Poet and political historian Diana Anhalt moved to Mexico with her family in 1950, where her parents joined a community of left-wing expatriates who’d left the U.S. to escape Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist persecutions. She would live there for the next 50 years. The full text of her nonfiction book A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico, 1948-1965 (Archer Books) is available online here.
Her new poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Lives of Straw, movingly depicts Mexican cultural traditions and characters from the economic margins. The opening and closing poems are from her perspective, first as a young girl adapting to a foreign country and language, and then her equally disorienting return to America half-a-century later. Within that frame, Anhalt lets her Mexican characters speak for themselves, in colorful, musical, yet often blunt persona poems that show many facets of the struggle for survival. Fortune-tellers, street vendors (including one selling poetry), herbal healers, death-defying construction workers, and con artists must devote all their creative genius to earning their next meal. Diana has kindly permitted me to reprint the poems below.
A summer’s night in Veracruz. The Rico Perez band plays a bolero
in the plaza principal. Lanterns thread the trees. I thread my way
through the sidelines. Edge past an ice cream vendor, girls in silk
and denim, dog walkers, two bald babies in headbands–to the center.
Couples shake and shuffle to the music. Some women dance alone,
reminding me of women in Pinochet’s Chile who danced the cueca,
partnered with snapshots of their desaparecidos–husbands, mothers,
sons. Here, an elderly woman in a pearl gray dress, struts, twirls
to the music, flexes her hands, nods her head, pauses to tighten
an earring. I suppose that everywhere, after violence, illness, divorce
women congregate on dance floors, raise their arms above their heads,
swing their hips to a merengue, beat out the rhythm of a cha cha cha,
and dance alone. This woman in gray resembles my mother-in-law,
now dead, who never would have. Me? I only pray, should–
dios no lo quiera–heaven forbid–that day come, I would.
a word that inhabits my Spanish-speaking mouth,
lies under my tongue and smells of evergreens,
and rainy Mondays, smoke. From the word querer—
to want, desire, wish. It refers to bulls
who seek their place of solace in the ring.
For the waif in every living creature. I think
of the neighbor’s dachshund hunkered under the porch,
the sparrow haunting a fallen tree, the child
afraid to stray too far from his mother’s side.
We took to driving the Cuernavaca highway
and parked in the clearing with that Mexico City view.
As the air turned hazy with cigarette smoke,
we’d drink wine from the bottle, talk and listen to danzones
on the radio. We drove away soon after, took
our memories with us, haven’t returned.
After years away, our key no longer fits
the lock. And our home, grown used to strangers’ feet,
is home no more.