The question of joy has been on my mind. When my father first decided to come across the border, he was caught and brought back to Mexico. He was running away from his home, chasing the idea that things back home were too boring. Life in America would be more thrilling. Too anxious and arrogant, he wasn’t as careful as he should’ve been. His desire was thwarted and he went back home to his dull village.
Yet, under the cover of a car’s trunk, his second crossing would require more care—a coyote would bring him far across the border and, later in San Antonio, ask him to come to the front seat because he looked Chicano.
Each attempt was a trial in the pursuit of joy. I imagine my father’s face, driving in the front passenger seat, the windows down, his windblown hair, and Dallas’s skyline ahead of him.
When Lorca writes that duende doesn’t come unless death is knocking at our door, I wonder how recklessly he meant it. Was it like the wind in my father’s hair, knowing he had been successful this time. How dark the void must be to haunt us. Yet, I don’t believe that duende, the edge, must be so dire as a blade. When we fail and fail to ride bicycles, we are overjoyed at the idea of no more scraped knees. Isn’t this edge, also a beginning?
Sometimes a sharp contrast is a matter of choosing joy over darkness. The Romantics may have understood this. When on the brink of civilization advancement, people uncovered the ruins of lost cities. New ones built up overnight and disappeared country life in the rapid development of our Industrial age. It’s easy to see this edge when I think of walking in New York’s Central Park: at one corner, what seems like a forest of green; at another, a concrete jungle.
When I think of this divide, I don’t know whether I should mourn or celebrate. Nature versus the bustling desires of people. Each one has a loss to mourn. I choose to celebrate the complexity. The isolated paradise of quietude in the middle of cities. The ambling stranger I find looking at memorial plaques, the sense of history between us.
We do not always realize what we are about to lose until it is gone. The Elegy and the Ode exemplify these ideas. We mourn people and things we’ve lost by conjuring them through elegy. In the Ode we celebrate the present, continuous living thing.
The difference between the two is slight and sharp in tone, but both equally seek to find joy in what they praise. I’m thinking specifically of a poem by one of the most joyful poets I know. Ross Gay illuminates Eric Garner in his poem “A Small Needful Fact.” We as readers of the contemporary moment receive both the wounded and joyful memory of Garner. Mentioned only by name, we praise and enthuse over the ghost of his hands tilling dirt and bringing life to the world. Spoken of in the past tense, we are meant to think of one small fragment of his life. The beautiful parts highlighted and haunting the edge of mourning.
Speaking of fragments, I think of “This Living Hand” by John Keats. Knowing he was in his last few months, writing fragments, uncertain of when his time on earth would expire, it’s haunting to read the lines “I hold it towards you” knowing his own hands would no longer be with us. His fragment, perhaps unintentional or not, reads as something bursting to be alive again. And it is, each time it is read, come to life as if reaching for the joy of the reader.
The Romantics seemed to prize this urgency. Lines written in X location or by trees and water, read as almost odes, treasuring the immediacy of the present world. There was an understanding that the world was frail and we must honor and praise it before it leaves us.
Gay’s poem of mourning then is an act of love. In this way, the poem is taking a prickly issue and makes the choice turn the reader’s attention to the personal. With such light at the heart of the poem, it almost acts as an ode, since the other implication from the societal issue is that his death occurred because he was treated as less than human.
There is something kinetic about the desire from our dear poet to make elegy/ode of Eric Garner. The phrase “A Small Needful Fact” seems small, but including “needful” adds the tension of necessity.
We write out of necessity to reify our worldview and react against it. Poets have always been so good at naming things. Many phrases and words were first coined by writers in their time becoming something else. There was such a desire to name something that something new had to be coined to say it.
In Spanish, the language of Garcia Lorca, there is so much passion that Spanish has two words for love already commonly used. “Te quiero” is the more casual one reserved for friends and acquaintances. “Te amo” is more ardent and affectionate and more appropriately used for romantic partners.
Imagine having so much desire to name an experience, it feels urgent and necessary to write it.
My father’s desire to leave his dull village and cross the border each time then is an act of love, joy, in spite of circumstance. Each job he toiled to provide for us was done to provide joy to his children. It is the joy of many parents.
Yes, the decision can be difficult and I’m in no way attempting to suggest that anyone who chooses anything other than joy is not making a valid choice that works for them. I am only seeking to understand what it takes for others, whom I admire, and watch them persist in their joy.
Sometimes it takes joy to find our moment to mourn. I remember finding things I believed I lost and finding myself in such joy and mourning, it was like an edge. The cusp of something I didn’t understand. Perhaps, this is what Elizabeth Bishop knew after drafting and drafting “One Art.” It takes patience to find the perfect blade. Perhaps, one day I will write eventually into this kind joy.
Sebastian Hasani Paramo is the son of Mexican immigrants. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Salt Hill, Pleiades, North American Review, & elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of THE BOILER. He has received scholarships and awards from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Vermont Studio Center. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Denton, Texas as a PhD candidate at the University of North Texas, where he is the Managing Editor for American Literary Review.