Sunday, March 9, 2008

Lorna Dee Cervantes Presentation Excerpt

Tomorrow, I will deliver a presentation on the Chicana poets Lorna Dee Cervantes & Maria Melendez. Due to several extenuating factors, I provide only an excerpt from the larger piece. This portion focuses on Cervantes poem "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway" & the manner in which it enacts instances of both Emma Perez's de-colonial imaginary & Chela Sandoval's methodology of the oppressed:

The 1981 publication of Cervantes' first collection Emplumada marks the public inception of her life-long engagement with poetry, one that began early in her childhood. As she tells Sonia V. Gonzalez in a 1999 interview: “My mother listened to records of poetry. In particular, my mother loved Edgar Allan Poe. She would recite 'The Raven' in a really scary voice. She read poetry, and she read a lot” (169). But her mother’s love of poetry did not directly translate into an environment where Cervantes was encouraged to explore literature and develop intellectually. Cervantes was routinely punished for reading books and her mother would tell her: “The only thing you are going to be is a maid. It’s the best that you can get out of this life. So you better make sure that you know how to clean a toilet, ‘cause no one is ever going to pay you to read books” (Gonzalez 169).

Undaunted, Cervantes continued to read in private. At the age of fifteen, she discovered Pablo Neruda, specifically his collection The Heights of Machu Picchu. It was through Neruda that she learned that poetry was not just for the white, “aristocratic classes who had the leisure to sit around and write it…[Neruda] was speaking to my culutra,” she said (165). Soon after, Cervantes began reading African American woman poets, such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, just to name a few. These poets brought her to the realization that “poetry was not a class-bound thing and that there were living poets right now” (165). Furthermore, reading these poets of a marginalized demographic added a political dimension to her writing:

"All of the sudden, I started questioning [,she says]; that’s the dynamic of oppression, and especially as a child and as a woman, a girl coming into it. You look around, and you don’t see anybody like you in positions of power, and you don’t even question it. You just assume that you are not going to achieve anything [and] that no one expects anything from you. And so when I started reading this poetry, then I started questioning and questioning real hard. And I got angry" (165-6).

This realization, in many ways, echoes the process of mythologizing that Barthes conceptualized and Sandoval appropriates. Specifically, Barthes' claim that mythology casts a false, naturalizing sheen over culturally constructed products. In Cervantes’ case, it was her childhood assumptions that, as a young Chicana, she would never “achieve anything” and didn’t “even question it” because she didn’t “see anybody like [herself] in positions of power.” Just as the presence of a Negro solider in French military garb creates and naturalizes mythologies of equality and nationalism for Barthes, so too does the absence of particular figures create and naturalize mythologies of inequality and submission (In this case, Chicanas not occupying powerful positions during Cervantes childhood). Ultimately, semiotics must be employed to uncover the unnaturalness of constructivist claims for any real social understanding and ideological dismantling to take place. Cervantes acknowledges as much when she says: “From the very beginning since I was a little kid, there was always this consciousness of the relationship between power and language” (169).

The theories developed by Barthes and Sandoval play a crucial role in the progression of Cervantes’ biographical narrative, but I think her collection Emplumada can be best conceptualized by mobilizing both Barthes and Sandoval in conjunction with Emma Perez’s theoretical framework found within The Decolonial Imaginery. Perez wants to “traverse new territories and…map fresh terrains such as cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and of course, Chicano/a studies” (xiii) by reconstructing an imagined, but nonetheless real, past. Ultimately, she constructs a third space where the interstitial moments (or those moments where “the gaps unfold the unspoken and unseen”) “reappear to be seen or heard” (Perez xvi).

One can imagine Emplumada as the construction of both a written and conceptual third space where Cervantes narrates her own history through an active re-framing of past events. During her interview with Gonzalez, Cervantes says “I suppose I was a derelict. I was a derelict’s kid. Because my mother was very bitter, and she was an alcoholic. She was a derelict. My grandmother kept the house, so that’s the only reason why we weren’t homeless. Even though we were—I’ve always been welfare class” (171). The notion of homelessness compounds the need for her creation of a third space; not just as a Chicana writer, but also due to the fact that she lacks the stability of a physical space where she can find security. When Cervantes addresses the origins and conception of Emplumada, she speaks of how she wanted the book to be framed, or“structured,” and speaks of “filling in certain slots” (171): this is the language of a builder, an architect no less than a poet. In her poem “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” we can witness the construction firsthand:


Across the street—the freeway,
blind word, wrapping the valley up
from Los Altos to Sal Si Puedes.
I watched it from my porch
unwinding. Every day at dusk
as Grandma watered geraniums
the shadow of the freeway lengthened.

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior.
Mama wanted to be a Princess instead.
I know that. Even now she dreams of taffeta
and foot-high tiaras.

Myself: I could never decide.
So I turned to book, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe: Translator of Foreign Mail,
interpreting letters from the government, notices
of dissolved marriages and Welfare stipulations.
I paid the bills, did light man-work, fixed faucets,
insured everything
against leaks.

Before rain I noticed seagulls.
They walk in flocks,
cautious across lawns: splayed toes,
indecisive beaks. Grandma says
seagulls mean storm.

In California in the summer,
mockingbirds sing all night.
Grandma says they are singing for their nesting wives.
“They don’t leave their families

She likes the ways of birds,
respects how they show themselves
for toast and a whistle.

She believes in myths and birds.
She trusts only what she builds
with her own hands.

She built her house,
cocky, disheveled carpentry,
after living twenty-five years
with a man who tried to kill her.

Grandma, from the hills of Santa Barbara,
I would open my eyes to see her stir mush
in the morning, her hair in loose braids,
ticked close around her head
with a yellow scarf.

Mama said, “It’s her own fault,
getting screwed by a man for that long.
Sure as shit wasn’t hard.”
soft she was soft.

in the night I would hear it
glass bottles shattering the street
words cracked into shrill screams
inside my throat cold fear
as it entered the house in hard
unsteady steps stopping at my door
my name bathrobe slippers
outside a 3 A.M. mist heavy
as a breath full of whiskey
stop it go home come inside
mama if he comes here again
I’ll call the police

a gray kitten a touchstone
purring beneath the quilts
grandma stitched
from suits
the patchwork singing
of mockingbirds

“You’re too soft…always were.
You’ll get nothing but shit.
Baby, don’t count on nobody.”

–a mother’s wisdom.
Soft. I haven’t changed,
maybe grown more silent, cynical
on the outside.

“O Mama, with what’s inside of me
I could wash that all away. I could.”

“But Mama, if you’re good to them
they’ll be good to you back.”

Back. The freeway is across the street
It’s summer know. Every night I sleep with a gentle man
to the hymn of mocking birds,

and in time, I plant geraniums.
I tie up my hair into loose braids,
and trust only what I have built
with my own hands.

In the first section/stanza, the narrator of the poem locates herself on the plot of land where she will construct her house, somewhere near the freeway between Los Altos and Sal Si Puedes. Afterwards, she erects an entryway (her “unwinding” porch) and litters the front yard with geraniums. Concomitantly, she builds an autobiography, placing her grandma in the role of caretaker watering the aforementioned flowers, or as she states in her interview: “keeping the house.”

Following section one’s construction of an outer-public space, the poem moves to an interior space, namely the familial bond forged between the three women who reside within: grandma the “Queen,” mama the would-be-princess “Warrior,” and the speaker a self-described “Translator.” The familial relations circulate within a rather personal interiority marked by “dreams” and the implementation of language associated with fairy tales. But they are not completely detached from the public sphere; indeed, the speaker must interpret “letters from the government, notices/ of dissolved marriage, and Welfare stipulations.” The last three lines of the stanza return to the private, and the repairs inherent to properly maintaining such a space: “I paid the bills, did light-man work, fixed faucets,/ insured everything/ against all leaks.” Living in the private space of dreams, populated by “queens” and “warriors,” is only possible by diligently attending to the real, physical space.

Section three contains an extended meditation on seagulls, culminating with the stanza: “She believes in myths and birds./ She trusts only what she builds/ with her own hands.” This, perhaps, may be the key point, or thetic moment of the poem. Read on a material level, we can understand the statement “She trusts only what she builds/with her own hands” as the construction of the house; read on at the meta-textual level, we assume the speaker refers to the poem itself; or, we can further understand the statement as addressing the previous line’s invocation of “myths.” By only believing in the “myths” she herself “builds,” both the grandmother and the speaker enter into the Barthian role of mythologist, both in the way they dismantle myths foisted upon them externally from a dominant consciousness, and through the creation of their own marginalized mythic structures. Furthermore, the mythic structure that the poem creates is an imaginative space where, as Perez states, we “reconstruct [our] epics, dramas, comedies, and tragedies in a narrative that will echo ‘truth’” (xv).

Section four further explores the construction of all the aforementioned spaces: material, poetic, and mythic. Although the architecture of the house is “cocky, disheveled carpentry,” and was home for twenty-five years to “a man who tried to kill [the grandmother],” small, tender moments are readily discovered: “I would open my eyes to see her stir mush/ in the morning, her hair in loose braids,/ tucked close around her head/ with a yellow scarf.” Within this scene of domesticity, the grandmother prepares “mush” to feed and sustain her granddaughter, the granddaughter creates a stanza to feed and sustain the memory of her grandmother, and both work in conjunction to create a mythic narrative that works to feed and sustain an image that operates in contradistinction to mother’s dereliction. But, as Barthes writes: “myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear”; therefore, a completely serene space would function as fantasy, not myth. As such, the section ends with a stanza of direct discourse attributed to the mother, tempering the previous vignette with admonishment: “’It’s her own fault,/ getting by a man for that long./ Sure as shit wasn’t hard.’” The section ends with a return to the speaker’s voice and the line “soft she was soft.” These closing words function in contradistinction to the mother’s implication that one needs to be “hard” to survive. What we as reader’s will discover as the poem progresses is that the speaker does not desire to shift from “soft” to “hard,” but alter the rhetorical connotations of the word “soft.” In such a way, the poem explores Cervantes’ belief that language and power are inextricably linked, and begs the question “What is a more effective means to power brokering: adapting to rhetoric, or actively re-constructing rhetoric?”

Section five addresses the volatile confluence of public and private spaces. In the first half of the section “shattering” glass and “shrill screams” from “the streets” do not just enter the house, but the speaker’s “throat” as well, preparing us for what appears to be (or at least an attempted) sexual assault. To counteract the intrusion, the speaker china-boxes an interior space within the private space of the house: “inside…beneath the quilts/ grandma stitched…the patchwork singing/ of mockingbirds.” Such a maneuver allows for the speaker to continually re-construct increasingly privatized-imaginative spaces to escape the forces of hegemonic and patriarchal exterior spaces and constructions.

The poem concludes with section six, in which the rhetoric of “soft,” shifts from the previously negative connotation, to a more positive one: “But Mama, if you’re good to them/ they’ll be good to you back.” Perhaps, to some extent, this can be seen as an instance of Sandoval’s hermeneutics of love, as the meaning of “soft” shifts from “weakness” to an acceptance that mirrors the language of the “Do unto others…” golden rule; language mutates, or to quote Sandoval: “meanings [become] unanchored and move away from their traditional moorings” in an effort to “access and guide our theoretical and political “movidas”—revolutionary maneuvers toward decolonized being” (141). Of course, this does not eradicate the connotations of the first meaning, but initiates a constant play between the two and produces what Barthes calls a “third meaning” that “always haunts any other two meanings in binary opposition” (qtd in Sandoval 144). As Sandoval understands the concept, third meaning “demands that human consciousness undo the very forms dominant society depends upon in order to ‘ensure peace of mind’” (144). One can extrapolate, then, that third meaning also allows for (or works in conjunction with) the development of a third space, in that both work toward a re-construction that function both outside and within dominant consciousness, ideology, and history.

The penultimate and concluding stanzas function as bookends, in other words, provide parallel walls for the house, the poem, and the imaginative third space; but the geraniums are now planted by the speaker instead of the grandmother; her hair, not the grandmother’s, “tied up…into loose braids”; and most importantly, the speaker’s hands now “trust only what [she] has built.” But rather than a lament or elegy, the conclusion seeks to connect both space and time. The grandmother and daughter have fused in such a way that concretely demonstrates Perez’s belief that “third space feminism allows a look to the past through the present…[a] maneuvering through time to retool and remake subjectivities neglected and ignored” (127).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, &
Giroux, 1972.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Gonzalez, Sonia V. "Poetry Saved My Life: An Interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes." MELUS 32:1, 2007. 163-80.

Perez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Sandoval, Chela. The Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

No comments: