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Lullaby of New Mexico

Duerme mijo—sleep my weary child
As we drive south upon the interstate.
My side-eye checks on you, my tired you.
My calloused hand caresses your wheat hair.
The radio sings dreams, strumming guitars,
The soulful voices of the mariachis
Who sing about the feathers of the dove
And fragile hope. I hear you softly snore.
We pass Socorro, hours more of nowhere.
Ay, when we reach Las Cruces what will be?
Will they decide that I’m not a good father
Because of who I was and where I’ve been?

I see the whirling winds and desert dust
Kicked up from White Sands and from Trinity.
We’re passed by speeding cars with license plates
From richer states, from California, Texas.
But we are just from here my little one.
We drive through shadowed valleys but my heart
Says do not fear. My son, the sound of your
Soft breath is magic. I should stop the car,
And hug you. Maybe bless you with a kiss
Upon your head, but we have miles to go
To race the sun. They’re waiting for us, those
Who’ll judge if you and I may stay together.

The mountains cast their shadows—mighty, stark.
To see them makes me tremble for they know
To me you’re sacred. No, I must not cry.
The sun shifts gold to orange in a sky
That’s streaked with pink and turquoise. Even if
We must keep driving I can whisper still
I love you while you sleep. And I can say
I love you to the sky whose colors glow
With brilliant hues that look just like your soul,
Like miracles which feed my weary faith
Which will not falter; and which make me glad
To live still in this ancient, holy place.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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29 Responses

  1. Roy E. Peterson

    Brian, you certainly captured the essence of New Mexico from the mariachis to the mountain grandeur. Besides making the drive multiple times from Texas to California and back through the arid lands on the Interstate, I spent one summer teaching American Government and World Politics at Western New Mexico University in Silver City while living at Bear Mountain Guest Ranch. I also spent six months on a secret project at Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque. I have many fond memories of New Mexico including the White Sands and Glorietta. Thank you for the imagery of your poem.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Roy, thank you very much for your generous comment. As you can tell, I’m very proud of the state I live in. New Mexico has many memorable sights and I’m pleased to hear that you’ve visited many of them. I’ve never been to Silver City, but it’s on my bucket list.

      Reply
  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Brian, the speaker of this poem seems to suggest that he and his young son are on the way to a hearing, to determine child custody. This adds a frightening aspect to the piece (which is largely about the beauty of the New Mexican landscape), making the reader tremble with fear.

    The two are driving to Las Cruces. Is this a deliberate suggestion that they are heading towards a place of crucifixion? I don’t intend to read too much that isn’t there into the poem, but I find it beautiful and at the same time deeply upsetting, because of this idea that the speaker may be losing his son.

    Is “Duerme mijo” a contraction of “Duerme mi hijo”?

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Joseph, thank you for your kind words. You have correctly interpreted the poem’s set-up. I wanted very much to capture a loving father’s worry for the future concerning his son as an unforgiving legal system collides with his strong faith and his frank awareness that he has made mistakes in the past (for which I believe he has atoned.) That he has achieved some level of spiritual redemption is important, but will it be important to the court in which he must appear? I don’t have an answer. Judges have a different, decidedly non-spiritual way of looking at things. I’m glad that you as the reader found it upsetting as I want the reader to share this father’s anxiety — and hope.

      Your religious reading of the poem is exactly correct. To emphasize that this poem is also about faith — we’re looking at a rather humble Latino man who is almost certainly Catholic — I did indeed include some religious references. As you correctly deduced, Las Cruces was very specifically chosen since it refers to Christ’s cross (as well as the two thieves). That seemed appropriate to me for a place where love is put on trial. The place name Socorro refers to the Virgin Mary — Maria del Socorro (Mary of Perpetual Comfort) and Trinity speaks for itself. New Mexico, which strongly resists the atheist impulses of other states, still has a great many Christian place names, shrines, festivals and values.

      And “mijo” is a Mexican-Spanish term of endearment for “my son.” It is indeed a contraction of “mi hijo,” A daughter would similarly be “mija.”

      Thank you for your generous comment and for giving me the opportunity to detail some of the thought that went into this poem!

      Reply
  3. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, a totally gripping, nail-biter of a story accompanied by a superb road-trip. We have visited the States a few times but never New Mexico, the landscape of which I always associate with the early Spielberg movie, “Duel.” We will now be expecting a sequel regarding the outcome of the hearing. Thank you for a poignant read today.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Jeff, thank you for this very kind remark. The landscape of New Mexico is often confused with that of Arizona. We don’t have the saguaro cactus, we do have many mountains and aspen trees — at least in the north (we’re a Rocky Mountain state). Of course, much of the state is desert but it’s high desert with many juniper and pinon tress. And a surprisingly large amount of the state is richly forested and lush. Santa Fe is at 7000 feet and is fairly green in the summer and has cold, snowy winters with a ski basin a few miles from downtown. Come visit sometime! As for the substance of the poem, I’m so pleased that you were moved. A sequel? What an interesting thought…

      Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Brian, this is an exquisite poem of love for a child, for a native land, and for everything that is sacred about both. This speaker, whose faith will not falter, is an admirable picture of a real man, a heroic character. No matter what past faults he may have overcome (or still be fighting), he has arrived at a true sense of what the world is about. The final lines confirm him as an individual of confident strength and gladness. The trials he has yet to face in a courtroom cannot make him anything other than he is. As Joseph Salemi says above, it is the reader of the poem who trembles with fear that a civil court might be unjust to such a man. As for you, you lay a stronger claim than ever to be New Mexico’s state poet–as well as a lawyer poet who understands the stresses our failing justice system places on worthy citizens.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, please see below for my response to your lovely comment. Let me add my gratitude for your comment regarding my work as a “lawyer poet.” I have spent many years personally viewing the many injustices in the legal system of three states (and no, I don’t mean in a social justice warrior sense.) I have seen terrible people acquitted or given a slap on the wrist when they should have been put behind bars, and I’ve seen good and moral people treated with great disrespect. This, I conclude, is the result of a system which denies the existence of any spiritual component to morality, of an authority higher than the state and its legislative whims. Good and deserving people suffer and bad people are rewarded. I’m glad if I can help reveal this situation through poetry.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, this is a further comment on justice itself. When I read medieval poems on the subject, they usually consider not only the punishment of evildoers, but rewards for the good. Our concept of justice is woefully incomplete when there is no way to reward goodness, except tax breaks and insubstantial prizes awarded by special interest groups to their own members. Even public honors in monarchies now tend to distinguish only those who have earned fame or money, with hardly any concern for personal integrity.

      As you have seen close up, the adversary system in courts considers a lawyer praiseworthy when he gains a judgment in his client’s favor. He bears no responsibility for justice being done. Law enforcement personnel have no concern for justice, only for the letter of the law and the orders of superiors.
      You are right. Without recognition of a higher authority than law or profit, we cannot know what justice is.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Margaret, the idea of there being a legal reward for goodness is a wonderful one. But the people who come to society are the law breakers rather than the law upholders. One notices the person who transgresses far more than the person who complies with the law. How does a moral and theologically satisfying law reward the person who does good? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this because it’s actually a very deep issue which reminds me much of the two brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son who remained home and acted honorably was not noticed. The son who acted selfishly, wasted all his money but repented receives his father’s forgiveness and the “fatted calf” dinner. How do we reward the good son?

    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, I hope this comment posts after your question on the reward for the elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable. That concern enables me to say that I am not talking about a LEGAL reward (to be given on the basis of law), but a JUST reward. As I said in my prior comment, we need a higher authority than law or profit to know what justice is. One serious difficulty in thinking about justice is to consider law and justice equivalent. They are not. There can be unjust laws, and unjust application of law even when the law is just or neutral.

      In the Prodigal Son parable, each son in justice has a claim to half his father’s property when the father dies. The prodigal asks for his share early, and the father (not required by either law or justice to consent) agrees to the request. What is not considered here is the filial duty of the son to his father, and the additional duty he should owe in gratitude for the special favor shown him. He does his father and brother no injustice by taking half the property, but his subsequent conduct sins against filial piety and the gratitude justly owed a benefactor. The elder son doesn’t earn any reward to be inherited; he has full claim to everything his father owns at death. He deserves a reward for dutiful attendance on his father, but he never asks for anything; rather, he complains that his father never gives him anything. The older brother, like the younger, incurs a debt of gratitude if he receives a gift during his father’s lifetime–whether or not he asks for it. If the father rewards his dutiful filial piety in staying at home, the gift comes from love rather than law or justice. The elder son complains of not feeling loved, but his father is not unjust. The father can do what he likes with his property as long as he lives. The real point of contention is whether justice demands the joy the father expresses when the prodigal son returns. The father says, “We must rejoice,” but why? The answer again must be love rather than justice, but this time it is more than the love owed to another person. Our love for God demands joy in a moral conversion, whether or not we benefit from it.

      To apply this to your poem, Brian, we can ask what reward the father there deserves for his love and care for his son. And who can grant this reward? Justice requires the son to return his father’s love, and that is clearly something the father desires, but law cannot force the son to do this. Law can grant the father custody of the son, but the law does this on the basis of competing claims (father, mother, grandparents, the state acting by means of assigned foster parents). The father realizes his claim is impaired by past offenses of a moral or legal nature. And law at different times and places judges the same claims in different lights. At present, the “best interest of the child” is the defining factor, but that is subjective. Law may consider the child’s welfare to be his future ability to fit into the dominant society. The wealth, culture, politics, language, and religion of claimants may be more important than love for the child. And the judge is unlikely to consider God’s plan for the child’s life as warranting any concern.

      In the more general question about just rewards for the good, I would say we need to return to the traditional concept of honor. We receive honor when we fulfill duties in a way that goes beyond requirements (school graduation with honors), or accept and perform duties that involve risk or sacrifice (serving with honor in the military). Honor exceeds socially recognized standards of justice, but worthy standards are necessary. Otherwise (as with many activities in our time), honor and praise become meaningless. With standards adjusted to individual abilities, everyone receives rewards, but in this situation honor and meaningful praise are unthinkable.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Dear Margaret, I’m very pleased that you took the time to elaborate on the subject of Justice and how much it differs from Legal Reward/Consequence. You’ve articulated a distinction that is quite deep and worthy of a book let alone a comment on a poem! I’m completely with you on the idea that law and justice are NOT equivalent.

        On the subject of the Prodigal Son and his elder brother, you also offer something deep and memorable: “Our love for God demands joy in a moral conversion, whether or not we benefit from it.” You are so right and this is something I will long remember and, perhaps, share with my priest. It explains the parable in a way that I’ve never heard before and gets to the very crux of it.

        On the subject of child custody hearings, you correctly identify the legal test as being “the best interests of the child.” The analysis, however, is decidedly secular and tends to focus on factors like financial stability, educational background, profession, etc. Not only is the judge “unlikely” to consider God’s plan for the child’s life – it would probably be considered reversible error to bring that topic into the analysis at all. Imagine that – what is probably the single most important factor in determining who a person will someday be is not only considered irrelevant but actually detrimental.

        The traditional concept of honor is a strong basis for a system of justice and reward. It is subjective, to a large degree, and yet it is crucial to a moral society. Your peeve about standards being adjusted to individual abilities where everyone gets a gold star is a peeve I share. Where is the incentive to excel? And isn’t failure a strong motivator to improve? Your comment has yielded so much food for thought!

  5. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, your beautiful comment not only has me smiling but has brought tears to my eyes. You understand fully what I was most concerned about in this poem — the character of the father, his love for his young son, his love for the place where he has lived his whole life, his worries about an unjust legal system and his strong, tested faith. The tears you’ve inspired are due to your characterization of this man as “heroic.” Thank you for seeing that. In my book he is indeed a man of great stature who has overcome something terrible and whose heart is capable of great love and great faith. But anyone looking at him through the wrong eyes would see a very humble, poor man with calloused hands, not much education and a slow old car listening to unsophisticated, traditional Mexican music — and yet a man of deep faith. That’s how it often is. Sometimes the people who have nothing materially and who lack sophistication can have a great deal to teach us spiritually. And on the subject of the man’s humility, that’s why I wrote the poem in blank verse rather than rhymes — I believe intricacy of rhyme in a poem bespeaks a certain level of education and sophistication. A man with neither would speak more plainly.

    As for your compliment regarding my New Mexico poetic credentials — I’m deeply honored, Margaret. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Joshua C. Frank

    Great poem! I can really see the New Mexico landscape (and what you describe is much more beautiful than what I saw on I-10) and the father’s love for his son. I can see what Margaret means about you being New Mexico’s state poet. I must be the only one who didn’t pick up on the fact that it was about a custody hearing… I pictured his son being sick, the two of them headed to the hospital, and the father waiting to hear whether his son would live.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Josh! Yeah, that segment of I-10 that goes through New Mexico between El Paso, TX and Tucson, AZ isn’t the most scenic of routes. I-25 south has some pretty great vistas, though.

      Reply
  7. Cynthia Erlandson

    What a very moving narrative, Brian. “With brilliant hues that look just like your soul” — wow, what a beautiful way to show how much the father loves the child. I did sense that you had a good reason to write in blank verse here, and I think it works perfectly.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Cynthia. I’m glad the blank verse works for you, and the “soul” line may be my favorite in the poem so I’m glad you liked that one too!

      Reply
  8. Paul Freeman

    To me this poem read like the opening of a film. It’s extremely vivid and memorable. I read the custody battle part of the poem the same as Joseph did. You’ve left just enough to the reader to figure it out. Great stuff.

    Quite strangely, I’m currently writing some prose set in that part of the world, Las Cruces getting a mention.

    Thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Paul. To write something that you consider cinematic is a huge compliment! I’ll look forward to reading your work that mentions Las Cruces!

      Reply
  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, the title drew me in. It showcases the poem perfectly… the soothing song of a father’s heartfelt words of love to his precious sleeping son; the song of appreciation for the surrounding beauty of his homeland; the whispered song of the troubled soul spurred on by faith. Although the poem is written in blank verse, which is effective for the reasons you outline, the unexpected cry/sky rhyme coupled with the colorful images of the sky (just like the son’s soul) flares with splendor seen through tears… and I love the skillful use of internal rhyme: “We’re passed by speeding cars with license plates / from richer states…” creating a bold rhythm… I feel the drum of those rolling wheels. But the most beautiful aspect of this admirably crafted poem is the sentiment… the deep and pure love a father has for his son… the rawness of it is tangible. I adore the way the son is loved to the sky “Like miracles which feed my weary faith” … breathtaking and magnificent words that shine with a love the human heart craves… a heavenly love. Brian this poem is magnificent. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, thank you so much for this generous comment which has given me a broad smile. You always have a strong handle on my techniques as well as themes. I’m glad that you found it to be heartfelt and I’m also glad that you recognized some of the effort I put into making a difficult poem look effortless. In the absence of end rhymes, I felt like some internal rhyme would add some music to this “lullaby.” So, for example, I repeated “or” sounds in the lines ” I hear you softly snore./We pass Socorro, hours more of nowhere.” And I echoed the 23rd Psalm when mentioning “the shadowed valleys but my heart says do not fear.” But most of all, I’m grateful for your appreciation of the “love” theme of this poem. It is indeed a song of love between a father and his son and I’m so very pleased that it moved you. Thank you!

      Reply
  10. Norma Pain

    Such a beautiful poem. I hardly noticed the lack of end-rhymes, I was so involved in the sentiments which brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for this poem Brian and I agree with Jeff’s suggestion that a sequel to this story would be amazing.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Norma. I’ll start thinking about that sequel. I’d like to find out how it turns out myself!

      Reply
  11. Yael

    An outstanding poem which makes for an enriching reading experience, thank you very much!

    Reply
  12. Kathleen M Farrell

    Brian,

    “Beyond the pines, ah, there beyond, there was beauty for the spirit to soar in.” D.H. Lawrence wrote about The Land of Enchantment. Your lovely poem brought back memories of my time in New Mexico – mysterious at dawn and at dusk, brooding in the heat of the day. Thank you for that.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      I love this comment! Thank you, Kathleen! I’m glad you have lovely memories of New Mexico. Thank you also for bringing up Lawrence. Not everyone knows that D.H. Lawrence lived in northern New Mexico (Taos) during the 1920s. His ranch is still maintained and on the National Register of Historical Places. Lawrence and his wife bequeathed the D.H. Lawrence Ranch to the University of New Mexico which is responsible for maintaining it. After Lawrence died in Italy his widow, Frieda, brought his ashes here which remain in a shrine on the ranch property.

      Reply

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