This poem is a tribute to my favorite college professor, Dr. Arturo Islas. Today is the eighteenth anniversary of Arturo's death from AIDS.
Letter to Islas from San Antonio— Arturo Islas, d. 15 February 1991
the jet bucked like a Mexican bronc through air,
Flying from Dallas to San Antonio,
heavy and insolent. To my left, the businesswoman,
brisk, mannish in her Gucci pinstripe suit,
and the cowboy veterinarian from Amarillo —
ten-gallon hat, silver and turquoise buckle
on his belt — they talked of allergies and poultry.
We broke through layer after layer of clouds,
the fuselage creaking, then leveled onto a new world
I could paint you in old clichés: wisps of
spun sugar at the state fair or mounded
cotton balls . . . but no, Arturo, it really
was something new. The veterinarian,
even the businesswoman, gasped in awe.
The sun dancing in and out of clouds
was the jewelled eye of Quetzalcoatl,
serpent god with rainbow wings flying
like a pterodactyl. Below, through shreds of vapor
frozen in curlicue shapes, a distant ground
of clouds, brown with haze like uncarded wool.
The promised land, the ancient land: Aztlan.
Arturo, those afternoons we talked lit
in your office on the Quad — how Hawthorne's
Zenobia drowned in black water, rigor mortis
clenching her hands into claws, a suicide's revenge
— I've somehow mixed that image up with your death.
A weird Byronic impulse wants in me
to see your HIV-emaciated
body bucking against Zenobia's claws:
she is La Llorona, the water witch
dragging infants into the black lake,
her hair stringy and lank like seaweed, fingernails
of jagged ice hooked into the body.
Today is Good Friday, 5 A.M., Arturo.
Cathedral statues draped in purple sackcloth,
incense, the candle with five red nails,
hooded penitentes flailing their backs
till blood flows free in red runnels —
you and I share this imprint, our childhood
marked by the dark and sanguine blood of Spain.
Today, here in San Antonio, your native
Texas, they will celebrate El Pasion de Cristo,
erect a proxy savior on a lumberyard cross.
Like in San Pedro Cutud, Philippines, where they use
iron nails, hammered in open palms.
You and me, Arturo: marked by the Spanish
inquisitor's fiery brand, our black blood.
I want you free, Arturo, from all that black.
I want you in those clouds with Quetzalcoatl,
clean sunlight arcing through your bones.
The wind stroking your gray hair, purging
the plague out of your limbs, out of your blood.
I want you to dance in that sky and buckle like fire,
like Hopkins's windhover gashing its breast gold
and vermilion, sparks like fiery tongues raining
on a brown world far below.
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Guadalupe Review (1992).
Arturo Islas is most well-known today as a Chicano fiction writer, whose novels The Rain God, Migrant Souls, and the posthumously published La Mollie and the King of Tears form a literary trilogy now almost legendary in Chicano Studies.
For me, however, Arturo Islas was (and is) a gentle presence. Before I knew him personally, he was Professor Islas — an unassuming man whom I would see around the English department at Stanford University during my senior year in 1978. I would often see Professor Islas walking slowly, his limp made slighter by leaning on a cane.
Since his specialty was American literature, I asked Professor Islas if he would direct my honors thesis, and he agreed although he didn't know me — I had never taken a class from him. He was like that, generous to a fault, his work days at the university devoted to students who loved his genteel ways. We began to meet weekly, and he soon became Arturo to me, both mentor and friend.
Arturo was quite an amazing, amazing teacher. Stanford's news release about his death said, "Islas was a very popular teacher who in 1976 received the Dinkelspiel Award for his contribution to undergraduate education at Stanford. He was invited three times by the graduating seniors to be a speaker at the Class Day ceremonies that are part of commencement."
What this meant to me personally, as the poem says, was that I relished the leisurely conversations Arturo and I had each week in his office talking about the works I was studying for my thesis: Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, Melville's strange Pierre, and other nineteenth-century novels we both loved. Arturo made me feel like we were equals, that my opinion mattered as much as his, despite the PhD and professorship.
To give you a sense of how gentle Arturo was as a teacher: when I got the final copy of my thesis back, I was amazed to see he had written his comments very lightly in pencil, not pen, as if he didn't want to sully my pages with inked remarks, as if he didn't want to (super)impose his own literary views on mine. Wow. I still say that after thirty years, as a professor now myself. Wow. I'm a little ashamed now to admit I write my comments in ink.
The writing of the poem also arose from shame. In 1990, a rookie assistant professor at Humboldt State University, I had gone with a couple of other English profs to some conference near Stanford, and my colleague Susan Bennett and I played hooky from some panel or other because she wanted to see Stanford. I think it was a Friday and there were strangely few people around the Stanford English department. Then I noticed a flyer on a bulletin board advertising that Arturo was giving a lecture at exactly that time (I'm sure now that's why there were not many folks at the department). So I dragged Susan to Dinkelspiel Auditorium where Arturo, it turned out, was just finishing his talk. He was sitting on stage in an easy chair; I didn't think anything of this because Arturo, when I was an undergrad, was quite frail. What I didn't know was that Arturo had AIDS.
After his talk, I walked up to the stage apron to say hello. Although we had not seen each other for over a decade, Arturo recognized me immediately and greeted me warmly. I'm sad now that I didn't go up on stage to shake Arturo's hand, to be close to him, perhaps to give him a hug, un abrazo. Instead I stood beyond the edge of the stage and, at the end of a brief conversation, said, "I'll send you an e-mail." And Arturo said, "That would be wonderful." I recall remarking to Susan as we left that I was surprised and elated that Arturo had remembered me.
Of course, there was work and kids and stuff. My own students, my own writing. Before I could e-mail him, I heard Arturo had died. And I felt guilty. Really guilty.
A few weeks later, at the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association Conference in San Antonio, in Tejas where Arturo was born, I woke up very early on Good Friday morning, and this poem just flowed out of me. In the pre-dawn dark, by soft lamplight, I crouched over a legal pad on that strange bed in the hotel and scratched the poem out in pencil. This poem is my penance, my expiation, the e-mail I never sent Arturo.
I titled it "Letter to Islas from San Antonio" in imitation of Richard Hugo, whose book 31 Letters and 13 Dreams featured letter-poems, each one a message from one poet to another. In my poem, my letter from one poet to another, I'm saying between the lines that I, as a writer, understand what Arturo had gone through as a writer: those thirty rejections of The Rain God; his lonely writing unappreciated early on by the English department that wanted him to be concentrate on being a lit professor; then the beginning of respect and fame as the Chicano community and other readers began to laud his work; and finally, his fatal illness. Yes, Arturo, "I want you free," old friend, "from all that
Thank you, Arturo, for your soft teaching, your genial warm-hearted mentoring. You helped make me who I am. Muchísimas gracias, mi maestro, mi camarado, Arturo Islas, mi amigo.
Above: the cover of Islas's Uncollected Works, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama. I chose this image because it's quite a lovely picture of Arturo (click on it to see a larger view). Besides Islas's three novels and this collection, you might look as well at Dancing With Ghosts: A Critical Biography of Arturo Islas, also by Aldama, and Critical Mappings of Arturo Islas's Fictions, edited by Aldama. Many thanks to Professor Aldama, of The Ohio State University, for his hard work in solidifying Islas's literary reputation.