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This Broad Place of Redemption

What happens to a wayward son with a prodigal history when he returns to his hometown to make an honest reckoning of his life?  Manny Moreno’s latest book of poems, Longview Road, is a look at that life and is, like his previous books (The Bridge is Gone, The Elder, and Scared), a small miracle.   No one should be fooled by the poet’s humility and understatement:  this is a poetry that saves lives. 

Moreno is not just a Central Valley poet, however, but also an accomplished photographer and painter, so first the reader lingers on the exquisite cover:  a Moreno photograph of his niece looking out the door of a country shack in which his family spent years after the untimely death of his father.  The shack, “we affectionately knew as home…. stands a sapped up elder/ready to cross over/a hollowed bone” (“Starting Out from Longview Road”).   

What kind of world does an uncle draw from this hollowed bone, from memory and experience, that might help a young girl (already aspiring to womanhood but still clutching a stuffed animal) so that she and her cousins can make it safely into adulthood? It is not a world without its harsh, even brutal, truths, but the first poems reconstruct a lyrical, even humorous, child’s view of the rural California town Moreno grew up in, “the center of our universe/in the corazonof Livingston,” where “Louie’s muddy dairy/across the street was home to all the world’s flies and a stumblin’ cow named One-Eyed Pete/where manure owned the air like stinky feet.”  This is the pre-adolescent small town life of “Leave it to Beaver/Captain Kangaroo/and Mr. Magoo/when ethyl at/the Mohawk was/two-bits a gallon/a Superman comic/at Carlos Market/a dime/when a cartoon/two flicks/popcorn and a Nehi pop/ran less than a buck/at Court Theater….” (“Hi”).

 In this childhood home, Yaqui and Tarascan grandparents, uprooted by history, shield children from hunger by cultivating lush kitchen gardens and protect them from hostile forces by lighting blue votives and murmuring early morning prayers to La Virgen at St. Jude’s.  The uncles keep their World War II heroism to themselves until their children hear of their bravery in eulogies.  Grandfathers plant willows and fruit trees, help build families a house, give boys the first tomato of the season and discourage them from sampling a habanero.  They banish false identities with gentle but persistent truth-telling as when Grandpa Manuel tells the boy buckaroo who’d rather be on the side of the winning cowboys, “Tu eres indio, Yaqui/Tarascan/Never forget/Never be ashamed” (“Except for Tonto”). 

But the family is also ravaged by alcoholism, and Moreno gets his first sip of wine when he is nine (“Story of the Sips”).  Readers of Scared will be familiar with the struggles of the angry adolescent and adult Moreno with drugs, alcohol, and the hard life on the streets in Stockton.  And the readers of The Elder will know that Moreno’s singular voice was rescued from annihilation by the Indian elders who founded Three Rivers Lodge, a rehabilitation facility in Manteca. It is these elders and the Indian communities of the Native American Church and his Gourd Clan, as well as those who support him in keeping his vow to Sundance at Green Grass five times, who break the self-destructive cycle and confirm his Indigenous identity and belonging to a deeper historical community.  They teach him how to care for a fire, fix an eagle bone whistle, drum and sing.  They teach him about ceremony, about “offering cedar and tobacco to wash off the bad medicines of the world.”  

There is no better depiction of Livingston than what we find in Moreno’s poetry. It is at once beautifully evocative of a simpler time and bristling with devastating historical detail.   Livingston in the 1960s and 1970s is “a little world blending/of Rainbow Bread and tortillas/chorizo and hot dogs/Motown and Mariachis/Oldies and Rancheras/the whole pinche cha-cha” (“First Street”), but it is also a town oozing with bars: “Viva Mexico and El Latino/White Front and Gay Nineties/El Charro and La Gloria/Tony’s Corner and The Melody Inn/ in these dim dingy dumps/ we clicked our horny heels” (“Jukeboxes”).  It is also in Livingston that the young poet begins to understand the backbreaking labor of brown adults and children in the tomato and sweet potato fields (“Skin Color Matters”), even as he joins them there and later in their struggle for a living wage (“The Sun Declares” and “People of the Sun”). One of the most moving poems is “The Poor Help the Poor”:  two boys who live in a shack “three times uglier than ours,” come to ask if they can have one of the chickens running loose.  The narrator says, “Take two/but the older boy replies:/Gracias, but we got papitas already/and ‘ama made tortillas too.”  You don’t take more than you need.  The poet understands the dream of the struggle even more after the community helps build his family a home: “On First Street life was/a new beginning/all things seemed possible/no more camps/no more shacks/this block was ours” (“Livingston 1969”).

Sober for over two decades, Moreno does not romanticize the dead ends of drug and alcohol addiction or the isolation and self-scrutiny of sobriety: “Do I forgive myself/for decades/drinking/doping/car wrecks/emergency rooms/detox-recovery centers/jails/for the scuffles/in rage and/shame and pain/I brought my mother/family and people/I hurt along the way?/Do I forgive/the American dreams/invisible/undeniable borders/of hate/bigotry/closed doors/disappointments/cultural trauma?” (“The Pain of Forgiving”) The poet’s struggles with self-destruction and self-hatred--the fruits of violent prejudice and insurmountable poverty--fuel his compassion for friends who could not make it out of the depths of their own despair.  They are a constant presence, the specter of what he did not become, in his poems: “he slopped up brew like kool aid/slammed black tar/speed-balled/chased them all down guzzling JD/a lifetime career/until there was nowhere more to poke and his liver pickled up/a pickle can’t go back and be/a cucumber again” (“Nothing Left to Lose”).  

 In another poem, a song on the car radio brings back the thrilling camaraderie  of raucous Saturday nights and the poet addresses his homies, asking them if they remember “struttin’ too cool/young peacocks all bad ass/Avon cologned/to the Portuguese Hall/like we owned it all/decked out in platform boots and polyester shirts/disco’ing here and disco’ing there/cuttin’ up the floor to the soulful/ jams of the Rhythm Blenders/to pick up on the spiced-up flames?”  And do they remember “downtown Merced amped up/buzzin’ in crazy laughter/trippin/ on Santana conga vibes/coming of age/through marijuana eyes?”  The chasm between a sober Moreno and buddies still living the high life is bridged for as long as the song lasts: “Catch you on the rebound, homies/the light turned green/ and the song/on the radio/is over” (“The Song is Over”).

            The autobiographical poems of Longview Road express a hard-won wisdom and equilibrium.  The long view Moreno offers the younger members of his family includes clear-eyed rootedness in place and family, love of and respect for Indigenous community and ceremony, courage to examine dishonest and self-destructive choices, compassion for those consumed by self-hatred, the power of prayer, and the pain of forgiving.  “This is what life is like for now/here on Longview Road…. Here is where the spirits led me back to/Here to this broad place of redemption.”

            In 2018 Moreno’s family marked one hundred years of residence in Stanislaus and Merced counties.  Perhaps one day Livingston will acknowledge its unofficial laureate, son of its sandy plain, keeper of just one vibrant page of its collective history. Without affectionate and measured voices like his and those of Livingston’s diverse community, past and present, the picture of this storied California town will remain incomplete.  

                                                                                                            Lillian Vallee

                                                                                                            Modesto 2021