* ¡presente! with anne sexton

The Truth the Dead Know – Anne Sexton

For my mother, born March 1902, died March 1959
and my father, born February 1900, died June 1959

Gone, I say and walk from church,
refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
It is June. I am tired of being brave.

We drive to the Cape. I cultivate
myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
where the sea swings in like an iron gate
and we touch. In another country people die.

My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

***

Dia de los Muertos – or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday focused on praying for and celebrating the dead – occurred this past Sunday and Monday, and I found myself moved for the first time to build an altar in honor of my father. Here’s what it looked like:

* dia de los muertos altar *
* dia de los muertos altar *

Included on the altar are a copy of my first chapbook, The Wall, and a pencil sketch of my father done by Andrea Schreiber. Also, I have my stones in a J formation to symbolize my being his namesake. I am unclear even now, days after, how to articulate what this meant for me. All I know is that the conversation that began with my poem “Gloves”, included i the chapbook, continues to this day, on the page and, now, in ritual and observance.

In the Sexton poem above, what moves me is how the speaker states she is “tired of being brave” as she moves from human action to human action, all the while emphasizing what it means to her to feel human. That being human means feeling “touch entirely.” This concept is contrasted with the stone-like state of the dead. The poems is called “The Truth the Dead Know,” and the speaker’s words come from an awareness, fascination, and even fear of not being able to share in that truth. And the dead, as represented in that stone-like description, are seemingly everywhere, even in the wind.

This meditation on Sexton’s poem and my own experience this week makes me think of something Norma Elia Cantu introduced me to at CantoMundo as she spoke before a reading. As she asked us to think of and express gratitude for those Latin@ writers and artists that came before us, she began to name them. Each name spoken was then followed by the exclamation of ¡Presente! As Norma went on calling names, others joined her, shouting out ¡Presente! I marveled at the act: this simple word, which is what one answers with during roll call, suddenly felt charged each time it was repeated. The very air became heated by the summoned presences everyone in the room was the conduit of.

Names, and words in general, have a power in recitation and reading. A poem can be where other voices and other truths cross over each other and mingle. As Norma and Sexton show us, whether it’s on a stage or on the page, words can be a place where we can “touch entirely.”

***

As I mentioned last week, the countdown to the December 1st release of my full-length collection, Everything We Think We Hear, has begun! Along with prose poems and flash fictions, the collection includes two haibuns, the Japanese poetic form that combines poetry and prose. As a kind of preview, here are links for “Birthdays” and “Walks” as published in Contemporary Haibun Online.

Happy presente-ing!

José

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