Al Norte by Juan R. Palomo is an Homage to a Family Drifting in Colors

By: Anthony Isaac Bradley

Alabrava Press, 2021. 42 pp. Paper.

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Juan R. Palomo’s new poetry collection, Al Norte, is a book for and about travelers, birds and people alike, following their natural inclinations. The opening and title poem, “Al Norte,” shows the outside world moving in colors, hungry for something undefined: “Then they are gone, headed / north in search of more trees / with beautiful berries. Up north. / Al Norte, what we said as kids.” The following poem, “Impermanence,” keeps the reader moving forward, maybe northbound as well: “We rode north each May, straight / through Texas and the prairies of Oklahoma.”

Organized in a way that keeps this momentum building, the Houston-based poet, who spent several years of his career in San Marcos, offers up images of fireflies as angelitos, coffee cans as road trip urinals, and sugar beets being ripped from the soil. There is a kinetic energy to Palomo’s work, as every word bumps into the next, moving with urgency. Despite this restless vibe, many of the poems in Al Norte carry a quiet blast, such as “The Day They Do Not Show Up.” This poem presents language in a tight form, its constrictive nature making each image pop by force:

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.

With the parents working in potato fields, the children in this poem take care of themselves, frying las papas in the meantime. Palomo paints a picture of family separation, a horrific event that is all too familiar thanks to the long history of deportation in the United States. Despite the trauma of political horrors, the speaker’s voice is often solemn. In a similar tone, the final image of the parents staring into darkness “in the back of a green van” is a refrain that runs through the collection, with shadows never being far removed from these families. Many of the locations that Palomo takes the reader to are haunted or empty.

Likewise, the final poem in the collection, “Speed Queen, North Dakota,” takes us to the ghostland of a migrant camp, where “Almost nothing remains.” The speaker discovers signs of life “Half-buried in / the black earth” in the form of common brand name shampoo containers and cleaning chemicals. The titular Speed Queen, a washing machine that bears the name, works as an “abandoned tombstone” for a spot where “Families / interacted. White smoke floated / from stovepipes as the aroma / of carne guizada, frijoles and arroz / wafted from behind screen doors.” The previous poem, “Kodak Moment,” foreshadows the importance of the Speed Queen in the speaker’s memory, tying together family and lonerism by ruminating on the elements of a photograph. The “you” in this poem refers to the invisible watcher who does the looking:

You do not know the Speed Queen máquina

had churned and cranked that morning

as my mother washed a week’s worth

 

Of black Red River Valley soil from

a week’s pile of work clothes. You do not

know why the 30-gallon milk can near

 

the washing machine is wrapped in burlap

then soaked each morning: to keep cooler

a bit longer the drinking water it holds

“You” will never know the full story of who these people are. Nor will the person who stumbles upon the remains of the camp in North Dakota–there isn’t anything left to do here but shift through the ashes. All those miles, every second of hardship and love, all disappeared by fate or something worse. Much like fellow San Marcos writer Tomás Rivera’s …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, this is a book dedicated to the experiences of farmworkers and their descendants who migrated through the states. “Speed Queen, North Dakota” is the perfect closer for a book built on acceleration, a trek motivated by desperation and honoring the dead.

Al Norte functions—as poetry so often does—like a “choose your own adventure” into the unknown: some of it we recognize, some of it remains elusive. While there is the hope of safety and family on the edges, there is no guaranteed outcome for immigrants in the United States. A bleak thought, but Palomo’s poems illustrate the need to fight, to keep moving forward and live despite the implications:

I was once more in our reality, cradled

in the stale nurturing warmth of our hulking

sedan. “¿Ya mero?” one of us asked.

, almost there,” one of us replied.

 

Anthony Isaac Bradley

Anthony Isaac Bradley’s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Coachella Review, and other lovely places. He’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives with his cat and the ghost of another.

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