Once, as a girl, she saw a woman shrink
inside herself, gray-headed and dwarf-sized,
as if her small spine collapsed. Age
and collapse were something unreal, like war
and loss. That image of an old woman sitting
in a café booth, folding in on herself, was forgotten
until her own bones thinned and hollowed,
music-less, un-fluted, empty.
She says she takes shark cartilage before she sleeps,
a tablet or two to secure flexibility and forget
that pain is living and living is pain.
And time moves like a slow rusty train
through the desert of weeds, and the low-riders
bounce like teenagers young and forgiving
in her night’s dream. She was sleek in a red dress
with red pumps, the boys with slick hair, tight jeans.
She tells me about 100-pound canisters of lard
and beans, how she could dance despite her fifth
child, despite being beaten and left
in the desert for days, how she saw an angel
or saint glimmer blonde above her, how she rose
and walked into the red horizon despite
her husband’s sin.
I’m thinking how the women
in my family move with a sway, with a hip
ache, and how they each have a disk
slip. The sky seems sullen, gray, and few birds
whisk. It’s how the muse is lost
in an endless stream of commercials, how people
forget to speak to one another as our ending skulks
arthritically into our bones, and the dust
of a thousand years blows across the plain,
and the last few hares sprint across a bloodied
highway. Here in the desert southwest, loss
is living and it comes with chapped lips,
long bumpy bus rides and the smog of some man’s
factory trap. And there are women everywhere
who have half-lost their souls
in sewing needles and vacuum-cleaner parts.
In maquiladoras there grows a slow poem,
a poem that may only live a moment sharply
in an old woman’s soul, like a sudden broken hip.
And yet, each October, this old woman rises
like the blue sky, rises like the fat turkey vultures
that make death something beautiful, something
towards flight, something that circles in a group
and knows it is best not to approach death alone.
Each October she dances, the mariachis yelp
and holler her back to that strange, flexible youth,
back to smoky rancheras and cumbias—songs
rolling in the shadows along the bare Mexican hills.
She tells me, “It’s in the music, where I’ll always
live.” And somehow, I see her jaw relax,
her eyes squint to a slow blindness
as if she can see something I can’t.
And I remember that it is good to be born of dust,
born amid cardboard shanties of sweet gloom.
I remember that the bare cemetery stones
in El Paso and Juárez hold the music, and each spring
when the winds carry the dust of loss there is a howl,
a surge of something unbelievable, like death,
like the collapse of language, like the frail bones
of Mexican grandmothers singing.
—“Bones” from Pity the Drowned Horses by Sheryl Luna (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005). © 2005 by Sheryl Luna. Reproduced by permission of University of Notre Dame Press.