There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.
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?
But it was the sonnet, that vessel, that was the only thing I knew that was experienced enough to guide me through grief, what I have never known. What could I possibly try to understand of lost love that the sonnet didn’t already know? The sonnet became for me a teacher, rigid mentor who expected my complete seriousness. It demanded that I work hard, that, while trying to capture, capture, I not get so lost that I forget I am working. In this way, the sonnet was very much like my grandpa: it expected me to work hard, to never give up, to be able to put my name, our name, proudly on something that was well-crafted, maybe even beautiful. But functional, always. In this case, these sonnets functioned to keep me from losing my pieces. These sonnets functioned to help me understand the blessing of work. Something that my grandpa, Gumecindo, knew well.
SONNET AS VESSEL: Plan for Building
There is much to be said about the first year of grief—small victory that the earth, in fact, did not swallow me or that the reverberating and growing black mass that has entered my body did not devour my bones. I had begun to think, heading into December for sure, five months after he died, that the sonnets were a pathway I was excavating or stepping stones that would lead me out of the morose and inexhaustible air I suddenly found myself in. And for one whole year, I worked very hard at the compartmentalizing of my grief—the organizing, the dissecting, the rearranging, the counting of lines and days, inventing new ways of spinning straw into gold.
You gotta work hard, I could hear my grandpa say under his breath, under the earth.
This was good. And for months, as I wrote from my bed, enveloped in my black mass, or as I lingered in thought, silently, in hallways at parties, at events I had committed to, in groups or alone, I worked the poems. Constantly, I worked the poems.
I found myself apologizing to so many people for being “absent,” for not fully participating in my life, which was part of their lives. I thought to be gentle with myself—to allow myself to indulge in whatever it was that would make me smile a little or laugh. If it didn’t, I didn’t need to be in its presence. It was that simple. And, so, I worked the poems.
It was like this: my grandpa, who had given me most of his stories was suddenly gone from this world. The bad ones are going to the grave with me, he said once. And I, who had done all I could to keep him healthy, keep his medications in line, his bills paid, didn’t know what to do with all my free time. I remember lying on the bed days after he passed, feeling overwhelmed with an overabundance of love for him. He was no longer there to consume it and it threatened to suffocate me or squeeze the life out of me so that all the parts that made up who I was were suddenly disengaging, seeking a new shelter away from me—maybe they wanted to follow him, maybe they, my hands, my heart, my brain, never belonged to me. Maybe the make-up of who I am only existed if and when I could touch my own history. He was my whole history.
I needed to contain myself. I thought immediately of sonnets—sonnets, which I had, until then, despised for their arrogance and institutionalization. So damn full of rules and inflicting of centuries of conformity. And challenging—both mentally and spiritually—as a brown woman who's watched so many of her own, grandfather included, suffocate under the weight of induced borders, labels, lines we ought not cross, assimilation in language and culture. Why would I, or anyone like me, choose to corral our voices, our spirits into a small box of someone else’s making—especially when we’re still having to exist in such a contrived manner in so many other aspects of our lives?
But it was this challenge that lured me. It was exactly the thing I needed to get up and get to work—employ the brain and not the heart. If I could force myself to write a sonnet, if I could switch gears for a minute, gather my brain close enough to work, then maybe I would be able to gather up the other parts of my body that I felt I was losing, too. This was important, as I had children to tend to, students. And some days, I knew, if I had to work, then maybe I’d even take a bath, comb my hair.