Poetry On and Off the Page
Poems by Mary Strong Jackson, Israel F. Haros Lopez, Yvonne Sandoval, Fatima van Hattum, Zubair Ibrahim Siddiqui
Curated by Darry Lorenzo Wellington
The poems that I have curated for El Palacio reflect a maxim that branded me with a lasting mark. My instructor at a residency program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Thomas Sayers Ellis, smilingly explained: “The poem isn’t on the page.” He iterated the pronouncement whenever he encountered a poem that fell flat and lifeless. Personally, I have felt a patch of skin burning with the revelation ever since. I thought, I want my poems to get off the page.
But if the printed text is illusory—that is, if the poem isn’t really on the page—where is it? Is it in the human voice? Is it in syllables spoken aloud? Is it in the part of the consciousness of the writer transmuted to the reader? Is it in the collective consciousness of all readers during a specific era? Is it in a literary continuum? Is it in all the social and historical elements that contributed to making the poem? Is it in the air?
Poetry sits on the page decorated by rhyme, assonance, and consonance. It can get “off the page” by recognizing that history, sociology, political science, and philosophy are also aesthetic categories. Poetry is constituted of contemporary reality, and it needs to reflect contemporary complexity. The printed text is nailed to the page, yet it doesn’t live there. It’s been given life by manifold elements. No one knows where the poem finally is. The answer shifts from poem to poem.
Poetry that jettisons into the space beyond—into the world of thought and action—draws on relevant concepts in the zeitgeist, and the edgy interplay is rife with import.
The poems that I’ve picked rely heavily on the discipline called history—though I am tempted to write “the discipline formerly known as history,” because various scholars have described recent times as the end of history. I agree that old concepts have disintegrated. But the end of history, however conceived, isn’t the end of strife, culture, or the human voice searching for poetic accomplishment. If humanity survives, these poems are records and sketches for a new beginning. They’re not pills to pacify post-historical PTSD; they’re re-wirings of post-historical consciousness. They exorcize; they purify. They have been influenced by confessionalism, concrete poetry, and shout-out poetry. They rewrite the lines. They seize the day, locally and globally.
Revising the standard American nationalistic hymns, Mary Stone Jackson retells a classic Ellis Island immigration story. She writes that bones, like histories, “connect with a series of small bones / forming the backbone,” yet the anatomy is disabled lest it supports “an anchor for the entire body.” Israel F. Haros Lopez narrows history to a specific encounter, singing to his mother, using multi-lingual expressions infused with the dynamism of ritual and the pressure of concrete poetry.
Yvonne Sandoval and Fatima van Hattum underline the pointless cruelty of borders, lines, and walls that don’t respect human beings. Finally, Zubair Ibrahim Siddiqui situates his poem in Santa Fe, but an unfamiliar (or unacknowledged) Santa Fe as experienced by a visitor. Without putting his finger on it, he intuits an element here in the present—a carry-on from the past—that recalls Hollywood, and makes him ask, “Why do you feel like a clown here?” Why does he notice that the moon ensconced in Santa Fe shadows “paints my face white”?
Siddiqui’s skillfully tight lines and cadences have obviously been influenced by writing workshops, but the questions he asks can’t be contained within ink on a page. That’s why his poem and the others ask that we read past the page—where answers may not be self-contained and a line can be simultaneously a chant, a song, and a thesis. “Toilet paper borders are disintegrating,” and a poem today is a multi-disciplinary global construct.
An uprooted Southerner, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington has been a New Mexican for the past ten years. He is the 2021-23 poet laureate of Santa Fe. His full-length poetry collection, Psalms at the Present Time, was published by Flowstone Press in 2021.
The Backbone of Us
By Mary Strong Jackson
Each vertebra nudges the next until all open their wings
across eons over pinon, pine, oak, cacti, and cottonwood.
You feel it just under the skin of your backbone—swish, dip,
it radiates up the broad back of the plains to return
on the same line of the spine strong as woven silk
no matter the frayed bits.
My spine descended from Elder John Strong off the ship
called the Mary and John landing in 1630. His gentle turn
of head and shoulder, surreal flow of mind and spine—cogs
awakened repeating patterns taken time and again in the turn
of his head, to gather, to inhale with his eyes the brisk steps of men
and women striding across the land he was about to step onto.
Today, I enter the pool’s bathhouse where two old women
talk of one’s father entering Ellis Island at 2 years old.
His parents instructed do not let the doctor remove your hat.
He screamed and clutched his small cap
because something—I didn’t catch in my eavesdropping—
some disease showed under the cap and the family would be
held easy to forgive this escape from quarantine.
Each of our bony skulls connect with a series of small bones
forming the backbone having projections for articulation
able to speak of scars, skills, and inheritances to be shared
in bathhouses, slave quarters, mansions, then burned to ash,
spread, and inhaled by the living—chances to feel in this aching
ramrod of a country how to lift from bent knee,
how to swivel while supporting,
how to be an anchor for the entire body
Mary Strong Jackson lives near Otowi Crossing, north of Santa Fe. Her latest chapbook, Dreaming in Grief, is available now from Finishing Line Press.
By Israel F. Haros Lopez
Mother song mother dancing mother singing mother memory mother tortillas y frijoles mother song mother smiling mother pushing feet into the earth mother pulling in the weight of men mother pushing against the border mother underneath inside and around the trunk of a taxi to cross the border again mother crazy mother mom mother warrior mother hustler mother movement mother working mother pushing mother drinking mother dancing mother being mother laughing over and again mother having fun in all the solitude mother chanclas mother heels mother kneels mother begs mother pushes mother breaks my father’s teeth against the toilet seat my short short mother very dangerous mother warm mother love mother being tía over and again to strangers mother being mother to strangers mother sister mother laughing mother telling stories mother hustling mother paperless mother mother sin papeles still mother working working wet wet wet back mother sweating mother pushing mother dancing every weekend laughing partying mother who I’ll say fuck you to her when I’m 9 cuz she’s leaving again and again mother dancing weekend mother leaving me behind the metal door crying and my cousin crying cuz she has to take care of me and she knows my llantos and all I want is my mom and all my ama wants is to be woman momma woman ama mujer mother’s high heels mother’s dress mother’s party cuz she’s pushing seams all week mother working no father mother father working she’s gonna leave again and again and she’s always gonna come back even when she left for a week when I was ten without leaving a message she’s always gonna come back ama madre mía siempre regresaste mom’s laughing mom’s crying mom’s dying alone but no need she knows she’s like siempre tú solamente tú siempre tú mom’s fighting mom’s pushing mom’s drinking mom’s loving mom’s bailando still dancing at 52 Híjole still singing and now she remembers cantos de sus abuelas mom’s cantando sin jarana sin sonaja just cantando straight up from all the raíces and her dancing feet she’s dancing now with tonatiuh she’s dancing with coyolxauhqui mom’s remembering she’s telling me old old things when she sings like that when she dances like that I’m stretched out not knowing it’s the fourth day and I think I have nothing nothing left to give and then I see her dancing with the sun and I know I have a whole universe de energía in my spine didn’t know it was like that until that moment in my history but she’s been dancing and singing swaying me like that since I was swimming in the universe of her womb
Israel F. Haros Lopez is founder and art director of the Alas De Agua Collective.
Toilet Paper Borders
By Yvonne Sandoval
Movements once separated by identity are finding our common humanity.
With every tear shed by fierce mama warriors carrying babies across the raging waters of the Rio Grande, your toilet paper borders are deteriorating.
Threads of resistance are weaving together 500 broken treaties.
The courage of people in caravans, fleeing war torn countries, incited by U.S. policies are dismantling your toilet paper borders.
Queer youth are restoring the divine balance back to who we are.
Asylum seekers with nothing else to lose but their last breath are decomposing your toilet paper borders.
Reclaiming ancestral ways of life is medicinal for our minds and bodies.
Powerful women seeking refuge from their abusers, your toilet paper borders are dissolving.
Listening to the truth as our mothers and sisters speak is healing our wounds.
Locking up babies you are unintentionally awakening the human consciousness on this planet. Your toilet paper borders are meeting their destructive fate.
Your toilet paper borders will soon become compost for us to grow our seeds.
Yvonne Sandoval is a Chicanx poet, social worker, and mother.
By Fatima van Hattum
[In airports in Albuquerque, Denver, and occupied Palestine]
We have a “groin” here, he says,
is there anything in your pockets?
She takes me into the room.
I’ve lost count:
In Albuquerque, she joked humanely while she did it
stripped down to my underwear,
and she ran a detector over my bare skin.
In Denver, her hands, “I have to clear
your buttocks and frontal area,
your waistband and inner thighs
until I meet resistance.” Her hands,
push my tunic up around my waist,
ask me to hold it, so I too am participating,
touch me, handle me, too, too close through my tight jeans.
A laugh-sob escapes me, watching the blue
latex gloves, she can’t meet my eye.
What world are we in?
Afterwards, a young cafe manager apologizes
for my food being late,
I hadn’t really even noticed,
“Have a drink on us…at least a bottle of water.”
A flight attendant looks me in the eye as I board and asks,
“Would you like a glass of water, or something to drink
with your dinner there?”
I’ve been offered water twice since my crotch was searched.
There are dark spots in this world
And there are bright ones, too,
like the sun across water.
Fatima van Hattum is completing her PhD at the University of New Mexico and works as a program director at New Mexico’s statewide women’s foundation. Her work has appeared in CALYX Journal, Portland Review, apt, Intersections, Chicana/Latina Studies, and New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims.
“bright spots” was originally published in CALYX Journal (2019), 31:1.
By Zubair Ibrahim Siddiqui
In the Galisteo basin I watched
The vast sky, watched distant clouds
Collapse Into rainwalls. I heard the sounds
Of lizards rustling leaves on their blue bellies;
Resting on blood soaked sand: the flesh of these desserts.
In the arroyo where I walked from shade to shade
I felt as though I was in Tharparkar
And yet the land asked me:
Why do you feel like a clown here?
Visiting Carlos’ home in Santa Fe was like stepping into
Daadi jaan’s photo albums
Because through the color I could see it all
In sepia. Even though
Ramzan was still many months away,
It somehow felt like it was already Eid,
And I had just arrived at a distant relative’s
In Clifton or Gulshan just to recall.
Apparently this entire neighborhood was once
The smell of discos and crowded families.
On train trestles, sitting with my fear
Of heights, I dared not look down
At the distance of a visitor. So I knew I stuck out
To the land like freshly painted cement.
Adobe doesn’t glitter like gold to me,
It speaks warnings, says:
The wind under the shade of these Siberian Elms
Is a heavenly corridor, but within the
Four walls of this home I feel a haunting
Cold, as if the walls were trapped with ghosts,
Usurped by white tears.
Some nights the bright moon doesn’t let me sink,
But paints my face white.
Queer Pakistani poet Zubair Ibrahim Siddiqui graduated with a BA in literature from Bennington College in 2020, and spent the subsequent year working in Santa Fe at various local nonprofits such as Youthworks and Littleglobe, before returning to Karachi. His poems have appeared in literary journals such as Quarterly West.