Friday, August 29, 2014

Three Ways of Looking Into the Vortex


Like a universe
at the center
of a black, black
hole: like the eye
of a hurricane
swallowing half
the globe: like
the round pupil
in the eye of
a deer: come
get it, your
destiny.  Your

Like a hummingbird in salvia:
green and turquoise
abalone wings,
flashes of ruby.
Beauty is
her work.
passes between
beak and blossom:
all that matters
is here.

Heart bandit.  Blue
tiger of night.
Moon-raider.  All
the papery hearts
of moths flock to you;
let them devour
and be devoured
by your swirling
of light.

Deborah A. Miranda

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Song of a Broken Woman

So many broken things,
I can’t fix them all.

My child is splintered;
I can’t raise him up.

My sister is shattered.
I can’t put her back together.

My heart is cracked;
I can’t mend it.

The earth is diseased;
I can’t heal her.

The law is busted;
I can’t make it work.

My country is falling apart.
I can’t rebuild it.

But I want to live.
(I can’t fix it)

But I want to live
(I can’t change it)

We want to survive
(we can’t do it all)

So many broken things,
how do we begin?

So many damaged souls,
where do we start?

The world burning down,
I can’t fix it, honey,

The city gray with tear-gas,
I can’t wash it away

The forests filled with ash,
I can’t put out the fire

Children thrown out like garbage
I can’t redeem them

Too much broken
for one broken woman to fix it all

So hold my hand, friend,
just hold my hand

and in that space
where our two palms meet

maybe we can find
one tiny peace

one seed, one sprout,
something new

let’s agree to keep it safe
let’s promise each other to nourish

one. tiny. beating. heart.
between us -

let’s try reaching out
with our other hand

to some other poor
broken spirit

make another tiny piece
of peace

a safe place
a holy space

so much broken in the world
but let’s imagine ourselves cracks

between torn pavement
where hope

can be a persistent weed,
dig in,

remember wholeness:
reach up.

Deborah A. Miranda

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Unforgiven, 1817


"These were his last words; for soon after, he expired, and there remained a corpse, truly horrible and revolting to the sight. Consider, what must have been my feelings!" - Father Geronimo Boscana

You are one of the good neofitos. 
As a boy you learned Spanish and Latin,
knew your catechism,
never missed Mass,
always confessed.  You believe
what you are supposed
to believe: in sin, punishment,
Satan, the Padre’s lash
and the authority of the Church
over each inch of your Indian body. 
You are the perfect convert.

But a strange sickness
takes you, convulsions so fierce
three men can’t hold
you down on the bed. 
I come to you then,
with my holy water,
my oil, ready to receive
your final confession,
eager to save your soul.
And you refuse.  Your
mother and father beg,
mi'ijo, take the holy sacrament,
it will strengthen
you against the devil’s
enticements, help you
bear this suffering. 
Your friends, no slouches
at confession themselves,
whisper, it takes away
all your venial sins, even
your mortal sins if
you are truly sorry.  

To no avail - you scream
profanities, curse God,
the Church, all the rituals.
It is the fever talking, I tell
your parents, he is out
of his mind, insane
with pain.  My son,
I urge, will you not
confess your sins?
save your soul from the flames
of Hell?  Satan’s words
pour from your mouth:

I do not want to!  Having lived deceived,
I do not want to die deceived.  

I anoint your burning
forehead and hands with oil
made from olives you
had helped to pick and press,
but I can do no more. 
You weep with fury,
and then you die. 
We cannot know
the will of the Lord.  But

in my cold bed tonight,
I think of martyrs
and saints who would not
recant, though beaten,
savaged, burned alive.
How we admire
their conviction,
scourge ourselves
to emulate their faith.
I think of you, my
perfect convert, aflame
with mysterious fever. 
I wonder:
which one of us
is the true believer?

Deborah A. Miranda

Friday, August 15, 2014

Juliana, Spring 1832

reconstructed monjerio at Mission La Purisimia

The only way out of the monjerio* is marriage.  The big iron lock turns at dusk, our parents on the other side in the mission village, we girls in this small fetid room.  The priest carries the key in his robe, gives it back to the Madre at dawn so we can join him in prayers before receiving our work orders. I’ve hated night for as long as I can remember.  When the padre came to our hut, told my mother I was seven years old now, old enough to require the monjerio, she told me, “Remember the stars.  Remember you’ll see them again someday.”  But I’ve forgotten – are they silver, or gold?  Which direction do they move?  Where is the one my mother warned me was sly and mean-spirited? She told me once that blazing stars with long tails were souls on their way to the afterlife.  I wonder if the sky burns all night now?  Some of the younger girls still miss their mothers, cry half the night, wet themselves.  They keep the rest of us awake.  I don’t feel sorry for them; I hiss the curses I learned from the soldados to frighten them, make them shut up.  The fucking workday is long enough without losing sleep too.  I don’t remember being that weak.  True, I had my two older sisters.  For years they kept me tucked between them all night; if the door opened in the darkness, if soldiers picked the lock or stole the padre’s key, or if the padre himself made one of his ‘inspections,’ Dolores pushed me behind her, Ines covered me with her blanket.  Till they married those brothers and left me here to rot.  Now I lie awake at night, tuck my back into this corner I’ve claimed and defend when I have to.  Smelling some poor woman’s shit as she crouches over the trench in the corner, moaning that the posole this morning must’ve had rotten meat.  My own bowels twist and boil, but please God let me make it till morning, and the privacy of a bush or hillside.  And I think about that soldier, Demetrio, the one who came with the San Blas Infantry from someplace called Mexico.  The Spanish guards laugh at him, call him ‘chulo,’ which means, I think, halfbreed.  They ask him which jail the military pulled him out of, what crime did he commit, has he learned how to shoot an escopeta.  They make him sound like a little boy.  I know he’s not.  Yesterday on the path returning from the lavanderia, I hung back, pretended my basket of wet clothes was too heavy.  He slipped me a string of dark red beads, my favorite, and said he would speak to the Padre soon.  Then he pressed against me, knocked my basket into the dirt, spilled all that hard work. He put his hairy mouth on mine.  I couldn’t move.  Clara called my name, and he pushed me away, ducked back into the trees. Tonight I can still feel his hands clutching my breasts.  I wonder. I wonder what it would be like, to see the stars again. 

"[In California's Franciscan missions] Girls who had passed their eighth year were housed in the monjerio in which they were confined under lock and key at night to protect their virtue. The monjerio also served as a training school in which girls and widows were confined much of the time. This separation of children from families was justified since at a tender age they had not fully developed fixed habits and beliefs and thus were more easily influenced by missionaries."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Saleki Asatsa/Good Morning

Now she sits at a small plain patio just outside her studio, a cool, dark walk from the dorms.  Cement, cracked and damp with yesterday’s rain.  An old wrought iron and table set, black paint peeling but not yet rusting, holds her body as well as her coffee mug.  Her spirit is tugging at the leash, smells earth, grass, thistle, pollen from a dozen sources, hears Blue Jay, warbler, swallow.  She draws on her coffee like a cigarette.  Exhales caffeine. 

The highway in the distance is a dull reminder of rubber on pavement: The World.  The same way her bed, with its smooth clean sheets, the electricity that filled her room with artificial light before dawn, and the gasping Mr. Coffee in the kitchen, reminded her.  She is under no delusions of edenic seclusion or escape. But she doesn’t have to turn on the news.  Doesn’t need to hear stories about savage loss, grief that cannot be captured and subdued, humanity stripped by those who have already given up their own. 

No.  She’d rather focus on the three nearly perfect drops of water, three sisters made of dew, that have collected themselves exactly in the center of the back rod of a wrought iron chair.  Hang there full of light and birdsong.  

She’s found a pocket of green thistles that haven’t hit August heat yet, haven’t burst out in purple finale like the last statement on a fireworks display:

The tin roof of a barn building.  The gray cement blocks of a studio wall.  The flash of all-out-every-single-wing-span white bars on a mockingbird’s feathers, seen from beneath, against a pale turquoise sky scudded with morning clouds. 

She is building beauty here, storing grace.  Hopes to bring some of it back with her across the divide. 

Like those three jewels of water still hanging, she doesn’t know how long she’s got before gravity or evaporation pulls everything in another direction.

Just for this window of grace, catch light.  Hold it, reflect it.  Revel in it. 

How can she look away?  These spheres contain everything she ever hopes to find.  Everything she ever hopes to become.  Suspended, curved perfection.  A sister on either side.  How lucky is that?

The moon continues her descent, rotating out of the scene like a dancer who cherishes her role.  Stars and planets keep the slow waltz across the sky unseen, know that holding their places is crucial to the choreographic whole.  The throaty clutch and croak of crows as they make their slow way across a field, hop from bush to dead tree branch to grassy clearing.  A thin weave of cricket voices rises up, holds this morning together.

A fiery star burns through the greenery, joins the three pearly sisters glowing on iron, and for a moment, the sacred number blesses all with memory of what really is real.  There is North, and South, and West, and East.  What else do I need to know? she asks. 

Morning answers, That one plus one plus one plus one equals, only and always, One.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Blessings of Surprise (and Endurance)

I've had a poetry manuscript kicking around for, oh, maybe 8 years now.  It's gone through several name changes, undergone major renovations at least three times, and has been submitted to publishers and contests a total of 23 times.  Only one press responded with any kind of feedback.  Trust me, this is not unusual for poetry manuscripts!

Last year, at the AWP conference, I took hard copies of the manuscript with me, determined to overcome my fear of being pushy and give it to as many editors as would take it.

Honestly, I don't remember how many editors or small press publishers I gave that manuscript to last year (two?  three?), but I never heard back from any of them.  I continued submitting the book, but more significantly, in the spirit of humility, sat down at the beginning of my summer break and completely revisioned the manuscript

I mean, I was brutal.  

One of the best things I did?  I cleared off the dining room table and said, "Three piles:  awesome, potential, crap."  And then I sorted the poems from my manuscript.  I listened to my inner voice - not my editor, not my critic, but my gut instinct.  And I winnowed according to that voice.

Because I knew.  I knew some poems weren't pulling their weight, and I just had not yanked them yet.  Whether from pride, lack of energy, or sheer stupidity, that manuscript was not the best manuscript I had in me.

When I finished, I had something much better.  I went to work on the "potentially good" poems with a vengeance.  Then I sharpened the "awesome" poems, because I saw them with a clarity that wasn't possible before.  I dumped most of the "crap" poems except for one or two, which I performed some machete magic on, and reworked into material that surprised (but pleased) me.  Finally, I went through my file of newer poems that had never been in the manuscript and found homes for the best of them in the three sections that had evolved from this exercise.

Then I put it all away and worked on other things for a month.  I wanted to come back to it fresh, one more time.

Guess what?  This week, out of the blue, I received a surprise email.  One of those small press publishers from last spring had hung onto my older manuscript, and wrote to me this week saying, "I'd love to publish this."

I had to tell him, "Well, um, it's kinda not the same book anymore," and bless his heart, Luis Rodriguez of Tia Chucha Press wrote back, "I'm committed to this book, so don't worry about that. I'm positive the manuscript will be even better."

(Tangential point:  in 1994, when my father asked, "So what kind of stuff are you doing in grad school?" I gave him two of the most powerful books I'd read; he kept, read and re-read, those books, and he told me, "Now these are my kind of books!"  Those books were Greg Sarris's Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream, and . . . Always Running: La Vida Loca/Gang Days in L.A., by Luis Rodriguez.)

So, after 24 hours of furious polishing (important addendum: and giving the whole thing to my wife Margo Solod, who helped sequence the poems, make a few excellent suggestions about a poem that was troubling me, and generally earn my undying gratitude), I sent the new/old manuscript off.  A contract came by return email.  Along with a tentative publication date of just before the next AWP (April 8-10, 2015).  Eight months.  This is unheard of; writers wait years for publication most of the time.

Add to this, the gift of being told to choose an image for the cover (this is one of the perks of small press publishing - more authorial control, less anonymous machinery).  

So today I am happy to present to you a brief preview of what Raised By Humans (Tia Chucha Press, 2015) will look like.

The cover design will be based on this collage piece by Yaqui poet/writer/artist Anita Endrezze.  For years I have been looking at Anita's artwork online and drooling over it, wanting to have a piece of hers grace the cover of one of my books.  I can't believe it's happening, but it is!  I found a piece that fits the book perfectly: 
This is just a screenshot; you can view the real thing by clicking on the picture to go to Anita's website.


The poems in Raised by Humans are about surviving two experiences:  childhood, and colonization.

When writing the title poem, I thought of literary depictions of children raised by wolves or other animals. Tarzan and Mowgli come to mind immediately, of course, though there are countless other examples:  human children abandoned or lost in the wilderness, adopted and nurtured by non-humans. As a kid, I never felt sorry for those children; I wanted to be those children!  Childhood did not agree with me, mostly because the adult humans in charge of my life were not prepared to manage their own lives, let alone the life of a human-in-training.

…They locked me in a tin house,

went carousing while I huddled each night alone.
Sometimes I escaped to surrounding woods,

ate huckleberries and drank from a muddy creek,
slept buried in dried pine and cedar needles.  But like a tamed fox

I always went back to my captivity for dinner, begged
for a crumb of something.

Sometimes I got it.  Sometimes I wolfed
a meal down greedily, not caring who saw my starvation.

(“Raised by Humans”)

I was raised by humans, but it wasn’t a humane childhood.

This collection has a parallel theme that has also haunted me: What does it mean for indigenous people to survive civilization and become readers/writers of the same alphabet that colonized their culture?  How do we write our Indigenous stories in the language of our destroyers?  What can we do to save ourselves when the real barbarians are not the indigenous peoples but our so-called saviors?

Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird titled their anthology of Native women’s writing “re-inventing the enemy’s language,” and although this phrase says so much about what I do in my work, I am far from finished with wrestling with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, or even the twenty-nine letters of my Spanish colonizers – as the two alphabet poems that book-end this collection illustrate.

The reason, of course, is that neither of these themes is totally black and white.  My parents, while not skilled at raising children, loved me.  And I loved them terribly.  Both my mother (European) and my father (California Indian) were scarred by the violence of colonization, and brought their own wounds into the lives of their children.  Despite this, we are family in ways that cannot be erased.  In much the same way, while Euro-American culture has done indigenous people a great deal of harm, we are also irrevocably intertwined, and I’m under no illusion that the colonizers are going to see the error of their ways, pack their bags, and hop on the next boat back to Europe. 

The complexity of being forced to find my way into relationship with the very people or cultures that have hurt me/raised me is a paradox at the heart of this book.  The poems in this collection attempt to push language past what I call the “alphabet of walls:”

this alphabet we never asked for, ‘given’ to us like a parasite in our guts, shackle around our wrist, gag in our mouths.  This alphabet like a cattle brand.  This alphabet meant to strangle us – the umbilical cord of a mother who hates her bastard child.  (“Decolonizing the Alphabet”)

To do this, I tweak an anthropological lens for the book’s structure, laying out sections of familiar categories like History, Education and Faith, much the way an anthropology textbook might examine this strange tribe called humans.  My poems look at the experience of understanding familial and cultural histories, learning how to negotiate both loss and poetics, coming into spirituality.  I often play with poetic forms, looking for ways to ‘re-invent’ those structures for my purposes; I think of this as lulling myself (and perhaps readers) into a sense of familiarity, then suddenly twisting around to see what’s lurking in the corner of language’s eye.  I tell my creative writing students that we have to trick ourselves into language that reveals; what I mean is that language, like any code, hides the best parts, so we must use any means necessary to surprise it into giving up a clue, an insight.

This book, then, is also about becoming an adult, and decolonization – the ongoing process of each, not the resolution, because that would be far too linear.

                                                - Deborah A. Miranda



I was born on the San Andreas Fault.  I carry
that promise of violence and destruction down
the center of my body like a zig-zag of lightning.

My father was born there, my mother too,
all my brothers and sisters.  Sometimes I think
that’s the only thing we still have in common:

our emergence on the edge of a rippling continent
where the sun goes down over warm waters;
born in the desert’s shadow, between

mountains and sea.  Some of us got into cars,
drove north on long interstate freeways.
Some of us stayed not twenty miles

from our birthplace, bound by love or hate
or fear, unable to imagine a sunrise
without palm trees – or sun.  Some of us

died, turned to dust inside incinerators
built for human flesh; our ashes tucked
in a niche at Inglewood or scattered by children

on the green currents at Tuolumne.  Some
of us no longer speak to one another, silent
as rusty knives; others learn old languages,

make new songs out of scraps.  Some of us
journey only in motes of dust shining
above the fractured chasms of earth. 

And some of us return in solitary dreams
to sacred places we could not find
in this lifetime.  Today, I wind a string

of shells around my wrist four times,
a bracelet strung so I can bear
the beauty of my homeland with me

wherever I go.  The sharp edges bite
my skin, rattle soft as pebbles as I write
these words.  Abalone hangs from my neck:

polished shards of oceanic memory.
I was born on the San Andreas Fault.
I carry that rattlesnake in my spine, feel

the plates of a restless continent grind
and shift from tailbone to skull, a tectonic
rosary that keeps coming unstrung, keeps me

tied to the plundered bones of this place.

- Deborah A. Miranda