The Ghosts of Ludlow, 1914-2014
A century of silence is violence.
That winter a blizzard, a cold that crawled over
the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and covered
the foothills with a crust of ice.
Everything whitened into bone.
The clothesline snapped like a branch.
A warning shot can be understood in
any language. The entrance to the coalmine dropped
open like the mouth of a skull without eyeholes.
Mining folk felt safest underground.
The pits were for protection from the chill
that had stretched into the spring. The pits
were for protection from the wind that kept the walls
of each tent shivering all night.
The pits were for protection.
And somehow the kettle still sang,
its burst of steam a prized distraction
inside the deadness of the tent.
In the moment it was the thing
with most life. It filled the small space
with breath—an exhale so far away
from the hour it would take
the first bullet in its lung.
The horses crushed the quiet.
Their nostrils flared and suddenly
they looked quite human
in their rage. One foot sunk its hoof
into the face of a doll—an act
so cruel it had to have been deliberate.
The baby limbs stretched out in shock.
No mouth, no throat—no sound.
The horse shook its tail like a shrug.
Few things gathered the bodies
in the camp—a game of baseball,
a marriage, a christening, a strike.
And war, which darkened the light
in the tents, shadow upon shadow.
The soldiers first, then the smoke,
and then the fall of
a smothering sky.
The pits, so womb-like, a refuge
for the lambs while the wolf
devoured the tents, so sheep-like in their
whiteness, so sheep-like in their bleating.
The pits were for protection.
One evening the cook was making stew
in the cauldron. A witch’s brew, said
the children who dared themselves
to come near enough to toss
a pebble of coal in the pot.
The rocks bounced off the bellies
of both cauldron and cook. The man cursed,
which only made the children giggle.
He chased them with the spoon.
It made them laugh some more.
To teach a lesson, he grabbed a rabbit
by the ears. It kicked and splashed as he
submerged it under boiling water.
He trapped it with the lid.
The children screamed in terror,
imagining the bunny swimming
through the scalding soup
only to reach scalding metal.
Grief for a dead child sounds the same
in Greek or Italian or Spanish. Grief
for eleven children has no language,
it hardens even the land.
Fires dissipated. Battles ended.
The miners rolled their stories up
and left the town of Ludlow, 100 years
empty except for an abandoned row
of shacks. Near the baseball diamond, a
memorial as neglected as the playing field.
A memorial rings hollow—it’s for the solace
of the living. To reach the dead
walk toward the structures still standing,
their windows still looking in.
Listen closely for the ghost of a woman
tucking into bed the ghost of her son.
Lean in. That blank sound you hear?
The weight of the ghost of her kiss
as it passes through his head—
the collapse of absence into absence.
Originally published in Newtown Literary. Copyright © 2017 by Rigoberto González. Used by permission of the author.
Rigoberto González was born in Bakersfield, California, on July 18, 1970, but lived in Michoacán, Mexico, until the age of ten. The son of migrant farm workers, González traveled between the United States and Mexico for much of his childhood. He earned a degree in Humanities and Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of California, Riverside, and an MFA from Arizona State University in Tempe.
González is the author of five poetry collections, including The Book of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2019); Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013), winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, given for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States each year; Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (Tupelo Press, 2006); and So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks (University of Illinois Press, 1999), which was chosen by the poet Ai for the National Poetry Series.
About Unpeopled Eden, judge Kwame Dawes said: “When a single title is a complex and evocative poem, and when such titles recur throughout a collection of poems, we know we are experiencing a work of signature authority, beauty, urgency and necessity. This is what we experience in the book Unpeopled Eden by Rigoberto González —a work of profound lament and excruciating beauty… Rigoberto González is an important American poet, and Unpeopled Eden is a very, very important book.”
Of his debut, Ray Gonzalez wrote: “Rigoberto González returns poetry to the natural river of language. His work makes us cross to the other side of experience. He opens a fresh chapter in the changing book of American poetry in a way few young writers are able to do.”
González is also the author of numerous books of prose, including two bilingual children’s books: Antonio’s Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio (Children’s Book Press, 2005) and Soledad Sigh-Sighs/Soledad Suspiros (Children’s Book Press, 2003). He is the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing (University of Arizona Press, 2010).
González’s honors include the American Book Award, the Poetry Center Book Award, the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, and a University and College Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
In September 2018, he served as the guest editor for Poem-a-Day. A contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, González serves on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey. He lives in New York.
The Book of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2019)
Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013)
Black Blossoms (Four Way Books, 2011)
Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (Tupelo Press, 2006)
So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks (University of Illinois Press, 1999)
Red-Inked Retablos (University of Arizona Press, 2013)
Autobiography of My Hungers (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)
Men without Bliss (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008)
Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006)
Crossing Vines (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003)
Date Published: 2018-04-25
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/ghosts-ludlow-1914-2014