On U.S. Highway 62


                          On US Highway 62/180, you can find Carlsbad Caverns
                          mausoleum of limestone and calcite columns once a coastline
            for a sea
story about stalactites                                                     is it a cave or my recollection of childhood
minerals slowly formed by dripping memories            an imagined walk-through jaws
chandeliers suspended off mouths of soluble materials         thousands of years old
post Permian water evaporated and now we have rooms      teeth cast in electric light
filled with explorers on expeditions to watch                        30 miles deep
Mexican free-tailed bats corkscrew across the sky                 nations love to possess
remaining population come back before dawn                      excavate and mine
a promise of consistency                                                          119 known caves

                       preserve their survival without     classifications
                       the land waits                                              for our return


While some of us survive(ed)(ing) a global pandemic, more than four million people did not. When I think of these losses, a particular quote from artist Doris Salcedo haunts me: “If somebody that is close to you or if somebody that you love has been killed then your life is distorted. It hasn’t ended...and you have to go on with the distortion.” And you have to go on with the distortion. I realize many of us are existing in the absence of our loved ones, and the distortion carved into our life at the hands of the state. So I wonder: why am I a poet at this moment? What purpose does poetry serve? It is a constant conflict for me, particularly as I grew up in the U.S. empire’s center. I would never say a poem could materially change our conditions or destroy imperialism but experiencing poetry during these moments of distortion, poets, dead or alive, make me feel less isolated, less abysmal. I find myself in what Harmony Holiday calls “the purgatory between recovery and relapse,” searching for poets whose words move us to act, to ideas that live within poems. For me, poetry is an (in)direct action, an intersection of commitment and practice. Poetry can hold a space of thought and care amid a society that offers no safety or care while presenting a way to disrupt systems of harm, while it also allows me to cultivate community with the lands where I was raised.

In “Metaphors of Underdevelopment: A Proem for Hernan Cortez,” Kamau Braithwaite asks: “what caused the death of the Amerindians, the holocaust of slavery, the birth of tom and Caliban?” We know the answer to Braithwaite’s inquiry. At least some of us do. However, to alienate us from each other and erase the violence that created the United States of America, the language of “discovery” and “exploration” leaks insidiously into colonial folklore to spin a myth of the U.S., by settlers who claim land as property and treat water as a resource rather than building relations. My poem about Carlsbad Caverns thinks about such intentional erasure. Approximately 250 million years old, the caverns are a popular destination (and marketed as a “natural wonder” on billboards outside New Mexico). Many of the limestone rooms have been modified for tourists, while below the caverns sits an extremely profitable resource: oil. It is no surprise that their “discovery” is attributed to a white man, or that he was allowed to name the caverns he “found,” even though Indigenous people used the caverns hundreds of years before he stumbled into them. As a child, I visited Carlsbad Caverns with my family, on our long drives through New Mexico back to Texas. As a poet, I invite memory to challenge those narratives, name the stolen land that I stand on, and generate a new connection.

By revisiting lands from my childhood, I learn how language has been changed by our contemporary plague. It reminds me of an observation from my friend, the poet Jesús I. Valles: “The purpose of any country is to tear you from your people, to keep you from your kin. Not just blood, no, but your people who are your people because of the lack those countries created. So they give us flags, and flowers, and animals and tell us this is belonging.” Only a poet like Jesús could critically and beautifully express how belonging and nations are a kind of violence, to the people and to the land. Perhaps it is not the intention of every poem in the U.S. to destroy the state or challenge powers of government. Still, there are poets across the world who have been exiled, executed, tortured, persecuted, banned for their poetry as much as their politics. And of course, there are also poets who win prizes. But can a poet threaten structures of violence? “When Dreaming of a Future Means Letting Go” by Alán Pelaez Lopez opens with: “In the future/there are no nations/no countries no conquered land/there is only us.” The importance of those lines exists in the potential of more, of another life, for us. Poets can at the very least, invent the language we need when we are vulnerable or lonely or afraid. Perhaps a poet simply exists as a witness, a documentarian, or as a delight; poems can provide us not an apocalypse but a possibility, a landing. And while to reach beyond any distortions, to be able to leave purgatory, might require both individual and collective undoing, poetry can be a respite for joy, and the place for an imagined future where land and people are liberated, where empire has died.

mónica teresa ortiz (they, them) was born and raised in the Texas Panhandle, and is currently a Freedomways Journalist-in-Residence.