University of Southern Indiana

"Immigrant Elegy for Ávila"

by Mónica Gomery

If you take a child to the mountain
do not expect the mountain to not live inside the child.
Do not expect that something mountainous will not rise
inside the child, yielding light and shadow. If you drive
a child through a valley, through highway cut between
the majesty of mountain—have you ever seen a child
at the window of a car? If you put a child
in the back seat of a cab that lifts along the valley
for an hour do not expect those small wet marble eyes
not to gape and peer and gather up the mountain.
If you nestle a child against the contour of the mountain
every winter of her boney bright-skinned life,
chasing a turtle in the backyard of a house, watch
the turtle bump the avocado tree then release
a whispering grass as it scuttles, watch as the child learns
to listen the air laced thick with sapos popping
staccato, warm but shrill and blooming into night.
If you bring a child up alongside mountain
in a valley so lush it makes the child dizzy
hairs springing forth her legs her arms
to imitate the tropic density if you put a mountain
in a child’s mouth her tongue will form a shape around it
like a fierce and sighing river like a road between the city
and the sea. To a child, what’s the difference between mountain,
mother, highway, river. What difference between coast, cousin, anger,
longing. Which language did you teach her, spanish, mountain, english.
We’ll call it mountain syndrome, slight unbelonging looming
taller inside a child than might be known and rising up behind
her shoulders telling stories about soil, streambeds
confessing something in a mountain language confessing
something in a language better fit for flash floods
forests raining language through their constant canopies.

The drive from Simón Bolívar airport to my grandmother's house in Caracas is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. The car would take us through the mountain El Ávila, known as el pulmón de la ciudad, the lungs of the city. Winding through it on this yearly pilgrimage, the mountain also became the lung of my visits, that first oxygenating encounter. Being a first-generation kid in the US, Venezuela had a mythic role at the heart of my relationship to belonging and home. I didn't live there and in many ways barely understood it as a place, and yet it wove me into myself. With this poem I wanted to explore being a child of immigrants, belonging to multiple places, and how a childhood ritual like seeing a mountain from the backseat of a car lives, now, inside of me. It's been so many years since I've been able to return to Venezuela, but this mountain highway cutting through the valley is a deep groove carved into my somatic body, my sense of myself, and my sense of the sacred.

Mónica Gomery is a rabbi and poet, raised by her Venezuelan Jewish family in Boston and Caracas, and now living in Philadelphia. Her work explores queerness, diaspora, ancestry, theology, and cultivating courageous hearts. She is the author of Here is the Night and the Night on the Road (Cooper Dillon Books, 2018), and the chapbook Of Darkness and Tumbling (YesYes Books, 2017). Her poem “A poem with two memories of Venezuela” won the 2020 Minola Review Poetry Contest, judged by Doyali Islam. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist in the Cutthroat Journal Joy Harjo Poetry Contest. Her poetry has been published in various journals, including most recently Frontier, Foglifter, Ninth Letter, Interim, Tinderbox, and Canthius.

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