In late April 2015, I was given the gift of a one-week residency in Washington DC. The gift wasan 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 my role—how many roles? In the museum, I am there to write a poem and I am supposed to speak to the city I love. For the city I love. In the museum, I am tormented that what I have to say is not worth what they pay me. And tormented that what I have to say, they could never afford. And tormented that my babies won’t eat until someone pays me to set free my tongue. In the museum, I may choke on my tongue.
- I do not believe in writer’s block. There is much, still, that needs to be said. I speak to friends about fear, about transitions—in life and in writing. I talk about standing in thresholds between what was and what will be. We are the borderwalkers. This from Tim Z. Hernandez:
Count the years of oppression that interrupt the thought as it travels from the brain to the hand.
- By the time I get to DC, I am a whirlwind. I have learned to braid and unbraid my grief: tidy it neatly for the sake of presentation, or let it unravel—a wild mess. I am wholly contained. Self-rectifying in my search and pursuits. Chaos or tranquility dependent upon the angle of light on my face. Washington DC is the same. I gather blossoms to press in my journal.
- My intention is always efficiency: with my time, with my language, with my money, with my energy. Mostly, I fail. This from Audre Lorde:
I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.
- In the National Gallery of Art, I don’t know where to look. I keep thinking about having to eat alone again. My mother taught me not to eat alone. Count the years of oppression that tell a woman not to be alone.
- In San Antonio, my daughter contemplates the inner workings of a contraption I cannot name. She does not contemplate the inner workings of a woman who contemplates years of oppression nor the borderline that separates our side of town from the side of town that houses the museum. Music and story and electricity and history become mirror. She can see herself in the mirror. I have questions for my city. And for my country:
…what is love if not the feeding of each other?
And what is beauty if not the blossoming mind?
And what is home if not feeling like we belong here?
- In Washington DC, alone and deliberate, I eat a pesto chicken sandwich and drink tea. I write about fear and aloneness and can feel the freeing of my limbs from their joints: I am afraid of nothing.
- In Andrew Wyeth’s painting Wind from the Sea, I find a hummingbird painted into lace curtains that billow in a window. I think of an essay by a poet: Natalie Diaz’s “If What I Mean is Hummingbird, If what I Mean is Fall into My Mouth”:
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex.
- I remember I am alone. But maybe it wasn’t a hummingbird at all—maybe it was golondrina, swallowtail. I think of a poem: Tim Z. Hernandez’s “San Joaquin Sutra":
Are there two sides to the swallowtail's account?
- When I am working, I am both flower and bird: the art confirms there are many sides and many accounts.
There are so many sides and so many accounts, voices rise from beyond the thick umber’d oils, the patina’d bronze, the artifacts that might have been held in the hands of a woman like me.
- The hands of women like me are everywhere.
- Near a grand staircase, I am face-to-face with Nelson Shanks’s The Four Justices. One looks like me. Again, I weep.
- Everything is a mirror.
- Juan Duran is a laborer from New Mexico whose portrait was painted by Kenneth Adams. He looks like the father of a man I know. I could hear his hearty laughter around a fire and smell the smoked mesquite wood radiating from his dark skin. The portrait was painted in 1934. This could be my great grandfather—his portrait hanging in a museum in Washington DC.
- Did you ever think you would be in Washington DC?
- In Congressional Cemetery, I walk with a poet: Dan Vera & I speak of love, Whitman, sonnets, Anzaldua, borders & blossoms of many kinds. We read poems under the Bliss tree and he tells me the story of the day he married his husband, Pete. Count the years of oppression that interrupt love as it travels from the heart to the lips. This from Dan’s “Constellation…”:
See how it spreads and curls
through the land and the blood
unfurls like the positions of forgotten constellations
- Washington DC is filled with ghosts. I want to touch the death mask of Lincoln, but more so, the plaster castings of his hands. They looked large and strong like my grandpa’s. Why didn’t I make a set of hands from his hands for myself?
- I am among ghosts—another dimension, wholly connected to spirits I find only because I am alone. I am always alone. I am listening to Waylon, Willie, and the boys:
Mamas, don’t let you babies grow up to be cowboys. They’re never at home and they’re always alone—even with someone they love.
- Dan likes to take pictures of my boots. He, too, is from Texas.
- In Washington DC, in a garden, between shade trees and hurried pedestrians, I find Neruda. And Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. And Gabriela Mistral. The wear on their faces suggest they have been waiting for me. Dan & I sit on a bench made exactly for us. It even had my name on it: Poet.
- Always, I search for my name. A sign of my belonging. I find it nestled on the yellow velvet-capped backing of a chair at the Library of Congress. It is misspelled, but I figure the intention is good. Efficiency, maybe. I sit in a reserved seat and listen to poets laureate, Charles Wright and Charles Simic, discuss what it means to be one. I am one, too, I want to yelp from my reserved seat. I want to be counted in this space. I want to be counted in every space I am in. I want to count the years that interrupt oppression. When asked, What does it mean to be poet laureate? Charles Wright says this:
It means you’re loved.
What’s better than that?
- Juan Felipe Herrera. What’s better than that?
- My daughter and I sing at the top of our lungs in the truck I have inherited from grandpa. She is my mirror. She is also my ghost. She will be everywhere.