Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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In one of her most frequently anthologized pieces, the “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races” (from her first collection, Emplumada, 1981), Cervantes says, “Every day I am deluged with reminders/ that this is not/ my land,” and then ripostes, “and this is my land.” “Flatirons” is designed as an explanation of just how the land belongs to the communities whose heritage and residence there stretches back across historical epochs—the “Ute and Arapaho,” who are the dedicatees of the poem, and others whose experiences there are the substance from which Cervantes has fashioned the vivid images that invest the mountains with a complex personality.

Cervantes is trying to diminish the conventional European-American separation of humans from their surroundings and to introduce to the reader unfamiliar with this concept a different kind of understanding, another method for seeing and knowing. Although some of her images, such as the evocative “dripping pursuance of thawing babies,” may tend to resist an immediate comprehension, the clustering of these images contributes to the development of an alternate reality in which human vision has been expanded to include the possibility of a life-spirit inhabiting nonhuman elements of the world.

The specifically capitalized “Ghost Dances” near the center of the poem functions as a register of these forces and as testament to the rituals of the communities that lived on the land prior to the arrival of inhabitants who ignored any evidence of earlier civilizations. Cervantes’ continual employment of unusual syntactical constructions corresponds to the poem’s suggestions that there are means of comprehension other than customary styles of description might suggest. Cervantes feels that the land contains the psychic imprint of a long historical record (as in “a dream where the bisons and mammoth unite”), and the entire poem is directed toward a condition of perception that encourages a grasp of this concept. The words “genocide” and “massacre” imply that certain powers have worked to obliterate the history she values, an idea further substantiated by the title of the collection in which the poem appeared, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger.

Cervantes is concerned about what might be a program to eradicate the evidence of any variant from a controlled contemporary version of events, a program initiated by those responsible for the “monstrous and sullen” constructions she identifies as “slabs of death.” “Flatirons” stands as an eloquent, impassioned rebuttal to this pernicious tendency, and as a demonstration of the powers of language to reinvigorate a suppressed or hidden cultural presence. The poem is a kind of introduction to a new (but actually ancient) world for the literate but differently experienced reader who may not have thought about these issues before. Cervantes’ ability to invest them with a vitality that brings them to the foreground of consciousness is her tribute to ancestors to whom she feels a direct connection, and whose lives continue to provide her with the energy of creation.