Sunday, September 27, 2009

The migrant experience in poetry

Yesterday we went to hear two poets as part of the "Bittersweet Harvest" exhibit.

Diana García was born in a migrant labor camp in California's San Joaquín Valley. She went on to become a poet and professor of creative writing and literature at California State University. Diana read from her book When Living Was a Labor Camp (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2000) which won the American Book Award.

Most of Diana's poems are about the nitty-gritty world in which she grew up and it was clear that the exhibit touched a nerve in her. She teared up as she read the following poem about her family, stopping to regain her composure as she explained: "So many of [the people in the poem] have died..."


Another spring done up in blue-eyed grass,
palms studded with orioles, canyons
against premature dawns: who can corner
this yearning season, flyways lapping endlessly?
My garbage disposal's on the blink.
Perhaps this is the year I'll build
a worm farm, red crawlers chubby
as fingers, fattened with mango peel.
The woman who sells me worms suggests
herbal teas, tells me sage survives
Colorado red soil. Six fingers per hand,
she amends raised beds regardless of drought.

On their fiftieth anniversary, my aunt
and uncle renewed their wedding vows. Encased
in white brocade, the bride took
the floor for the opening dance. Violins
curled, horns erupted, guitars plinked.
Baritone mariachis quavered
María bonita-a-a-...
Love notes sifted like incense over all.
The groom converged, glasses steamed,
wrinkled from life's ceremony. What to make
of enveloped years as I joined parents,
cousins, everyone my cousin,
spinning in that dim-lit hall?

Transformed by the flickering waltz
younger aunts emerged, high-breasted,
lips unlined, gardenias pinned to marcelled
waves. And men in pleat-stiff pants, hair
ungrayed, honored all their Marías.
Sepia-toned, the scene cobbled memories,
photos snapped in migrant camps decades ago.

Some say seasons never change here; some say
air keeps to sixty in this southwest corner.
But Western and ring-billed gulls endure
a first then second year. Mid-April, inpatient
tanagers troll the avocado canopies. Turned loose,
even parrots go feral. Inviolate, I survey
oaks beyond my deck for other lapsed migrants.

The night I spied my first spotted owl,
a friend turned my head with the moons
of Jupiter. One moon sidled by. If a bird,
I couldn't have claimed it for my life list.

But on my life, though no one sang me
a love song, air riffed that wedding night.
Barely visible, air waved like window glass
touched by a vagrant breeze. Aunts, uncles,
mother, father, claim the floor for one
more dance and show me how it's done.

Diana was followed by Quique Aviles, a local poet and actor who came to the United States as a teenager from El Salvador. Quique graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He has been very supportive of a variety of social causes and I remembered him from a protest last year organized by Casa de Maryland in front of the Organization of American States on behalf of domestic workers. Quique and his friends entertained us with street theatre.

Quique doesn't have any published books of poetry in this country yet but I was able to find one of the poems he read to us on the Internet:


At the Immigrant museum there are accents
language mishaps
dance lessons for people with no rhythm
fake documents
foreign heroes
military medals
gypsies and comadres
mafiosos and compadres

The museum halls offer
Polish poetry
German doubts
Mexican colors
Negro insight and essays
Irish midwives

At the Immigrant Museum, there are accents
historic oil drum barrels from the Persian Gulf
replicas of holding cells for aliens from the tropics
A sequential installation on the life of the nanny
morning tasks: washing, drying, folding, ironing
dinner prep
and dinner
the first bilingual robot
confusing translation manuals
primitive art for western tourists

At the Immigrant Museum there are accents
Russian vodka
bilingual answering machines
herbal potions
Jesus paintings
Chinese noodles
Vietnamese sandals
the first dream to enter Ellis Island that wasn’t fulfilled

At the Immigrant Museum there are accents
song and prayer
circumcision and baptism
wedding dresses
hard hats
baby bottles
joy dancing in colors
dreams posing as day laborers


At the Immigrant Museum there are accents

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