The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Flatirons” is an evocative rendering of the mountain range situated to the southwest of Boulder, Colorado. It is dedicated to “the Ute and Arapaho,” tribal communities who lived in this region for centuries, and the images that Cervantes assembles in a series of surrealistic vignettes convey aspects of the communal life that has vanished as a result of the advance of the European social order. In the opening lines, Cervantes depicts the mountains as “ghosts/ of slaughtered mules,” establishing the ethos of loss that is one of the dominant modes of the poem, and then personalizes the image by declaring that “the whites of my/ ancestors rest on the glaciers,” extending the concept of a haunted landscape. She develops the image further as she envisions the remains of a prior culture “veiled/ and haloed with the desire of electrical/ storms,” a surreal portrayal that joins the terrain to the psychological inclinations of its inhabitants.

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As the poem proceeds, Cervantes moves toward the present, noting how the vivid features of the geologic strata (“a chimney of shedding sundown”) attract visitors to the region. A kind of dual perspective emerges as the ancestral connections Cervantes evokes are, in a sense, assaulted by more recent arrivals. Calling herself—and by implication, her cultural heritage—“Statuesque/ and exquisitely barren,” she asserts that her “seed shines/ in the dying rays” but that the “rich earth of the wealthy” distorts the memory and meaning of the mountain range. Cervantes labels the deprivations “Monstrous/ and sullen” and likens newer constructions to “slabs of death.”

Recalling her history in elemental terms—“My harmony/ of blood and ash”—she condemns the intruders with words designed to indicate their inability to appreciate the dynamics of the landscape, seeing them as “shuffling,” “vague,” and “derelict,” and in a version of historical judgment tells how they have blighted “a dream where the bison and mammoths unite” in “The/ winter of their genocide.”

The somber mood of the central section of the poem is altered as Cervantes moves back toward the fundamental elements of the land to suggest that there is a possibility that the deeper aspects of the landscape will endure, “the story of their streams is as long/ as the sabers of northern ice.” To reinforce this point, she focuses on a primal union of earth and water, which created the mountains, as “conquests of the sea.” The remainder of the poem is a powerful paean to the grandeur of the Flatiron range, which “stands royal in/ her invisible captivity,” both “elemental and efficient.” The conclusion of the poem continues the sense of a terrestrial goddess whose eminence remains in spite of destructive forces and misguided humans, most significantly “in the memory of a native” who can still see and experience the living spirit of the culture that has been reduced to the “silent baying” of a ghostly survivor of a massacre.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

“Flatirons” is a tightly constructed poem that unfolds with the unrelenting intensity of a dream-vison, its language designed to maintain the kinetic force of a high-energy field. The appearance of the Flatiron range is developed in a series of surreal images that retain a degree of ambiguity that prevents an easy understanding of the power latent in each provocative description. From the start, when Cervantes declares that “The mountains are there like ghosts/ of slaughtered mules,” the unusual comparison of the physical presence of the landscape to an ephemeral entity, which is likened to the destroyed carcass of a mundane beast of burden, eludes any kind of simple metaphorical equivalent. Cervantes is interested in unhinging the kind of asssured response to familiar imagery that makes some successful poems comfortable to read, and her continuing employment of radically disconcerting descriptions reflects her own uneasiness with the recent history of the locality.

The concept of the landscape itself as a kind of sentient creature is conveyed by the detailed image of her ancestor’s spirit, called “white” (to suggest both its ghostly nature and a literal deposit of bleached bones) as a parallel to the glacial remnants, portrayed as “veiled and haloed” to deepen its etherial and angelic aspects and given an emotional component in its manifestation of “the desire of electrical storms.” The ambiguity inherent in ascribing desire to a meteorological phenomenon contributes to the original and unexpected ambience of the world that the poem imagines. Similarly, images that join apparently irreconcilable elements, as in “my harmony/ of blood and ash,” or images that consist of strikingly distinctive modifications, as in “vague ahems,” carry this strategy through the poem, while the line that has these “vague ahems” operating as an agent of union with “the sucking fish in a derelict river” is a means of creating a startling juxtaposition that defies a literal explanation as it advances the poem’s presentation of strangeness.

The last section of the poem is constructed as an appreciative tribute to the aspects of the mountains, which for Cervantes are emblems of the special qualities she treasures and would like to see preserved. In accordance with the inventive imagery of the previous lines, Cervantes introduces the concluding part of “Flatirons” with a group of compact depictions, stating initially that “The mountains/ are the conquest of the sea” to establish the massive forces involved. Then, the fusion of a personalized identification and the personification of the subject deepens as the mountains are explicitly refered to as “She” and are given attributes that blend psychological perceptions with geophysical attributes, as “she stands royal” with a “belly of gems,” “fossil stays,” and “solicitudes.” The permanence of this place, its capacity to exist “after massacre,” is celebrated in the poet’s insistence that it remains “elemental and efficient” in spite of “genocide.”

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Themes