For Day One of the 30/30 OPP (Other People’s Poems) Challenge, we go to Texas.
This poem was featured in editor Lee Herrick’s IN THE GROVE (guest edited in Spring 2008 by Daniel Chacón), an issue in tribute to the poet Andrés Montoya. So many of Andrés’ friends and colleagues were included in the issue; the table of contents is a thing of beauty. If you can find it, get it.
Since 2008, both Texas and Arizona became battlegrounds in a war against Latinos: both states sought to eliminate Mexican-American literature and ethnic studies from their educational systems, and Arizona sparked a national firestorm over its plan to allow what amounted to racial profiling in enforcing U.S. immigration law. It was in this book in 2008 when a poet named Mónica Teresa Ortiz crafted a snapshot of life in West Texas—one in which human bodies, here represented by the legend of La Llorona, live under the constant threat of violent erasure. Even in a town called Nazareth, here Mónica shows us how tenuous our existence is.
Oh, and check this out. You will not find one punctuation mark in here. Every sound in this poem relies on a line break for you to interpret it. You do not have the luxury of standard syntax to interpret pauses, or scene changes, or shifts in imagery or sensory detail. No, you have to reckon with every single detail as it comes at you. You have to read every single line, and every single word within those lines, to assemble meaning inside the bleak tone. This is the skillfully executed craft of political poetry: an even tone, a Baldwinesque laying out of truth, and a poetic language that requires you to look at every single word, to NOT look away at the subject, to get dirty, and grimy, and invested. And yeah, to punch you in the mouth with that last line. Because it’s meant to be read, it’s meant to be personal. It’s meant to get you involved. But I’ll bet you money: if Mónica read this on a mic, she could whisper it, and you would STILL lean in to hear it.
That’s some kung fu, son.
The Woman Who Doesn’t Exist
la llorona doesn’t reside in Nazareth
or Hereford or even Lubbock her moans
can’t be thrown above April
winds blowing down feed yards la llorona’s cries
are never heard in this part of Texas her whistles can’t slide
under cracks in doors or uproot shingles from rooftops she ain’t
no tornado that’s for sure she ain’t got the power of a May twister
the one that tore through the Wyatt’s
house no crying woman could match that
pitch she can’t coat floors and window sills
with dust she can’t pick up tractors
she has no fertilizer to feed her legend not in the wide
open plains her children
can’t be lost in a field with a view so
panoramic grain elevators can be seen
from Mars nights so lit folks
feel safe with unlocked doors
the west Texas sky sleeps on top
of the grass and nothing
gets in the way of those two lovers
most importantly la llorona
wouldn’t ever find her drowned
kids there ain’t no rivers
or lakes or creeks to support her myth
after four or five year
droughts the weeping woman has no
water to haunt and no trees to
hide behind every house along the
flat plains owns at least one type of gun
if she lived in Nazareth or Hereford
or even Lubbock somebody
would have shot her by now
-Mónica Teresa Ortiz