Friday, November 01, 2019

My Heart, Mis Muertas. Poems to Honor My Ancestors

Melinda Palacio

Next Saturday, I have the honor or reading matriarchal poems, honoring my grandmother and mother, at the C.D. Wright Women's Conference in Conway, Arkansas. I've never been to Arkansas or to this conference. I will have more to report on after next week. Since today is a Día de Los Muertos celebration, I'm happy to share three poems: the title poem of my first full-length poetry book and two short prose poems also in How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. It took me a long time to achieve the kind of peace I have regarding the early death of my mother and more recent death of my grandmother.

Matriarchs in Triptych and across Cultures (Creative Reading)
(Gina Ferrara, Julie Kane, and Melinda Palacio)
Location: Baum Gallery, McCastlain Hall
Anne Sexton famously wrote, "A woman is her mother. That's the main thing." Female poets have a long tradition of presenting mothers in their poetry. How does the frequent presence and recollection of mothers define who we are? Across cultures, specifically Hispanic, Irish, and Sicilian, what similarities do mothers share and what differences? Must daughters look back at their matriarchal predecessors before crossing any kind of threshold? This reading will respond to these questions in triptych, via three cultures.  

(title poem from the 2012 book published by Tia Chucha Press)

My grandmother caught the flame in her thick hands.
Curled fingers made nimble by kaleidoscope embers.
Fire burns hot and cold if you know where to touch it, she said.

I watched the red glow spit and wiggle as it
snaked down the thin timber, a striptease, 
born out of the festive sound of a half-filled matchbox.

Through orange windows framed by obsidian eyes, I saw the child she once was. 
A little girl who raised herself because her mother had a coughing disease.
Blood on her mother’s handkerchief didn’t stop her from dreaming.
Maria Victoria was going to be a singer with her deep, cinnamon stick voice. 

She watched novelas in the kitchen while waiting for dough to rise.
Her body, heavy with worry for two families and three lifetimes.  She tucked
Mariachi dreams under her girdle. Lullabies escaped on mornings 
warmed by her song falling into gas burners turned on high.

The flame on a stove was never the same.  It had a bad hangover,
didn’t remember the many matches lit when its starter broke down.

My grandmother rolled paper into a funnel, 
stole fire from the pilot to light the stubborn burner on the right.  
Crimson burned blue on the white paper, its folded edges 
curled black like a lace ruffle on a skirt.
The finicky flame can’t comment on its magic.
The thousands of tortillas and pancakes cooked over the years.
How I burned myself roasting a hot dog campfire style.
How a melted pencil smudged under my sister’s eyelid makes her beautiful.

My grandmother noticed the time, almost noon.
She needed to make three dozen tortillas to feed her family of thirteen.
The show over, she blew the match into a swirl of gray squiggles,
snuffed before it had a chance to burn hot on her finger.


The story of my mother touches the wind and rattles me off balance, raises the small hairs on my forearms, my skin no longer feels my own. I long to be cradled by a cloud, suspended and sheltered. I listen to the words of the Grandmother Spirit. My elder says look beneath your skin and you’ll the see the loneliness in your veins. I hear drumming, a familiar wail of pain. The drums stop. The story of my mother is as ordinary as once upon a time there was a happy woman who lived a short life before dying, leaving behind a daughter. The pages between the beginning and the end are filled with laugher. A girl with wild hair the color of the Río Grande sinks her feet into the muddy river and says, you laugh like my grandmother. I laugh harder because the wild woman is my mother.

Choosing a Coffin

We arrive at the cemetery you can see from the freeway. Rolling, green hills, naked statues that make Ama laugh and blush. Walk into a white office. Meet the nice white lady with the white jacket. Sit in her white chairs, stare at the pictures on the white walls. We are here to choose a coffin. I am her mother. I am her daughter. I am her brother. I am her uncle. I am her friend. Our voices fill in blank spaces. I see a plain pine box. That one, I say, because it’s simple, like the coffin chosen for Cesar Chavez, a man my mother admired  tirelessly. No grapes, I remember. Don’t be cheap, Melinda, my uncle says. Don’t worry about the money, my mother’s friend says. My grandmother decides on the white coffin that looks like a Cadillac with pink roses on each corner, lined in pink satin for a luxurious sleep. I knew you’d pick that one, says the nice lady with perfect plastic Pompadour hair like Elvis. It’s our finest she says, taking in the shades of bewildered brown faces.

Funny, how fire is a story, waiting.

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