It is a rare opportunity to drink in such metallic and sweet alchemy of words as this collection provides. Laure Ann Guerrero’s collection, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is layered in language, culture, life, birth, death, nightmares, dreams, nostalgia and everything you could want in a full bodied collection. Whatever your mood, you will find a poem for it here. I thank my friend Reyes Cardenes for lending me this book. I hope you will thank me for sharing a taste of her work below which is really quite remarkable:
Sundays After Breakfast: A Lesson in Speech
There were no names for men like that—gringos
who stitched up their rules, their white garb, laced snug
the issues of the day: Lord didn’t make us to mix
with them folk, they said. But God’s got nothing
to do with black boys dumped still alive into a restless river.
God’s got nothing to do with having to tell their mamas.
That bloody water ran through each dark vein across Texas,
fed the Gulf, all its brown-skinned people. This, grandpa could name:
los cuerpos—bodies swaying above the cotton like sheets on a line.
No importaba que no eras nego, pero que no eras gringo.
No, it didn’t matter that you weren’t black, grandpa says,
pushing himself from the table, but that you weren’t white.
He lived his life this way: silent, like every man after him:
opening his mouth only to eat, holding his head above
the cotton, between white men and black boys.
For those of you unfamiliar with Spanish, Guerrero provides the translation immediately after the line so you haven’t missed anything. Her grandfather’s native tongue is given in this poem to show the culture and life she has grown up in. The hate crimes of her grandfather’s day that silenced men so as not to draw potential negative attention to themselves are still going on today. I present this poem to show that these stories aren’t “old” or “forgotten,” they are very much alive and still being carried out today. Better to speak out about it than to continue to silence the voices of those who are being victimized for being a different color, culture, or for speaking a different language.
Esperanza Tells Her Friends The Story Of La Llorona
She killed her babies in the river over there by the Bill Miller
barbecue place, you know, by the Holy Mother Church. She was
friends with my grandma; they played bingo together, I think.
Oh, yeah, why did she kill ‘em?
They were brats. And they probably never helped her clean house,
and they were probably really whiney and always wanted candy
in line at the H.E.B.
How’d she do it, Espi?
She drowned them one at a time, and herself, too, I think. That’s
probably why she cries. She probably didn’t mean to kill herself,
That’s not how the story goes.
My mom says it happened in Mexico,
not in San Antonio.
Shut up, Patty, what do you know? Your mom’s not even
Mexican like us. Anyway, I think she re’carnates herself. Or
maybe God doesn’t want her in Heaven because she’s crazy and
killed her own babies…but she keeps coming back.
Serious. She comes back in real life and keeps on killing her
babies. But, I don’t think she cries anymore. She’s so used to it
now. She’s gone to Houston, to Hudson Oaks, to Plano, even
back to San Antonio, right here in the Southside.
You think you know everything—
tell us how come sometimes
she kills herself
and sometimes she don’t?
I don’t know. Maybe she cloned herself and now there’s lots of
Lloronas. Maybe someone you know, Patty. Maybe your mother.
Everyone has their haunted tales, La Llorona is a famous one in Mexico with many who know the words to the song about her. The woman who drowned her children and cries every night about it. This poem shows how children pass these tales to one another. For me, it was learning about El Cucuy (if I even spelled that right). I learned about La Llorona as an adult but I imagine this is exactly how it would be told to me, being taunted that my white mother could very well be this terrifying creature, La Llorona. What tales do you carry from your childhood?
for my brother
in memory of Uncle Eddie
If you follow Aunt Eleanor to the back of the house,
you’ll see the pomegranate bush we sucked from,
the olives puckering in five gallon buckets. Open your jaws.
Let the eye of your tongue see what we have done here—
how we licked fat black olives from tamales, rolled them
up into the wide river of our mouths like cats licking
clean their babies. We can do this one summer,
with Uncle Candy and Uncle Eddie, and we can tell mama
the wine we drink from the jug in Aunt Esther’s kitchen is juice,
and we can pick peaches and we can pick lemons and we can pick
fights with cousins we will never see again. And when they die
on the other side of the country, and we still have grandpa here,
we will pretend we’re eleven and twelve,
sitting in the sun, singing rancheras
with old men who knew him before we did.
This poem makes my mouth water as soon as I see the fruit and olives being mentioned. It’s a poem that triggers the senses, the taste of sweet and salty, the juice from wine or sour lemons. The nostalgia of playing with your cousins when you’re young, this triggers memories for me, too. The reveal of family being scattered across the country and therefore never to be seen again until a funeral when all those sunlit memories come rushing back… It brings out the young child in yourself as you sing through the memories as the poet does. It’s a beautiful poem that I couldn’t resist sharing.
I will say that there are many different kinds of poems and the ones I’ve selected may seem a bit dark, but that is where my bias tends to lie. I like poems that hit me hard in the chest. You can find Laurie Ann Guerrero on Facebook and learn more about her as well as let her know if any of these pieces struck a chord with you. If you enjoyed this sample, you can download or order a physical copy of Laurie Ann Guerrero’s collection A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying at:
Thanks always for reading, please drop in again soon…