By Alma Luz Villaneuva.
I began to write my first real poetry on my farm in Sebastopol, California, the early 1970s. My daughter, Antoinette, had turned fifteen, the same age I was when I had her. It felt like a time bomb went off deep inside of me, at thirty. A gathering of words. I was choking with them. An eruption of words. From my womb. A lava of words began to spill from my mouth, eyes, ears, my trembling fingers, pen. I locked myself in the bathroom- the only door with a lock- with pen/paper, sitting on the toilet seat as my kids yelled, “Where’s Mom, do you know where Mom is…” I had three of my own children (my daughter 15, two sons- Ed, 13- Marc, 8) and two ‘stepsons’ (Eric, 8- Jacob, 6). So five children in all at that time, two of them yelling, “Where’s Mom!” Marc began to jump up to the window, trying to look in, his head appearing, disappearing, “Mom, are you in there, Jacob has a dart in his head!” I sighed, but I got my first line down, trembling. One line on the small blank notebook page, but it was mine.
When we first moved onto this beautiful farm on a full acre, a stand of redwoods off to the side of the house, an ancient walnut tree, weeping willow by the creek, peach, pear and apple trees in the back fields- not an orchard but enough for us- two barns across the creek, and the boys would build their forts back there, my older son, Ed, a beautiful tree house, installing a stained glass window he made himself (of a summer sun, a fertile field)…we had a cross burned on our front lawn. Actually, two crosses burned on our front lawn. Friends of ours followed us from the Bay Area- brown, black, white hippies with long hair- they helped us move in, camping for a few days with live music, much singing and dancing too. Hence, the burning cross after everyone left. My daughter screaming at the sight around midnight; there it was, a cross burning on our front lawn. I was shocked, terrified…would they try to lynch us, but I kept it to myself.
My eighty-eight year old neighbor, whom I would come to name Annie Oakley, came out that first cross burning night, saw my face, and walked over to where I was standing, the hose in my hand putting out the fire. It left a burn spot on the green grass and it terrified me, but it also pissed me off.
“Do you have a rifle, dear?” Annie asked.
“I said, do you have a rifle?”
“No,” I answered, flustered. A rifle? I’d never even held a tiny gun, as in fuck a duck.
“Well, dear, I’ll take you downtown to buy one, just put it over your door for these kinds of emergencies.”
“I don’t know how to shoot, I’m sorry.”
“I’ll show you how, dear, I’m a crack shot, grew up with all brothers.”
And so, Annie Oakley did, show me how to shoot my own rifle, and I put it up over our kitchen door, the cartridges hidden in my closet, but I knew exactly where they were. And the cross burners returned, my daughter yelling (her bedroom faced the front lawn). I ran out the door- I didn’t have the rifle yet, learned to shoot, as they returned a few nights later- and this time I was just pissed off. How dare they terrify my children, how dare they, those racist farm Klu Klux Klan hicks! Annie shot at their tires and she was a crack shot- she also got their license plate. They rolled away with one bare rim as she laughed with glee like a girl.
“Next time you can shoot out a tire too, dear. Tomorrow we’re going downtown for that rifle. You know, they lynched a negro man only ten years ago, this county. Never did catch the sons of bitches, far as I know.” Annie would tell me a few years later that her mother was Mexican, her father white, and that her mother was light skinned. Their family secret, she told me with defiant eyes. And one Christmas she brought a pot of tamales over to share- delicious. “This is Mama’s recipe,” she glowed with pride. And we ate them all, spicy and sweet.
In short, the police found the cross burners via the license plate- they were all teenagers, not the KKK. They were held in a cell, so I went down and called them names, but mostly telling them, “If you ever come to my farm again and try to burn your fucking cross, I’m going to blow your fucking asses away. I just bought a rifle and I can shoot it pretty fucking good. I won’t allow you to terrorize my children, do you understand me?” (This is a shortened version.) All but one answered, “Yes, ma’am.” As I left one of the cops said, “You sure have a mouth on you, ma’am.” “Thank you!” I yelled and left. Yes, the cops were also racist, except for one young guy who gave me a smile as I slammed the door behind me.
A week later three of the cross burners knocked on my door, one of them holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers. “These are for you, ma’am, we’re sure sorry if we scared your kids and all. It won’t happen again, we’re surely sorry,” the bouquet holder said in a soft, sorry voice. There was one missing, so I asked, “Where’s the fourth guy?”
“You don’t have to worry, ma’am, his daddy beat the shit out of him, he still can’t walk,” one of the teens answered with a smile.
“Well, I didn’t want anyone to get beaten up, but, okay, thank you for these flowers, guys, it makes me feel so much better.” And it did, I suddenly wanted to cry very loudly- those hideous burning crosses, the image of young black men lynched, castrated. I hadn’t cried, but the sight of the flowers, their eyes staring at me shyly. But I didn’t, although I’m sure my eyes betrayed me. Well, this is something to write about, I told myself- you’re from the Mission, San Francisco, and you’ve seen worse. Ran over a mugger one time, how I met my stepson’s mom, now gone, cancer. Yeah, I ran over a mugger, the thought cheered me up, so what’s a burning fucking cross, and I will write about it, damn straight.
“If you ever need anything, just give me a call,” bouquet holder handed me the flowers and his phone number, name. My kids stood behind me with their mouths open, the boys. My daughter was watching from a distance, giggling.
“Well, that was really weird, Mom,” she laughed. “But I hope there’s no more burning crosses waking me up in the middle of night scaring the shit out of me. I mean, we moved to the country to be safer, right? All the gang stuff going on, plus we’re going to learn how to grow our own food, right?”
“I’m glad you’re learning how to shoot, Mom,” Ed added. “Maybe I can learn too.”
“You’re only thirteen, maybe in a few years, we’ll see how it all goes,” I answered a bit wearily. My son, Ed, was being chased home by gangs, wanting him to join (in our neighborhood, San Francisco). My daughter, Antoinette, had been jumped by a group of girls with hatchets the last day of school. She’s a big, strong girl, and she remembered my words, “Never, ever, go into a ball, fight back,” and she pushed through the group, ran to a door and banged on it. A man had been watching from his window and was on his way down- he let her in, slammed the door shut. One of the girls had been her best friend from kindergarten to seventh grade, so though their hatchets hadn’t drawn any blood, it wounded her spirit.
I had actually been contemplating returning to the city, as in cross burnings by the KKK, possible lynching, was worse than gangs. We’d settle in a different area in the city…but I was learning how to shoot my rifle. It wasn’t over the door yet, but safely tucked away in my closet.
That first poem that I started in the bathroom was very short, but I finished it the next day. Jacob had stitches on his forehead from the dart- Ed had been throwing darts to a target and Jacob ran right in front of him (or so the story went). After that, darts were only allowed in the back barn with no other activities going on while the darts flew through the air. And I finished the poem…it felt like a small, clear voice was right inside my right ear trying to get my attention. The gathering of words. The eruption of words. Lava flowing from my trembling hand, pen. I’d begin a poem, the first line, and at that moment it seemed impossible that I would finish it, that I had anything important to say, write, say. But the words, the lines, continued to arrive and I found a spot by myself, by the willow tree, and wrote. On fire. Trembling.
My first experience with poetry, hearing poetry, was with mi Mamacita, Jesus Villanueva. She would read me poetry in Spanish, some of it by heart, and she loved to read me sections of The Song of Solomon from the Bible. Mamacita had a beautiful voice and I loved to watch her face as she read/recited; she became young, radiant. I also watched her recite long poems by heart at church- the Southern Spanish Speaking Baptist Church on Capp Street, San Francisco, the MIssion. I remember her as Death, entirely in black, her long grey hair loose (she always wore it up in a tight bun), holding a kind of spear, on the stage, her voice carrying to the very back of the church. Everyone silent, even the babies. She was a full blood Yaqui curandera from Sonora, Mexico, coming to the USA with her husband, Pablo, pregnant with my mother. He was to be the minister at a Baptist church in East Los Angeles; his well to do Catholic family disowned him. Pablo was also a published poet in Mexico; I have none of his poetry, but it must be in the DNA, of course. And Mamacita taught me poetry to recite by heart at church, up on the stage, my hair in large curls, pretty dress. In Spanish, my first language. After church services, the women from all over Latin America gathered in the basement kitchen to cook. There would be piles of pan dulce on a table, so I’d grab a couple and hide under the table eating, listening. One woman would start a poem, another woman would take it further; each woman until the poem was complete. With much laughter, joking. And so, my first memories of poetry are woven with poetry/prayer from the Bible, Mamacita’s voice and presence on the stage creating silence, the sweet taste of pan dulce on my tongue, the basement kitchen filled with laughing women, their confident, singing poetry voices. And then, the feast of foods from every country in Latin America. Poetry.
And Mamacita’s stories of growing up in her beloved Mexico lindo y querido. Some were hard- she ran away as a girl from her stepfather’s secret advances. When she returned, he burned the bottoms of her feet with live coals, to teach her not to run away again. When her mother, Ysidra (a well known curandera in that region), saw her daughter’s feet, she threw him out. She was married five times, “Each time a better man!” Mamacita would quote her, laughing. The rancheras she’d turn up on the radio and we’d dance together. She knew those songs by heart as well; her favorite ‘Cucuruucuucuu Paloma,’ which I came to know as such beautiful poetry. She would wait for the high note the singer must reach and when he’d reach it, she’d sigh “Ayyyyy, mi Alma,” and touch her heart. Without her poetry, her stories, her memories, I would not ever have become a poet/writer. I am her poet.
She left the body when I was almost twelve, and I rode the 22 Fillmore from the Bay Bridge side of San Francisco, to the Golden Gate Bridge side, back and forth for over a week. The drivers got to know me and let me ride for free; some of them bringing me a lunch. “Why so sad, kid?” “I hate school,” I remember answering. Anything but the truth. Sorrow. I stole some pens and little notebooks from the five and dime on Mission Street, okay and some candy too- and I began to write poetry about the people on the bus. That some looked really poor and hungry. Some of the mothers smacked their kids too, to shut them up. Mamacita not ever hit me, so this made me very sad. And so, this is how my sorrow was released at that time. That childish poetry. I wish I had them, every page.
My first real poem, that I kept, was written up in the tree house, in the branches of the willow tree. My son, Ed, reinforced an old tree house he found there, and we all loved sleeping up there, taking turns. Although the smaller boys preferred their own cave-like forts. The first time, I brought my sleeping bag, pillow, something to drink, notebook, pens, flashlight, up to the tree house. Ed helped me get everything up there and he was proud of his renovation which proved to be very sturdy. He would build his own separate tree house, with his stained glass window, in the redwoods, later on. And he allowed no one to sleep there, as in private property. I wrote a story, ‘Golden Glass,’ about Ed and his tree house, which has been published in various textbooks.
“Watch yourself coming down, Mom, and just leave your stuff up there, I’ll get it down for you later. Watch out for the vampires!” he laughed, leaving me in the darkness.
My daughter, Antoinette, came to the foot of the willow tree. “Hey Mom, I’ll have coffee and braided cinnamon loaf for you in the morning. That is, if you survive,” she laughed. She woke no later than 6am and started her baking, as in lucky me.
“I’ll be there with bells on, girl!”
Then the boys came making growling noises. Wild animals, wild boys.
“What are you going to do up there, write poetry?” Marc yelled and they all cracked up.
“I might, who knows. Okay, you guys, Antoinette and Ed are keeping an eye on you so don’t mess around. If you do they’re going to tell me and you’re all going to get grounded. Do you hear me?”
Group groan. “Yeah, okay, see ya in the morning,” Marc. “Can tigers climb trees?” I hear Eric’s voice. “Can I sleep in the fort with you guys?” Jacob whines. And they were gone. Everyone was getting used to me hiding out by the willow and writing poetry, although it continued to be weird. Then I was back to all of my chores, which was a lot with five kids, and going to Sonoma State a couple of days a week. My partner was a longshoreman, who also wrote some beautiful poetry; the father of my stepsons. From his collection of books, I read Pablo Neruda, Robinson Jeffers, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman. Neruda’s poetry made my heart ache and soar…Who could write such poetry? I’d ask myself. And the truth of women- Sexton, Plath- searingly etched on the page, each word. Each line. Jeffers’ epic poem, ‘The Roan Stallion’ and Whitman’s ‘I Sing The Song To Myself.’ It all added to the fire, the lava, erupting.
As I dissolved into the darkness, the small lit windows of my house in the distance, where my children were, I was suddenly very lonely and the night seemed ominous, threatening. I hadn’t slept away from the house like that since the cross burnings, and my rifle was in the house over the kitchen door. I almost picked up my notebook, pens, flashlight to climb down the ladder; but a small, clear voice- a voice Mamacita called The Wise Voice, and to always listen to it- said, “You’re safe, stay.”
It was getting chilly, early September, and soon it would be too cold to sleep out. I looked at my little house where my children were and I knew I could be there in three minutes. Then I looked up at the piercingly bright stars that glittered through the dark branches, and the sky became a river of stars floating over my head. And it was so silent. A few dogs in the distance, the wind through the ancient walnut tree, my children’s laughter rising once in a while. I imagined them playing Monopoly and Marc cheating as usual, making me smile. And they’d catch him, of course, and throw him out of the game. My partner stayed with friends in San Francisco a few nights a week to avoid the long drive back and forth. I imagined he missed his wife, my best friend, because I did, but this was our family now. Me under a river of stars, alone. Silence. I put my pillow behind my back, snuggled into the sleeping bag, opened the notebook, the pen and flashlight, and wrote this:
Stars dance their ancient tunes,
strung on light,
strung on light,
I get dizzy watching such acrobatics
as everything melts away
and the night has always played
and the void has always sung
the wide expanse
the wide expanse
and I have always prayed for
daybreak, for Earth splitting
fear, fear: listen:
love is the dance,
the spinning harp.
This was published in my last book, Soft Chaos, toward the end. I felt I had to include it as it ushered in a river, an ocean, a volcano of poetry. Words. A river of stars. “fear, fear: listen:”…let me sing, I will sing. These words. “love is the dance, the spinning harp.” And “To Jesus Villanueva, With Love,” a poem written at that same time, was also published in this book. This was the poem that gave me the voice of my ancestors, it ends:
Your daughter, mi tia,
told me a story I’d never
You were leaving Mexico
with your husband and two
older children, pregnant
with my mother.
The US customs officer
undid everything you so
preciously packed, you
took a sack, blew it up
and when he asked about
the contents of the sack,
well, you popped it with
your hand and shouted
Ayyyyyy Mamacita, Jesus,
I won’t forget my visions and reality.
To lie, to push, to get,
As I wrote this ending down, the story of their crossing, I realized for the first time- there were no two older children on that journey. She’d buried them in Sonora as babies, but their spirits were with her. Ancestors. Poetry is the gathered voices of our ancestors. We write it with trembling, joyous hands. And then we sing. With a river of stars over our heads, alone. Yet never alone. We sing with the great choir. Of ancestors. As Neruda wrote, “In a blind extension of love.” For the next seven generations- behind us, in front of us. We pass it on in a blind extension of love. As the women in the church basement cooking, one of us starts the poem, another one takes it up, then another one, until the poem is complete. And then we laugh and eat, feeding the children.
This beautiful Earth under a river of stars, we sing. Always with the ancestors.
Alma Luz Villanueva
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Alma Luz Villaneuva has published four novels, most recently, “Song of the Golden Scorpion,” as well as seven books of poetry, most recently, “Soft Chaos,” and the upcoming, “Gracias,” Spring 2015. Her poetry, stories, excerpts of her novels, have been published in many magazines, anthologies and textbooks. Most recently, her novel, “Luna’s California Poppies,” was included in the anthology, “Califora, A Literary Field Guide.” And an excerpt of her novel, “Naked Ladies,” in the anthology, “Caliente, The Best Erotic Latin American Writing.” She has taught at Antioch Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing program the past sixteen years- and has lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the past nine years, returning to teach, visit her family, friends. Her Authors Guild site is www.almaluzvillanueva.com