Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dante and Angels and Saints ... Oh, My!

I've posted a couple of poems in the blog so far that refer to Dante's Divine Comedy: "Crosses" and "Newly Released, Papa Tells Me What It's Like Inside." Well, here's a third Dante-influenced poem. I don't think I had realized consciously until doing the blog what an impact Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (and particularly Gustave Doré's illustrations of The Divine Comedy) had had on me as a child, as an artist/poet-to-be, on my imagination and on my sensibilities.

With your indulgence, I'll set up first by telling you Lolo means "grandfather" and Tita means "aunt," although probably those Filipino words are reasonably clear in the poem's context. Okay, here we go.


I really thought it depicted heaven:
a picture of the sky entirely filled
with a single gigantic rose shaped
by the wings of countless angels

in Lolo's book. I was five and
didn't know this was Dante's
Paradiso. All I know is I saw
wings everywhere. One evening,

a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders
to brush the ceiling spoke to me
and my cousin Tony at the bottom

of the stairs in Lolo's house.
A gecko on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep the steps,"
the shining man said. "Someone

important will pass here tonight."
As we busied ourselves with brooms,
our Tita Nena quietly died from
the tuberculosis she'd had for years.

But such visions didn't happen only
after I saw the Doré engraving of Dante.
Three years before, when I was two,
Gerardo, my brother born premature,

died after a week in an incubator.
Mama swore she and Papa heard
wings beating near my crib.
I pointed, laughing, "Ahdo, Ahdo,"

my finger tracing an invisible arc
as the sound of flapping slipped out
the window. What does my daughter,
three months old, really see, when

her eyes sweep across the room?
Ah ... but then I laugh at myself.
I'm a computer programmer.
I make pixels fandango onscreen.

Surely I never really saw angels.
I want to believe my cousin and I
simply divined our aunt was dying
and were wishing just as hard

as we could, "Let her go to heaven."
Yet I also recall my college roommate
Bill heard rustling outside our window.
"A trapped bird," I told him, listened

for cooing, some sort of cry for help.
We looked. Nothing. The next day,
a telegram — at the precise moment
we heard wings, my Lolo had died.

   — Vince Gotera, first appeared in the
Mississippi Valley Review (1989)
in a slightly different version.

Click on the images
to see them larger.

Gustave Doré

William Blake

Giovanni Britto (?)
Commissioned by
Alessandro Vellutello

Giovanni di Paolo
Illuminated manuscript

It is literally true that the Doré illustration (top) of Beatrice and Dante marveling at the heavenly host forming a "white rose" in the Empyrean was, in my child's mind, really heaven. At the age of five (or whatever my actual age was), it didn't occur to me to wonder how Dante or Doré could have known. Since the image was between covers, in a lordly-looking tome, that was enough proof for little me that heaven really looked like that. This is one of my earliest and most powerful, most charged memories.

Click on the first image at the top above to see the Doré image (dated 1867) in all its glory . . . and I do mean "glory." The other images are different artists' renditions of heaven's "white rose" in the Paradiso. (Cantos 30 and 31 if you want to read Dante's descriptions.)

The second image, below Doré, is by poet and printmaker William Blake (c. 1826): a study or sketch showing the white rose as actually looking like a flower, sepals and all, with each petal reserved for a given person or character; Blake died before he could finish the project, so there is no finished art of this subject.

The third image is attributed to the engraver Giovanni Britto, who worked for Francesco Marcolini, the publisher of Alessandro Vellutello's 1544 commentary on the Divine Comedy; Britto — or whoever created this engraving (click on it to see better detail) — renders the rose with a whole multitude of petals that look like thrones with saints and angels and whomever in each one.

The fourth is an illuminated manuscript by Giovanni di Paolo, a Sienese painter (1400s); his rose is smaller in scope than those of the others, but the figures are strikingly rendered. As a child, I only knew the Doré, and it's illuminating (sorry, bad pun) to see these other takes on the white rose image.

The three vignettes involving wings come right out of Gotera family stories, though I've fiddled with them a bit. The middle one, concerning my brother Gerardo, is narrated here just as people in the family tell it. Although I was small enough to sleep in a crib, I evidently knew about Gerardo and pronounced his name as "Ahdo." Narratives of supernatural visits and so on are very common in Philippine contexts; all families have stories like these, passed on from one generation to the next.

In keeping with this kind of family tradition, and the continuation of such traditions, I have tried to keep the language in the poem simple and down-to-earth. Getting the poem ready to post in the blog, in fact, I changed a word in the first stanza. The phrase "countless angels" was originally "innumerable angels," but I thought innumerable now was not in keeping with family scenes of young and old recounting these stories.

As I've posted the 30 or so poems that are on the blog at this moment, I hadn't revised any until now. I wanted the older poems to reflect my style of those other moments, but with "Wings" I felt strongly that the poem really needed revision. And that doing this would give me the opportunity to talk in the blog about revision as a concern of craft.

With that end in mind, here are three stanzas from "Crosses": those on the left, in red, come from the poem as it was published in the Mississippi Valley Review twenty years ago, while those on the right, in blue, are from the version posted above, as revised over the last couple of days.
Old Version (1989)

. . .] a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders to brush
the ceiling spoke to me and my cousin Tony
at the bottom of the stairs

in my grandfather's house. The gecko
on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep
the steps," the shining angel told us,

"Someone important will pass
here this evening." While we were sweeping,
my Aunt Nena quietly died
from the tuberculosis she'd had for years. [. . .]
New Version (2009)

. . .] a man with bright feathers
sprouting from his shoulders
to brush the ceiling spoke to me
and my cousin Tony at the bottom

of the stairs in Lolo's house.
A gecko on the wall looked once,
then scurried off. "Sweep the steps,"
the shining man said. "Someone

important will pass here tonight."
As we busied ourselves with brooms,
our Tita Nena quietly died from
the tuberculosis she'd had for years. [. . .]
As you compare the two versions, see how more jagged the older version looks: long lines followed by conspicuously shorter ones then vice versa. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with such variation. But somehow it just didn't seem as polished to me now.

I think this may come from my practice since maybe 1990 of starting a poem by writing in iambic pentameter while at the same time trying to sense the form that the poem seems to want for itself. The result of this practice evidently is that I began to appreciate lines that are more similar to each other in length. Whereas twenty years ago, apparently, I liked lines to be more leggy, more varied. Perhaps something here of the garden vs. the wilderness?

It may also be that I have gotten better at sensing the possible junctures, the potential breaks, in lines . . . that I am more open to different sorts of line breaks, and thus more able to regularize line length. For example, in the third line above, "the ceiling spoke to me and my cousin Tony," I didn't (or couldn't?) hear the potential break after the word "me" that might set up an intriguing nuance while at the same time keeping line lengths similar.

The more likely possibility, though, is that I was just not as good at lineation in 1989 as I am today. So I tended back then to go for more flash ... in other words, enjambment. For instance, in the second line above, I break like this: "to brush / the ceiling." Hmm. What possible advantage was there in calling attention to the word "brush"? Doesn't that line break distract? Make the reader wonder why the line ended there? Is it over-dramatic? Even sentimental? It's certainly sensationalistic.

In his excellent book The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says that good fiction creates "a vivid and continuous dream" in the mind of the reader, and that the good fiction writer will do whatever it takes not to interrupt that dream. What I'm suggesting in the previous paragraph is that lineating at "brush" breaks up the reader's dream's continuity. Granted there can be good times and reasons to do that, to unbalance and destabilize the reader — Garnder notwithstanding — but it's not necessary in the progress of the narrative at this point in the poem.

I think I was probably similarly preoccupied with enjambment in other line breaks in the earlier version — "the gecko / on the wall" (lines 5-6) or "'Sweep / the steps'" (7-8) or "'will pass / here'" (9-10) — perhaps unnecessarily preoccupied with enjambment, to the disservice of the poem overall. And of the reader. Who doesn't need to have to wonder why "gecko" is out at the end of that long line, gone out on a limb, so to speak.

In the more recent version at the right, I smoothed out the earlier over-the-top enjambments. I set up new, more subtle enjambments that are to my older ear more serviceable. More appropriately dramatic . . . that is, less so. The break at line three of "to me / and my cousin Tony" sets up the "me" as seeing himself in a more elevated position, metaphorically, vis-à-vis the angel; that makes a lot more sense to me narratively (especially with regard to characterization) than the previous emphasis on the action of wings brushing a ceiling. Or, at the end of line eight, the stanza enjambment that highlights "Someone" as opposed to the earlier privileging of "pass[ing]." In other words, in both cases, more focus on character than action.

I've also slightly changed some wording; I think these edits are similarly character-related. For example, I've replaced "grandfather" with "Lolo" and "Aunt" with "Tita"; such usage is more appropriate to these child characters, more personal, as well as more probable in the imagined scene of family storytelling, the imagined language that would be used as these stories are told to nieces and nephews, to grandchildren.

I replaced "While we were sweeping" (line 10) with "As we busied ourselves with brooms" not only to avoid repeating the word "sweep" but also to make a clearer picture (and squeeze in another alliteration, this time on /b/). This alteration also sets up a slant rhyme between "brooms" and "from"; while the poem is essentially unrhymed, there are occasional rhymes created by the new lineation: "feathers" and "shoulders" (lines 1-2) or the distant rhyme of "once" with "Someone" (lines 6 and 8).

There are other small changes, but I think I'll leave off there. Wings are everywhere, people. Angels surround us — if not heavenly, then earthly ones. So many small (and large) kindnesses from all our sisters and brothers.
Note: the Doré illustration above comes from Wikimedia Commons. The Blake image comes from the University of Texas's Danteworlds website. The third image, commissioned by Vellutello, comes from the University of Virginia's The World of Dante website. The di Paolo image comes from a different page on that same website. These last two sources in particular provide a wealth of information and visual imagery connected to Dante and The Divine Comedy.

Friday, February 27, 2009

For Jim and Jeremy

This is the second time a poetry reading by my buddy Jeremy Schraffenberger has elicited a post on the blog. Jeremy gave a Final Thursday Series reading last night at the Hearst Center for the Arts. Just like last time, Jeremy performed other people's poems along with his own — A. R. Ammons, Anne Sexton, and James Hearst — always such a genuinely nice gesture that broadens the idea of what a poetry reading is and can be. (Yup, echoes of Dana Gioia Gioia Gioia).

In any case, the inspiration for this post is that in the Q & A session after his reading, Jeremy mentioned that two of his preferred forms were the acrostic and the sonnet. It just so happens I once wrote a poem combining those two forms: an elegy for another buddy, Jim Hiduke aka Dr. Grammar.

— an acrostic sonnet for Jim HiDuke
Frost once called his poems "little bits of
Order"— smoke rings wafting in a darkened
Room, the pen glinting in lamplight, sweet love.

Jim would sketch, scratching a woman's face on
A grocery slip, a face like rain in sky.
Morning drizzle, clean swing, white ball arcing,
Edges the green, a yard from the hole, just shy,
So close, always so close. The fish of legend

Hooked, almost in the boat, then the line . . . snapped.
In the darkened room, that trout would resurrect,
Dull shine snagged now on a line of words — grammar,
Unity, syntax — Jim's days always carved, shaped,
Kindled, like Jack London's last match, last cigarette,
Earning love, life through tight devotion to order.

— Vince Gotera, from the Dr. Grammar website.
First appeared as a memorial to Jim in the
North American Review (2004).

Jim Hiduke was my colleague at the University of Northern Iowa. He died of a heart attack at his home on 17 November 2003. Although I have heard that he ran his classes like boot camp, Jim was always kind to me when I was a junior faculty member at UNI. He would often stop in at my office and we would exchange Hoosier stories — Indiana, that is. We would talk of fishing and golf, and he was always welcoming to me on those topics although I am neither an angler nor a golfer. Jim achieved international fame as Dr. Grammar, offering a website with "Rx for your writing ills." He would often say about grammar, fishing, and golf: "I live for this stuff!" Thanks for being a good friend, Jim.

Below: Jim in persona as Dr. Grammar

In posts on this blog, I usually talk about craft and technique. Today, however, let's keep the focus on Jim and Jeremy. Suffice it to say that since the poem is an acrostic, you should also read down the page: look at the first letter of each line. In terms of "sonnet-ness," it's a hybrid. 'Nuff said.

Jeremy, thanks for a magical reading: a marvelous evening of excellent poems and also excellent patter with just the right touches of humor. You really know how to work a room. I wish you the best of luck in your career as a poet and also as a professor at UNI. I hope that I — now a senior faculty member, yikes! — have been as good a friend to you as Jim was to me when I was a newbie.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Pause for the Cause (3.0) ... Anti- Art

I just found out that my photograph "Ergodyne" has appeared as cover art in the poetry magazine Anti-.

Many thanks to the staff of Anti-, especially editor Steven D. Schroeder, for selecting "Ergodyne" to appear as cover art. This is my first time contributing cover art to a magazine. Very exciting. Congrats also to the featured poet, John Gallaher.

To get to "my" Anti- cover (and, of course, John Gallaher's poems): <>.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dragonfly (pages 8-9)

The next Dragonfly poem shares a theme with the poem I posted on 15 February, specifically the Good Friday crucifixion thing. When I wrote that poem for Arturo Islas in Texas, where I was visiting, I had read in the San Antonio newspaper that a re-enaction of Christ's crucifixion was to take place on that day, Good Friday — an event that also occurs in various locations in the Philippines, much to the chagrin of the Catholic Church, which disapproves of these voluntary crucifixions.


In the ambulance, streets
unrolled through rear windows pulsing
to the siren. Plastic tubes
sprouting from both arms,
I drifted with that thurifer, memory,

recalled Stations of the Cross
one Friday when I was six,
and Mama whispering in Our Lady
of Antipolo church in Manila, "See that old woman
over there — near St. Jude? That's

Aleng Tosang. Last year, she walked on her knees
from Jerusalem to Calvary."
I mixed up calvary with cavalry then:
bearded men with muskets ride horses round
wooden crosses on a hill.

I had already discovered in Tatay's sala
a large and dusty book with drawings
of men in some dark wood, their chests slit,
loose entrails like gutted fish.
Every year, when the saints would hide

their faces under purple cloth,
penitentes in black hoods walked the streets
on parade, scourging themselves
with whips of knotted Manila hemp.
And Sister Mary Helena

told us in the fourth grade about
an American chaplain who said Mass daily
in a North Korean POW camp.
For wine a raisin soaked in water,
then squeezed into a thimble.

Page 8

She called our bodies her temples
of the Holy Ghost.
We saw snapshots
of Christians in China,
nailed on huge wooden ideographs,
and I remember I prayed, "Me too, God. Me too."

The ambulance is slowing now,
then nurses wheel me, flat on my back.
White hosts in fluorescent
ciboriums glow in benediction. But I'm
remembering last week, I entered

some church on a whim. In the dark
there I'm kneeling to say thanks,
and I can think only
of that cloud of incense
which isn't floating now in the nave.

Of Pasig where Papa was raised,
where friends still nail penitentes
to crosses and raise them up
for fifteen minutes. Of Aleng Tosang
trudging on her knees to Paradise.

Page 9

I hardly know what to say about this poem. I wrote it while I was in the Master of Fine Arts poetry program at Indiana University, probably for a poetry workshop, though it's possible that I wrote it specifically for my MFA thesis. Over two decades ago, then. I was having a lot of trouble with asthma at that time, and the ambulance scene that starts off this poem took place several times. I don't recall specifically if memories wafted through my brain like drifts of incense, though they certainly could have. Those ambulance and hospital trips were often kind of psychedelic, you know?

The word thurifer is a technical term that goes very well with memory trips, at least with my memory. In the Catholic tradition, the thurifer is the altar server — "altar boy" back in my day — or at high mass or other elite ceremonies a priest who tends the thurible — the metal incense burner, or censer, suspended from chains and held in the hand. Whenever, as an altar boy, I was assigned to be a thurifer, I often flashed back to an incident when I was probably four or five and fainted at a church service from smelling burning incense; that half-remembered incident was certainly psychedelic, with fanciful, Alice-in-Wonderland visions I can no longer conjure today. Being a thurifer was quite a privilege, as I remember, and you had to master the techniques of working the thurible, which could be unwieldy because you held on to the chains and not the censer itself; also you had to be a little careful not to let sparks burn moth-holes in your cassock, the black robe. Or on your surplice, for that matter, the white over-thingy.

In terms of craft and technique, I can't really remember any more why I used the word thurifer in this particular context, except that there is something really trippy about IVs and ambulances and EMTs; you just let go and let your brain fly, because people who know what they're doing take over your body and you can relax, let your guard down. The drugs they give you ain't bad, either . . . you can take off into the ether, sail up into clouds, drift into deep high blue. Oh and of course thurifers and thuribles are so Catholic.

The trigger for this poem is Philippine Catholicism's sometime convergence of religion and violence, particularly a kind of self-sacrificial masochism in the service of faith. Blind faith, some might say. For example, the custom of of penitents who volunteer to be crucified on Good Friday — with real nails! Or the other penitentes, self-flagellants who whip their backs into a bloody froth before these crucifixions. All done to make up for one's sins. You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that the Catholic Church in the Philippines distances itself from these activities, saying that Christ's sacrifice is a one-time act that cannot be replicated. It may also not surprise you to hear that province governments practically sponsor these events in order to draw tourists into their areas, advertising the crucifixions and flagellations as brutal yet strangely attractive spectacles.

Although as a child I was not aware expressly of these sorts of religious tortures, I had already had a personal intro, of sorts. In my grandparents' formal living room in Manila, I had stumbled, early on, upon my Lolo's edition of Dante's Divine Comedy, with the exquisite Gustave Doré engravings. I remember being utterly fascinated and enthralled by these illustrations, and feeling at the same time that they were somehow forbidden because as far as I knew I was the only one who ever looked at them, and I only did so when there was no one around. I was particularly intrigued by images of the Inferno and both shuddered and thrilled at the horrific punishments — eternal ones! for pity's sake — especially the one described (and shown) above: where a demon with a humongous sword would slice open the damned, who would then further rip themselves open, tender innards pulled out and exposed to the noxious air of Hell. That one really stuck with me. The lacy, graceful, June Taylor Dancers, Busby Berkeley mandalas of angels in the sky of Paradiso were no match whatsoever, I tell ya.

I had heard, however, of people walking on their knees in penitence. Or, more accurately, had seen them. Not uncommon in Philippine churches to see women walking on their knees from church door to communion rail. So the idea that someone would knee-walk the cobblestones of the entire Via Dolorosa (Latin for "the way of suffering") — starting at the Lion's Gate, the edge of old Jerusalem, and ending up on Calvary or Golgotha, now inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — that idea would not be strange at all. (Probably more the stuff of legend than actual possibility, although pilgrims have walked and still walk the route barefoot, as Jesus did.)

In any case, through chismis or gossip, a person like Aleng Tosang in my poem could be rumored to have walked the Via Dolorosa on her knees, even if she had simply walked it upright, like the pilgrims in the picture above, carrying a wooden cross as symbol of their imitation of Christ's passion.

Without a doubt, there's an element here of heroism, of hero worship. Aleng Tosang would be considered a hero. And think of Ruben Enaje, pictured above being raised on a cross and featured in this Reuters video; he has been crucified for 22 consecutive Good Fridays. Twenty-two! That's a superhero record, don't you think? Not just in the Philippines, but anywhere — even in the USA.

My fourth-grade teacher in the US, Sister Mary Helena, did tell us the story of the unnamed US Army Chaplain in a POW camp who hoarded raisins (maybe from the Red Cross) to make thimblefuls of altar wine so he could perform his duty to celebrate mass; Sister called him a hero of the first order. Catholic tradition has many heroes: saints, angels, and especially martyrs. Kids in Catholic grade schools — in whatever schools! — they all want to be heroes too. I'm not the only person raised Catholic who, as a kid, wished to be a martyr.

Now perhaps I'm oversimplifying, but I gotta admit I wonder if the Good Friday penitentes in the Philippines are pursuing that same desire to be a hero, pushed to obsessive lengths. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying the penitentes are inauthentic. I'm sure all of them believe fully in what they are doing. No one could do what they do without such amazingly strong belief, don't you think?

The little Catholic school kid inside me yearns for a taste of their power, their heart. The speaker in the poem — well, really me, on several levels — we both wish for the ability to have that certitude of faith, that strength of resolution, that keen courage in one's belief. All I can say is amen to that, sisters and brothers. Amen to that.


This poem also appeared as part of a mini-collection titled “A Poetry Reading: In Homage to Carlos Bulosan” in Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives, edited by Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Lune (1993).

The illustrations above are (1) Frederic Remington's painting "The Cavalry Charge" (1907), from the Metropolitan Museum of New York; (2) Gustave Doré's illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno, picturing schismatics, notably Mohammed in the center (Wikimedia); (3) a BBC news photograph of self-flagellants on Good Friday in the Philippines, 2007; (4) a BBC news photograph of Ruben Enaje being cruficied for his 21st time in as many years, Good Friday, 2007, in the Philippines; (5) a BBC news photograph of voluntary crucifixion in the Philippines on Good Friday, 2000; (6) contemporary Christian pilgrims carrying a cross on the Via Dolorosa — image courtesy of; and (7) a thurifer carrying a thurible (Wikimedia).

The video embedded above can be viewed in the context of the original Reuters video story, "Christ's Crucifixion Re-enacted" (March 21, 2008).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thanks, Best American Poetry!

I would very much like to thank Emma Trelles for mentioning Fighting Kite, my 2007 poetry collection, in The Best American Poetry blog in her post "Big Love, Little Books" (13 February 2009). I truly appreciate the good word, Emma — such a nice plug.

For those who are not familiar with Fighting Kite, here is the title poem, an elegy for my father, Martin Avila Gotera.

Fighting Kite
— 1930 —
Just outside Manila, it was my father's
ninth birthday, but all he could think about
was his duel with fighting kite that afternoon.

For weeks, he'd been grinding glass between
rocks: green for luck. The kite string soaked in glue
then dipped in powdered glass. In the sun,

the string would gleam — filament of emerald.
His kite emblazoned with a vermilion hawk, talons
of shiny hooks and razors hammered from tin-can lids.

At 3 P.M. sharp, his hawk dancing
a red tinikling in the sun, my father stood
by the Pasig River, his twelve-year-old opponent

on the other bank, the wind blowing downstream.
In the sky, the other kite was a silver mantis
with bat wings. The hawk and mantis swiveled

and faked like mongoose and cobra. My father
gauged the wind like a cat's paw on his cheek,
waiting for the breeze to hold its breath,

then the whiplash crack of his wrist.
Hawk whirled around mantis, razors flashing —
kite strings twining, sliced. The bat wings ripped

away in tatters. He'd won, my father had won.
— 1989 —
Swimming in that white hospital bed — IVs like
kite strings in reverse piercing his arms —

Papa must have longed to soar, to leave behind
his sick and scarred heart, his breath trapped

in emphysemic lungs . . . O to fly
like some red-feathered bird, to dance free

in lucid air above the sparkling Pasig.
How far, then, you could see: the jungle green

rock of Corregidor leaping from
Manila Bay, the Pacific stretched flat out,

an aquamarine mirror, endless and new.
The razors of Papa's soul slashed at his lines —

invisible strings tethered deep in the ground
— then Papa launched into gold and purple sky

like the sun's first flash breaking from the east,
his fingers uncurling slowly from a clenched fist.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Hawai'i Pacific Review (1992);
reprinted in the textbook Asian American Literature: A Brief
Introduction and Anthology
edited by Shawn Wong (1996).

As far back as I can recall, my father told me tales about flying fighting kites, a sport he engaged in throughout his youth. Kite fighting is done in many countries across the world; the sport is a major motif in Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel The Kite Runner, which was made into a feature film in 2007. But for me, the fighting kite was (and still is) a thing of romance, a source of adventure and fable in bedtime stories I heard from my father.

I wrote several versions of the first half of this poem over a number of years, versions that simply didn't do justice to my dreams and fantasies about kite fighting. But it was not until Papa's death in 1989 that the poem came together, as I realized that the fighting kite was, for me, a symbol of his difficult and fascinating life. The book's description on the back cover reads, in part, "Fighting Kite narrates, in verse, the life of Martin Avila Gotera — son, trickster, soldier, schizophrenic, visionary, lawyer, workingman, father &mdash a life that glimmers like a node, a shimmery knot, a glowing nexus . . ." And that's what the fighting kite is: a "nexus," a connection, a symbolic gathering of the threads, strands, strings of his life. In fact, I learned recently that the proper term is "fighter kite," but I am sticking with "fighting kite" because I think of my father as continually acting, constantly striving to make a better life for himself and his family, ultimately his people, despite illnesses and obstacles.

As you know if you are a frequent reader of the blog, it's my practice to say a bit about craft and technique in each poem. But I think I'll just let this one speak for itself. Martin Avila Gotera was quite a fascinating person — a man of passions and problems; the back-cover description ends by calling him "brilliant and troubled, tormented and wise." I hope my poems, and the book, do justice to his memory.

Once again, many thanks to Emma Trelles and to The Best American Poetry blog. Keep the faith, people!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

In Memoriam Arturo Islas

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
Flying from Dallas to San Antonio,
the jet bucked like a Mexican bronc through air,
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 black. / I want you in those clouds with Quetzalcoatl, . . . [the] wind stroking your gray hair."

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.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have a Heart!

Happy Valentine's Day, O my readers!

Today, a poem I wrote for Mary Ann some Valentines back to celebrate the holiday and my love for her in a much different fashion from tradition's red roses and frilly paper hearts.

Valentine Day's Poem

As we watched a laparoscopic gall-bladder surgery
on TLC last night, I was amazed how the body
seemed so much like a landscape. The gall bladder
resembling Half-Dome Rock in Yosemite,

abutting the burnt-sienna mountain range
of the liver, and the rich apricot-yellow forests
of fatty tissue. The heart was distant and strange,
the horizon pulsing, the sky of skin in chorus

with crimson land. Is this heart our symbol of love?
Like red-lace hearts and heart-shaped boxes of candy?
No, this is the real thing. That's how I love
you, Mary Ann, as much as any landscape

of flesh can love you: blood, muscle, my hands
washing your hair, bones like trees in a wind.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in the Asian Pacific American Journal (Spring/Summer 1996).

I trust the poem speaks for itself about love and Valentine hearts.

Since some of you, O gentle readers, follow the blog to focus on poetic technique, let me tell you this is a Shakespearean (or English) sonnet, as perhaps you've surmised from the poem's structure and shape: three quatrains and a couplet. In typical Shakespearean-sonnet fashion, the quatrains alternate their rhyme — abab.

Now I sense some scratching of heads at how "body" and "Yosemite" could possibly rhyme. As well as "candy" and "landscape." The key words: slant rhyme. For those who may not know, Yosemite is pronounced yoe-SEH-mitt-ee; the rhyme then is between the two syllables of body and the final two syllables of Yosemite. With the rhyme pair candy and landscape, the rhyme happens with the first syllable of both words; also the consonance repetition of the /k/ sound at the beginning of candy and in the center of landscape contributes to the soundplay. In addition, the first rhyme word in the couplet, "hands," rhymes similarly with "candy and "landscape." And, again, a slant rhyme with "wind."

Okay, enough enough enough. Go out and enjoy Valentine's Day. And do the "red-roses and frilly hearts" thing; it's often practical and judicious not to follow, in everyday life, what poems tell us. Again, Happy Valentine's Day!

Note from 17 Feb 2009: I've just gotten permission from Jessica Wheat to use her wonderful medical illustration of the heart. Hurray! As you can see above, Jessica's heart image is now next to the poem. Click on it to see a larger version. The previous graphic I used is now to the right of this note; it came from

Vanessa Ruiz, creator of Street Anatomy, a website that explores human anatomy in medicine, art, and design, said this about Jessica Wheat's work:
"Jessica has a very nice loose painterly style present in all of her work. It makes the anatomy seem more organic and fluid. It’s a nice change from some of the highly stylized and ridged anatomical illustrations we see at times." I couldn't agree more. Her color images are simply lovely, with a gentle application of color and shading that rivals the best fine art. To see more, check out Wheat's online porfolio; look particularly for her "Leather Sea Star" and "Moon Jelly."     — VG

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dragonfly (page 7)

The next poem in the book is also related to insects. Not really certain what this insect mania is all about, especially since I'm not much of an insect lover, but there it is. In this poem, though, we don't have a noble, regal insect like the dragonfly or a pillar-of-the-earth insect like the beetle; instead we feature one of the world's worst pests, a potentially deadly one at that.

Mosquito / Manila Haiku

Lazy mosquito
Lazy mosquimeanders through air, sated
Lazy mosquimeanders through air, satwith my daughter's blood.

Lazy mosquimeanderIn her dark room, I
Lazy mosquimeanderIn her dark stand like a tai chi dancer
. . .
Lazy mostill . . . hand cocked to strike.

Lazy mostill . . .I swat, miss six times.
LazyMosquito must be thinking:
LazyYou stupid, clumsy

LazyYou stupid, clumsyhuman. I lose him
LazyYou stupid, clumsyhuman. I lose hmin the arabesque pattern
LazyYou stupid, clumsyhuman. of floor tiles, blood red.

LazyYou My mind flutters back:
LazyYou My mind caress of mosquito nets
LazyYou My mind rough against your cheek . . .

LazyYou My mind rough against your chiiblack beetle whirring,
LazyYou My mind rouitethered to the polished brass
LazyYou My mind rough against your chiiblack knobs of the dresser . . .

LazyYou night air heavy with
LazyYou night air heavy bougainvillea, magnolia
LazyYou night . . . thrum of cicadas.

LazyYou night air heavy bougainvillea, magEach mosquito bite
LazyYou night on my skin marked with crosses
carved by fingernails:

LazyYou night on my sstigmata, holy
medals imprinted, nightly
medals imprinted, nightliritual hunt. Amen.

Page 7

I suppose some entomologist out there in the peanut gallery may be bristling at my inconsiderate labeling of the mosquito as "the world's worst pest." Here, I'll throw you a bone: in the Disney cartoon Lilo and Stitch, the Earth is actually a wildlife preserve to protect the mosquito from harm and ensure that it thrives. There you go. It could be true.

With regard to poetics, this poem is an example of linked haiku: haiku that are both freestanding and interconnected for larger meaning. Each stanza is a haiku that can be parsed, one hopes, in typical haiku fashion, but the poem as a whole relies on the progression of haiku for its overall sense. I have used the traditional 5-7-5 syllable pattern here, though of course it's important to remember that today's haiku writers, more often than not, dispense with the 5-7-5 schema, focusing more on compactness and tight language for their effects.

Let's leave off right there; let's not over-explain. Good luck with your mosquitoes.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dragonfly (page 6)

Okay, back to the serializing of Dragonfly. And, to continue the insect connection, as in my recent beetle-on-a-string theme, this time we focus on the dragonfly. This poem is in fact the title piece of the collection.

Miraculous Dragonfly

Tutubi Milagrosa — a Tagalog phrase emblazoned
across this sack of jasmine rice, also in Vietnamese,
Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Laotian, English, and Thai:
a concert of tongues, scripts, pictographs.

But the crudely drawn dragonfly cruising the names
seems hardly a friendly miracle: metallic globes for eyes,
skeletal legs from a giant mosquito, hairy carapace
like some gene-fused nightmare from a low-budget movie.

Abdomen shaped like a missile — a penile sting.
Not gossamer wings but helicopter blades: Cobra chopper
streaking over silky jungle mist hovers, cybernetic
killer machine poised on a stream of fire, molten metal.

No. Dragonfly out of my childhood is delicate,
a four-year-old's handspan from wingtip to wingtip.
Almost sunset near the Rizal monument in Manila's
Luneta Park — cicadas in full choir, singing a canticle.

A little boy in khaki shorts, a scrape on one knee,
stands still then takes a step like a tightrope walker
in line with the slender tail of a jade
and ultramarine dragonfly. The boy's gaze,

his whole being, funneled into fingertip and thumb.
For a moment, a small universe
of utter beauty and grace in his hand, my hand —
intricate shimmer of wings, the eyes iridescent jewels.

Page 6
NOTE: Image sources at right, from top to bottom: (1) my wife Mary Ann Blue Gotera's artwork for the cover of the original publication of Dragonfly; (2) a Cobra helicopter firing a missile, from Wikipedia; (3) a photograph by Pablo Yáñez, from his wonderful website; (4) a photograph by Judy of the Woods (browse her interesting website on how to carry on a sustainable life at; (5) a photograph by Darrin O'Brien (check out his photostream on flickr).

Many thanks to these lovely people for giving me permission to use their images in the blog. Do click on the images to see them enlarged; the details of the dragonflies in particular are quite exquisite and not quite as enjoyable in these smaller versions I've posted.

This poem happened because I didn't know something. What I didn't know was what "milagrosa rice" is.

There is indeed a brand of rice called "Dragonfly." I tried really hard to find an image online of the bag it comes in but came up empty-handed; you'll have to take my word for it that the bag is indeed marked with the word dragonfly in several Asian languages. On the bag also is a primitive-looking rendering of said dragonfly, and the whole shebang is labeled "Tutubi Milagrosa." I saw a bag of rice just like this in an Asian food store, and that started up this poem.

Now, tutubi (too-too-BEE) is the word for "dragonfly" in Filipino (or Tagalog, as the poem says), and milagrosa is Spanish for "miraculous" — a word imported wholesale into Filipino. Putting two and two together, then, I thought the rice bag said, "miraculous dragonfly." In fact, the word milagrosa, it turns out, refers to a type of rice, so the bag is quite pedestrian in declaring its contents as tutubi-brand milagrosa rice. Nonetheless, the misunderstanding — the resonant phrase "miraculous dragonfly" — fueled in me a mindstorm of meditation and memory, and this poem is the happy result.

First, a couple of facts. If you read the first installment of my ongoing bio in the blog, you know that I was born in the US but also lived some years as a small child (fact one). This poem is set during that time, just like the poem "Beetle on a String," posted on 1-30-2009.

Fact two. You can catch a dragonfly in your hands. This poem is my most-anthologized poem, and it has appeared in several language-arts textbooks for middle school and grade school; I have also performed this poem for students at various middle schools and grade schools, and this is what kids (and adults, I'm guessing) always want to know: can you catch a dragonfly? And how do you do it?

Look at the pictures of dragonflies above; you'll see that their thorax, the part of their body behind the head is quite bulky, containing the musculature for the wings. Although dragonflies have these gynormous compound eyes and probably have much better peripheral vision than we do, I don't think they can see behind themselves. That bulgy thorax gets in the way, like a bulky backpack. Now, I haven't checked with an entomologist on this, but I'm pretty sure I'm dead on here.

So, find a dragonfly that's landed; line yourself up with the tail, so you're directly behind the insect; then sidle up and grip the dragonfly by its tail between thumb and forefinger, ever so gently of course. Now this makes dragonflies really mad, but just hold on. I learned recently that the safest way to hold a dragonfly, so you don't harm it and it doesn't harm itself thrashing, is to bring the wings together above the insect and use them as a kind of handle. The bottom picture above demonstrates how to do that.

Try this out the next time you're near dragonflies; you'll be amazed at how easy it is. But of course, do let the dragonflies go. Don't keep them in a jar and try to feed them plant stuff. They are carnivores and must catch their prey, other insects, on the wing. Even if you put insects in the jar with them, they won't be able to catch them because they have to do it while flying. So don't keep them very long. In fact, it's best to let them go right away.

Fact three. (And this is a confession.) When Mary Ann needed a dragonfly for a model when she was working on the book cover, I went out and caught one. (She didn't actually think it could be done; who says you can't learn practical facts from poems?) We kept it in a jar and tried to feed it. But no go. It died, alas. So I know whereof I speak from actual experience. And my penance is to tell people not to keep dragonflies. Besides, here's a little fact that might intrigue you. The dragonfly forms a cage with its legs and uses it to scoop and trap other flying insects. That's why it can't catch another insect inside a jar, not enough room to get up some speed.

By the way, there's a cool story (fact four) behind Mary Ann's dragonfly illustration for the cover (top image above). She spent a summer drawing dragonfly after dragonfly and although they were wonderful renderings, I thought, Mary Ann was never satisfied. One day, she ripped a dragonfly shape out of white construction paper. She liked it okay, but the color seemed wrong. So Mary Ann pasted it down on another sheet of paper and painted the dragonfly black. After she let the black dry, she lifted up the dragonfly and the black part of the image above was what was underneath, on the throwaway sheet. Mary Ann simply added the turquoise accents, and there it was.

Okay, enough with the facts. "Just the facts, ma'am." Oh, wait, I wanted to add about Mary Ann's art experience that I just love how accident and serendipity can be such important aspects of art; another way to say it is that art can often be a gift to the artist. From the universe, from God, from whatever greater benevolent force you may believe in. And we, the artists, are just a conduit for that grace.

Changing gears. I'm teaching a course in Beginning Poetry Writing right now, and we're at that inevitable point in class when (some of) the students assert that a writer can be universal, can reach the widest audience, by being vague and ambiguous. The argument goes like this: readers won't identify with one's specific detail because it will contradict their own detail, their own memories, so one ought to write generally in order that readers can inject their own feelings into the poem. Nothing could be further from the truth. The poet must provide her own concreteness, and write those details out of her own life so that they glisten and scintillate with her own experience and vision; readers find joy in those specifics, feel that they are in capable hands, and trust the poet to "bring it." Ironically, it is at moments like this that readers bring in their own details, noting how they resonate with the specifics the poet has laid out.

I hope you can see this dynamic at work in this poem. Note in the second stanza the details of "metallic globes for eyes, / skeletal legs from a giant mosquito, hairy carapace / like some gene-fused nightmare from a low-budget movie"; as a child, I was enthralled by those old black and white 1950s movies filled with monsters inevitably produced by atomic radiation, for example, the movie The Fly starring David Hedison (later remade with Jeff Goldblum as the mad, but loveable, scientist). Comic books too were full of that stuff: the Hulk erupting periodically from scientist David Banner who had been exposed to radiation from the gamma bomb he had designed. (These 50s and 60s "morality plays" are, for my money, related to guilt about atomic holocaust, but that's a story for another blog entry.) My point here is that these insect/robot/cyborg details are specific to my own pop-culture interests, but they surely intersect with similar C-movie details gleaned by everyone from Saturday matinees and late-night TV.

Ditto with the war vs. nature stuff in stanza three: "silky jungle mist" vis-à-vis "cybernetic / killer machine." For people of my generation, this screams Vietnam. But, since the twentieth century and evidently the twenty-first too are times of wars and wars, this material should reverberate for most readers: the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, the current war in Iraq, etc. (And those are just the American ones.)

In the second half of the poem, there are details that are more closely related to the specifics of my own life: "a four-year-old's handspan from wingtip to wingtip"; "the Rizal monument" (José Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines, so there are both personal and national references in this passage); "cicadas." And much more specific and personal: "khaki shorts, a scrape on one knee." These details are designed specifically to ground the poem (and the reader, of course) in verisimilitude, in an apparent reality, to help them feel as if they are "there." Although perhaps someone may not have worn khaki shorts, everyone will have had abrasions and bruises. So a common humanity is invoked by these small details.

In the final stanza, I start to include general ideas, notions that aren't concrete: "his whole being," "a small universe," and "utter beauty and grace." But notice that this is one stanza out of six, and the earlier five act as contextualizing ballast: all the Asian languages mentioned in the opening stanza, for instance. This transition from the specific to the general allows the speaker then to reveal: "his hand, my hand." And the last line returns us to specific detail: "intricate shimmer of wings, the eyes iridescent jewels."

As we used to say in poetry workshops of the 70s and 80s, the poem earns the right to use large, universal concepts by anchoring the poem first in concrete detail and then re-anchoring the poem at the end with concrete detail.

Once again, though, let me remind you that the writer is never the best source about his or her own writing. So I would love to hear what you think about all this; leave me a comment below. Or if you have questions, ask away. Thanks. I hope you are having a truly marvelous day today.


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