Poetry Wednesday – Gloria Anzaldúa

Gloria Anzaldúa is the author of Borderlands/La Frontera, which was required reading for my Border Studies class, and it is a very interesting read that I highly recommend.  Anzaldúa is a lesbian chicana, born and raised in the United States and of Mexican descent.  Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is part memoir, part history book and part book of poetry.  I chose this poem because of the way it speaks frankly of a specific female experience.  This poem deals with many tragedies: from an accident that lead to disfigurement to sexual experiences to the births of children to the deaths of family members.  This poem is long, but rightfully so, as it chronicles an entire life through the eyes of a granddaughter.

Immaculate, Inviolate: Como Ella

She never lived with us
we had no bed for her
but she always came to visit.
A gift for m’ijita
two folded dollar bills secretly put in my hand.

I’d sit at her side
away from the bucket of
enveloped en el olor de vieja
watch her roll her Buglar
yellowed talons plucking tobacco
knotted fingers rolling it thin, thinner,
tongue gumming edge of paper
sealing it pinching the ends
stroking it before striking match on thumbnail
watch smoke escape between chapped lips
curl through her white hair and pink skull.
They said at sixteen it had turned white overnight.

My grandmother could not tolerate heat.
She kept well away from fires.
A long time ago she burned herself.
She’d bent over the belly
of her woodburning stove
had seen no glimmer of a spark
had heaved up a can of kerosene

propping the edge on her hip
and cradling it to her chest
she’d let a few drops fall
on the charred sticks.
An invisible spark ignited
shot up the spout into her windpipe,
It took my uncle a long time
to carry the buckets of water from the well
soak the blankets
wrap them around her.

Mamá, usted ya no puede quedarse aquí sóla.
They made her give up the ranchouse
photographs, books, letters, yellowing.
pantry closets looted
not growing under the covers.

She’d stay two weeks with one, two with another,
back and forth in her black dress
and with her thick
white sweat streaks across her round back,
under arms.
She never stopped wearing
first for my papagrande
who died before I was born
then for her brother
and, until she died elevel years ago,
she wore black for my father.
I didn’t go to her funeral
that too must have made her suffer.

Platícame del rancho Jesús María,
de los Vergeles, Mamagrande,
where I was reared.
Tell me about the years of drought
the cattle with hoof’n mouth
the rabid coyotes.
And as she talked I saw her breathing in the fire,
coughing up sooty spittle
skin blistering, becoming pus
nerve endings exposed,
sweating, skin pallid, clammy
the nausea, the dizziness,
swelling to twice her size.

I watched the charred scars
on her throat and breasts
turn into parchment splotches
they catch the sheen of the coals
glow pink and lavender over the blue skin.
She’d felt numb, she told me,
her voice hoarse from the fire
or the constant cigarette in her mouth,
as though frostbitten.

Once I looked into her blue eyes,
asked, Have you ever had an orgasm?
She kept quiet for a long time.
Finally she looked into my brown eyes,
told me how Papagrande would flip the skirt
of her nightgown over her head
and in the dark takeout his
palo, his stick,
and do
lo que hacen los hombres
while she laid back and prayed
he would finish quickly.

She didn’t like to talk about such things.
Mujeres no hablan de cosas cochinas.
Her daughters, my
tías, never liked to talk about it —
their father’s other women, their half-brothers.

Sometimes when I get too close to the fire
and my face and chest catch the heat,
I can almost see Mamagrande’s face
watching him leave
taking her two eldest
to play with otherchildren
watching her sons y
los de la otra
grow up together.

I can almost see that look
settle on her face
then hide behind parchment skin
and clouds of smoke.
Pobre doña Locha, so much dignity,
everyone said she had
and pride.


In class, we have often discussed what makes a poem a poem.  How many literary devices must your piece have to be considered a poem?  Do it just have to have lines that are broken in the middle?  While I definitely don’t think that is the case, this poem does read more like prose much of the time.  What I think makes this a poem are, of course, not the linebreaks, but instead the way in which this woman’s life and story are told through figure.  It is not “and then, and then, and then”, but rather a series of images that paint a complete portrait of Mamagrande.   Ipersonally love that this poem is bilingual, because it is an integral part of the speaker’s and the figure’s life.  Do you think this alienates readers? As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, what did you think of the Spanish parts of the poem?