In my recent microreview & interview of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez, I spoke about Sanchez’s gift for poetic empathy. In the same way that a poem is never alive until somebody reads it, so is empathy unable to be present unless another does the work of listening to someone’s trouble and making room for it. This making room for empathy – for acknowledgment and listening – is something that poetry lends itself to naturally. What Sanchez does is present poems that help us think, rather than think for us.
In the poem below, “Past Tense,” also from Phantom Tongue, we see the nuance with which Sanchez does this work. Now, depending on who you talk to, one of the clichés of Latinx poetry is the abuelita/grandma poem. When I first hear this type of poem called out, I had the natural reaction to go out and write ten abuelita poems, just to show’em. I also began to pay extra attention when I ran across one, seeing if I would be given an example of the grave “sin” I’d been warned against. While Sanchez’s poem does take as its subject a childhood relationship with a grandmother, he avoids cliché through lyricism that invites empathy.
Stanza by stanza, we get an inventory of direct memories, from “a bottle of chocolate / syrup next to her recliner” to her taking insulin and watching novelas. What is compelling is how each detail is shifted just enough so that there is an emotional charge that builds throughout the poem. From the grandma winking as she takes her insulin, to the detail of having novelas translated so that “every betrayal was in English,” the poem moves in a way that nudges the reader to do the work of picking up on the deeper meanings of each scene. And where other poems use difficulty and ambiguity as the field to be crossed toward deeper meanings, this poem has a hard-won clarity in each phrase. What is asked of the reader, then, is to listen and acknowledge as the speaker listens and acknowledges the nuances of his memories. In this way, the speaker’s admission at the end of “learning to speak” is aptly phrased; in both English and Spanish, the language being learned is that of witness and memory.
Past Tense – Steven Sanchez
My grandma kept a bottle of chocolate
syrup next to her recliner. Each time
I spent the night, she bought a sleeve
of vanilla ice cream cups from the store.
She’d grab one, take her insulin, and wink.
I’d ask her to translate her novelas
whenever someone cried, meaning
every betrayal was in English.
At 10:30, we’d brush our teeth, rinse
our mouths, and she’d sing in Spanish
until I closed my eyes, imagining
small pigeons flying from her tongue,
carrying rolled R’s like small parcels
I’ve never been able to unwrap.
Sometimes, I dream she’s still here
sleeping next to me and I whisper
an apology for releasing her canary
when I was little. She never clipped
his wings, thought he might need them.
Now, I’m learning to speak, to tell
the difference between the preterit
and imperfect, escapó and escapaba,
between ella cantó and memory.