Analysis of Poem "To The Desert" by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Updated on April 18, 2020
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Benjamin Alire Saenz
Benjamin Alire Saenz | Source

Benjamin Alire Saenz and a Summary of "To The Desert"

"To The Desert" is a short, free verse poem that focuses on spirituality and redemption, using the desert as a metaphor for trial, challenge, and preparation.

It is heavily influenced by one of John Donne's Divine Meditations 14 (or Holy Sonnets)—"Batter my heart, Three Person'd God"—written in the early 17th century:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

This poem has at its base the story of Christ's torment in the wilderness, as portrayed in the Bible.

According to the New Testament (Mark 1: 12/13), Jesus Christ went out into the desert to fast for 40 days and nights, resisting Satan's material temptations before returning to the everyday world in spiritual triumph.

This is the Christian idea of facing the demons inside by going out into the desert, emptying the soul of its nasties and returning refreshed and stronger.

'I like the idea of salvific history. Biblical history is salvific history. And it isn't without suffering. You know, the Old Testament, forty years of wandering the desert? Even the journey of Christ took place in the desert. That's where he meets his demons. That's where he meets his God. And he can't meet one without the other. And that's the border. And that's the desert. Right?'

—Benjamin Alire Saenz (www.texasmonthly.com)

So essentially this poem's theme is salvation, emptying the self of sin, facing up to weaknesses before overcoming them.

This is very much a poem based on personal experience - Saenz acknowledging that his demons had to be slayed over time as he battled against alcohol and inner doubt.

In the poem, the speaker's craving for a relationship with God is clear...there is a thirst and hunger for spiritual fulfillment.

Raised a catholic on a cotton farm in New Mexico, the poet had to work hard in his younger days to help his family before he could break out and start to study. After time spent in the priesthood he eventually began to consider writing as a serious profession.

Novels and short stories followed, as well as poems, and books for young adults. Saenz also became an academic, teaching at university in El Paso, where he resides.

As one critic, Luis Alberta Urrea, wrote:

'The work of Benjamin Alire Saenz is rooted firmly on the border, in that space between the sacred and profane. He speaks for us all, and he speaks hard truths.'

To The Desert

I came to you one rainless August night.
You taught me how to live without the rain.
You are thirst and thirst is all I know.
You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,
The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand
Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
You wrap your name tight around my ribs
And keep me warm. I was born for you.
Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.
I wake to you at dawn. Never break your
Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,
Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,
I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.

Analysis of "To The Desert"

"To The Desert" is a fourteen-line poem, free verse, so it has no set rhyme scheme but does have a varied metre.

On the page it resembles a formal sonnet, which could be the intention of the poet as sonnets are associated with relationships, love and emotional drama. However, it does not follow any traditional sonnet's internal structure and as has been mentioned, there is no rhyme.

The first person speaker states in the opening line that it was a rainless August night when this quest for understanding began.

Addressing the desert directly in the second line, the speaker acknowledges that the desert is a teacher - you - the desert 'survives' even though it does not rain. So here the metaphor is forming as the personal relationship builds.

The speaker is identifying with the desert, symbol of hard time, hard life, of challenge both physically and spiritually.

The third line reinforces this idea of the desert being an essential, an integral part of existence for the speaker. Desert environments are usually dry, arid, wind-swept places where hardly anything green grows, where only exceptionally hardy and well adapted creatures survive.

The desert is thirst (is in need of water, rain)...the speaker also. They are one.

The fourth line is a description of a typical desert, the one where the poet has trod in real time. Who wouldn't be thirsty in such a terrain?

The idea of the speaker journeying through the desert continues in line five as a breeze is blown into the speaker's mouth, giving an image not unlike that of God breathing life into the first human.

That word brand conjures up heat, pain and ownership. The sixth and seventh lines are about the power of the desert, the primitive purification the speaker feels as the elements physically alter him.

He is made anew. Time spent in the desert facing up to these basic forces of nature, living with them, accepting them as part of life, lead to transformation.

Lines eight and nine bring home the tremendous physicality involved, the language underlining the speakers closeness to the desert...wrap, tight, around...the speaker's being is one with the desert.

In the twelfth and thirteenth lines Spanish is used reflecting the poet's Mexican heritage. He is asking for salvation from God, a parallel with Christ's experience in the wilderness.

Finally, the last line is an allusion to the catholic eucharist ritual, where the bread is Christ's body, (from the last supper), the speaker wishing to be the water for the desert's thirst.

Spanish Phrases in the Poem

Sálvame, mi dios, (Save me, God)

Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, (Swallow me, my land. Save, swallow)

© 2020 Andrew Spacey

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