An old poem, reprinted in honor of International Women’s Day.

We cut them down at daybreak
at the head of a dry wash
with their dogs & their rifles asleep
in the thorn scrub,
soon to flower

as I remember it growing up:
the sudden reds & purples
against the ground,
the clouds of bees

& I close my eyes
for a heart-
beat or two–
but not, I assure you,
from any faint-heartedness.
It’s only men who tremble
when their guns go off.

I could tell you about the girl
I used to be: quiet,
solemn in the face
of the world’s inevitable cruelties.
Helping my uncle at slaughtering time

I loved the way he made
his blade shimmy right through
the toughest joints so fast
they hardly moved–
one moment a carcass
complete with bone & gristle,
the next an exclusive
disjunction. Even now

I can hear him singing
as he feeds the low fire,
scraps of fat simmering
for soap:
One knee for Doña Sebastiana,
both knees for God alone.
It’s a dull knife that cuts the hand.
Keep your heart still
& your shoulder to the sky.


Doña Sebastiana: In Mexican folk religion, personification of Death as a female saint. See photo here.

6 Replies to “Guerillera”

  1. A poem so rich with allusions. La Santa Muerte subverting the innocence of La Santisima Virgen de Guadalupe. The knife sliding through the joints reminds me of a Taoist poem–I’ll try to look it up. The poem I’m thinking of speaks of a Taoist butcher who cut up carcasses by knowing intuitively where the right place to cut was. And coming upon the sleeping men reminds me of the effeminate David sneaking into the manly man Saul’s camp, murdering each soldier while he slept.

  2. Thanks for the comments, y’all. Brett, you’re right about my borrowing from the parable of the butcher in Zhuangzi/Chuang-Tzu. I’m not sure about the Bible story you mention – I never saw David as effeminate, actually (maybe ’cause he’s my namesake). The one thing I’m not sure of is whether the name “Doña Sebastiana” extends south into Central Mexico, where the bulk of the female fighters were during the Mexican Revolution (which is what I had in mind, here). I don’t know if there were any female soldiers in Pancho Villa’s army – though I suppose one could write a poem from the POV of one of his 24 wives.

    Fred, I’ve seen that book, though I don’t own it – I’m not terribly fond of multi-author anthologies, though a do own quite a few. And City Lights publishes a lot of good stuff, so if I ever see that one in a used bookstore, I’ll be sure to pick it up. I don’t know if they’re all included, but Central American poets I strongly admire include Roberto Sosa (Honduras); Claribel Alegria and Roque Dalton (El Salvador); and Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua). Each of these has one or more books translated into English. There’s also a biography of the inimitable Honduran poet Clementina Suarez, which includes extensive translations from her work.

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