A Letras Latinas collaboration
Laurie Ann Guerrero
I've had the opportunity to welcome visiting writers to Washington, D.C. and, beyond the usual places most tourists enjoy, I'm always wanting to show Latino visitors the places I've discovered, the memorials tucked away, rarely, if ever, mentioned in tourist guides. For their beauty, yes, but also because in some way, my engagement with them has anchored me in place.
When Laurie Ann Guerrero visited the city in 2015 as the first recipient of the PINTURA:PALABRA DC Residencies, I made her a little map of her surroundings and then had the opportunity to show her some of the city I love. I am a firm believer that we are held by architecture and monument, suspended by history. At times it feels as if we are trapped like a bug in a spider's web. But knowledge of history and how it is recorded, and re-coded, can reveal the ways our own stories are knit inextricably in that vast "garment of destiny" Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about.
This is why I delight in reading the poetry that arose from Guerrero's engagement with a few of the places she visited here in the nation's capitol. Her poems are communings with objects and places, the Sor Juana statue in the writer's park at the OAS building or the statuary at the Smithsonian, experiences transformed into poignant examples of what writers do best: engage with the felt world to arrive at a deeper understanding of their place, our place, in the family of things.
—Dan Vera, Poet
Poems by Laurie Ann Guerrero
IN FEAR OF GRACE
What do the trees know that they bare the same devastating
grace year after year and still I never understand?
I wear caution like the bonnet of a girl picking cotton: it cradles
my ears, twists my lips into a silent rosette in the terrible, white spaces
I find myself—borrowed spaces—borrowed like cups of sugar
I return two-fold, neighborly: I am mostly obedient.
Once, Professor Van Dyne asked me to stop
thanking her for championing
my work: own it, she said.
I was already thirty, though all I knew of gratitude was to mimic
my child-self at the feet of grandmothers who’d often forget
my name: own it, she said.
Truth is, I don’t know how to be fearless. I don’t
know how to plant a garden and expect it to bear fruit,
though I expect it to bear fruit. I have been walking for years—
I never expect to arrive and every day I expect to arrive.
I don’t know how to jump with two feet. One foot roots itself
into my grandmother mouth: I am mostly defiant.
The grandmothers knows what the trees know,
but they’re not speaking either.
(TO THE) YOUNG GIRL ON A CHAIR
bronze sculpture by Giacomo Manzú, 1955
They will find a way to bind you. Always.
Some will say it’s an art. To some, it is.
To lock you in is to lock themselves in
as they were once, too. You are the bridge
between good and bad. They like it here.
They will expose you as if it’s their right.
Pour the hot fire. Sand. Score the tedious layers,
the days of wax, make escapes for the tiny
imperfections caused by man in the name
of the artful budding your body does on its own.
As if it might not have been preserved
otherwise. As if only tools and experience
could name you, put fire to you: Stop here,
he says. Stop here, child, before you grow.
Before you know things. Before you know better.
HOW TO SACRIFICE YOUR SON
The Three Soldiers, Vietnam Veterans Memorial
1. Birth him.
2. Nurse him in the crook of your teen-
aged arms. His blood more tempered
than his hands.
3. Arm him with salt from your womb. Your tendency
toward soft. Kiss the tiny fingers he’ll wrap
around triggers made for killing boys.
4. Send him into the world, a hive unto himself
of passion and almost inextinguishable light
salvaged from the sad brown men
whose names we wear.
5. Distill what is sweet from your language
for his. Teach him, mama, ball, doggy, fight.
6. Let him ask you why. Teach him allegiance to the city
that raised him, the apple lodged in his throat.
He’ll learn his skin is a shade lighter than his sister’s.
7. Let him move about in a world
that has him marked ________.
Little goat, little boy bait.
8. I am telling you: you are not the victim.
You are accomplice to his murder.
THE MINIATURE WORLD OF FAITH
after The Doll’s House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford
at the National Museum of American History
I will travel the country. I will cry.
I will find shelter in the smallest house in the smallest
corner of your name. I will give myself to a man I hope
knows the delight of small things. I am a small thing.
I will sip tequila from a small coffee cup that reminds
me of you. I will say your name with each sip in a small city
you once loved. I will shame myself. I will shame the man
I gave myself to. I will always be small. I am not afraid
of dying. I’m afraid of being dead and decide: I don’t want to
be like you. And if I don’t breathe, time stops and you
are dying, but not dead and we sit at a small table
with a small dog and a small vase of roses. I fill in the gaps
of your memory with small stars I pull from the indiscernible
petals. I have begun to dip back into the near-empty bowls
that contained the freshest kind of sadness—at seven or 18—
the youngest kind of bride who could not love her husband
that first night. What did I know that I did not know?
I cried for my dolls. I cried for my own house.
A woman should know how to build her own house.
I will tell the man I gave myself to: when you come to my city,
you will cry. I will wind your tears like thread on a bobbin.
I will make an archive for the unclean gossamer carried
in the battered beaks of birds. I will host, in my own home,
the unnamable truths of women. I will name them.
Laurie Ann Guerrero was born and raised in the Southside of San Antonio and received the Academy of American Poets Prize, among others, from Smith College. Winner of the 2012 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, her first full-length collection, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, was selected by Francisco X. Alarcón and released by University of Notre Dame Press in 2013. Guerrero's chapbook, Babies under the Skin (Panhandler Publishing 2007), won the Panhandler Chapbook Award, chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her latest collection, A Crown for Gumecindo, a collaboration with visual artist, Maceo Montoya, was released by Aztlan Libre Press in the spring of 2015 and received the 2016 Helen C. Smith Award for poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters.
Poets & Writers Magazine named Guerrero one of 10 top debut poets in 2014. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying was listed as one of 14 must-read works of Chicano literature by Rigoberto Gonzalez and received an International Latino Book Award. Other honors include grants from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. She is a CantoMundo alum and member of the Macondo Writers' Workshop.
In 2014, Guerrero and was appointed by former mayor, Julian Castro, Poet Laureate of the city of San Antonio, the seventh largest city in the nation. In May of 2015, Guerrero was appointed the 2016 Poet Laureate of the State of Texas by the 84th legislature of Texas. Guerrero holds a B.A. in English Language & Literature from Smith College and an MFA in poetry from Drew University. She is currently at work on a collection of essays.
Read more about Laurie Ann Guerrero's experience in D.C. in the Best American Poetry blog.