Pushcart XLI: David Hernandez, “We Would Never Sleep” (poem) from The Sun #475

poem

We the people, we the one
times 320 million, I’m rounding up, there are really
too many grass blades to count,
wheat plants to tally, just see
the whole field swaying from here to that shy
blue mountain. Swaying
as in rocking, but also the other
definition of the verb: we sway, we influence,
we impress. Unless we’re asleep,
unless the field’s asleep, more a postcard
than a real field, portrait of the people
unmoved.
Complete poem available online at The Sun

Colors. That was the first thing I noticed: grass blades, wheat plants, blue mountain. Like an altered version of “America the Beautiful” with its amber waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plain, combining nicely with the notion of America as a population of 320 million blades of grass that make up a huge, beautiful lawn, too many to count, though of course we can and do count them, every ten years in fact. I let myself get distracted by wondering about the difference between RGB and CMYK color mixing systems, and through that realized red was missing. I noticed the influence and the sleep, those are electric words right now, featuring in the political realm as they do, right next to all that American imagery – am I the only one who felt it? – and recalling the title. So I read on.

You know that shooting last week?
I will admit the number dead
was too low to startle me
if you admit you felt the same,
and the person standing by you
agrees, and the person beside that person.
It has to be double digits,
don’t you think?

Red, on.

I wasn’t sure what shooting the poem referred to, so many of them, almost daily, headlines like, in April 2015, Phoenix, AZ: five family members killed “after an apparent dispute over the family business burst into gunfire”, or Douglas County, GA: “Five dead, including gunman” or September in Minnesota: “Five dead in apparent murder-suicide.” Those probably don’t count, though, because they’re family matters, and even though that’s a big part of the problem, it isn’t like a terrorist or a crazy person, something that could actually happen to you, because I’m sure everyone in those families knew they’d die at the hand of their own one day and we know we won’t. So maybe the poem refers to the Chattanooga shootings which has its own Wikipedia entry.

But we’re supposed to be talking poetry here.

I find the progression of the poem to be effective in delivering an emotional kick. It’s true, we don’t pay much attention to “little” incidents any more. Two, three dead, we shrug and move on. Once you’ve read about twenty children plus six of their teachers murdered within minutes, you need more than two or three bodies to make an impression.

The poem spends a little time in that place, but then proposes a solution…

I’m thinking every gun
should come with a microphone,
each street with loudspeakers
to broadcast their banging.
We would never sleep, the field
always awake, acres of swaying
up to that shy blue mountain…

… and comes back to join up the circle, and recapitulate the American landscape, the 320 million blades of grass – minus a few here and there – and all of us sleeping, and just what will it take to wake us up?

Hernandez is known, it seems, as a humor poet, which surprised the hell out of me. I’ve encountered him once before via Pushcart 2014 and his poem “All-American”. I called it “conversational”, something I feel in this poem as well. Both are from his 2016 collection Dear, Sincerely which is indeed full of humor (“We Real Nerds”, an ode to university parking department FAQs, a letter from the sun) punctuated with poems, like this one, that stop your heart, and make you glad you’ve still got a heart that breaks.

Pushcart 2014: David Hernandez, “All-American” (Poetry) from The Southern Review, Autumn 2012

Kumi Yamashita, "Origami, 2005" (modified)

Kumi Yamashita, “Origami, 2005” (modified)

I’m this tiny, this statuesque, and everywhere
in between, and everywhere in between
bony and overweight, my shadow cannot hold
one shape in Omaha, in Tuscaloosa, in Aberdeen.
My skin is mocha brown, two shades darker
than taupe, your question is racist, nutmeg, beige,
I’m not offended by your question at all.
Penis or vagina? Yes and yes. Gay or straight?
Both boxes. Bi, not bi, who cares, stop
fixating on my sex life, Jesus never leveled
his eye to a bedroom’s keyhole.

Politicians have a fondness for categories; the fewer categories, and the more stereotyped, the better for figuring out what to say to capture votes. When their simplistic discourse filters down into the popular consciousness, we end up looking at people by one characteristic – age, race, sex, occupation – and ignoring the rest. Hernandez’ poem reminds us that there is no such thing as “The Latino”: that there are far more than fifty shades of brown.

Right from the first phrase, the poem sets out to confound expectations. When I hear “I’m this tiny,” I immediately expect to hear, “little thing,” a noun phrase of some kind; not another phrase contrasting tiny with statuesque. As someone who habitually sees at least twelve sides to any issue, I enjoyed this tour of the variety of people on this planet.

There’s a rolling rhythm to the poem, very conversational, with occasional accents of emphatic syllables (“I don’t hunt”) and a lovely chugalong at the end that meshes perfectly with semantic content (“gather the shopping carts into one long, rolling, clamorous and glittering backbone”) but for me the heart lies in the overall statement, and in the images that meld into each other:

                                                       ….Against
gun control, for cotton bullets, for constructing
a better fence along the border, let’s raise
concrete toward the sky, why does it need
all that space to begin with? For creating
holes in the fence, adding ladders, they’re not
here to steal work from us, no one dreams
of crab walking for hours across a lettuce field
so someone could order the Caesar salad.

Hernandez has recorded a reading of the poem on Soundcloud; there’s also a lovely video by motionpoems available on Youtube, for an appropriately diverse experience.