The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name
by Philip Harris
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$12.00 ISBN 978-0-9994471-0-9
By Noah Sanders
The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name—the new chapbook by Bay Area poet Philip Harris—is as much a collection of short poems as it a piece of portraiture. It feels as if Harris is writing himself into existence using the overlapping spillover of moments from his own life, his mother’s life, and her mother’s life before as his medium. The author—half-white, half-Mexican, and gay—uses singular moments of his life, and of those who came before, to showcase his own part in a complicated cultural upbringing and how it birthed the complex human he has become. Named Felipe Juan by his mother’s Mexican side of the family, Harris grows up straddling two different worlds, his footing never solid as he navigates the path forward. His coming to terms with own homosexuality further adds even more to his internal life experiences. As an adult, though, Harris is oftentimes seen as just being white and it isn’t that The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name seeks to refute that, but rather to plunge beneath the surface, exposing the intricacies of Harris himself and of the average human experience.
In the opening section, Harris’ mother asks him if he thinks Gloria Estefan is “cute,” probing her young son to see if he might be gay. Harris writes, “I don’t know yet about systemic racism, internalized homophobia, heteronormativity, internalized racism, oppression, gender politics.” He just wants to be a kid that fits in and to do so he tells his Mexican mother that, no, Estefan has that “ugly Mexican look.” It is a small, uneventful memory, but Harris wields it as a the harbinger for what will come. On the surface this is a simple moment but by pulling it gently apart Harris reveals the want and the need to assimilate ourselves into normative culture and the pain caused in doing so. There is no lack of small pains in the book; a woman at party tells Harris’ mother she’s lucky for marrying a white man, for “marrying up.” “Another offense to file away,” Harris writes, “Another memory to play over and again.” In his own life, Harris recalls the first time someone called him a fag, the loss of his virginity to two men in a public sauna, the dropping of his Mexican surname to appease a pregnancy magazine editor—the through line of pain spiraling from his mother all the way up the generational ladder.
There is a richness to The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name that belies its slim size. The author, in what has to amount to less than 10,000 words, spins not only his own story, but those of the individuals and the culture that formed him. This is Harris’ story, but the only way to tell it is to fill in the detail, to draw the portrait of where and who he came from. Harris writes with a wistful nostalgia at play—these are lyrical explorations of single moments that gently lift from the page—but Harris grounds his more poetic tendencies with the textured grit of reality, simple and small. A ventilator is “loud, breathing God’s wind into” the small lungs of his dying grandmother; he describes his great-uncle Papa Juan as a man who, “hugged hard, his gold jewelry catching the sun as he handed me a twenty dollar bill.” He describes the Mexican spirit La Llorona—a woman who steals children—as a “woman dressed in all white, her hair flowing in the absent winds of Southern California,” seen as he “looked at porn alone in the thin hours of the morning.” In doing so—colliding lyricism and reality—Harris deepens the picture of himself—a poet who grew up eating freshly slaughtered and grilled lamb in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a human being splayed out across a spectrum of varied experiences. The language, rough and delicate within the same sentence, enriches his personal narrative, becoming as much a part of his story as anything else.
In forming a picture of himself far beyond superficial descriptors, one of layered cultural narratives and generational tradition and trauma passed down through the family, Harris seems to be saying that the identities we push forward into public are never so simple. Instead, Harris, and all of us, are layer upon layer of experience, culture and connection pushed outwards through a specific perspective. Regardless of how he is seen, he’s much more than meets the eye. As Harris himself writes, that though his friends see his “passable” whiteness he wonders if they will ever know the person who “listens to mariachi music and cries, or feels at home in mini-mall salons with women speaking only Spanish, or hears his abuelita’s laugh in every crunch of a fried tortilla, or who used to bullied for being gay.” He wonders if they’ll ever know him.