I was born into flor y canto, in xochitl in cuicatl, flower & song, poetry taught me by my father Jesús and my mother Carmen (who before she married compiled a collection of poems, in Spanish of course, meticulously typed on two- hundred-fifty pages bound in an embossed binder from the custom house in Cd. Juárez where my aunt Luz worked, the first book I ever attempted to illustrate, to my mother’s consternation, at the age of three or four.) They had me learn poems I barely understood (of Yanko, a boy who yearned for a violin, and of a blind man who begged from them who could see) for me to recite at family gatherings every Sunday at my Papanito Diego’s and Abuelita Chayito’s house. I remember once my tía Conchita burst into tears at a “poem” of my own that I recited.
I did not know what made my aunt cry, but I had some notion of the power of words. I did not just learn simply by rote the poems I recited nor did I say them without feeling them. I had my childish understanding of Yanco’s yearning to make music and of the pain of the blind beggar. I imagined with horror utter darkness, of not being able to see the sunset or the moon, the trees, the flowers, the play of light upon the mountain, the faces of the ones I loved.
And so I grew my poet’s heart in love with language, I do not know if because it allowed expression of my amazed perceptions or if it was language itself that shaped them. I have often wondered. I speak of language because it is inseparable from poetry, but the root of flor y canto, flower & song goes much more deeply. What I was taught (before and simultaneously with language) was love. And a keen sense of beauty. (Without these I doubt there would be flor y canto at all; without the flower, would song be possible or worth hearing?)
I loved the shape and color of things (drawing and painting was my first passion, poetry of a different sort, a related world.) The Earth was the source of my wonder, driving with my family at dawn through the desert covered in lavender desert verbena or on vacation in Ruidoso helping my grandmother look for white violets under the ferns by the noisy stream (for which the place was named), the shapes of stones, the flight of birds.
Spanish, of course, was my first tongue and when I began to learn English at the age of seven at Lamar Public School, I acquired another tongue, another world. It was not easy at first. If we spoke Spanish at school we would be punished. One morning, my mother walked me to school and then went on with my little brother Arturo to my grandparent’s house a few blocks away. I entered a deserted playground; I was terrified. (The teacher had announced a day of vacation but I had not understood.) I walked back home to an empty house and sat on the porch, lonely, afraid, confused, till my mother returned with my grandmother and I was smothered in kisses and hugs. I failed first grade.
When I was in the fourth grade, the principal recommended that my father enroll me and my brother Arturo (two years younger than I) at Bailey school for “retarded” children. So my father took us. We could not have spent more than half an hour and the principal said that we did not belong there and recommended that we change schools. My parents went into debt and bought their first (and only) house in another district so that my brother and I could attend Morehead Public School. Whatever problems there were disappeared.
And all along I wrote, in Spanish and in English into which I grew. My teachers often said that my writing was “poetic,” but my poems were private, to be shared only with my father and mother, my grandmother Chayito in cards I made for their birthdays, saint’s days, and other occasions such as Valentine’s Day (a thing I do for very special people in my life even now.)
These are the happenings of my formative years. Happenings are the food of poetry, but it is from one’s inner life that poems are made. I was shy, introverted, clumsy at sports, repelled by competition. I was religious, an altar-boy at St. Patrick Cathedral, worried that my mother and father did not think regular attendance at mass was particularly important. I prayed to God, a vague, stern “father,” and I had a notion of the holy but it was not the same as my experience of the sacred which I’ve always had. Holiness was somehow polite, although awing, abstract; sacredness was wild, alive, little to do with good or bad; it was a gasp in the heart. It was what I felt accompanying my father on his business trips to little towns in Texas and New Mexico when I gazed at the infinite horizon, the mountains that changed shape according to the light, the white desert poppies. At church, it was the colored light streaming through the windows that had little to do with the scenes from the tragic life of the young rebel rabbi that they depicted and whose name was given me (because it was also my father’s.) It had to do with beauty that I found in nature and in art, but a beauty that had little to do with pretty; it could be terrible as in a storm at sea and the Gran Coatlicue, the black paintings of Goya. It had much to do with joy, but not necessarily so; it had also to do with the darknesses that cut joy. It was the catch in the heart. It has no words; it is the task of poetry to give words to the wordless.
Sacredness had to do with aesthetics at the root of its meaning, perception, an alerting of the senses that fires the heart. It was the difference between a Safeway market in El Paso with its vegetables and fruit arranged in neat straight rows under stage-lights, with little smell, hardly any talk between costumers and clerks, and the Mercado in Juárez with its stands of vegetables and fruit stacked in pyramids or piles, a tumult of colors and smells, its stands of piñatas and sarapes and folk-art a carnival of color and form, lively interchanges between buyers and sellers. The senses were alive. On the road trips my father took us to Mexico, each village and town had its own smell and art form: Saltillo its sarapes, Celaya its cajeta, Tonalá its pottery. We were taken to wonders: the pyramids of Teotihuacan and the rococo church of Santa Prisca in Taxco. In Mexico City we stayed in an old hotel with an imposing patio across from the Alameda Central Park not far from the elegant Hotel del Prado where my parents took us to see Diego Rivera’s Sueño, and to the museum in the old Casa de la Moneda just off the Zócalo to see the Stone of the Sun, and to the museum in Chapultepec where I was introduced to the two disquieting Fridas with their open hearts.
My final year of grade school was difficult; my shyness intensified painfully and I developed a stutter that made it difficult for me to utter a simple sentence and worried my parents so that they sent me to speech and psychotherapists. Graduating, I went to El Paso High School and there I regained my tongue with the help of my speech teacher enough that I became involved in school politics and in my junior year was elected President of the Student Council. My acquaintance with poetry let me excel in my English classes. There I read Thoreau which led to my first act of civil disobedience when, as Student Council President of the host high school of the Southern Association of Student Councils Convention, I refused to sign letters of refusal to applications from the segregated Black schools. I would not be budged. The letters were signed by the secretary of the Association. I learned justice from my father and mother, an extension of the love they taught which had much to do with my decision to study medicine.
My parents could not afford to send me to college; on graduating, I joined the Navy in order to obtain the benefits of the G.I. Bill and served in the Hospital Corps, two years at Corona Naval Hospital in Norco, California, two with the 1st Marine Brigade at Kaneohe Bay, Territory of Hawai’i. It was an intense time during which I learned a great deal, read a great deal, wrote much, and confirmed my aversion to the military.
At the end of my discharge, I enrolled in pre-med at Texas Western College of the University of Texas (later the University of Texas at El Paso) on the G.I. Bill. It was then that I began to “go public” with my poems (many that I had written while in the navy.) I completed all my required courses for pre-med, but it was English and Spanish literature that grabbed me. Two papers that I wrote in my English courses, one on the pre-Hispanic literature of Mexico and another on Beat Literature were published in literary magazines. One poem, titled “Apathy,” from my stint with the Marine Corps, submitted for an anthology of the National Student Poets Association received the 3rd Place Award. (It was the only poetry competition that I have ever entered.) A poem that I wrote in my freshman year from an experience working after class in my father’s store in el Segundo barrio became one of my most anthologized poems and put me in the vanguard of Chicano literature:
Come, mother —
your rebozo trails a black web
and your hem catches on your heels,
you lean the burden of your years
on shaky cane, and palsied hand pushes
sweat-grimed pennies on the counter.
Can you still see, old woman,
the darting color-trailed needle of your trade?
The flowers you embroider
with three-for-a-dime threads
cannot fade as quickly as the leaves of time.
What things do you remember?
Your mouth seems to be forever tasting
the residue of nectar hearted years.
Where are the sons you bore?
Do they speak only English now
and say they’re Spanish?
One day I know you will not come
and ask for me to pick
the colors you can no longer see.
I know I’ll wait in vain
for your toothless benediction.
I’ll look into the dusty street
made cool by pigeons’ wings
until a dirty child will nudge me and say:
“Señor, how mach ees thees?”
I took part in poetry readings and folk began to call me “poet.” I could say that I had always written (lived) poetry and, though it was part of me, I never called myself poet; it was the exalted title of those masters I had memorized as a child and read as an adult.
In my senior year, I became a born-again pagan and when it came time to graduate, to the disappointment of my family, I decided that medicine was not my calling. I decided to teach instead. After spending the third year of my National Education Act Fellowship traveling in Europe, teaching in universities during the Viet-Nam war which I actively opposed organizing Teach-ins and counseling conscientious objectors, I realized the truth of my decision: it was for that gasp, that catch, those serendipitous revelations of pedagogy that defined education for me.
Outside the long lawns roll
the honey sunlight on their green tongues
& in the class-room I mouth the brittle truths
I’ve love-shopped & paid for with forked coin.
(I sat one February day
in the white sanctuary of Delphi
trying to break the almond
from its tough & furry husk —
Apollo never came
& I caught cold.)
My students stare
& wonder what I’ve tried to say
or just plain words
I do not know myself
But then one day I say some thing I do
not know I say
(while thinking of
Casals’ tender wrestling with Bach
Barcelona’s Ramblas by moonlight
the clams’ love-life on Cape Cod
one boy shatters his sulk —
some dirty city star
long ago swallowed by his sight,
surprised by awareness, shoots,
tear-washed & sharpened
from his eyes.
This gasp, this catch in the heart (what I think a poet friend called the jaguar in her heart) is what I look for in the marvels of the Earth, in art, in poetry, in life. It is why I raise my voice against that which diminishes life, that sins against the gasp; it is the root of my activism. When in 1983 I took a leave of absence from my teaching at Laney Community College in Oakland, California to organize the International Day of Nuclear Disarmament and undertake direct actions of civil disobedience, I found myself in Lompoc Federal Prison for attempting to block the test of the MX Missile at Vandenberg Airforce Base, I knew that I was there for life and on a scrap of paper with the stub of a pencil smuggled in, wrote:
I am here —
I wear the old-ones’ jade —
it’s life, they said & precious;
turquoise I’ve sought to hone my visions;
& coral to cultivate the heart;
mother of pearl for purity.
I have put on what power I could
to tell you there are mountains
where the stones sleep —
hawks nest there
& lichens older than the ice is cold.
The sea is vast & deep
darker than the rocks are hard.
I am here to tell you
the Earth is made of things
so much themselves
they make the angels kneel.
We walk among them
& they are certain as the rain is wet
& they are fragile as the pine is tall.
We, too, belong to them;
they count upon our singing,
the footfalls of our dance,
our children’s shouts, their laughter.
I am here for the unfinished song,
the uncompleted dance,
the dreadful fakes of love.
I am here for life
& I will not go away.
I can say that I have always written poetry but I never considered it for a profession. I wrote poems though it took me a long while to own to the title of poet that other folk gave me. I became a teacher of literature and Creative Writing though I never took a course in Creative Writing myself. I have always worked my art in solitude never having been part of a writers’ group, perhaps an advantage I have foregone. It is shyness perhaps, perhaps a privacy that my muses (two, one with a Spanish tongue, the other with an English one) have wanted to preserve. I have not published much. When students asked about publishing, I told them that publishing does not a poet make. If they sent a poem to a friend for a birthday, or to the family for a holy day, they were publishing. I mostly publish by sharing my poems with family, friends, colleagues through an e-mail list that has grown with the years. It is my way of keeping in touch, sharing where I am in my thoughts, my concerns, to remind them of the season’s turn, alert them when the moon is full.
The writing of poetry is always an act of becoming, and when at the over-ripe age of eighty-two, I was named the first Poet Laureate of Berkeley, beloved city I have called my home for nearly half a century, I was stamped as such. And when I go away, as we all must inevitably do, and my remains (at the desire of my family) are returned to El Paso del Norte, border of my disbelief, to be buried in the desert of my birth, one side of the granite headstone will read:
Si la vida es
luciérnaga en la noche
que su luz breve que sea
and the other:
If life is
a firefly in the night
let its light however brief
Rafael Jesús González, taught Creative Writing & Literature at Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Mexican & Latin American Studies Dept. Four times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English for his writing, 2003. He received a César Chávez Lifetime Achievement Award 2013 and one from the City of Berkeley 2015. In 2017 he was named Berkeley’s first Poet Laureate. http://rjgonzalez.blogspot.com/