Thursday, April 17, 2014

Philip Garrison

Testimonio #1

How come I'm in the Mayo Clinic, and not at AWP? Well, one

night 18 wires, glued to my scalp and chin, cheekbones and

shins and ribs, record a few zillion twitch-and-dream-impulses.

All on account of the tale one oximeter told. Next day, over the

phone, the tone of a busybody, who feels obliged to call, is

sandpaper, cat's tongue. But I do get a $6000 gov't. apparatus to

increase my oxygen intake at night, including a Fearless-Fly

mask. And while studying the Manual I'm reminded all over

again that, in Spanish, sueño, that noble word, means both sleep

and dream, while our peasant English makes you say one or the

other, you dream or you sleep. Raising my oxygen intake will

improve how well I sleep, everybody agrees, while remaining

cheerfully noncommittal as to what I'll be able to dream about,

or of, which probably owes to their enviable tact, these self-effacing,

wry men who attend the working class elderly. Gotta love that CPAP

machine, though. My hillbilly hookah. All this I send from my I-Pad.

Next day, leaving the clinic - it was founded thru the

stubbornness of an immigrant Spanish nun, as well as that of the

two doctor sons of a British immigrant - my wife says whatta

relief, because wherever else you look in this damn country, the

only product is another sales pitch. My only response is to point

out a UPS delivery guy, one of those beautiful round unshaven

Minnesota faces, an ol' boy no doubt capable of appearing

ingenuous, endlessly, as well as sometimes even of being

ingenuous. Ok, I say. You know how come we see so few

mexicanos hereabouts? She doesn't. 'Cause somebody taught

the 'weejuns how to work! A family joke, doncha know, with

her born a Hemmingson, and right up the road in Roseau.

Though who am I to talk about immigration. If I speak only the

two languages I grew up around, that is because mine was an

extended childhood. But no matter. We're leaving in good

health. May God love the poor fucks who don't. In the elevator,

when she notes the low moan it gives off, I recall - from 36

years ago! - the wail that express elevator made in whichever

one of those two World Trade Center towers it was that I used to

sell commodities futures in.


Testimonio #2

Ok, so what if they served - in the Grand Grille, in Rochester,

Minnesota - Chipotle Spiked Mac and Cheese? Context is

everything. I grew up on either side of that eight-million-dollar-

a-mile Anonymity Project they've got running from Brownsville

to the Pacific. Context, and more context. I gotta hunch that a

certain NewJersey doctor, because he had to speak French to his

Puerto Rican mother - and Spanish to his English-immigrant dad

- was able when grown to write, as they say, with the tongues of

men and angels, but I could be wrong.

After grad school, I went to El Paso and met the woman who

wonders, in “The Desert Music,” why any man would want to be a

poet. He made me sound kinda dumb, said Eleanor, and he did.

The poem is Williams at his self-conscious worst, the tinny,

contrived part of him, the one that fretted about the place of

poetry in society. I am that he whose brains are scattered

endlessly, he writes, or so I remember. I haven't read the poem

in years. “Tract,” on the other hand, I know by heart.

Testimonio is a habit that Spanish-speaking people have of

speaking out, of getting something off the chest, of renouncing,

denouncing, or going on record to say. It is an ad hoc ceremony.

It is speaking what you think is truth to what you think is power,

and calls for unbearable sincerity. You might as well announce

that, whatever happens in the dark, when the sun comes up, and

reveals some stranger on a stretcher, you will quit talking, and

pick up your end.


Testimonio #3

          ... where livelihood may be obtained

          only under great hardship.

                -- Online Etymology Dictionary

The Iron Age arrived at these shores one morning when an

elderly woman, out walking, mourning her dead brother, found,

beached on the sand, a whale carcass. But wait, no, no it was a

canoe, huge, except that two trees were growing from it.

Walking upright, two furry-faced creatures came ashore and

built a fire, over which they put some kind of container, into

which they put yellow pebbles that soon exploded, one by one,

into tiny fluffy white spheres, which they proceeded to eat.

They gestured to the crowd, gathering closer, they wanted water

to drink! Then, before anyone got a good look, the huge canoe

burst into flames. In the words of an elderly man -- to Franz

Boaz, in 1899 -- it burned like fat.

By now, we know the two surviving sailors, subjects of the

Spanish king, were on their way to, or coming back from,

Manila, where New Spain's silver paid for China's silk. They

were part of the free-market whirlpool that blended Western

Europe and the Americas, except that now, alas, they were

shipwrecked, a curiosity for kids to pinch. Enslaved. To a

lessee-faire thee well. While teenage girls flirt, the village chief

studies their hands, and declares that they are human. But when

it becomes clear that these two guys know the secret of shaping

iron, their value skyrockets. Bottom line is, these two

mexicanos - for what else could they be? - knife blade by knife

blade, one axe head after another, go around introducing iron to

a culture already ten thousand years old. One guy disappeared

without a trace. All that remained of the other was the name that

his grandson mentioned to Lewis & Clark, one afternoon, as

they limped across the Columbia Plateau.

It was late summer. We know their party paused, and looked

down into the Kittitas Valley, where several thousand local folk

had gathered to race horses and gamble, to barter and dance and,

in general, to give thanks for another year on this difficult earth.

I like to think it was right then - with sagebrush and basalt and

blue sky in every direction - that a new word entered the English

language: hardscrabble.


Testimonio #4

Good evening. Suppose you were diagnosed, like me, at age

two weeks, with cradle-cap and immortal longings - such an

elaborate buildup! - but somehow life passed you by. What do

you say to the readership you address late in life, the men and

women to whom your most heroic implications are, by now,

tame, everyday stuff...

Another robust authorial intrusion! Permit me. I present, to

you, don Fulano de Talvez - my personal cover story, the cranky

anciano that I improvise in order to manage my days and nights

here, to imagine myself in a narrative flow in part, at least, of

my own making. Those around me are convinced I'm writing a

book. But so what, they say, although he for sure confuses

names, sometimes even on purpose, in the interest of what is

interesting. Am I on thin ice, or walking on water? Ask

anybody: this guy pretty much reveals, intact, a set of feelings

peculiar to the outcast trailer-park version of life we inhabit.

Don’t expect detachment.

And who is interesting, at the moment? Why, neighbor Ella,

that's who. E-L-L-A. A weird metaphor of a person, she thinks

that of herself, a hybrid no matter how you pronounce it, get it?,

a person in one language, a pronoun in the other. She never says

any of that out loud. Everybody used to agree Ella was so hot

you could of baked a potato in her hip pocket. Not like she

cared. She was just another kid in tight jeans working after

school in a produce section, but the spray on the broccoli made

her glow. Quite a few moros fell in love, but did she know?

Even the elderly on park benches quit talking when she went by,

la gente mayor uncles grandpas padrinos, all of them shook their

head in a way she didn’t really understand till years later. And

her from a family of tinfoil-sniffers! With a skinny pitbull

chained to a clothesline, and apparently unlimited willpower,

she made it sound as if she blinked and got a GED, and next

thing she knew was reading Othello, in a community college

class, trying to pin the instructor down. How did he want her to write this essay?

When she was just a kid, a panel of peers at the laundromat

voted her Most Likely to Be Trespassed Against, aka most likely

to wake one morning age forty with La Vida Loca tattooed on

her ass. Otherwise, as to her name, por que me pusiste asi?, she

demanded? Pos’, de broma, mother always said - it was a joke.

Because people said it different in Spanish and in English. That

was the whole thing. It made her feel like two different people.

Her mother just laughed. Maybe they named her after a hillbilly aunt.

She is convinced señoras like her leap from childhood to middle

age with no intervening bloom of good looks, no ingénue or

femme fatale camera angles, straight from youthful promise to

resignation. That is how come she grew up adoring a crippled

aunt who once removed her artificial leg and rendered some

brute of a bartender unconscious. Somebody to notice it when

you die, that same aunt said, under her breath, is the best a

person can hope for. A large, gloomy woman, famous for what

she said about the war in '68, sometimes I think well, and other

times I just don’t know. Hers was the bearing of a person

certain that her every deed - she meant the stuff in between

kinky and kind - would last a long time in family memory, and

did it ever. She was a one-legged lesson in perseverance. To this

day little girls in that family wear a sense of humor that works

like wings. At least one baseball-cap-on-backward boyfriend is

impressed. So how’s that for genetics?

But do you really care what secret trickles out a few generations

later? After all, we live so briefly, a secret way of talking

around corners, along with a hunch it is never too late, is all that

allows any part of us to regain its footing, breathe, and step into

another generation, like it was a baptism current, left with so

much unseen, overlooked, named wrong. Plus the occasional

flashpoint when The Lord - your overactive fantasy life

notwithstanding - clearly plays favorites, when somebody you

are talking to isn’t that person at all, when someone for a

nanosecond radiates importance - body outlined, words

unrecognizable - until you can’t shake off the thought.

That's all, and thank you for coming. Soft now, to your places.

Kindly imagine, on your way out, an elderly gent enjoying a lap

dance in the stairwell.


Testimonio #5

Our great unacknowledged treatise about the right to bear arms

is a book named Don Quixote. The contrast between Quixote

and Sancho, of course, is considered the main point of the book,

idealism vs. pragmatism, lofty diction vs. crafty cliche. Book

learning meets real life, and neither is ever quite the same.

Enchanters exist - several orders of magnitude more chicken shit

than ruffians, highwaymen - only to gobble up the naive. The

most conspicuous victim of enchanters is that dip-shit college

boy, Sanson Carrasco, afflicted with higher-ed vanity, a certainty

that kills what it loves. The bumptious Sanson sets off to cure

the old guy of his manic fixation on being a knight.

And don't kid yourself. Sanson is literate enough to know that

Quixote will die rather than renounce his mission to glorify a

woman he's never met. Sanson has to beat him at his own game,

and plays accordingly. He will oblige the old man, by the code

of combat valor, to retire, if he loses, from all combat for a year

- a period long enough to bring him to his senses. And so,

disguised as the knight of the Wood, Sanson lays in wait one

night, challenges the old man and, in a surprising turn, loses to

him. When his horse balks, Sanson forgets to raise his lance to

call time out, whereupon Quixote unhorses him, and the fall

knocks him out. Quixote, on lifting the visor of the knight he

has vanquished, is amazed to find the enchanters have made this

assailant resemble his neighbor Sanson!

Sanson's response to his own defeat, in the weeks that follow,

says worlds about him. He acquires an expensive suit of armor,

plus a powerful horse, and dedicates himself to revenge. His

slipshod, trial-and-error approach to learning weaponry contrasts

with Quixote's long and torturous years of study - of reading,

and re-reading case histories of the application of arms. For

Quixote, books of chivalry are manuals that indicate limits on

the use of force. Precisely because it involves use of deadly

force, the profession of arms resembles no other line of work.

Those who devote years to its study - one that can resemble

religious devotion in the severity of its demands - know that,

unlike the tools of a carpenter, weaponry is unforgiving. But

they know something else as well. They know that weaponry

subtly changes the feelings of those who bear arms. Close

scrutiny of the chivalric code makes a person aware of the

weapon's psychic effect on its bearer. But Sanson hadn't the

patience to learn. He went off, as we like to say, half-cocked.

He shows up at at the end of the novel in tears, grieving at his

own success.

Remember when twenty kids, ages six and seven, died at the

hands of a twenty-year-old nerd who borrowed his mother's



Testimonio #6

Games of chance. Right off the freeway

in a casino, people lining up

to watch. When Victor would get hot with dice,

after a week bucking hay, or win 500

at Hold ‘Em, everyone would sidle up.

No wonder ancient Greeks used to gather

around any guy or gal inhabited

by an immortal. Anyone that hot,

driving a chariot, drawing a royal

flush, I mean anyone, there’s a god in them.

People stood three deep to get a look.

No one could say what was different.

Victor would get a few hundred ahead

and be in a zone - observing himself

from outside, he put it - then announce,

luck hell, he was from Michoacan,

a natural gambler, uidi, uidi,

till whatever sponsorship it was

would leave him at 5 a.m on foot

without a dime on a road shoulder between

the Saddle Mountains and the Columbia River.


Testimonio #7

On the tightrope empathies of daily life.

My neighbor Lupe is desperate for $300 to pay the lawyer who

arranged her husband's release on immigration charges. She sets

out to return, to Fred Meyers, two weeks of purchases. She

wants a refund to her credit card. She gets the refund, but they

credit her for only $150. She returns twice to plead her case.

On the third time, she asks me along. We enter, and she freezes

at the sight of the Assistant Manager. That fellow has refused

her twice already! He's a tall, soft-looking kid, mid-twenties,

behind a tentative goatee.

He remembers her, and she and I wait through a complicated

explanation of register printouts and billing cycles. The young

guy is courteous, impassive. He comes up with one explanation

for the discrepancy, and then, when I ask a couple of questions,

presents what sounds like an entirely different explanation.

Followed by a couple more questions, at which point he shrugs,

and says he knows what must've happened. He prints another

slip, one giving her credit for $110 of the $150 she wanted, as

well as a $20 gift certificate. And his apologies. He really

doesn't know what to think, he says, he studied two years of

Spanish in high school. He looks away. To me, it feels like he's

embarrassed, but Lupe is certain, on our way out the door, that

no, the guy is dishonest. But why would he try to steal your

money? He doesn't even get to keep the money. That is exactly

my point, says Lupe.

Me, I see in that young fellow a learned behavior, a trained

demeanor - an attitude the company no doubt taught him to call

professional - but, well, it comes off, to Lupe, as disdain. Muy

seco, is what she said. Stiff, ugly, graceless. The problem,

overall, is that his institutionalized, pre-fab responses have been

cut to a design that ignores the working-class mexicano

blueprint that she will bring to them. It is hard to pin down the

difference, except to say that whoever designed the official tone

this guy has been trained to adopt didn't take into account one

problem. That tone will sound like the same disdain that people

who speak little English are used to having trained on them.

Will Lupe ever be able to hear the Asst. Manager's tone as

merely neutral, respectful even, professional? Of course she

will - when she learns more English. Part of speaking English is

acquiring an ear for that tone.

An alternate scenario, by the way, has the Asst. Mgr. hanging

around mexicanos long enough that he learns patience, and the

importance of eye contact.

And the alternate alternate scenario? Well, that one has me

simply unable to see the genuine ill will the fellow trains on her.

It has me seeing a guy turned inside out, embarrassed, vaguely

ashamed, inadequate - rather than a malignant nerd. It also has

me realizing, as a nasty afterthought, that Lupe came out $20



Testimonio #8

Maestra Guadalupe Villareal, interviewed at home in

Coatlinchán, Mexico - and quoted in Proceso, April 5, 2014 -

makes it very clear: they got the wrong rock. They figure they

got Tlaloc himself, the Lord of thunder and drowning and

mushrooms - all 168 basalt tons of him - on display before the

National Anthropology Museum. But they don't. The real Tlaloc

is still here in Coatlinchán. They nabbed the wrong monolith.

They got his sister, Chalchiuhtlicue.

It'll be fifty years, on April 16, since prehispanic deity

Chalchiuhtlicue was plucked from her ancestral home to be

displayed before the National Anthropology Museum. La

maestra, a native of the town, a retired schoolteacher, was

eyewitness to the day the army carried off the goddess. People

wept with rage, she recalls, but nothing could be done, the order

came from President Lopez Mateos.

Nowadays, the path to where the stone lay reveals squatters

from the Francisco Villa Popular Front, trucks hauling and

dumping trash where the river used to run. To get to the site,

you walk half an hour from downtown Coatlinchán, or ride a

taxi for ten minutes, up to the foot of the mountains. A few olive

trees remain from those brought by the Spaniards. The plots

have been split up and sold to developers. Years ago, she nods,

we used to wash down there by the river. She was born in

Coatlinchán, and nostalgia takes over. It was a paradise:

boulders like prehistoric beasts, forested right up to the foothills,

aqueducts brimming over. And all of that is over.

I wrote a little piece about local water rituals and weather

oddities, she continues. It follows Chalchiuhtlicue - from where

they dug her up all the way to the Museum. Here's where they

found her. They trashed the place. Right there, where they

pried her out, is where they hold the rites for Our Lady of the

Ditchwater. La maestra takes a couple of steps, points way up

on the hillside and says, up there, that's where Tlaloc is buried,

Lord of the Sky Waters. My ancestors, who worshipped him,

said he was lonely and needed somebody. But they put her

down here, where the river winds downhill like a snake and ties

them together.

La maestra points out that that couldn't be Tlaloc, not out in

front of the Museum. No, it's gotta be her, as Tlaloc is still

buried, and she was always above ground, no one ever

uncovered her. When she was here, we held Catholic

ceremonies, in an alpine grove, with a river winding off through

bushes. And on the other side, Tlaloc's hills, descending to a

broad path, which led to her. Maybe we could recreate it on a

computer. She lay on one side. That business at the Museum is

all wrong. It felt like a coliseum here. It is all destroyed.

It happened under López Mateos, she recalls. He told Pedro

Ramirez Vasquez, head of Museum works, he better bring in a

statue or something to represent different cultures. They looked

everywhere. Finally Lopez Mateos recalled, as a student,

visiting Coatlinchán, where there was just the piece. He sent

them here to take a look, and they said no way, the road was too

narrow, the piece too big and too heavy, but he said do it

anyway, and then local people said no, and he said o.k., he

wanted no problems. So when Ramirez Vazquez announced

they would seize it anyway, people said good luck, you think

you can find it? And so they dynamited paradise, and said they

had carried off Tlaloc. We never signed a thing. That goddess

lay on her side, down here, head to the south. Tlaloc is way up

there, at 4175 meters, highest ceremonial center in the world.

Higher than Machu Pichu. La maestra recommends caution,

though. When she visited, as a girl, she heard giggling all

around, maybe from duendes.

Is Chalchiuhtlicue ever coming back? No! When they carried

her off, says la maestra, I was off at college. I got back about

four p.m., with the church bells tolling, and saw this huge

platform. People were already organized. They told the work

crews to go away, that this wasn't Tlaloc. If they wanted him,

they should go get him. And good luck finding him. Children,

boys and girls, old folks, everybody filled the plaza, some

wanting to trash the platform, others ready to shoot it. By

midnight, people began to trash it. The stone was in a kind of

sling, and nobody had tools. All night, todos a dale y dale, and

about five a.m. the stone fell, pum, and the ground shook. But

by ten a.m. - I've got the fotos! - the Army pulled up, and troops

scurried out like cockroaches. Locals had dynamite, and said

they'd as soon blow it up as let that stone leave, but the soldiers

were real shit-heels. Loaded it on a special-made platform, and

pulled out behind tractors. People came running, weeping. The

soldiers shouted to get back. And guess what? A record rainfall

saw her leave, and another, at the capital, greeted her arrival.

Here in Coatlinchán, says la maestra, the elderly merely say that

Porfirio Diaz once promised that stone to the United States - but

the deal fell through, and fifty years ago, somebody else came

and got it.


Testimonio #9

After a summer of radiation, of people bathing and feeding her -

one room from where her mother fell thump dead on the living

room floor - she herself has died, la maestra Carmelita. My

sweet-and-salty and not-a-moment-too-soon-retired grade school

science teacher buddy, in Morelia, has leaped clear of a life that

went seventy-something years, from country kid to jilted young

mother to retired oracular schoolmarm. I am grateful for twenty

years of wisecracks and sighs, for airy corrections of grammar, a

sniff and dismissal of someone as común y corriente, even for

how she hunched over her steering wheel to weave through

traffic muttering aii buey, aii buey.

Survived by her brother Porfirio, seventy, who married a husky

local girl of 25, and at the moment lolls on a half-unraveled

lawn chair, his boots unlaced, with a daughter of two and a son

of three, both on his lap. On a bright morning in the patio, with

a TV set in the doorway of a dark bedroom. He's teaching his

kids to watch Sat morning cartoons.

Survived as well by her sister Maria, married to Silvio the

curandero. Runs a corner store that sells beer and soda pop and

snacks. They live behind it in tiled rooms with gauze curtains,

loud birdcages, and an altar where Silvio mutters half-hour

incantations to rid the neighbor lady of a rash on her private

parts, then to lower her blood pressure, then to help her husband

be faithful.

Survived by her ex, Ricardo. Who seemed like the right guy, so

her mother bought him a furniture store downtown to run, which

he did, and a baby was born. But la M. grew suspicious of him

and a new bookkeeper he hired, and one afternoon downtown,

after a doctor’s apt., she happened to see the two of them

window shopping. And she knew, just plain knew, and so

Ricardo’s clothes and golf clubs awaited him that night on the

sidewalk in front of the house - which her mother had also

bought for them - and she lived the rest of her days as a single

mother, teaching two shifts, taking in boarders, fretting at house

taxes, the price of a cylinder of gas, all night, hollow-eyed and

hoarse by noon. Hours at the dining room table reading

homework assignments left her one long cramp from fingertips

to neck.

Aaay que Carmelita! Given to purple blouses and sweaters and

slacks, or well-cut suits, deep red lipstick and nail polish, fingers

thick, pantyhose over hairy shins, slacks later unbuttoned for

comfort, as the evening went on and she permitted herself one

and even two menthol Benson & Hedges 100's, wiping the

ashtray clean with a dinner napkin. Recalling how bitter her

brothers and sisters were that she didn't quit teaching to care for

their aged mother. How one relative couldn’t write down a

phone number she gave him because, in his whole house, there

wasn’t a single scrap of paper, not one writing instrument.

Carmelita with her telenovela episodes of cruel stepmothers with

lovers, of benevolent millionaires with dissolute sons in love

with the poor but beautiful orphan brought to the great house

under mysterious circumstances, until a beautiful but scheming

niece arrives one night to seduce the tipsy son, her own cousin!,

and claim she’s pregnant, and marry him and die, leaving him to

marry the poor but beautiful childhood love, who bears him a

son, only to lose her mind when he accuses her, through a

misunderstanding, of having cheated on him, but later regains

her senses after having given away their son to a neighborhood

woman who sells lottery tickets.

It was her all-time favorite soap. I said it was both ridiculous

and touching. I was not the audience, she said, no matter which

side of the border I thought I came from. I said I came from

neither side. Aaay buey!, she said, from both. Es Ud. de los



Testimonio #10

My own way of going with some show of inconvenience is

to put on a clean shirt. Today's funeral is for a kid delighted,

one fall, by a William Carlos Williams poem. Yes, I knew the deceased -

her unforgettable name, Zilpha, aka Zippy - 18 years old with a note

book of poems, utterly flipped out o’er a page of the Norton Ethnology,

right? Went around for days with a smile quoting the pebbles

and dirt and whatnot of that lovely, eerie, small-town lament,


And sure enough, her sisters and my daughter and I, forty-two

years later, stand over crumbs and empty coffee urns in a

meeting hall named for a dead Republican congressman.

The sisters have spent the afternoon listening to people try to

articulate stuff they can’t exactly say, one eulogy after another.

Zippy would say we have it over a troupe of artists. But

gathering in public is how we make a point that simply cannot

be entrusted to words: park out front, walk in, sit down,

say something.


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