Juan R. Palomo is the author of Al Norte (Alabrava Press 2021). Born in Grafton, North Dakota to migrant-worker parents, Palomo grew up in South Texas and several midwestern states. He received a bachelor’s degree in art education from Texas State University and a master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He was a reporter, columnist, and editorial writer for The Houston Post; he covered religion for the Austin American-Statesman; and he wrote a column for USA TODAY. His poems have appeared in The Acentos Review, The Sonora Review, The Account, and others.
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Welcome to The Beat, Knox County Public Library’s poetry podcast. Today, we’ll hear two poems read by the poet Juan R. Palomo. The first poem, “The Day They Do Not Show Up,” is about the children of migrant workers. The second poem, “Life & Death in Marathon, Texas,” features a plant called agave americana.
Juan R. Palomo:
"The Day They Did Not Show Up"
That evening he stands at the front door
searching for the twin beams announcing
his parents’ return, even as he suspects
no headlights will pierce the dust
from the gravel road, not this evening.
Behind him his sisters heat los frijoles
y las tortillas on the wood stove.
They peel and slice and fry las papas,
as they’ve always done when their parents
work past dusk in the potato fields.
Only this time, they know. Comprenden,
somehow, que no es lo mismo. What
they had talked about and feared, is here.
And because they know, they do not wait.
They eat, alone, sin palabras,
at the oilcloth-covered table.
They imagine where their parents
might be but they do not talk about it.
They wonder when they will see
them again. If they’ll see them again.
That night, he listens to his sisters consoling
each other in the bed next to his catre.
He does not cry, but as he begins to fall asleep,
he pictures his parents
in the back of a green van,
his father holding his mother’s hand.
They both stare into the darkness.
"Life and Death in Marathon, Texas"
It stands in the northern Chihuahuan desert
of west Texas. Long meaty, gray-green
spiny leaves jutting skyward from its core.
In its lifetime, it has witnessed tens of thousands
of wailing, rumbling freight trains rolling
on the Union Pacific railroad, a mile or so away.
It has withstood snow, ice and withering droughts.
It is blooming now. Months ago, it began pushing
up a single heavy trunk. It rises thirty feet or so
and branches out near the top. At the end
of each branch, rests a wreath, thick with tiny flowers,
each a fountain of sweetness for hummingbirds,
flickers, bumblebees and other desert creatures.
The blossoms are like miniature nuns in green habits
and yellow veils. With gangly arms lifted
as in praise or supplication, they cling together
in parachute-shaped clusters, graceful and aristocratic,
like a bonsai tree. In a few weeks, the flowers will
begin to wither. The birds and bugs will seek nectar
elsewhere. The drying petals will flutter to the cracked
earth. In the months to follow, they will be joined
by the rotting carcass of this agave americana.
The agave is often called a century plant. It is not.
A native of Mexico and Texas, it lives in the desert
a mere twenty or thirty years–not a hundred,
not anywhere near–before it blooms then promptly,
obediently dies, leaving behind seed pods,
which grow into “pups” and may become adults,
repeating the grow-bloom-die cycle. This agave is
already dying, in fact, the tips of some of its leaves
are becoming brown spongy skeletons, impotent
thorns pointed down. The agave is not dying because
it has failed. No, it is dying because it succeeded.
because it has done its job, has fulfilled its duty,
every cell having performed triumphantly.Alan May:
You just heard Juan R. Palomo reading his poems “The Day They Do Not Show Up” and “Life and Death in Marathon, Texas.” He was kind enough to record these poems for us at his home in Houston. Juan R. Palomo was born in Grafton, North Dakota, and he Grew up in South Texas and several other midwestern states. His parents were migrant farm workers who immigrated from Mexico, and he spent much of his first 20 years working in the fields with his family. He received a bachelor’s degree in art education from Texas State University and a master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He was a reporter, columnist, and editorial writer for The Houston Post; he covered religion for the Austin American-Statesman; and he wrote a column for USA TODAY. His poems have appeared in The Acentos Review, The Sonora Review, The Account, and others. You can find Juan R. Palomo’s book Al Norte in our online catalog. Or call us at the Reference Desk at Lawson McGhee Library. Also look for links in the show notes. Please join us next time for The Beat.