Lorna Dee Cervantes is one of the major Latina poetic voices writing in English, and at least half a dozen of her poems have been reprinted widely. Although she has written on a variety of topics, including a number of love poems, she is best known for those poems that define the situation for Mexican Americans at the end of the twentieth century, poems that are feminist and political. More than any other poet, Cervantes describes what it is like to live in two cultural worlds—or between them—and the tensions and difficulties such a limbo creates for a woman.
Many of Cervantes’s best-known poems were printed in her first collection, published in 1981. Emplumada immediately established Cervantes as a major voice in contemporary American poetry, and its best poems raised the themes and issues with which many women were struggling. Although her language is simple and direct, Cervantes uses a number of Spanish words and phrases (and includes a two-page “glossary” at the end of the book that translates them into English). What is most striking in the collection is its colorful imagery; the poems are filled with visuals of birds and flowers. For example, the collection’s title, Emplumada, comes from the combination of two Spanish words: emplumado, meaning “feathered or in plumage, as in after molting,” and plumada, a “pen flourish.” The title thus implies both change and growth and the flourish of a pen. The two emerge in this collection in a woman defining her new self through her poetry. As she writes at the end of “Visions of Mexico While at a Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington,”
as pain sends seabirds south from the cold I come north to gather my feathers for quills.
Poet Lynette Seator has written that Emplumada contains “poetry that affirms Mexican-American identity as well as the identity of the poet as woman coming-of-age.” Although this collection also contains love poems (“Café Solo,” “The Body Braille”), the best poems (“Lots: I,” “Lots: II,” “Poema para los Californios Muertos”) have larger feminist, ethnic, and historical subjects.
“Refugee Ship” (from Emplumada) is the poem that first gained notice for Cervantes. It is a remarkable work for such a young poet, for its brief fourteen lines capture the feelings of many earlier immigrants caught between two cultures. The first stanza establishes her Latina identity and her link to her abuelita (grandmother). In the five lines of the second stanza, she describes her estrangement from her native culture in language and in name:
Mama raised me without language. I’m orphaned from my Spanish name. The words are foreign, stumbling on my tongue. . . .
Even her physical appearance, she concludes in this stanza, looks alien: “I see in the mirror/ my reflection: bronzed skin, black/ hair.” The four lines of the third and final stanza give the image of the title that so perfectly describes her situation and dilemma:
I feel I am a captive aboard the refugee ship. The ship that will never dock. El barco que nunca atraca.
The third and fourth lines, which repeat the same phrase first in English and then Spanish, emphasize her estrangement, her sense not only of dislocation but also of being caught between two places, two lives, and never able to land or reside in either. “Refugee Ship” captures that feeling of estrangement for generations of immigrants to the United States, who were torn between two cultures and completely at home in neither.
Closely linked to “Refugee Ship” is “Oaxaca, 1974,” which was included in Emplumada under that title, but appeared originally and in some anthologies as “Heritage.” In the poem, the narrator looks for her Mexican heritage “all day in the streets of Oaxaca,” but the children laugh at her, calling to her “in words of another language.” Although she has a “brown body,” she searches “for the dye that will color my thoughts,” or make “this bland pochaseed” (“an assimilated Mexican American,” as Cervantes translates the phrase in the glossary) more Latino in her thinking. She did not ask to be brought up “tonta” (stupid), she concludes, but “Es la culpa de los antepasados” (It is her ancestors’ fault):
Blame it on the old ones. They give me a name that fights me.
If the name is Lorna, it is obviously English in derivation and says nothing of her Mexican American heritage. The poem was first titled “Heritage,” and although Cervantes dropped the poem’s original first word, “Heritage,” when it became “Oaxaca, 1974,” the idea embodied in that word still runs beneath the poem’s lines and images. The poem, like “Refugee Ship,” is...
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