Thursday, April 19, 2012

Poem: Lorna Dee Cervantes

I was trying to figure out how to introduce the following poem, by Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954-), which I thought of when I read the hedging admission by the House Majority Whip, Eric Cantor (R-VA) that anti-Semitism and racism were (still) a problem in his (the Republican House) caucus.  Well, duh. (Yet does he realize how he's been part of the problem?) I read this poem many years ago and recall it every so often because of how it captures so much of what was surging through me back then, and what I still sometimes feel, beginning with her opening line, "In my land there are no distinctions." Yet she must qualify her utopian statement rather quickly by noting that despite this view, despite the fact that "there are no boundaries," there is a system that is trying to destroy her, there are people whose words and actions are killing her, people who do not want her be alive, that there "is a real enemy / who hates me," and that even some of the best and best-meaning people seem unwilling to do or say anything to stop this.

I also know that she wrote it when she was very young and yet it shows such nuance, such sophistication, then ends with a bang that I feel we shouldn't forget.  We are a country at war, sadly, without our selves, "our various selves," as Amiri Baraka once put it. At any rate, I was thinking of introductions when I came across this 2007 blog post by none other than Cervantes herself, from her blog Lorna Dice, in which she explains to a student named Emily her motivations, the writing of the poem, and what she thinks it means. (Can I just say, I love that with I can read Lorna Dee Cervantes' musings after a few seconds' search via DuckDuckGo. She actually has two other blogs: Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Mission Poetry Center--La Misión Poética)  Cervantes, for those who may not be familiar with her, is a Chicana/Native American (Chumash) poet long active in feminist, progressive, antiracist causes, and has been writing and fighting since the 1970s.

Her first, perhaps best known book, is the award-winning volume Emplumada (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981).  Ten years later she published her second book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991), and has gone on to publish two more volumes, while also serving as editor or co-editor of journals and anthologies, teaching (for many year at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and now at University of California, Berkeley), and keeping the dream of a better world alive through her work in many communities.  Her blog is an extension of this; on it you see she not infrequently responds to young people who contact her about her work, theirs, life in general, the issues they're going through, and it represents yet another aspect of her longtime efforts to improve literacy among young people, especially young Latinos.

One thing I want to note about Cervantes' poetry, especially since I have called attention to her emphasis on social activism, is how much it summons vivid, sensuous details of the natural world, particularly flowers, details of the urban terrain, material aspects of the everyday world, to etch sharp pictures in the mind. In my mind, when I think of her poems, I often see them beginning with the naming of a plant whose blooms, colors, scent, grounds me immediately. She writes many other kinds of poems, but her work also makes clear that one doesn't have to surrender social concerns no matter what or how one is writing a poem.

Now, this famous poem, which seems especially fitting given the rhetoric that regular fills the airwaves and the numerous tragedies, arising out of sexism and misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, religious intolerance, and general disrespect for the humanity of others, for difference and pluralism, that have scarred the news of late. Do read her blog if you get a moment; she doesn't disappoint there or in her poems.


In my land there are no distinctions.
The barbed wire politics of oppression
have been torn down long ago. The only reminder
of past battles, lost or won, is a slight
rutting in the fertile fields.

In my land
people write poems about love,
full of nothing but contented childlike syllables.
Everyone reads Russian short stories and weeps.
There are no boundaries.
There is no hunger, no
complicated famine or greed.

I am not a revolutionary.
I don't even like political poems.
Do you think I can believe in a war between the races?
I can deny it. I can forget about it
when I'm safe,
living on my own continent of harmony
and home, but I am not

I believe in revolution
because everywhere the crosses are burning,
sharp-shooting goose-steppers round every corner,
there are snipers in the schools...
(I know you don't believe this,
You think this is nothing
but faddish exaggeration. But they
are not shooting at you.)
I'm marked by the color of my skin.
The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly.
They are aiming at my children.
These are facts.
Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
"excuse me" tongue, and this
nagging preoccupation
with the feeling of not being good enough.

These bullets bury deeper than logic.
Racism is not intellectual.
I cannot reason these scars away.

Outside my door
there is a real enemy
who hates me.

I am a poet
who yearns to dance on rooftops,
to whisper delicate lines about joy
and the blessings of human understanding.
I try. I go to my land, my tower of words and
bolt the door, but the typewriter doesn't fade out
the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage.
My own days bring me slaps on the face.
Every day I am deluged with reminders
that this is not
my land

and this is my land.

I do not believe in the war between the races.

but in this country
there is war.

Copyright © Lorna Dee Cervantes, "Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-read Person, Could Believe In The War Between The Races," from Emplumada, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

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