About a Poem: Naomi Shihab Nye on Rosemary Catacalos’ “Homesteaders”

About a Poem: Naomi Shihab Nye analyzes Rosemary Catacalos’ poem, “Homesteaders”.

Naomi Shihab Nye
1 September 2013


They came for the water,
came to its sleeping place
here in the bed of an old sea,
the dream of the water.
They sank hand and tool into
soil where the bubble of springs
gave off hope, fresh and long,
the song of the water.
Babies and crops ripened
where they settled,
where they married their sweat
in the ancient wedding,
the blessing of the water.
They made houses of limestone
and adobe, locked together blocks
descended from shells and coral,
houses of the bones of the water,
shelter of the water.
And they swallowed the life
of the lime in the water,
sucked its mineral up
into their own bones
which grew strong as the water,
the gift of the water.

All along the counties they lay,
mouth to mouth with the water,
fattened in the smile of the water,
the light of the water,
water flushed pure through the
spine and ribs of the birth of life,
the old ocean,
the stone,
the home of the water.

—from Again For the First Time, 1984 and 2013, Wings Press.

Poetry pulls us toward sources—of memory, loss, creation, beauty, or peculiarly curious juxtaposition. Poetry says, things don’t always make sense or fit together in ways we might have dreamed or preferred, but sometimes this layered, leaping language we love may offer healing cure or comforting refreshment. Poetry as wellspring—we want to camp near the spirit it opens in us, make a small, tidy fire beside the bubbling source of being and thinking, inside the quietly mindful air.

In her poem “Homesteaders,” Rosemary Catacalos, who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, of Greek and Mexican ancestry and has spent most of her life here, casts an eye back toward earlier inhabitants of this lovely green region, warm much of the year. (This gentle, soft-aired city is frequently surprising to visitors who come to south-central Texas expecting the flat panhandle.) Catacalos’ poem invokes the potent power of the underground aquifer that made human life here possible at all—the source of life in its own deep chamber, which we never even see.

A city famous for its elegant, well-tended river, San Antonio continues to pay close attention to the water resource underground, insisting on highly particular summer water rationing. (Depending on your address, you get only a few hours a week to water with a sprinkler or irrigation system.) I love Catacalos’ repeated chant-chorus “of the water,” which creates a dreamy rhapsody akin to the spell people sometimes feel standing on a beach. The poem feels like a blessing, a prayer.

Recently, after our usual months of semi-drought, this city saw a rare day of nine to twelve inches of rain. The aquifer rose dramatically and ever since, the ground seems to be holding its own note of gratitude—the hundredyear- old pecan trees feel refreshed in their airy motions. This is how people feel sometimes when, after a long hiatus, they give themselves the gift of reading or writing poetry again. One thing quite agreeable about poetry is it’s short—you can sneak it in. No silly excuses about “not having time” to read any… a poem dips a reader deeply and quickly into a wellspring of text and remembering, nourishing us so intimately that no one else may even guess why we feel changed.

And what a perfect poem to signify the republication of the 2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos’ exquisite book of poems, Again for the First Time, originally published nearly thirty years ago in New Mexico, now being printed in a new edition from Wings Press, San Antonio. Time, water, and wings—we praise the loud doves that awaken us daily in this city’s old neighborhoods. Alongside them, we offer our chorus of thanksgiving and gentle bows.