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

Guest Column written by Susan Cohen

How I enjoy this poem, let me count some ways: its syntactic energy, the way it engages all our senses, and how it simultaneously invokes internal and external worlds.

Also, “La Mano” works alone as well as in the context of Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s award-winning debut book, Matria, which considers both motherhood and motherland—her three children and the country of El Salvador where she lives. The poem belongs to a section in Matria based on a Salvadoran game that seems to resemble bingo, in which players receive a card with recognizable characters and symbols, in this case “The Hand.” The lottery becomes a continuing metaphor for people’s luck in life, an idea that hovers here, starting with the poem’s dedication to Central American children.

But let me begin with the obvious. This evocative narrative of motherhood, as Regalado writes in her Poet’s Note, almost did not emerge because she feared it was too sweet. (Do male poets worry as much about this when they write about their children? I wonder.) Sentimentality versus sentiment in poetry seems like the topic for a PhD thesis rather than a guest column, but I’d argue that at least part of the difference lies in craft. Through craft, Regalado captures motherhood in many aspects—including its sense of claustrophobia, fatigue, isolation, and lack of freedom—almost incidentally, while talking about more than a woman and her child. I’m thankful she didn’t censor her feelings or give up on this poem.

“La Mano” emerges in a rush, like flapping wings and flocking parakeets. The “arcing” of birds “above the rousing city” launches a single long sentence that immediately captures the scene—the “green skirts” of a volcano, a child finally near sleep after a long night of coughing—and also conveys through syntax the exhaustion of a mother who has nursed her baby through a sleepless night. Almost, at last, getting her infant to sleep, the effort is interrupted just as the long sentence keeps interrupting itself.

With the curtain closed, the speaker calls our attention to senses that poems so often neglect in favor of sight. We hear the squawking. We feel the tactile warmth of a baby on a chest. We both hear and feel his breathing “slow, near sleep.” We can almost hear as well as watch his eyes “snap open with each squawk.” Sound echoes in the poem as it does in the hallway. The lines explode with assonance and slant rhyme (rousing/roost/rest, coughed/squawk) along with hard endings (flock/snap/squawk). Whether we notice the technique or not, our ears are made alert, just like the speaker’s.

The breakneck opening, which tells us all we need to know about where we are, is followed by a short sentence that takes us into the speaker’s imagination: her picture of the birds outside as “preening” and “joyful.” These lyrical musings also lead to the heart of the poem: the “capriciousness of nature.” At this point, capriciousness seems to refer only to a night of maternal nurturing wasted, and the lively birds who just happened to land and tap the windowpane.

We share the speaker’s surprise, even disappointment, when curtains part and she discovers with her son (significantly, they are “together”) that there are only seven green birds “smaller, their feathers scruffier” than she’d imagined. Still, some of the enchantment remains. She wants to keep them around longer, even as they squabble over position, but her son slaps the window and the parakeets take off.

Staggered line indentations serve the visual purpose of equalizing margins on the page, but more important to this poem, they capture the feeling of flight—of birds rushing and wheeling, and of the speaker’s thoughts flitting between her infant, nature, and injustice. Injustice has been invoked up to this point only with subtle word choices like “rooted,” “welcoming,” and “capriciousness.” Now, Regalado introduces something closer to statement, borrowing lines from Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” to describe the child reaching out to “things unknown but longed for still.” In Angelou’s famous poem, written in both a personal and political context, the object of yearning is freedom. A baby cannot be aware of life’s unequal distribution of either freedom or resources. He cannot be aware that, safe in his mother’s arms, he has a security other children do not.

As the parakeets take back to the sky, their movement beautifully rendered, I’m struck by “disappearing stain” as a physical description. Regalado combines it with lines from Richard Wilbur’s poem, “An Event,” in which Wilbur observes black birds rising at once and contemplates individualism versus the flock’s “headlong and unanimous consent” as they’re “swallowed from sight.” These echoes make me think about natural and unnatural migrations. Certainly, 60,000 unaccompanied children are a stain, a blot on anyone’s notion of what’s right with the world, even when it occurs out of our line of vision.

The metaphor of flight implicitly contrasts a child nurtured in the arms of a mother who can show him and help him explore the world, with the lives of those children forced to flee across borders on their own. No baby is born understanding barriers between what he sees and what is his to have. How elegantly Regalado’s “La Mano” does so much work.



Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Red Dragonfly Press, Amazon, or Small Press Distribution.

She was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize.


Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • 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.