Why Poetry

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Why Poetry

My poetry is influenced by nature, math, science and art. I had an opportunity to study Emily Dickinson at Amherst in the summer of 2017 when I won a grant for the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has always been interesting to me, both her writing and her life. I resonated with the way in which she observed time and moments of being, with a great reverence for the minute and the mundane.

My Mexican-American heritage also plays a part in my writing, as does my personal journey in mothering a teen who survived cancer and another one who was on a transgender journey. I have been to hell and back in many ways that most people understand, but not all people are willing to admit. Here I stand, alive and willing to share my stories with the world. I know that my stories have helped others understand their own. I hear this again and again when I lay myself down on the metaphorical table and all allow myself to peel away the layers, bare for all to see.

When I write poetry, I channel. I channel the anguish and the deep sense of compassion that I have experienced on the path. I tap into a greater cosmic consciousness, on a realm outside of this 3 dimensional reality. I have written as long as I can remember. Poetry is how I think. It is my therapy and my lifeline. While I went through watching my thirteen year old daughter fighting for her life, I could not control the outcome. The interesting thing I learned, is that no one is really in control of anything. We like to think we are, it helps us feel steady, to think that if we plan everything just so, it will all unfold as we imagined it would. But, life is not that way for many, and it certainly was not for me. I was schooled in how to slow way, way down by the cancer. In the In Between Times, there is no future. There is only now. And in the now, everything becomes heavy, the movements fluid and gentle, as you flow with (as opposed to against) time. Sometimes, when you are in the underwater-like existence, you experience other-worldly latitudes. Once, when I could not comfort my sweet daughter during an agonizing bout of anxiety that her cancer might return, I experienced this very phenomena. She was 2 months into remission. I had to go to work. I had done everything to comfort her, but she was facing her own fears and I could not allay them. The fierceness of a mother to protect and shelter her offspring is hardly unique. But, this fierceness went beyond the five senses, because there are senses that lie unawakened in all of us, until such a moment presents itself for its stirring. I thought of my vulnerable daughter and when I arrived at work, I felt compelled to write a poem for her. The words fell easily onto the page:   

                  Whirring noises are the sounds of birds in flight

The cold air a misty San Francisco morning in the depths of summer

Prayers whispered to Whoever while my hand touches the soft fuzz of her delicate hair

Delicate shell, the inverse of Her being, Her soul, Her unconquerable spirit

We are not in that sterile place of radioactive inspection

We are in our own private world where time and beauty bless us

With their perfect embrace

Just as I finished my last line, she called me. “Mom! You’re standing at the end of my bed.” “What?”, I asked her, still in my poem daze. “I am pinching myself. You are standing here, looking at me.” I smiled a smile the old mystics must have known intimately, “Yes, I am with you. I told you a mother’s love is just that strong. I conjured ourselves together with words.”

Emily Dickinson was right. There is nothing mundane about the small things. There are greater worlds to explore in the depths of minutia. All around us, all day, everyday. And that is how I move through my life now.

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Rose of Mary

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Rose of Mary

by Carmen H Gray

Dew of the sea

Rose of Mary

I saw a brand new fairy

On a wilder walk today

He fluttered around the fragrant bouquet

Amidst the palest blue bloom

Heavenly scent, verdantly strewn

Transformation before my eyes

A sign of promise in disguise

And off he went without a thought

Of the wondrous gift that he had brought

 

 

Rain

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Rain

by Carmen H Gray

This morning’s misty rain

Reminded me

That in these last two new days of the year

So much has been gently cleansed

The kind of purification that you might not even notice

Like walking down that same hallway

In that once familiar building

That housed so many hopes and fears and tears

But this time

It was a singular experience

In the extraordinary world

Today’s rain on the bamboo

Greeted me like an old friend

On my porch

Unlike the day before

Flow

Flow

by Carmen H Gray

 

i sometimes feel I drift between two worlds

one is

where time is not a binding entity

where cataclysmic waves are waiting to be traveled fearlessly

and the sky is fully present

broadened chances that aren’t hampered by clouds

heavy with water molecules

the other is some projected world

stifled by the densely packed

minute hands and man made dimensions of too much talking

but i choose the former

with streams and rocks and ants

who know better

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parallel Lines

parallel lines

by Carmen H Gray

 

I saw those lines

running across your

soft arms

arms that had formed inside my womb

arms I bathed

arms that glistened in the summer sun

arms that were cut and poked and prodded, too

I gently placed aloe on those lines

and whispered prayers to each of them

”let the pain leave” I said

and only beauty reside here

Hope paralleled

within a tiny freckle found

Between those lines

 

 

 

 

Sunlight Beams

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by Carmen H Gray 

“Capture Me” I told him

I want to halt that moment

Of gravitional bliss

The freeness from the pull

The airborne leap in the heat

Before my warm feet kiss

The frigid turquoise water

And in those milliseconds

I feel the deliciously sweet

Water colors reflecting onto me

The sunlight beams shushing

The gentle azure wave, beckons

As it anticipates our embrace

Maya’s Revival

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I wrote this as a background to my story, Daniel’s Dilemma (published in Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers). I wrote it in December 2016, before my trip to Cerro Pelon this past spring and before all of the present day attention to the horrors of human smuggling. I submitted it to be published in Road Kill 2, but fate wouldn’t have it published there. I had forgotten about my fictional Maya, until I dreamt about her tonight. Here’s her story. I dedicate it to all of the young, powerless people seeking asylum currently. And that they may be blessed with survival  and mercy somehow. And that we may find the righteousness in our hearts to condemn those who seek to create more suffering for them.

Maya’s Revival by Carmen H Gray

She came to with tubes coming out of her mouth and nose. An IV dripped saline into her arm. She could hear the beeping sounds of a monitor in the distance. “Papi” she wanted to cry out. Where was Tony? Where was her cat, Sr. Rey? The cello? She felt discombobulated, but her brain was telling her body the last words she remembered hearing, “LEAVE!”

She scrambled up with all the strength she could summon and tried to remove the tubes, but it was a failed attempt, as it seemed all of her escape efforts had been in her short life thus far. A young male nurse with long hair came in to quell her and keep the tubes in place.

“It’s okay, Maya. You are safe now. Thumbs up if you understand me.” It had been a very long time since a man had treated her with kindness and she was in still in shock. She stared at him.

“Oh, I bet you just speak Spanish, that’s right. Okay, then…let’s see…” his brow crinkled in concentration.

Eres seguro….segura? wait…” and he stepped out into the hallway and called, “Maria, can you help me out?”

A young woman, maybe 20, appeared by the door. Maya’s eyes widened with surprise. She recognized her-long black braid, dark native eyes, proud Azteca princess-like profile. How did she know her?  She could not recollect how she knew her.

Maria put the trash bags she had been collecting down right outside the door and entered the room. She did a double take when she saw Maya and stepped in close to her.

Eres tu, Maya?” she whispered.

“Are you letting her know she is safe now?” asked the nurse, “she was found unconscious at some man’s apartment. A woman had called the police and reported suspicious activity”.

Maria nodded her head at Joshua. He had always been kind to her, since she found the janitorial job at Brackenridge hospital. Unlike some of the other staff members she worked with, he treated her with respect and always thanked her for helping clean up the messes of the patients. He had even helped her set up her paycheck to be directly deposited into her first bank account here in the United States. Joshua was a kind man, and did not expect anything in return. That had been a first for Maria.

Maya stared into her charcoal eyes and teared up. She knew this woman! That rose oil smell emanating from her neck, that wiser, native visage.  How? How did she know her?

Maria was certain it was Maya, but she knew the one thing that would prove it was. She fished around in her pocket and pulled out La Virgen, a cheap, plastic figure that she had taken when she left. What had happened to Maya that she was here now? She suddenly felt terribly guilty about leaving her alone back at Tony’s place, and especially for taking La Virgen with her. But Maya had said it was a special gift of protection that her mother had given her and when Maria took off, she knew she would need that more than anything, going out there alone. She had a chance to escape that bleak apartment where she had spent a few months with young Maya, who had landed there before her.

Because survival was about self-preservation, she knew she had to leave when she could that day. She’d never looked back. She had wanted to go back and save Maya somehow, but she was afraid of what Tony would do. And she was terrified of the police or anyone finding out that she was here illegally…especially after she’d acquired the false Social Security card and ID. Juan Carlos, who had made them for her, made her swear to forget about her life up to that point and begin anew. “You’re a new person now, Leti. You cannot look back. You are Maria Villanueva now.”

Maya looked at La Virgen that Leti held up for her to see. Suddenly she heard a faraway sound of a stringed instrument…that melancholy cello. She squeezed Leti’s hand and motioned for it. Leti handed it to Maya. She clutched La Virgen and began to remember.

La Virgen. La Migra. El Norte. Papi. Aunt Norma. The cello. The Monarch Butterfly reserve at Cerro Pelon with all the wealthy foreigners. The Knights Templar. Los vigilantes.

Tia Norma had ensured Maya knew English as she was growing up in Apatzingan. Tia played the cello and would teach little Maya how to pluck it when she came to visit Maya’s family in La Tierra Caliente during the breaks from working at the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. La Tierra Caliente was named thus because of its dry climate, but it also happened to be an area with productive farms full of limes, avocados, mangos…and the epicenter of opium poppy. Hence, it was also a hotbed of gangs and violence clashing between the Knights Templar drug cartel and the local vigilante groups that had been fighting to defeat them. Maya’s older brother had gone off to join the vigilantes after her father had been killed by one of the Knights of Templar. Maya was left with her mother and at 11 years old, life was looking pretty grim for the two of them. Maya’s mother hesitantly took the money Tia Norma gave them to send Maya to the United States via El Coyote. Tia Norma felt that would be her only hope, and as the older sister of her brother who had perished, she felt it her duty to help her niece as best she could. She could not take dear Maya on herself, as she had fallen ill with cancer, and only had been given a few months to live. No, the best she could do would be to give her a chance to escape the cycle of pain and pray that Maya would be like the monarchs she watched every fall make their miraculous landings after a 2,000 mile journey. Somehow, they found their way.

Maya’s mother, Avalina, had heard all kinds of tales about the risks of women, especially young girls, ending up in scary situations in El Norte, but there was also the possibility of her daughter Maya being in school, even going to college, and becoming una doctora, or perhaps even a famous cellist, as she seemed to have the same musical talent as her Tia Norma. And it was either that or stay stuck in hell with no end in sight.

So, she held back tears as Maya sobbed at leaving her little town and all of her neighbors and friends and promised her life would be better in El Norte. But it would be better than living in fear of being caught up in the violence and there was no money or life for her here. She had to push her onward, however deeply painful it was. Because that is all a mother can do for her child. She cannot take on its pain. She cannot suffer it for them. She cannot protect them from life or death or anything in between. She can only bear witness to the beauty and the affliction of the lives she has birthed and try as best she can to send her offspring on better paths than her own.

She had sent Maya with a group of young girls with a well-known coyote named El Bigote, because of his distinguished red mustache. He had the best reputation of protecting the young girls on their way to Tejas. He promised to deliver them to Anastasia, a woman who took in the girls for a fee in Harlingen, Texas. Anastasia then would give the girls jobs with her cleaning company and they would go to school, until they turned 18. Anastasia would keep a percentage of the money collected for housework and the girls were her “nieces.” At least that’s what the parents were told and they felt safe with this plan. Avalina even gave El Bigote an extra tip to protect Maya more. She’d heard that would help. She tucked a little plastic Virgen in Maya’s bag. La Virgen had been blessed by the town priest and the priest had told Maya’s mother, “Avalina, this is special. She is La Magdalena. Where did you find her?”

“A curandera gave her to me, after mi esposo, Rogelio, died.” She replied. “Do you know La Magdalena is La Virgen who protects those who have suffered trauma?” he emphasized. “She will protect your child.”

She believed this and knew that Maya would be okay.

And La Virgen stayed with Maya, during what turned out to be a 1,000 mile journey to Austin, Texas. Because something had happened to the mythical Anastasia in Harlingen, El Bigote kept moving the girls until he stopped and put them all up in a cheap motel off of North Lamar Blvd. in Austin. They were exhausted and even though he wanted to keep heading north to Dallas, Austin would be a decent place to rest.  He knew the woman who ran the motel there.

The girls were all cramped into a one room space, but it was a luxury to at last be in one place for more than an hour and to finally spend a night in the land of the free in El Norte. There was a communal bathroom for the motel in the courtyard of the white and burnt orange cinder block buildings. El Bigote told them to be careful and not talk to anyone when they used it. There were many sketchy types hanging about the place, but it felt so good to stand in the cool fall air for just a moment and look up at the stars to avoid the dirty concrete courtyard, full of cigarette butts and a few Styrofoam cups scattered here and there.

Maya and the girls were treated to some burgers and fries before El Bigote stepped out to talk to some middle-aged man outside of the room. The gringo glanced in through the window and surveyed the girls. His eyes stopped when they fell upon Maya. She knew her green eyes drew a lot of attention back in Mexico, but apparently they were just as striking here in El Norte as well.

El Bigote stepped inside the room to grab a paper bag full of something and handed it to the man. As El Bigote turned, the man suddenly punched him in his lower back. The girls collectively gasped. El Bigote pulled out a knife and sliced the man above his right eye, but it didn’t make any difference. The man was bigger and heavier than El Bigote. He grabbed the knife and held it to El Bigote’s throat. “I want her, too.” He said, pointing to Maya. Maya’s throat closed up and she wanted to scream, but she could not. “Let me have her.” El Bigote had no choice. He motioned for Maya to go with him.

“What’s your name?” the man asked Maya gently as she gingerly stepped toward him. Mi nombre es Maya”. She replied. “I will take care of you, now, Maya”. And he set a large hand on her shoulder.  She grabbed her bag with all the things she possessed in the world and left with him.

He drove her to his ramshackle apartment building, not far from the motel. He made a tidy space for her in the living room and told her she could have whatever she wanted at the store the next day. And he made good on his promise. As she stood outside the store, she took in the weather. It was a sunny, crisp fall day and she felt as far from her home as the monarch butterflies she saw fluttering by her, heading south, back to where she had traveled from, 1,000 miles away. Back to her Tia Norma. Was she still alive? Or was she in el Cielo now?

She learned to trust Tony, the big Gringo who had stolen her from El Bigote. He kept her safe and taught her more English. One day, he came home with a local newspaper and pointed to a picture of the motel that Maya could vaguely recall being in for less than 5 hours. “GUERA, look at this!” Maya read the words: MOTEL CLOSED FOR ILLICIT ACTIVITY AFTER ARSON SUSPECTED FIRE. She looked at Tony inquisitively. “It says they closed the motel because of drogas.  El Bigote got caught selling heroin. The girls you were with?  They burned in a fire. Tienes suerte, GUERA!!” And she knew he was right.  She was lucky. Because of Tia Norma.  Because of her mother. Because of La Virgen. She could swear she heard the melancholy strings of a cello in the distance.

Not long after that day, Tony brought home a cheap, broken cello. He carried it in after a haul of peculiar items from Goodwill and Maya was drawn to it.  It struck him that this young girl could play it instinctively. He didn’t realize she’d had a Tia Norma who had taught her the positions on a cello. The cello kept her tied to him. That and the threat of La Migra finding her and sending her back to Mexico…where…where who knows where anyone she knew was anymore.  That life was no longer real, Tony kept telling her.

When a stray grey and white kitten found its way into the apartment building, Tony let Maya keep the cat, who she named Sr. Rey, after the nickname her mother Avalina had given her father, once upon a time, in what seemed a whole lifetime ago.

Tony was kind to Maya at first and gained her confidence with all of these gestures.  Maya did not realize he was a master manipulator, holding her captive. She often had powerful visions of floating in the sky with him. She had a bright light emanating from her chest, pouring into the hearts of others.  But he had a dark cloak covering his body.

Dark matter is mysterious. The universe contains this additional force that pushes stars and galaxies apart, countering gravity, creating expansion. And the effect of this mysterious force must be larger than that of all matter and dark matter in the universe. It is known as “dark energy”. If he harnessed the dark energy, she was the supernova that gave proof to his existence. He evaded the light, slinking invisibly as he did, for when it came time for Maya to do the things he asked her to do with the strange men he began to bring around, she acquiesced. Men were drawn to her youth and brightness. And soon enough, she was no longer alone.  

Tony brought home another girl, Leti. Leti was unlike any person Maya had ever known in her life. She carried herself with the regality of a queen. She was dark, like los indios of Aztec descent from back in her little town of Apatzingan. She gave Maya a pedicure one summer day and taught her the tricks to keep men satisfied and content without touching her body. They shared their stories of their pasts and became close. And the day Leti left as quickly as she had appeared, Maya’s luck seemed to disappear, along with her Virgen.

The money was running out.  The men weren’t coming around anymore…until that night. Sr. Rey had gotten into an awful fight. And that neighbor, Daniel, and his friend brought him back to her…the only others she’d met from the outside world of Leti and Tony and the men…that was the night.  The night she almost gave up and gave in completely to that dark energy.

Tia Norma’s spirit came and beckoned her back when she was nearly consumed in total darkness.  The soft familiar chords of the cello. Daniel heard them in the dark dream they were in together, with all of the colors of the universe swirling about them. “LEAVE” he told her.  And she did. The only way that she could, sniffing in that blue powder the last man she’d been with had offered her.

“LETI!” Maya uttered as loudly as she could, back in the hospital room, looking into those familiar dark-as-night eyes. At last, she knew who this female janitor was. Leti opened her palms to Maya, as if in slow motion. Blood poured from them onto Maya’s body. “Soy ella,” Leti whispered to her. “Soy Maria, La Magdalena.”  Was Leti saying she was actually La Magdalena? It was un milagro. Maya was alive. And safe now.  She could hear the song of the cello. Tia Norma was smiling and saying to her, “Sigue, mi amor”.  Keep going. Maya’s hands were open. The little figurine of La Virgen was back in her palm. “Blessed are those who have suffered”, Leti whispered to her, a violet halo surrounding her head. Joshua stepped in close as Leti moved away and the halo dissipated. “Thank you, Maria, for your help. She is going to be just fine! We have a sponsor family coming to take care of her. What a miracle that she has survived.”