Friday, August 2, 2013

Mario Chard on "Round" and "Caballero"

In “Round” a man wakes to the sound of an avalanche cannon—one familiar, perhaps, to those who live in that part of the West where the Forest Service is allowed to fire howitzer shells into the mountainsides. The goal I believe is to trigger a small avalanche before larger, more dangerous avalanches can form. In the poem, the sound of the cannon sends snow barreling from the speaker’s roof, triggering the “smallest avalanche / it had not meant to,” so close to the paradox he then repeats: “We inoculate our son. In the needle, / the same virus we hope / his body will defeat.”

I took that image from an ordinary vaccination of my son, but for a moment in that small hospital room I also saw the needle as the man-made violence, the virus as nature’s violence; how we use both to pierce our children in order to prepare them for healing. I thought it a gift that we also use (or used to use) inoculate for vaccination: inoculate, meaning to engraft an eye (oculus) of one plant into another—eye, of course, the stand in for bud, the new leaf forming. Thus, through the act of inoculation we figuratively give sight to our children. We graft in the new eye.

If that’s true, then couldn’t it also, at least sometimes, mean the opposite, the inoculation a kind of blinding? The only way to graft in the new eye is to blind the other. For me, the less figurative example of this possibility is tied to a childhood based on religion and prayer: the old way of occlusion. We closed our eyes to pray. Some are taught to close their eyes to see no evil, no violence. And yet we are bound to commit acts of violence against ourselves and others almost every day.
“Round” is an expression of this paradox and fear. It gained its musical form from a personal obsession with cycles and repetition. For me the round is eternal: it begins with the parent inserting the needle; it always ends with the child finding the bomb, still unexploded, in the pine needles, running his own destruction back to those who put it in his hands.  


I was raised in a dual-cultural home of immigrants, my mother chief among them, but the house always seemed full of many kinds: relatives, friends, strangers, some of them Argentine like my mother, most from Mexico. And yet I still found it difficult to fully enter the world of “Caballero,” a poem I struggled to write from the moment I read the story of the crash that acts as its impetus.

I had great ambition for the poem and its political underpinnings, a na├»ve desire to speak despite my citizenship for those who die miserably trying to become citizens, and yet the poem kept floundering. It was then I found the article that mentioned the horse, how the driver lost control after swerving to miss it, how the surviving passengers saw only the driver’s attempt to fondle the female passenger and never saw the horse. It was then I tried to teach my son the word for horse in Spanish and remembered how I had often mistaken it for the word for hair. Almost immediately the poem lost what had been its documentary scaffolding and became instead a dialog of mistake and disagreement, of those who speak and those who are silenced, of a father and son speaking from their own dim borders of understanding.

Only near the end of writing “Caballero” did I remember that the horse was itself an immigrant, brought over by the Europeans in their age of conquest. Some records suggest that the natives were initially confused and thought the man and horse were a single body, that this confusion allowed the riders to establish dominion. For a moment the conquerors were caballeros: literal horsemen. But now the word has come to mean gentleman. The word has become one “we have learned / Not to look at” (after Oppen), stripped of its history of violence, speechless like the horse and the nameless, buried immigrant.