Letter to Islas from San Antonio
— for 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 business tycoon,
super-professional in her Gucci pinstripe suit,
and the cowboy veterinarian from Amarillo,
ten-gallon hat, silver and turquoise buckle
on his belt, 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 business tycoon, 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 at Stanford 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.
Just like in 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 is the author of Dragonfly (Pecan Grove Press, 1994), Ghost Wars (Final Thursday Press, 2003), Fighting Kite (Pecan Grove Press, 2007), and the forthcoming Pacific Crossing. His sonnet “What Matters” won first place in the rhyming poetry division of the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in 2015. Vince serves as editor of the North American Review. He teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Northern Iowa.
This poem appeared in The Guadalupe Review.