LORNA DEE CERVANTES
Lorna Dee Cervantes's poem "Freeway 280" offers images of survival in an inhospitable environment. Life, in the form of wild plants and all but indestructible fruit trees, refuses to succumb to the concrete and automobile exhaust that looms all around. However, this poem's inner meaning is what has marked Cervantes as one of the most important Chicana (female Mexican American) poets writing in the United States. Cervantes's images in this poem reflect the spirit of a young woman who has returned to a special place along a San Jose highway. She grew up in a neighborhood that was destroyed to build this freeway. The neighborhood was a hostile environment for the speaker of this poem, but like the weeds that she finds under the highway, she has refused to succumb to the difficulties that life has thrown her way. As the young woman explores this area that was once her home, the speaker of "Freeway 280" reflects on the changes she has made in her life.
"Freeway 280" is autobiographical, offering readers a glimpse into the poet's inner life. The poem was published in Cervantes's award-winning first collection Emplumada in 1981. Reviewers of this collection hailed Cervantes as a young poet on the rise. The poems of Emplumada have often been referred to as powerful representations of the Hispanic American experience.
Born in the Mission District of San Francisco, California, on August 6, 1954, and raised in San Jose, Lorna Dee Cervantes is a central figure in Hispanic poetry circles. Not only is she praised for her poetry, she is considered a pivotal force in the Chicano (Mexican American) literary movement. She has also been active in the feminist and the civil rights movements.
Of both Mexican and Native American ancestry, Cervantes is a member of a fifth-generation California family. Her parents, concerned about prejudices against Spanish-speaking citizens in the United States, strictly forbade the use of any language but English in the home as Cervantes was growing up. Cervantes's poetry often reflects this clash between her ethnic background and the American culture around her. As a way of reflecting her multicultural upbringing, the poet often makes use of both English and Spanish vocabulary in her poems.
Cervantes's parents were separated when she was five. She, along with her brother and mother, then moved to east San Jose to live with her maternal grandmother, who was of Chumash (a central and southern California Native American tribe) ancestry. Here, Cervantes struggled amongst the poverty and crime in her neighborhood. Her mother, Rose, worked as a maid and was often absent from the home. When not at work, her mother gave in to her weakness for alcohol. Because of this, Cervantes turned to her grandmother for love and support. Later, in 1982, Cervantes's mother was brutally murdered.
In the 1970s, as academic as well as popular interest in Hispanic American literature was growing, Cervantes founded a literary journal called Mango. The journal promoted rising Chicano and Chicana writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and Alberto Rios. A decade later, in 1984, Cervantes received her bachelor's degree from California State University at San Jose. She would go on to study philosophy at the California State University at Santa Cruz.
Though she has written poetry since she was a teenager, Cervantes has published only three small collections: the 1981 publication Emplumada (in which "Freeway 280" appears), which was honored with the 1982 American Book Award; From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991); and Drive: The First Quartet: New Poems, 1980-2005 (2006) for which she was nominated for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Adding to her status as a poet, in 1995, Cervantes was awarded the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation Writers Award for outstanding Chicana literature.
As of 2008, Cervantes teaches creative writing and is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She was once married and later raised a daughter as a single mother after her divorce.
Las casitas near the gray cannery,
nestled amid wild abrazos of climbing roses
and man-high red geraniums
are gone now. The freeway conceals it
all beneath a raised scar. 5
But under the fake windsounds of the open lanes,
in the abandoned lots below, new grasses sprout,
wild mustard remembers, old gardens
come back stronger than they were,
trees have been left standing in their yards. 10
Albaricoqueros, cerezos, nogales …
Viejitas come here with paper bags to gather greens.
Espinaca, verdolagas, yerbabuena …
I scramble over the wire fence
that would have kept me out. 15
Once, I wanted out, wanted the rigid lanes
to take me to a place without sun,
without the smell of tomatoes burning
on swing shift in the greasy summer air.
Maybe it's here 20
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I'll find it, that part of me
like a corpse
or a loose seed. 25
Cervantes's poem "Freeway 280," like the other poems in her collection Emplumada, focuses on the coming-of-age process. Knowing this, readers can imagine a young girl surveying a special section of her old neighborhood, describing what was there when the speaker of this poem was a child as well as what is there now. The speaker describes not only the landscape as she sees it but also the elements and forces of this special place that have formed her. The poem is about place as well as the speaker's personal development.
The speaker begins by letting the reader know that the neighborhood is not a place where well-to-do families live. The houses that were once there were small, a fact that the poet conveys by the use of a Spanish word. There also used to be industry nearby, which implies two things. Houses built near industrial areas are usually occupied by people who have little wealth. This particular industry was a cannery, which the speaker describes only with the color gray, like a tin can. It is also possible that the small houses were inhabited by the workers at the cannery. The images that are presented in the first three lines are neither rich nor oppressive in tone. The effect that is created is neutral, similar to the color gray. The one touching element of these lines is the descriptions of the flowers that grew in the yards of these small homes. These flowers, unlike the weeds that have taken their place, required human care. The cultivated plants such as roses and geraniums did not grow in the wild. The presence of the flowers indicates that someone once took the time to feed, to trim, and to water them. This tender visual image might represent the pleasant memories that the speaker had of her childhood.
The tone changes, however, in the next two lines. Here the speaker informs readers that all that she has mentioned—the houses, the cannery, the cultivated flowers—are gone now. In their place is a freeway, a mass of concrete that hides the place that once was her neighborhood. What is left of the landscape is buried under the elevated ramps and roadways.
In the second stanza, the poem's tone changes again. Despite the freeways and the cars that go whizzing by, creating a manmade sound of wind, life still exists. Though the land beneath the freeway has been deserted, plants have managed to grow. The speaker names the plants and suggests that they still remember when houses were there and people used to work in their gardens. The plants that rise out of the earth in search of the sun, the speaker says, are even stronger than before. Though they are not the roses and geraniums of the cultivated garden, they are the survivors; many of them are what people refer to as weeds. Also, there are still trees that continue to bear fruit. There are apricot, cherry, and walnut trees. There are also wild mustard plants, spinach, mint, and purslane (a wild, edible green). Though the fields look abandoned, there are still old women who go there. The women know the worth of this rich source of nutrition, and they collect the food in their bags.
In the third stanza, the speaker uses the personal pronoun "I." Now she is no longer just describing the scene, she is entering the poem and taking action. She climbs the wire fence that runs around the field. As she does so, she reveals that she once lived in this place, and she remembers that there was a time in her life when all she wanted to do was leave it. So it seems ironic to her that she is now working her way back in. There was a time when all she wanted was to be on the freeway that now arches over her head. She wanted to go to someplace else. She liked the straight lines of the highway that would take her from one point to another. She longed for the discipline of the tight lanes in which she would be forced to stay. She was tired of the sun and heat, the smells of the cannery, and the depressingly stale air of her neighborhood (or of her life as a teenager). In contrast now, she wonders why she is enjoying her return.
The speaker answers this question in the fourth and final stanza. She realizes that she is looking for something in what she refers to, in Spanish, as the strange fields of the city. What she is looking for is a missing part of herself. She does not define this missing portion, but she believes it is in that field under the freeway, in that old neighborhood where she once lived. This missing part of her was cut down, maybe just like the houses were knocked down or maybe just as the old cultivated flowers were neglected. That portion of her, the speaker suggests, could be dead and buried. But in the last line of the poem, the speaker confesses that she holds out hope. Maybe that part is not dead. Maybe it is contained inside a seed, a seed that might be planted and renewed.
Throughout Cervantes's poem "Freeway 280" is the theme of renewal. The first incident is presented in the images of the fruit trees and the wild plants that grow in the abandoned plots of land under the freeway. Though the houses have been knocked down to make way for the construction of the highway, the land remains. There are thousands of cars passing overhead, yet under the mass of concrete there exists a natural garden. The more fragile plants, like the roses, as well as the people who once lived on this land, are long gone, but the more hardy plants have risen out of the soil on their own. Rather than becoming a barren piece of land, a plot consisting only of dirt and trash, the earth has renewed itself, sending up healthy plants. These plants are even stronger than before, the speaker states. The plants are not just weeds. They are edible plants that will nourish the people who eat them. But the plants and the people who gather them are not the only form of renewal in this poem. The speaker of the poem is also renewed. She mentions the fact that at one time all she wanted to do was to run away from this piece of land. Now she has a change of mind. She wants to visit it, and she even climbs a fence to get to it. Once all she wanted to do was to be on the highway, heading in some other direction. Now she has come back to find a part of her that has been missing. She, too, wants to be renewed, like a seed that has waited a long time to sprout.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Go to a vacant lot in your town and draw sketches of the weeds you find. Then either compare your sketches to a book about wild plants or take your drawing to your biology teacher to identify them. Are any of them edible? Are any of them similar to the plants mentioned in this poem? Write short descriptions for each plant and share your findings with your class.
- If it is possible, visit a place where you lived when you were a child. Take photographs of the area. Then write a poem about your memories of living there. Show your classmates the pictures and read your poem to them.
- After reading Cervantes's poem, what images come to mind? Using any art medium, create four or more visuals that relate to the poem. Take lines or phrases from the poem to use as titles for the images. Present your work to your class.
- Choose a section of a major freeway in your town. Mark it on a map. Then take the map to your local library and ask the reference librarian to help you discover the history of that piece of land. How long has that freeway been there? What was on the land before the freeway was built? Write a report detailing the history of the land you have researched.
Coming of Age
Cervantes's collection Emplumada, in which the focus poem was published, is often described as a collection of coming-of-age poems. The term coming of age suggests an attainment of maturity. When this term is applied to literature, the poem or story narrates an aspect of a young person's life when he or she reaches a point of understanding in their transition from childhood to adulthood. Often the piece of literature focuses on a turning point. In Cervantes's poem, this turning point is the speaker's recognition that at one time all she wanted to do was to run away from her childhood. She disliked so much of it, even the way the neighborhood smelled. She wanted to be taken to some place that was totally unlike what her childhood represented to her. However, when she returns to the same place, even though most of her childhood neighborhood has been destroyed, she finds the beauty that remains. Even though her childhood is buried under the concrete pilings and wide expanses of highway, she finds nourishment. Now that she is beyond her childhood years, she finds that she is stronger and more capable of embracing her memories. She is able to mount the obstacles that have been placed between herself and her memories. Those memories, she finally understands, contain the unsprouted seeds of her beginnings. If she abandons those memories, as the neighborhood has been abandoned, she will have lost a part of herself. Thus,
the speaker demonstrates that she has matured beyond the pain of those memories and is ready to reclaim them.
Loss and Discovery
One of the overall themes of this poem is that of loss and discovery. On the surface, the houses, the cannery, the people who have lived and worked in this neighborhood are all lost, at least from this particular scene. So, too, are the cultivated flowers. On another level, one might imagine that the relationships among the neighbors are also gone. The noises of children playing in the yards, of people walking to and from work, all the aspects of this deconstructed neighborhood remain only in memory. The speaker suggests that because the neighborhood has been destroyed, so also have some of the memories. The people who once lived there have turned their backs on the place because all that remains is a piece of land hidden under the freeway.
However, the speaker demonstrates that there is also the possibility of discovery. From a distance, all that appears to exist in this place is the freeway. Upon closer inspection, though, beyond the fences and traffic, is the land on which this neighborhood once thrived. After climbing the fence and walking upon the land, the speaker discovers that not only does the land still exist but that there is also life there. By taking the time to inspect this piece of land, the speaker stirs her memories and becomes intrigued with the possibility of discovering something new about herself.
One of the strongest themes in this poem is that of survival. There is the survival of nature, despite the neglect and a non-supportive environment. The irony in this aspect of survival is that the delicate plants, the roses and the geraniums that need constant human care, do not survive in the new, harsh conditions. These plants have been manipulated through human cultivation and have become dependent on artificial means of nourishment. Humans have to feed and protect them. The plants have been cultivated for their beauty and their aromatic scent and not for their strength. The trees, even though they too have been cultivated, are strong enough to survive because they have stronger roots. But the most self-sufficient plants are the wild ones, the ones that most people call weeds. These plants have received no human cultivation. They are strong because they have evolved over the centuries to exist in the harshest conditions. These are the purslane, the mints, and the wild spinach.
The other aspect of survival is that of the speaker. There is irony in her story, too. First, as a younger person, she thought that the only way she could survive was to head out on her own, to leave the environment in which she was living. She wanted to use the highway to run away from home. She wanted nothing to do with her home. Then, some years after her neighborhood was demolished, she returns to what is left. She even fights to overcome the barriers (the fences) that have been placed around her own neighborhood. Now that she is older, she realizes that in order to survive, she has to find pieces of herself that she discarded in this neighborhood. These pieces of herself, she is hoping, may be found in the form of seeds. A seed is a symbol of survival in that it holds the potential of growing into a new plant, or in the speaker's case, nourishing a new or long-forgotten aspect of herself.
An image is a representation of something concrete that the mind has in some way experienced. The image creates a mental picture and may also evoke a sensory response in the reader. In "Freeway 280," for example, Cervantes mentions roses, which might conjure a visual image of a flower as well as the flower's scent. She also mentions the wind, which cannot literally be seen. When a poet mentions an apricot or a walnut, as Cervantes does in this poem, a reader might not only see the fruit but also might imagine what the fruit tastes like.
Some of the most prominent visual images in this poem are small houses, a cannery nearby, flowers, fruit trees, culinary plants, and of course, the highway. Cervantes uses contrasting images and colors—the red of the geraniums and the green of the grasses, plants, and trees against the gray of the cannery and the wire fence—to suggest the incongruous existence of living things with manmade, industrial constructions.
Free verse is a form of poetry that does not use a strict pattern of meter (rhythm) or rhyme. For the past fifty or so years in American poetry, free verse has become the predominant poetic form. In free verse, the poet establishes his or her own rhythm by ending the lines of each verse according to the emphasis he or she wants to create. The first stanza of Cervantes's poem, for instance, begins with images that are pleasant to imagine, for the most part. There are small houses that are decorated with roses that hug the outside walls. There are also geraniums that are almost six feet tall. These images make up the first three lines of the poem. Then, at the beginning of the fourth line, the poet changes direction. In three small words, she makes those pleasant opening images disappear. Everything she has previously mentioned is taken away. They no longer exist, she states. The poet has arranged the words in this stanza so that the three words she uses to tell readers that the houses and flowers no longer exist come as a shock, just as the image of the vacant lots where once she used to live might have shocked her the first time she saw them.
Another benefit of using a free verse form is that the poem can be read in a conversational tone. There are no rhymes or measured beats during a normal conversation. This is true also for the free verse form.
Late-Twentieth-Century Latino and African American Literature
Inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Chicano movement was developed to promote the civil rights of Mexican Americans. It flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The increasing visibility of Mexican Americans in the fabric of American life, as well as the success of the women's movement of the 1960s and beyond, produced changes in the American literary landscape. Prior to the 1960s, the majority of the literature that was being published and taught in classrooms was written by Caucasian men. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, however, people began to recognize a need for literature written by a more diverse group of authors that would better reflect the general population of the United States. Publishing companies responded by accepting more poems and stories written by women and minorities. College courses began to spotlight these previously ignored groups.
During this period, Chicano literature also entered a new phase. Literature by Mexican Americans became more politicized, speaking to Mexican American readers, urging them to stand up and fight for their rights. The poetry of several female (Chicana) poets spoke directly to Mexican American women, giving them a new way of looking at themselves. An interest in Chicana and other multicultural literature in the 1970s, similar to the interest in feminist and African American works, inspired college-level studies. As a result, publishers began to accept poetry and stories from the viewpoint of men and women of various ethnicities. This in turn encouraged Mexican American poets such as Cervantes to submit their poetry to magazines and publishing houses.
Cervantes has stated in an interview with Sonia V. Gonzalez in MELUS that there were several writers who strongly influenced her writing. One of the most significant influences on her work while writing the poems contained in her first collection Emplumada, was the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Cervantes discovered Neruda's poems when she was fifteen. Her brother had brought home a copy of Neruda's "The Heights of Machu Picchu" and given it to her. She claims that it was the first poetry she read that spoke to her cultural experience. Most of the other poets she had read prior to Neruda were British and American poets from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Neruda (1904-1973) was an internationally acclaimed writer and the 1971 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing covered a wide range of topics from very sensual love poems to political treatises. He is often referred to as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. Neruda's "The Heights of Machu Picchu" is part of the poet's tenth book of poems, Canto General, which was published in Mexico in 1950. This collection attempts to present the history of Spanish-speaking Central and South America in poetic form. "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" makes up the second section and contains twelve poems. Neruda was in political exile in Mexico when he wrote these poems
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1970s: Only a few Hispanic authors, such as poet Octavio Paz and novelist Gabriel García Márquez, are published in the United States, but they are gaining in popularity.
- 1970s: Mexican American students stage walk-outs to protest prejudice and promote civil rights reform, such as protections and fair wages for farm workers.
Today: Mexican American students stage protests demanding immigration reform.
- 1970s: Protest campaigns, especially in California, oppose the construction and expansion of freeways through cities because these developments destroy neighborhoods.
Today: Protests against building and expanding freeways through neighborhoods continue. Protesters are backed by environmental groups attempting to curb increasing pollution in cities.
Other prominent Hispanic authors of the 1970s and 1980s include Pat Mora, a prolific writer who has published poetry for adults and children. Mora's Chants (1984) and Borders (1986) both won Southwest Books Awards. Another very successful writer is Denise Chavez, whose popular 1986 novel The Last of the Menu Girls received the Puerto del Sol Fiction Award. The first Mexican American to hold the position of chancellor at the University of California at Riverside, Tomás Rivera was also a prominent poet and author. His most famous book was And the Earth Did Not Part (1971), which was awarded the First Quinto Sol Literary Award. Another first went to Oscar Hijuelos. He was the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, given to him for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, published in 1989.
Cervantes has also mentioned that she was inspired by the works of African American women who became popular during the early 1970s. She includes poet Maya Angelou, whose first work that Cervantes read was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970. Angelou's collection of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie (1971), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at U.S. President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Another poet Cervantes would include in that group is Sonia Sanchez. As a teacher, playwright, and poet, Sanchez helped to develop one of the first black studies courses at San Francisco State University. Her first collection of poems, Homecoming was published in 1969. Her most recent collection, Homegirls and Handgrenades (2007), won the National Book Award. One other black female author who influenced Cervantes was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Her famous works include A Street in Bronzeville (1945), her first published collection of poems, which brought her immediate fame. Following this was Annie Allen (1950) and We Real Cool (1966), among other publications.
California Freeway 280
The 280 Interstate highway in California extends between San Jose and San Francisco and is often mentioned as one of the most scenic highways in the world. The roadway is fifty-seven miles long and begins at U.S. 101 in San Jose and ends near the baseball park of the San Francisco Giants. The freeway was built in the 1950s and was named the Junipero Serra Freeway.
Cervantes's Emplumada, the book which contains "Freeway 280," was the poet's first published collection. Frances Whyatt reviewed the work for the American Book Review, describing the collection as "a highly picaresque, image-packed regional guide, specific to the experiences of a young Chicana/American poet whose work, though rooted in contemporary American poetry, reflects the unique voice of her heritage." Whyatt goes on to describe Cervantes by stating that "the poet is often childlike, funny and entertaining," in offering her poems, which "move rhythmically at a moderate pace." Whyatt adds that with the publication of this prize-winning collection, Cervantes became "a poet to watch."
In another review, written shortly after Emplumada was published, MELUS contributor Lynette Seator states that Cervantes's work is "poetry that defines a Mexican-American identity." The poems, Seator continued, "tell the story of Cervantes' life, her life as it was given to her and as she learned to live it, taking into herself what was good and turning the bad into a comprehension of social context." In the process of writing these poems, Cervantes has "learned precision, economy and control." Cervantes, Seator writes, "is aware of herself as a Mexican-American woman who possesses gifts and who knows how to use them."
Patricia Wallace, also writing in MELUS, states that in Cervantes' "powerful and accomplished first book," the poems "are often acts of assertion against restrictive social and linguistic structures." Wallace praises Cervantes's poetic language for its "energy and power." Wallace adds, "Her poems provide us with desire's transforming energy at the same time that they reveal her understanding of intractable circumstances."
Nine years after the publication of Cervantes's first collection, Ada Savin discussed it in an essay published in An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. In this essay, Savin states that Emplumada remains "an eloquent literary expression of the Chicanos' paradigmatic quest for self-definition." Savin continues, "Thus, it is through her writing in English, interspersed with some reappropriated Spanish—evidence of her painful attachment to two cultures—that she can attempt to convey her people's genuine experience."
Prefacing her 2007 MELUS interview with Cervantes, Sonia V. Gonzalez states that Emplumada remains "a fundamental text in Chicana/Latino studies" and describes Cervantes as "one of the best read and more anthologized Chicana writers."
Hart is a published author and freelance writer. In this essay, she examines the images and symbolism in "Freeway 280."
Cervantes has created many images in her poem "Freeway 280." Reading her poem is almost like watching a slide show or thumbing through the pages of an old photograph album. In using the vivid images, the poet invites readers into her poem through their sense of sight. These images are, however, much more than snapshots. By examining the images and reflecting on the effects they produce, readers gain insights into the deeper meaning of the poem. This is how the images are transformed into symbols.
In the first stanza, Cervantes begins by offering a pleasant image of a potentially quiet and somewhat typical neighborhood—a cluster of small, probably older houses. The houses could be cottages that once belonged to a small town, and then as time went by a larger city grew up around the neighborhood. The first impression this image offers is that of a cozy, picturesque neighborhood. The small houses are graced with flowers, such as climbing roses that hug the outer walls of the homes. Also softening the edges of the houses are huge geraniums, which are tall and most likely covered in brightly colored blossoms. However, the poet does not linger long on this peaceful image. As soon as the speaker has painted this tranquil image in the reader's mind, she changes it in two ways.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Cervantes's third collection of poetry Drive: The First Quartet: New Poems, 1980-2005 (2006) has received enthusiastic reviews. The poems are autobiographical, drawing on the author's early life on the streets as well as her adult activities as a political activist. The poems range from the political to the personal.
- Helena Maria Viramontes depicts life as a Latina youth in East Los Angeles in her novel Their Dogs Came with Them (2007). The novel is set in the 1960s and 1970s, about the same time that Cervantes was a youth. The female protagonist joins a gang of girls in order to find a safe path through the tough neighborhood that she lives in.
- Two books by Sandra Cisneros provide readers with an insider view of growing up Latina in the United States. One is a work of fiction, Woman Hollering Creek: and Other Stories (1991), in which the author offers brief glimpses into the life along the Texas/Mexico border. Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1983), one of the author's earlier works, uses poetry and prose to tell the story of a young Latina girl living in Chicago.
- From Indians to Chicanos: The Dynamics of Mexican-American Culture (1997), by James Diego Vigil, was considered a groundbreaking work at the time of its publication. The author, who is an anthropologist and historian, provides the background and the elements that shape contemporary Chicano life. Written in simple, understandable short accounts, the author describes the specific economic, cultural, and psychological forces that shaped the experiences of Mexican American people.
The first portion of the image's transformation takes place when the speaker mentions a cannery that exists near this neighborhood. This creates a contrast between the brightly flowered homes and this other, industrial part of the town. The cannery is colored in a gray hue, which hints at the negative aspect of this business. Also, whereas the houses surrounded by cultivated flowers suggest family life and pleasant pastimes spent in the garden, the cannery suggests work. Work in a cannery is typically filled with drudgery. Workers often receive poor wages, stand all day in assembly line work stations, and are often bored with the monotony of their jobs. The nearness of the cannery to the neighborhood also indicates that the overall environment around the neighborhood is, more than likely, not very healthy. If the houses are located near an industrial area, the air is probably more polluted than areas farther away. This signifies that the neighborhood that is described in this poem is probably located in a part of town that is undesirable.
Next, the author adds another element to the images of the neighborhood she is describing. The new elements also drastically transform this portion of town from tranquil settings full of family life to something much less inviting. The speaker abruptly informs the reader that the neighborhood she has described no longer exists. It has been wiped out. With this piece of information, the tension in the poem rises. There is no more need to question if the poet meant to create a tranquil neighborhood scene or one that only appears peaceful on the surface. It no longer makes a difference if the cannery is located nearby, polluting the air with its commercial exhaust and dulling the employees's minds with boredom and low pay. The focus now is on the fact that the neighborhood and the cannery are gone. Now the readers's attention turns to the question of what happened to them and what has taken their place.
Whereas the first stanza began with images that suggest a possibly vibrant life, the stanza ends with no life at all. The final impression of the first stanza is not of family life or of a thriving urban neighborhood but rather of a sense of destruction, abandonment, or even worse. The image in the last line of the first stanza completely negates the images in the beginning of the poem. Where there was life in the beginning, there is only a wound at the end. The quiet, flower-strewn neighborhood is not just gone, it is buried, covered over by concrete roads that remind the speaker of a scar, the puffy, dried skin that forms over a puncture or a scrape on a person's body after a battle. At the mention of a scar, readers might also envision that some kind of battle might have taken place. This symbol of a scar further undermines the sense of tranquility that was present in the beginning of the first stanza.
In the second stanza, the same pattern of images exists. In the first stanza, the images changed from tranquility to a kind of barren emptiness. In the second stanza, the images change in reverse order, from the dispiriting to the nourishing. The speaker's tone, when she creates the image of the freeway in the second stanza, is not positive. First, there are the sounds of the traffic whipping by. This is followed by the image of not just vacant or open lots but lots that have been discarded. There once was life or beauty on these lots, the speaker suggests, but that life no longer exists. The effects of these images might conjure up sadness; life has been taken away from the land that remains behind. The scene has changed but not for the better. Where once the land was picturesque, now it is polluted by huge man-made concrete structures that have all but buried the land that once supported a neighborhood.
However, in the remaining lines of the second stanza, the speaker suggests hope. Hope is symbolized by the image of the wild plants that not only continue to grow but have become even stronger than they were before. In contrast, the cultivated roses and geraniums have died off. The people who once pulled the wild plants out by their roots because they were considered weeds in a cultivated garden no longer remain. The field now belongs to the weeds, and they are thriving. The women who come to the abandoned lots are therefore also thriving. They come to pick the so-called weeds because the women know the nutritious qualities of the wild plants. So this stanza develops from the negative image of abandonment and death to the more lively sense of nourishment.
In the third stanza, the images the speaker offers are more like a short video than static snapshots. The speaker is climbing over a fence in the first lines of this stanza. She tells readers that she is struggling to get into a place that she has previously tried to escape. At another time in her life, the freeway represented freedom. The road would, she imagined, lead her to a better place. She was tired of the environment in which she lived. She wanted the opposite of the oppressive heat and the odors of her neighborhood. Since the speaker was so accustomed to wanting to get away from this area, she is surprised to feel excitement as she sneaks back over the fence that is there to bar her access to the land that once held her. She is conquering an obstacle, but in the opposite direction than the one she remembers from her youth. Instead of running away, she now wants back in. In this stanza, the speaker accomplishes this feat. She is back on the land under the freeway.
The fourth and last stanza explains in mixed images why the speaker has fought her way to this point. There is a sense of hope both at the beginning and at the end of the stanza. However, this sense of hope is corrupted. First, the speaker hopes she will find something she has lost here, in this strange city of concrete columns and weeds that was once her home. The something she is looking for is a part of her, the speaker says. Then she provides a negative or dismal image. She fears that this lost part of her has been cut down, possibly destroyed, just as the roses and geraniums were mutilated and the houses were ruined. She also suggests that this part of her that she is looking for might even be dead. But before the poem ends, the speaker returns to her former sense of hope. There is a chance, she suggests, that she will find a seed, something that contains all the knowledge or all the basic elements needed to re-grow that missing part of her. She has hope that she will discover something about herself that has grown stronger and will help nourish her, just like the wild plants that have grown stronger and now nourish the old women who come back to this all-but-forgotten plot of land under the freeway. As the old women claim the purslane, the wild spinach, and the mint and then place them in their bags and carry them home, so too does the speaker want to take the missing part of her home.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Freeway 280," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Wallace discusses Cervantes's struggle to present the real, historical world while incorporating literary elements in the poems of Emplumada.
When Emerson, in the 1840s, imagined an ideal American poet, he confessed his difficulties even with the models of Milton and Homer; the one he found "too literary" and the other "too literal and historical" (Whicher 239). As with other of his pronouncements, Emerson leaves this one suggestively unexplained. I take him to mean that his ideal poet will be equally faithful both to what we call art and to what we call history, and that even in great poets, these fidelities are not easily reconciled. Czeslaw Milosz also drew attention to the poet's divided loyalties in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1981-82. Milosz defined poetry as a "passionate pursuit of the Real" (56), and then acknowledged, indeed insisted, that the poet's motives are necessarily mixed. In the act of writing, Milosz said, "every poet is making a choice between the dictates of poetic language and his fidelity to the real" (71). But, he quickly adds, "those two operations cannot be neatly separated, they are interlocked" (71).
Adapting Emerson's terms, I want to explore the way both the literary and the literal make themselves felt in the work of three contemporary poets: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove. Each of these women is a member of a different American minority, and the work of each exhibits the pressures of particular, historical reality, and of the poet's need to witness what is. All three of these writers experience what Milosz calls the way "events burdening a whole community are perceived by the poet as touching him in a most personal manner" (94-95).
Yet the work of these poets is shaped not only by their cultures but also by a passion for language's possibilities, for the creative and experimental energy of poetry itself. At times this passion can seem to separate them from the very communities of which they are a part; the sensuous appeal of poetry may seem irrelevant to those who live amidst more pressing and immediate concerns. The poet's formal, literary education and her fluency with written language may also separate her from her cultural community. And while beyond the scope of this essay, the important issue of a poet's fluency in English, when her experience is multicultural and bilingual, further complicates this matter.
What, then, would faithfulness both to the power of the literary (with its creative use of language, its love of design, its connectedness to other writing) and to the power of the literal (with its material reality, its resistance to design, its relation to history) mean for poets like Cervantes, Song and Dove? This question must be grappled with in the immediacy of particular poems, where the imaginative transformations of language meet the resistance to transformation that Emerson calls the literal, or history, and that Milosz calls "the real." …
It was never in the planning,
in the life we thought
we'd live together, two fast
women living cheek to cheek,
still tasting the dog's
breath of boys in our testy
We were never the way
they had it planned.
Their wordless tongues we stole
and tasted the power
that comes of that.
We were never what they wanted
but we were bold.
These lines are the opening of "For Virginia Chavez," from Lorna Dee Cervantes's powerful and accomplished first book, Emplumada (1981). In making this poem my starting point, I choose a work explicit about the poet's double loyalty. "For Virginia Chavez" negotiates the connection and the difference between the poet-speaker, whose access to literature and whose power with words separates her, to some degree, from the Chicana world she grew up in, and the girlhood friend to whom the poem is addressed. As she explores her relation to Virginia Chavez, Cervantes also thinks through the relations between poetic language and direct experience, between the activities of poetry and of ordinary life. She begins "For Virginia Chavez" with the pronoun "we," asserting the girls' mutual rebellion against their cultures' expectations for them. The edgy rhythms of the opening lines have an assertive energy that flouts predictable patterns. Rejecting the definitions of others ("we were never" the way someone else had it planned), Cervantes seizes the power of description for herself. But this is the act which also separates her from Virginia Chavez. A space widens between the poet's life, empowered by language, and the friend's life, embedded in a violent reality. "We" divides into "you" and "I."
There's an emblem for this division when, in adolescence, the poet reads aloud to her friend "the poems of Lord Byron, Donne, / the Brownings: all about love, / explaining the words," then recognizes Virginia's more immediate, and different, form of knowledge ("you knew / all that the kicks in your belly / had to teach you"). This gap between the literary and the literal appears to widen in one of the poem's final sections, where Cervantes confronts the brutal consequences of domestic violence in Virginia's adult life:
that last morning
I saw you with blood
in your eyes, blood
on your mouth, the blood
pushing out of you
in purple blossoms.
The image of "purple blossoms" calls attention to itself as literary, the kind of image Cervantes might have found in Donne or the Brownings. It could suggest that the poet's language turns toward art in order to turn away from the event. Doesn't the image distance and mediate the actuality of male violence against women? Don't Cervantes's instincts as a poet, her desire to turn a phrase, here separate her from the life of Virginia Chavez, and from Virginia's direct, spare language as it appears in a single moment of the poem ("He did this./When I woke, the kids/were gone. They told me/I'd never get them back")?
This question requires attention to the rhythm and shape of Cervantes's lines, for it is in these "literary" properties of Cervantes's poem that the pressure of the literal is both felt and resisted. In the lines quoted above, the image of "purple blossoms" takes its place in a pattern of repeated stress, where stress is a poetic, psychic and physical event. The repetition of the strong, monosyllabic "blood" (each time taking the accent at the end of the line) is a part of this stress. The word keeps resurfacing, as if to block out an intact image of the friend's face; it pushes itself between "eyes" and "mouth" as part of a coercive force the poet both witnesses and experiences. When "'blood" becomes "purple blossoms," something alters. The image breaks a pattern (the trochaic unaccented second syllables alter the rhythm that dominates the previous lines) and answers the threat of fragmentation by turning the interruptive and obliterating "'blood" into discrete and intact "purple blossoms." The need (and capacity) to break coercive patterns, and to compose anew in a way which restores particularity and wholeness, are central both to the subject and the activity of this poem; this need joins the act of the poet to the life of her friend.
For if many of the poems in Emplumada (among them "Cannery Town in August," to which I will return) demonstrate that the lives of men and women cannot be separated from conditions of race, sex and class, the energy and power of Cervantes's language also challenge the claim that these conditions are wholly definitive. They are part of what is "given," part of the order of things, but not the whole story. "Life asserts itself in spite of the most imposing obstacles set against it from without," Cordelia Candelana has written of Cervantes's "Freeway 280" (159). Cervantes's poems are often acts of assertion against restrictive social and linguistic structures (a less precise and distinctive use of language weakens this challenge in her second book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger, 1991). In this opening poem of Emplumada, the energy of Cervantes's language seeks to free, if only momentarily, the existence of Virginia Chavez, and the friendship between the two women, from either social or literary fixity.
But the subject of "For Virginia Chavez" is not strictly a creature of figuration; she is a co-presence with the poet, and her substantiality is grounded in a world outside the poet's power. Her life cannot simply be transformed by imagination into the freedom Cervantes desires for her. In the conclusion there's a tension between the poet's vision of Virginia (as a double for the poet herself) and the conditions which resist that vision. We feel this tension in the rhythms of the lines, which recall and revise the poem's beginning, its rebellious energy. Here the rhythm and syntax assert against a weight present in the lines, a weight most easily located in the way the verb "ignorin" cannot overcome what follows it; the poet thus admits into the poem what she wants to forget. In her image of the two women walking, their "arms holding / each other's waists," Cervantes reaches for unity, for the power of imagination to close the gap between the poet and the friend, between language and experience. But the conclusion of the poem insists on the difficulty of defining these mobile relations in any way which does not encompass both difference and sameness:
With our arms holding
each others waists, we walked
the waking streets
back to your empty flat,
ignoring the horns and catcalls
behind us, ignoring what
the years had brought between us:
my diploma and the bare bulb
that always lit your bookless room.
We might also read these lines as a version of the divided yet interdependent relation between the literary and the literal. In The Witness of Poetry, Milosz says, "Mankind has always been divided by one rule into two species: those who know and do not speak; those who speak and do not know" (66). When a poet is a woman, and when her identity is constituted, in part, by minority experience, she transgresses this division, as all good poets must, but in an especially conscious way. She speaks and writes as one who knows (who knows in part how much goes unspoken), and so her poems are entangled in the literary (which gives her the power to speak) and in the literal (which is the source of what she knows). Cervantes is one such poet. "For Virginia Chavez" embodies both the gap between the diploma and the bookless room and the deep connections between the lives of these two women.
In many of the poems in Emplumada, Cervantes's desire to alter circumstance through imaginative power meets with what resists that desire. Her poems provide us with desire's transforming energy at the same time that they reveal her understanding of intractable circumstance. Such an understanding is present in "For Virginia Chavez" and is also powerfully evident in "Cannery Town in August." …
Like many other of Cervantes's poems, this one takes as its subject lives largely disregarded by literary traditions and by the culture at large. Those lives belong to women who work at a California cannery, and Cervantes here seeks to reclaim those lives from the shadows of that disregard. Yet the poem opens in a highly literary way, with one of the oldest of literature's conventions, personification, followed by an image "the night bird"—resonant with literary associations. Personification, Barbara Johnson writes in an essay on Wordsworth, provides us with "figures of half-aliveness," with "conventionalized access to the boundary between life and death" (97). But the concern in "Cannery Town in August" is with a lived condition of "half-aliveness," one which eludes conventional literary figures. Thus the sound of the "night bird," which calls up a tradition of poetic singers, is here not song but a form of "raving," incoherently connected to the conditions in this poem. Cervantes focuses on "bodyless / uniforms and spinach specked shoes," those whom circumstance has robbed of animation and turned to ghosts. She sees that these ghosts are, in fact, "Women / who smell of whiskey and tomatoes / peach-fuzz reddening their lips and eyes," resolutely unghostlike details. Cervantes does not personify the women; they are too separated from the poet's imaginative power to become wholly literary creations. For this reason the poem can't hold the women in focus, as it can (and does) sharply evoke the sights and sounds of the cannery. It is the cannery which Cervantes personifies in her opening, as another form of coercive force against which she directs her language. The power and noise of the cannery have drowned out these women's voices and rendered them all but invisible:
I imagine them not speaking, dumbed
by the can's clamor and drop
to the trucks that wait, grunting
in their headlights below.
They spotlight those who walk
like a dream, with no one
waiting in the shadows
to palm them back to the living.
If it is the poet's task to try to "spotlight," like the truck's headlights, "those who walk / like a dream," what she spotlights is the women's "half-aliveness." That they are like ghosts, but are not ghosts, that the culture places them on its borders (between Chicana and Anglo, male and female, on the "swing shift" between day and night) is a literary and literal description. Cervantes wants to bring these women back to life, but knows that poetry cannot deliver them from deadening experience. To "palm them back to the living" would be a trick of language, a literary sleight-of-hand Cervantes's fidelity to the real won't let her perform ….
Source: Patricia Wallace, "Divided Loyalites: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song and Rita Dove," in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 1993, p. 3.
In the following review, Whyatt contends that while some of the poems of Emplumada are overwritten, the volume is an "admirable first book."
Freeways, cactus, factory towns, rattlesnakes, heat, the dusty land of big sky: California and the American Southwest; this is Lorna Dee Cervantes' personal "barrio," her community of nature, poverty, animistic gods, eccentric amigos, racism and first love. As such, Emplumada (meaning "feathered" or "pen") is a highly picaresque, image-packed regional guide, specific to the experiences of a young Chicana/American poet whose work, though rooted in contemporary American poetry, reflects the unique voice of her heritage.
Last year's winner of the Pitt Series, Cervantes' first book establishes her as a poet to watch; when she's at her best the poems give off an infectious energy remarkably free from artifice and intellectuality, and yet deceptively intelligent. She writes autobiographically—almost always in the first person—viewing her own life as a journalist might, as a base from which to record nature and events in a particular landscape. In that sense, the poems are extroverted, unlike confessional poetry wherein external images are internalized as a metaphor for the poet's feelings. What the reader knows about the internal workings of Cervantes' mind takes a back seat to the images invested in the world surrounding her. Moreover, Emplumada is a remarkably easy book to read. The poems, with few exceptions, move rhythmically at a moderate pace and organize smoothly into three sections, clearly divisible by theme. Also it is difficult not to be "charmed" by the voice of the poet. Cervantes is often childlike, funny and entertaining—no less so within her most serious poems. There is evidence of rage, but never without its sustaining companion, black humor.
In the first section, Cervantes establishes her roots in childhood memory, persons and objects sparking her imagination, from tender observations in "Oak Hill Cemetery" to murderous assault in a parking lot. From the beginning, she displays a superb ability to catapult the reader into the subject matter of the poem; her starting lines are consistently strong. For instance, in "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway," a poem on her grandmother (and, less specifically, on the strong women of her family), Cervantes opens with: "Across the street—the freeway, / blind worm, wrapping the valley up / from Los Altos to Sal Si Puedes. / … Every day at dusk / as Grandma watered geraniums / the shadow of the freeway lengthened." The powerful "blind worm" metaphor at the beginning is typical of Cervantes' ability and highly effective. There is also a softer, musical side to a few of these first poems, and a forthrightness such as is found in "Caribou Girl." "I loved Caribou Girl, / for the woman she promised / to become, for the crows / who spoke and sent her poems …" There is such gentleness here, a seductive innocence, full of the delicate allusions of "lips like shadows" and "curling smoke of cold hair." It is the ultimate paradox of the poem that Cervantes is speaking about a girl who has been branded as an outcast.
Occasionally, Cervantes overwrites, particularly in her longer work. "Uncle First Rabbit," the first poem in the book, is a good example. The images fade, the energy flags toward the middle, the poem ultimately suffers from lack of oxygen for the story she wishes to tell. There is a tendency to extend certain poems throughout the book; poems that would have done better to remain within the confines of a single page are drawn out to three. But they are the exception, these forced, ambitious efforts. Generally the shorter poems appear naturally illuminated, effortless. And what is most impressive in this first section is Cervantes' overall restraint, the slightly distanced eye which allows her to render intimate detail without losing the image to confession.
The second section moves from the specific regions of childhood to more generalized poems, descriptive and sometimes abstract evocations of nature. But there is a dichotomy here, the introduction of several political poems which clearly don't belong alongside the highly imagistic "Starfish" and "Spiders." Juxtapose "Lean stuff sways on the boughs / of pitch pine: silver, almost tinsel. / all light gone blue and sprouting / orange oils in a last bouquet" (From Cervantes' mysterious "Four Portraits of Fire") with the lines "I believe in revolution / because everywhere the crosses are burning," from "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races." Even without the example of the rhetoric, the title alone is absurd given the overriding context of Cervantes' nature based descriptions. To make such a leap between rhetoric and metaphor in a twenty page section does nothing but lessen the impact of her polemic as well as neutralize the sense of mystery in her lyrical imagistic poems. As the political poems are in themselves skilled, it might appear that Cervantes has misplaced a few seeds from the beginnings of [the] second book.
Love poems dominate the last section; a few are breathtaking. "Before You Go" is a spider's split hair away from perfection:
Remember this twist:
remember how the charcoal
found its way out of your hand,
how the lives feel under
your power. You were a world
gone inside out. When I touched you
there was coal on my pillow all night.
The work here is the most consistent in the book and Cervantes at her best—passionate and yet controlled, the emotions lighting precise images, the poems moving toward resolution (as with the title poem "Emplumada": "When summer ended / the leaves of snapdragons withered / taking their shrill-colored, mouths with them"), then culminating in the book's last lines, "They find peace in the way they contain the wind / and are gone." There is a maturity surfacing in these final poems, a growth and logical progression from the childlike enthusiasm found earlier in the book to a more reflective calm of knowledge gained. As always, Cervantes' vision lies within the framework of nature, her uncanny ability to render an axiom on a snapdragon's withering leaf.
Stylistically, Emplumada bears the earmarkings of "where-we-have-been," long, vertical freeform stanzas, an occasional too-obvious display of craft, breaking no new ground and appearing to bear out influences of poets such as Levertov in the Sixties and a host of upcoming poets (Atwood, etc.) writing in the Seventies. In all probability, as Cervantes' work grows she'll take more of the risks needed to sustain such heady imagery, hopefully with a more inventive format. First books of recent vintage have an unfortunate predictability of playing it on the safe side, sticking close to established poets' styles gleaned through anthologies and workshops. Perhaps the current marketplace conspires to defeat even the best poets' originality. Occasionally uneven … a few poems overwritten … Emplumada is still an admirable first book.
Source: Frances Whyatt, Review of Emplumada, in American Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 5, July-August 1982, pp. 11-12.
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"Freeway 280." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 11, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/freeway-280
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