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About this poet

Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in Doña Ana County, New Mexico, in 1954 and grew up on a small farm. His parents lost the farm when he was in the fourth grade, and he worked odd jobs to supplement the family’s income.

After graduating from high school in 1972, he received a BA from the St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in 1977, then went on to study theology at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He then moved to El Paso, Texas, to serve as a priest, but he was drawn to writing, and in 1985 he left the priesthood.

He received an MA in creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from the University of Stanford. In 1991, he published his first collection of poetry, Calendar of Dust (Broken Moon Press, 1991), which won an American Book Award.

He is the author of four additional poetry collections, including The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), Dreaming the End of the War (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), and Dark and Perfect Angels (Cinco Puntos Press, 1993), which won a Southwest Book Award from the Border Librarians Association.  He has also written numerous children’s books, some bilingual, and works of literary fiction, including Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012), which was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Sáenz’s poetry is characterized by his relationship to the El Paso area’s landscape and culture and informed by his personal struggles with trauma and addiction. Luis Alberto Urrea says, “The work of Benjamin Alire Sáenz is rooted firmly on the border, in that space between the sacred and profane. He speaks for us all, and he speaks hard truths.” Sáenz is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award and two Lambda Literary Awards, and in 2010 Poets & Writers Magazine included him among “Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World.” He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Selected Bibliography

The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
Dreaming the End of the War (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
Dark and Perfect Angels (Cinco Puntos Press, 1993)
Calendar of Dust (Broken Moon Press, 1991)

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012)
Carry Me Like Water (Hyperion, 1995)

The Fifth Dream: Bullets and Deserts and Borders

A man is walking toward me.
He is alone.
He has been walking through the desert.
He has been walking for days.
He has been walking for years.
His lips are dry
and cracking
like a piece of spent soil.
I can see his open wounds.
His eyes are dark
as a Tanzanian night.

He discovers I have been watching
though he has long ceased to care
what others see. I ask him
his name, ask him what
has brought him here, ask
him to name
his angers and his loves.
                        He opens his mouth
to speak—
but just as his words hit
the air, a bullet
pierces his heart.

                        I do not know
the country
of this man’s birth. I only know
that he is from
the desert. He has the worn
look of despair
that only rainless days can give.
That is all I know.
He might have been born
in Jerusalem. He might have been
born in Egypt. He might
have been the direct descendant
of a pharaoh. His name
might have been Ptolemy.
His name might have been
Moses. Or Jesus.
Or Muhammad.
He might have been a prophet.
He might have been a common thief.
He might have been a terrorist
or he might have been just
another man destined
to be worn down
by the ceaseless, callous storms.
He might have come
from a country called Afghanistan.
He might have been from Mexico.

He might have been
looking for a well.
His dreams were made of water.
His lips touching
that is what he was dreaming.

I can still hear the sound of the bullet.


The man reappears.
It does not matter
that I do not want him
in my dreams. He is
searching through the rubble
of what was once his house.
There are no tears on his
face. His lips still yearn
for water.


I wake. I begin to believe
that the man has escaped
from Auschwitz. Perhaps he sinned
against the Nazis or because
he was a collaborator or because
he was Jewish
or because he loved another man.
He has come
to the desert looking
for a place he can call home.
I fall asleep trying
to give the man a name.


The man is now
walking toward a city
that is no longer there.


I am the man.
I see clearly. I am
awake now.
It is me. It has taken me
a long time to know this.
I am a Palestinian.
I am an Israeli.
I am a Mexican.
I am an American.
I am a busboy in a tall building
that is about to collapse.
I am attending a Seder and I am
tasting my last bitter
herb. I am a boy who has learned
all his prayers. I am bowing
toward Mecca in a house
whose roof will soon collapse
on my small frame.
I am a servant. I shine shoes
and wash the feet
of the rich. I am an illegal.
I am a Mexican who hates all Americans.
I am an American who hates all Mexicans.
I am a Palestinian who hates all Israelis.
I am an Israeli who hates all Palestinians.
I am a Palestinian Jew who hates himself.

I am dying of all this knowledge.
I am dying of thirst.
I am a river that will never know water again.
I am becoming dust.


I am walking toward my home.
Mexico City? Washington?
Mecca? Jerusalem?
I don’t know. I don’t know.


I am walking in the desert.

I see that I am reaching a border.

A bullet is piercing my heart.

Used with permission by Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org

Used with permission by Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz, born in New Mexico in 1954, is the author of several poetry collections and novels. He lives in El Paso, and his work is often characterized by his relationshop to the southwestern landscape.

by this poet

Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit
the inferiority of his culture...

—Frantz Fanon
And there are days when storms hover
Over my house, their brooding just this side of rage, 
An open hand about to slap a face. You won't believe me

When I tell