This poem, and the commentary by Pat Deely, comes from a special issue of THERMOS featuring Hunter Deely’s poetry. You can check back every couple days in the coming month for more of his poetry. For an introduction, see here.
As we approach the city of black rocks sunflowers
Rise from shoulders
And tiny coal-throated gold-winged warblers
Whirr between stalks.
They jerk their heads at night, like the boys
With tracks on their arms who breathe fire
For loose change, who lead us blindly towards
This border for love and
Money. Checkpoints close in on the road, the vein
At the blood-brain barrier as the eagle
Eats a rattler cut in three by a semi. Tell them we
Are on our way
To a wedding. Move along. Listen. We move. Tell
Me we are in love. We are still
Children rifling down the barrel of time, our eyes
Are sunflowers chasing nirvana
In an industrial field where the bodies of lost
Women decay like uneaten corn.
An eagle’s foot dances from the rearview mirror.
Good luck. Never look back.
We can cross this border once. At a certain angle
Light meets glass and the sun
Is reborn in the empty orb of the talons and dissolves
Before our eyes adjust.
The chaff in the air over the highway, the tires hum
Their corrido softly: No me olvides,
Forget me not for always you will ride over the melody
Of my heart, and my bones
The death I carry inside me like a secret knife
Waiting for release in the hot dust
Of Piedras Negras, Coahuila:
Name of a lost people inscribed as a line through
The desert where the eagles
Live on roadkill and we are brave, and young, and
Hurtling toward a border.
It strikes me that the speaker of this poem is a young man thinking about his girlfriend who he has left behind to find work along the U.S. – Mexico border. In the nature of a lament, the poet bemoans transition of the northern Mexican people from a resourceful indigenous culture to a groveling, industrialized and deathly existence.
The title is composed of the Spanish word “corrido” – a popular type of Mexican narrative song often about oppression, history, daily life for peasants, and other socially important information – and “Coahuilteco,” a Spanish adjective derived from Coahuila that was applied to certain indigenous Indian groups in the mid-19th century. “Coahuila” is from the Nahuatl “Kuahuilan” or “Cuahuilan” meaning “Place of Trees.” Coahuila is the name of a Mexican state that borders Texas and covers an area that – along with what is now south Texas – was an area inhabited by the Coahuiltecan Indians. Ted Ferenbach described the Coahuiltecans as follows in his best seller, Lone Star, A History of Texas and Texans:
“. . . no other species ever used the resources of a country more fully: the Coahuiltecans consumed spiders, ant eggs, lizards, rattlesnakes, worms, insects, rotting wood, and deer dung. . . . . They concocted a drink, mescal, from maguey leaves. . . . The Coahuiltecans also dissolved ground red Texas laurel beans in mescal, and produced real firewater. . . . and from another cactus, peyote, they produced what can only be called a very unusual tea.” [Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1968, p. 14]
During the Spanish colonization of Mexico, a majority of the native Coahuiltecans were displaced by the Spanish advancing from the south and Apaches from the north Texas plains.
The poem opens with the speaker describing the scene as he is arriving at the bordertown city of Piedras Negras the name of which means “black stones” referring to the surrounding massive coal deposits. Piedras Negras and the state of Coahuila have become heavily industrialized through the maquiladora program. Along the roadside, sunflowers rise and Golden-Winged Warblers “whirr” among the sunflower stalks landing on the flower heads to pry loose the nutritious seeds. The sunflower originated in the Americas and was first domesticated in Mexico around 3578 B.C.E. Sunflowers were cultivated as a valuable food source and became the symbol of the Aztec solar deity.
The scene abruptly shifts to street entertainers turned human traffickers carrying the speaker and others to the border “for love and money.” Borders are a common symbol of the frontier between life and death or emotional states where we are close to the “edge” and encounter difficulties trying to move on. “Every major distinction and divide in human experience can be treated as a border, whether separating the present from the past or demarcating life from death.” [“Internal Borders as Naturalized Political Instruments” by Wayne Fife (quoting Oriol Pi-sunyer)] The U.S. – Mexico border generates especially difficult issues for many people given the costly violence that led to its geographical relocation in 1848 and today, of course, due to the vast differences in economic status and opportunities on one side versus the other. The poet uses the concept of crossing the border in this poem as the point at which there is no turning back; the ineluctable march of “civilization” into oblivion.
Continuing along the road, the speaker directs our attention to the “checkpoints” – places where military or police can interrogate you and search your vehicle for alien smuggling, narcotics, or firearms. The checkpoints are likened to veins at the “blood-brain barrier,” which is a layer of high-density cells restricting passage of substances from the bloodstream that protects the brain from bacterial infections. Then, the scene focuses on an eagle eating a rattlesnake cut in thirds by a semi-tractor trailer (symbols of industry destroying the sacred and devouring the divine trinity). In mythology, the eagle often is the sun, its talons lightning. It is an apex predator of the bird world. And snakes figure in myriad mythologies; for example, the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, was a feathered serpent. The Coat of Arms of Mexico depicts a Golden Eagle perched on a cactus holding a rattlesnake in its beak and one of its talons. The scene here, however, suggests that the power and glory of the Aztecs and more modern Mexicans symbolized by the eagle has been reduced to that of scavenging.
At the checkpoint, the speaker says to tell the authorities that they are on their way to a “wedding”; a union forced on them by the devolvement of Mexican civilization. So, they “move along” as the speaker asks his girlfriend to “Tell me we are in love.” But they really don’t know love because they are “still children rifling down the barrel of time” like bullets to certain destruction; their eyes like sunflowers following the sun chasing a state of transcendence from bondage to being free from suffering – nirvana. This “nirvana”, though, coexists with an industrial field where “lost women decay like uneaten corn”; an allusion to the 21st century narco deaths of women left in fields along the U.S. – Mexican border towns. The metaphorical reference to “uneaten corn” continues to underscore the vast distance between modern day Mexicans and their ancestors. Corn, or maize, was developed somewhere in Mexico thousands of years ago and was central to those peoples’ culture. In Aztec mythology, Centeotl was the maize diety, considered one of the most important, and Chicomecoatl was his female counterpart.
As the speaker is moving along, he notes a “good luck” talisman – an eagle’s foot – hanging from the rearview mirror, but we are admonished to “Never look back.” An ominous warning mirroring the admonition of Hades to Orpheus who was allowed to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld, but as he led her back to the Upper World could not look back at her without risk of terminating her release. We also are admonished that “We can cross this border once” because once you cross over there really is no turning back. A momentary glimpse of regeneration is presented as the poet describes a flash of sunlight through the once magnificent eagle’s foot, but it is just a flash.
Through litter – “chaff” – driven skyward over the highway by industrial progress we hear the modern day corrido as the hum of fast moving vehicle tires rolling onward. To the speaker, the corrido sings “No me olvides” – Forget me not – but the speaker acknowledges that he is on a certain path to a meaningless death like the long forgotten Coahuiltecans, where once mighty eagles now “live on roadkill” and the young people move in only one direction: “Hurtling towards a border.”