Poetry Sunday: “La Mano,” by Alexandra Lytton Regalado

you can count on it:

La Mano

for the more than 60,000 children from Central America who cross the border unaccompanied, with lines from Maya Angelou and Richard Wilbur


Arcing above our apartment building,
……….above the rousing city and green skirts
of the San Salvador volcano, a flock
……….of wild parakeets comes to roost
outside our window; my nine-month son
……….rests his head on my chest and all I want
is to draw the curtains, but he’s coughed
……….all night and now his breathing
is slow, near sleep, though his eyes snap open
……….with each squawk. I imagine the parakeets
preening their emerald feathers, joyful in their ceremony
……….of clacks and trills. They are not musing
the capriciousness of nature as I am; they don’t know
……….five-thirty am, only that the sun has tinged
the mountainsides gold and that this alcove echoes
……….their welcome beautifully. The wild parakeets tap
at the windowpane and my son stirs,
……….raises his sleep-etched face to mine.
Together we slip past the curtain and discover
……….seven green parakeets, perhaps a little smaller,
their feathers scruffier than I had envisioned.
……….Two squabble over a prime niche and the stronger
one comes towards the glass, wings unfurled,
……….fat tongue thrusting from his open beak. I want
to unlatch the window and sprinkle seed, lure them
……….to perch on our shoulders and arms, anything
to make them stay longer. Instead, my son, rooted in
……….the things unknown but longed for still—
greets them with the slap of an open palm to the windowpane,
……….and in a clapping of wings
they leap from the narrow corridor at once, a raucous fleeing,
……….with headlong and unanimous consent,
a disappearing stain, a distant murmuration
……….swallowed from sight.


From Matria (Black Lawrence Press 2017), reprinted with permission of the press. First published in Green Mountains Review.

Alexandra Lytton Regalado is cofounder of Kalina Press, based in El Salvador, and is the author, editor, and/or translator of more than ten Central American-themed books, most recently Puntos de fuga / Vanishing Points, a bilingual anthology of contemporary Salvadoran prose. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University and an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. Alexandra’s work has appeared in Narrative, Gulf Coast, Creative Nonfiction, Notre Dame Review, cream city review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Winner of the St. Lawrence Book Prize, her full-length collection of poems, Matria, was published in 2017 by Black Lawrence Press. Her book can be ordered here and here. Her website is www.alexandralyttonregalado.com.


Poet’s Note

La mano is the only figure I kept from the original Mexican loteria (the version traditionally played in El Salvador). All other figures in Matria’s loteria are reinvented and reimagined as Salvadoran feminine iconic figures. It is a two-sided card that represents binary actions: to caress & reach out / to hit & push away. This is reflected in the riddle (in italics above the title) that the lotería cantor would call out to players and invite them to guess the symbol.

The poem originated 15 years ago when my eldest son was a baby and I was in the beast mode of the new mom: breastfeeding round the clock, sleep-deprived, raw-bone tired, overprotective and overwhelmed. In those days when I was being smothered by routine and responsibility, there were moments that kicked the door open to wonder, joy, and at times an awe that felt like terror. The parakeets actually visited us, and it all played out exactly as I describe it in the poem. The flock returned maybe three or four times in the course of one month, always in the very early morning, and we have video and photos of a sleepy-eyed Sebastian motioning to the green birds on the window sill.

The poem went through several variations; Aimee Nezhukumatathil helped me with the early edits. To be honest, there were times I doubted the poem because I felt it too sweet, too happy, especially in contrast with the other poems in the collection. I’ve always doubted those spikes of joy, too good to be true, etc. But there was a sad undertone that I couldn’t quite pin down, and it wasn’t until years later, my son already a teen, that I understood the fine balance of that moment when I put it into context with what was going on in our country—the exodus of more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors.

At one point in Salvadoran history, flocks of parakeets were common; you’d see the green smear across the sky twice a day—early mornings and at dusk, leaving and returning to their roosts. Nowadays those sightings are less constant as more trees are cut down to make room for the growing city. Paralleling this, more children are leaving their homeland—their parents hopeful, desperate for them to find someplace better, fully cognizant of the terrifying risk of that trip across the border.

I wondered what it was that my son thought of those birds—it was the flight that intrigued and fascinated him, not their staying there on the sill. He knew birds were meant to fly. I stumbled upon the lines of Richard Wilbur and Maya Angelou when I was reading poems about flocks of birds and I thought it relevant to cite them because their words were like flags of other exoduses, of other populations. I’m left watching the birds’ departure with my child in my arms, thinking of those fleeing children, in wonder and terror, of how they will get there, if they get there, and how they will be received once they arrive.

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  • Francisco Aragón January 22, 2018 at 12:56 am

    Engaging piece for an engaging poem. I’ve only just discovered this “column.”

  • Rebecca Foust January 21, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    Wonderful poem, and important for our times since the president recently revoked temporary protective status for immigrants from El Salvador, some of whom have been living, paying taxes, and making their home here for 30 years.