew. More so, knew a kind of loss that I could not comprehend. I found myself... Continue reading
Posted Sep 3, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
(Ed note: This is part 2 of a 4 part series. Read part 1 here. sdh) If a woman wants to be a poet, she must dwell in the house of the tomato. —Erica Jong In the field between the house I grew up in and grandpa’s house, vegetables bloomed—mostly tomatoes. It was my job, before dinner, to help with the watering. We dug trenches around the base of each tomato and serrano plant, and at the end of each row, grandpa extended the trench to reach the top of the next row. The water followed in a rhythmic trickle, circling each plant until it pooled over into the next. It was beautiful to watch. I was a little girl crawling on my hands and knees ahead of the water as guide. Grandpa always stood at the head of the first row adjusting the hose or inspecting the perimeter to see what needed picking. We did this as he told me stories. He held stories in his body—stories of picking cotton, baking pies, stringing up cabrito over a fire. He told stories about his brothers and sisters, about love and death. He told stories, because he never really learned to write. I see now that because we spent small amounts of time together—the hour between homework and dinner, Saturday morning before chores--and because he’d told his stories for years, they were tight, well thought out, precise. The pacing was always perfect, and his tone always turned just right. When I discovered poetry, I recognized my grandpa’s style: whole worlds in bite-sized bits. Grandpa, who learned how to record and revise in his head because he didn’t know how to write, was the first and greatest poet I knew. I’ve been thinking about that tomato garden for two years. How efficient it was, how calculated. And, too, how this kind of system is one that is passed down from previous generations, inherited by those who’d have to find a way to feed themselves, adjusting and readjusting to the elements, to modernisms. The tomato garden was grandpa’s sonnet. And while I had a hard time finding an access point into the sonnet, I was well aware of the workings of a tomato garden. I knew, then, that what I had chosen, this working of sonnets, was like a return to that field between our two houses. The challenge that I had taken on excited me, brought the only kind of engagement that could bring me comfort. I thought, too, about the heroic crown, and how the last line of one sonnet would pull you into the next, just like the water trickling over to the next row of tomatoes. I wrestled with the idea of using the form for a man who would never know it. I thought about how he created, how he sustained himself: he used what he had. It was then that I really understood the magnitude of my own education. I knew how to write. In English. I... Continue reading
Posted Sep 2, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors. —Adrienne Rich Grandpa (left), approx. 1942 My grandfather, Gumecindo Martinez Guerrero, was born in South Texas in 1931. He had a third grade education; he quit school at age 8 so that the ten cents a week he earned would supplement his family’s earnings in the Texas cotton fields. He learned carpentry in the 1950’s in California’s San Joaquin Valley and lived there with my grandmother for a short time. He became a master of his craft. He was 47 years old when I was born in 1978, and I watched him build many things: the house he lived in, the house I grew up in, buildings all over Texas, even toys for his four grandsons and me, his only granddaughter—always with the materials and tools he had, what was accessible. He was mindful. He was deliberate. There was a kind of light that he walked with, that he worked with--nothing was above him and nothing was beneath him. And there was a special kind of magic when he spoke. He shined. He was brilliant. I cared for my grandpa during the last five years of his life. We spent most of our time exchanging stories. I learned the mythology of the Guerrero family; he learned what was important to me: equality, education, rewriting prescribed narratives. I learned how to make pies like his mama made; he learned self-compassion. He made me rethink my ideas of men; I made him rethink his ideas of women. We were an odd pair. Sometimes we fought. Mostly, we loved. It was perfect. When he died in 2013, I felt a sense of drifting—it was as if parts of my body, my brain, my voice wanted to follow him into the clouds. Then began the slow deconstruction of everything I had, until then, known to be true and right: my sense of self, my sense of future, of past, my sense of identity as a Guerrero, a warrior. I knew I needed to contain everything I had, all my pieces, however I could—if not for my own sake, then for the sake of my children, my students. I only knew to turn to writing. It has been two years since he has passed. In that first year, I wrote a heroic crown of sonnets for him that has since been published, but it has taken these two years to really understand my need for a form I had been so adamantly against using. What I knew for sure was that the sonnet was an unyielding form and I needed something as steadfast as he was to get me through the greatest loss of my life thus far. I keep thinking, what did he think would help get me through the loss of him? I keep thinking, he never even knew the word sonnet--little song. And what little songs did he know that I will never hear?... Continue reading
Posted Sep 1, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
In late April 2015, I was given the gift of a one-week residency in Washington DC. The gift was an initiative of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The only requirements I had were to explore the city, visit museums, and compose new work. Essentially, as an extension of the PINTURA: PALABRA project where I was one of many Latina/o poets writing ekphrastic poetry inspired by the Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art exhibit at the Smithsonian, I was to continue to create ekphrastic poetry inspired by the works I found in and around the museums in the city. I am currently at work on new poems, which will be published in Origins Literary Journal upon completion. In the meantime, however, I have been thinking about what it means to be invited to do such work, to travel, and to be filled with voices, living and dead, that have helped me build my house…specifically as a brown woman, a mother. As I wrote, I had Neruda in my ear: “The mind and love live naked in this house.” 28 Contemplations between San Antonio and Washington DC I have been commissioned to write a poem for a museum in San Antonio. San Antonio is the city of my ancestors. My ancestors didn’t go to museums. I could touch your hands 24 hours ago. Or was it 24 years? I don’t remember the exact texture of your hair, the exact blue of the flower you grew in honor of your mother, the feel of your hands on my face in the early morning. I am in the nation’s capital. Have you been here? Are you coming? Will your kiss come as a shower of cherry blossoms? The desire to consume is insatiable: names, people, places, experience. This is the palette for my art, how I stretch my eyes awake. I want to be awake always. I am tired of borders I must contemplate before stepping back or stepping over. I want to stand everywhere. I want to know everything. I never know how to thank, properly, someone who offers their space to me, to my work. In this case, an apartment on Capitol Hill so I can live in DC for a week. I want to be good: I seek to give meaning to things like the blues in the fabric and in the music box. Is the wine on the counter for me? Should I make the bed just in case? In the space of your home, in the quiet, I weep in discomfort and in longing. I weep for signs that I am where I am supposed to be. On tattered paper, taped near the shower, I read this from Mary Oliver: In the museum in San Antonio, my 10-year-old does not wonder why she is there. In the museum, I am a poor, brown mother whose child is privileged. In the museum, I am conflicted by... Continue reading
Posted Aug 31, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 28, 2015