Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone. She lives in Denver with her husband and sons.
You are fifteen the first time it happens and you know the power of names and renaming from your study of the Bible, from learning about slavery, from that made-for-TV movie about the witness protection program, only this is not about witnessing and you are no stranger to confusion over your name, for according to family rules—names that sound good in English and Spanish, names that do not rhyme with anything, initials that don’t spell anything, a desire to name you for someone else but not call you that name—your parents decided to call you by your middle name, which results in a lifetime of bureaucratic nightmares including one time that you will have to sign a legal form verifying that Sarah Emily is the same as Emily and that you are both those people; your parents wanted to call you Emily but Emily Sarah would make you ESP, so now you’re Sarah E., and in doctor’s waiting rooms and on the first day of school you’ve trained yourself to answer to Sarah even though you feel at best a distant connection to her as if she is a cousin or alter ego--this will be useful to you years from now when telemarketers call and ask for her--and at school growing up on the Texas-Mexico border lots of names got mispronounced, you aren’t alone in this, the Mexican teachers would call Jaime by the Spanish HY-may instead of what she said, JAY-mee, making her blush, and in the mouth of the white emcee at football games, lovely, slender Fátima became FAT-i-ma as she aced grand jetés across the field when the dance team arrived for halftime, but this time, you are not at home, you’re on your own at age fifteen at boarding school in New Hampshire, a place as foreign to you, even worldly, even well-travelled you, as medieval Japan, and why you left home is another story but the lesson you learn today is the story that will stick, cut much deeper than what you will learn in Calculus; no, you are far from South Texas, far from the town where everyone knows you and your parents and their bi-racial marriage and your siblings and your grandmother who insists she is a citizen, which she pronounces SEE-tee-zen, and where you move easily across the segregated streets because in a patriarchal world with a Catholic order what girl doesn’t think of herself as her father’s daughter, her family as her father’s line, so now when your new math teacher in this cold, New Hampshire classroom asks you for your last name, and you say Pérez and think yourself a Mexican, and with a question mark at the end she spells P-E-T-T-I-S and her name is Spruill Kilgore, which for all you know may be common in this world of duck boots, backward caps, and last names used as first names indicating good-old-boy New England roots, and you respond, no P-E-R-E-Z, and she responds, oh, you mean PEAR-ez, thereby renaming you, and remember, this is not about witness, it’s about whiteness, this lesson you will learn today, that you are not who you say you are or think you are, that without your father, your border, without your family history in this country that predates this country, its lines in the sand, its river dividers, its Mayflower, that here and almost everywhere in this world that is suddenly a lifetime away from your small home town where you’re known, you are hers, you are theirs to pronounce, because she’s looking at you, and you are white.
“Correction” first appeared in Letras Latinas Blog.
The tumors wrapped
from your back
to your heart.
radiant, your face
They moused holes
in the bone
just a nibble
As if a bone
a drought struck tree
Cracking the steel.
First published in “Silk Road Review.
on a line from Szymborska
My departure from the city of O.?
I took no leave.
I’d learned to sleep angry.
On a train I was contained.
The water under the bridge
was just that. Shunned metaphor.
It did not send waves of regret
or make me reflect.
It did not baptize, wash away, or cleanse.
The countryside appeared
like the sides of any country
where rain falls and cows chew yellow flowers.
The world was not too much
or too much with me.
I stomached it.
In the photograph I only look lonely
because I was alone.
You cannot see the envelope on my lap
or the letters lodged under sweaters in my suitcase.
I carried only one bag, what I could manage
in a crowd.
You can imagine I held a thick book
from which nothing could distract me.
You can imagine my head high, eyes dry.
I did not see my departure as a failure, or a fall.
I’d dodged a bullet. Been reborn.
You can imagine it that way.
Only none of it was like that,
not like that at all.
First published in PoetryNow. Also appeared on the Poetry Foundation website.
Each time the babies came
I knew they would be gone
Bright as bulbs
turned out of beds,
hard and full
on the brink
I could not hold them
and I could not hold them
It was a sin to let them in.
I did not expect them to stay.
I did not expect their forgiveness
when I turned away.
First published in Poetry magazine.
Lockdown, 1st Grade
Mom, we had to hide
Mom, it was a game
It wasn’t like a normal game
The man outside was hunting
The man outside was seeking
The teacher turned out all the lights
and we did hugs and bubbles|
Hugs around ourselves, and bubbles in our mouths
We could not let them pop
We did not make a peep We curled up
just like this in balls beside the cubbies
We were chickens in a nest, no we were babies
in their eggs We watched the crack
under the door to see his feet We listened
for his legs to walk And when we heard we held
our breath We held it for a long time
It wasn’t like the last time
The teacher told us if we won
we’d get a prize, we’d celebrate
But she forgot and we just got to breathe
First published in The Acentos Review
On the roof, with static on repeat,
I watch as raccoons scour the yard.
The news like a minor chord
in an empty church, hanging.
Today when my students learn
of the shooting, they won’t look
up from their books. “In a school?”
one will ask. The world they’ve grown in.
The night does not feel like December
or respite. More like wet wool
wound tight round my throat. A crash,
and the alley’s a riot of garbage.
I envy the scavengers, their trash
into treasure. Their unflinching gaze.
First published in The Acentos Review.
Wheat Field With Crows
after Van Gogh
The crows swim
in dense brushstrokes of sky.
Waves flatten them
to dark facsimiles of waves.
They rest on, are pressed on, arcs
whose shapes their bodies take.
Their metal cools in a mold
that will not crack.
Below them, wheat breaks
toward a different shore. It sways,
snakes upward, but is held down.
The thickness persists.
A path creeps deep
into the wheat, then drowns.
First published in The Laurel Review. Also appears in House of Sugar, House of Stone (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016).
Advice to My Younger Self: Fall
This is no father, man of sticks and splinters.
A kindling heart, unaware that each match will catch
its passions. Remember, it’s never enough to banish
flint from the kingdom. A field mouse will reveal
the alternate route to the hideout, the spinning-
wheel’s spindle always arrives on the crone’s cart.
And this is no mother, woman of bread crust
and broom dust. Consumed in mapping her shadow,
turns her back while dogs and rats roam the larder.
It’s not that your songs don’t amuse. It’s not
that the tricks of your little bird hands do not please
or that you should search harder, run faster
from forest to field to hearth with your harvest
of seeds, extra mouthfuls for all, in your pockets. No.
If the pond swill ever stills to a glass fit for scrying
here’s what it might show: In the hollow tree’s hull,
blind, furless kits hiss, as the falcon describes its circles.
But in the room with no door, no one ever knocks or enters.
First published in The Crab Orchard Review. Also appeared in House of Sugar, House of Stone (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016).
Advice to My Younger Self: Winter
One night you will learn you are soon
to be abandoned, cast outdoors.
This news may cause you some alarm.
Swallow it and savor those last hours.
You’ll have years to assign the anger, blame.
For now hold them close. They’ll keep you warm.
The day will start with a long hike. You’ll receive
a crust of bread, an afternoon’s low fire,
and you will take a nap, a few hours to believe
you are still loved, and maybe you misheard—
But night falls, and it’s certain. You’re forgotten,
left to freeze, starve, be eaten alive by wolves.
Allow yourself a moment’s grief for all that’s gone:
your cat, your clothing, your warm bed.
You may shed some tears,
but don’t cry loud or long.
The cold will come; you’ll need energy.
It helps to have a plan before you leave.
On your voyage out you can collect,
then drop along the road
the smoothest stones, the ones that reflect
moonlight, make a lighted trail home.
Or, as the story goes, you could crumble
up your crust of bread and leave a map
sure to be consumed by birds.
It hardly matters. Either way
you’re lost. Either way
you’ll wander into deeper woods.
First published in The Crab Orchard Review. Also appears in House of Sugar, House of Stone (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016).
Epithalamium on a Theory of Gravity
for David and Lorena
The apple will fall to the Earth.
You may wake
to the cry of a child
in the night,
testing gravity, the pull
of one creature on another.
You may wake
to find your body
expanding, a solar system—
organs, ventricles, ribosomes,
orbit a bright, beating sun.
In the beginning,
heavy elements released by stars
became the planets,
became the body.
In the beginning
the adjective gravis meant heavy.
And gravitas: seriousness, dignity.
You may wake
to the heat of fusion,
your face toward the face
of a luminous other, two bodies,
The Earth will fall to the apple.
Look out the window—
it’s not the moon
pulling the tide
of this sea change.
It’s not the moon
filling the room with light.
First published in Many Mountains Moving. Also appeared in House of Sugar, House of Stone (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016).