Monday, December 5, 2011
A Vibrant Voice: A Poetry Review of Turtle Island to Abya Yala by Mollye Miller
What is a vibrant voice? How does a vibrant voice sound in a poem? Is it light and pure? Bold and enigmatic? In music it is evident when a singer captures our attention, if not our souls, by the sheer voluminous power of her song. In a poem, a vibrant voice is often harder to locate, but is equally as resplendent. For me, a vibrant voice in a poem startles me with clarity, force, and accurate words. Appearing toward the end of Turtle Island to Abya Yala, a poetry and art anthology edited by Mica Valdez, stands a poem by LeAndra Bitsie. One part of Bitsie’s poem, “Indigenous Woman: Portrait of a Lady,” reads:
To be of truth
It’s your way
Like the shine from the stars
The beauty in bead work
The beauty of grandma
It’s my way
To keep negativity as a stranger
To never be jealous, envious, vindictive
To never ever snag a fella
But instead I choose to snag my dreams, ambitions,
To be a light
Bitsie has a vibrant voice, and a poem that indeed shines a light on this collection of poetry by Latina and Native American women. The women writers in the collection are powerful thinkers and communicators with poignant, emotional prowess. Combatting and ultimately learning how to overcome discrimination, hardship, heartache, horrific ancestral histories, and the whole list of tragedies, comedies and joys included in any human life, of course, these artists choose to make something original out of their human stories.
Instead of sharing the saga of her hardship with us, the poet speaks to us in processed tones: each poet has already done the work of processing her pain and sadness (though it still lives within her and her poems). That is, each poet in this collection—whether or not you like all of their styles, voices, and subject matter—is on her way toward, or has already arrived at, a self-sustaining and self-actualized presence. How many artists do you know today that come across as being completely self-accepting? These writers speak to us in sharp, quill-like feelings we can understand, and join in on lamenting or celebrating.
In a poem by Cassandra P. Rendon called “(my body in Anishinaabe: niiyaw),” she celebrates the beauty of the body and the strength of the will. In a vibrant voice, she writes about her desire, “to get away/from centuries of being pushed/into a tree/onto the ground/and torn apart.” In the poem “Within Me” by Alethea Chamberlain, however, the speaker wishes people would truly see her, but admits that instead people choose to “only see a tree in the field/they don’t see her strength and will.” Toward the end of the poem the speaker states, “She fights for her existence./They will not win; this she knows.”
Many of the poems in the collection are a troubling mixture of anger, bitterness, sex, solitude, survivance, peace, aggression, self-assertion, self-love, love-love, and rage.
For instance, in Ire’ne Lara Silva’s provocative poem “Love of People,” she describes the healthy reasons for rage; that is, she articulates to us why and how she has accepted the rage she feels for the atrocities committed against her, or her speaker’s, family. To accept ones’ emotions is a powerful feat in itself, a life-changing one. As Silva suggests, though, one must be careful with love, though it is “like a river” and with our behaviors, too. In one part of the poem, she describes, “rage like the grief that can’t be/forgotten only made into machetes/ rusty with llanto not to kill but to cut/rage like love of people like pain in/the sleep of night time.”
In another section of the poem—which is all in block form with spacing between shifts in purpose or mood—Silva articulates how she was, in fact, taught rage and how it has, in turn, taught her: “the rage I was taught first the/rage between languages between people/if I had been born into a world with softer/ edges been a child outside of the pot’s boiling water love would not/transformformingform to rage but love/ in this language is not enough rage a/ rage a co-rage a courage a coraje.”
With her inventive play with language—both Spanish and English—she invites questions, strong reactions and visceral feelings of pain, coupled with courage. Throughout Turtle Island, and in poetry in general, it is often difficult to decipher which story a poet wants to tell most, which exact portion of her life she wants to reveal on the page. In turn, it is also tricky to know the emotion she most urgently wants to express. At least to these Native American and Latina poets, it seems not choosing one subject to concentrate on—much less one emotion—steered them away from telling only half-truths. In other words, each poet chose a wide selection of subjects and emotions to communicate to readers the whole truth, or at least the truth as it lives and breathes in her.
Some of the weaker lines in the poems as a whole do not interfere much with the powerful, poignant ones. What makes some lines weaker is when the poet simply writes a phrase that borders on a traditional idion or cliché. Lines like “our indigenous tongue” or “Mi sangre recuerda (my blood remembers) are only powerful when paired with lines never before written, as far as I know, in poetry. A few lines in Reva Mariah Gover’s poem, “Desert Moon,” are great examples. Her poem begins, “Dust, brown-red-black./
Fragile./ Strong in the birthing.” That last single line is so original, it makes up for any lines that might border on the ordinary.
Looking at a poem by Karina Gonzalez Amaya called “Cultural Theory 101,” a reader immediately feels compelled to read the poem from start to finish, given the structure of the world she creates. In one line, she writes, “From the depths of my jungle, I breathe truth to palabras (words) long forgotten en rios de lagrimas (rivers of tears).” Amaya then ends her poem with an exuberant, if not fearlessly virulent, “!Presente!,” her declaration of self as truth.
Speaking of truth telling in poetry, as a poet who also knows the difficulty, but ultimate beauty and function, of opening up I will be honest: the poems in Turtle Island are not types of poems I usually read or am drawn toward. I am not Latina or Native American, as you can probably tell by my name. I am an Anglo-American woman, with German, Scottish, English and Norwegian ancestry. But this is where the great equalizer comes in: poetry is one of the greatest art forms for revealing the authentic voice. It doesn’t matter who, what or where you are. If you read or hear a true poem, in translation or even sometimes without, you will hear an authentic voice.
A wonderful example of a poet and poem with authentic voice is Griselda Liz Munoz in “The Earth Says.” This is one of those poems you start reading with one idea or mood in mind, and end up somewhere totally different. Note the beginning lines:
The sun, it shines outside
and as we walk I feel the pull of Earth,
of the ground,
of the ghosts,
living and dead
that still haunt our home.
I lay still at dawn.”
And in the end, Munoz writes:
Your Mexicana: Loca with a wild streak
Crazy bitch in arracadas and heels in tight jeans,
makes love to you like a howling wolf in heat
and when you’re done she blesses your sleep
Your Mexican woman, that’s me.
Your Mexican woman, that’s me.”
I am as surprised by the major mood-shift in the poem as much as I am by the speaker who accomplished it. She pulls of all her masks, all her worries and insecurities of not being good enough, all her fears of rejection, inadequacy, and self-acceptance. When all that filth comes off of her body and her life, she can declare, not once but twice, who she is. It seems to me this is the first time she has answered the question “Who am I?,” with, “I am a Mexican woman.” When she asks again, “Who am I?,” she answers more specifically, “I am myself.”
Essentially, the speaker in Munoz’s poem rejects all the things she will not be. She becomes a form of truth telling of and for herself, and for the man she loves. While the poem has its lesser lines, I admire how boldly Munoz shifts the poem to focus surprisingly not on herself or her partner, but on earthiness and ancestry. She states, mid-poem, “Take heed;/This archetype has teeth!” And, toward the end of the piece:
Mexicanas hold the Earth’s power
We give birth to ancient flowers
We understand the honor that children mean
Your Mexican woman can sense your needs
Your Mexican woman makes rice and beans.”
It’s striking how well the poet glides from the spiritual to the earthy, what we might think of as basic stuff, like cooking dinner. In Munoz’s poem, healthy pride, sex, ancestry, jealousy, food, and the clothes we wear are all synonymous with who we are, which is a spiritual thing: we are who we are because of where we’ve come from, the choices we make, and from love, or the quest to find love. Munoz’s humorous and intensely serious self-love of is admirable. Personally, I’ve never read a poem which such a flux of energy, and range of emotions. Some might say it needs editing, needs focusing, but I say it’s great how it is, much like the poem teaches me to believe.
What I appreciate about this poem is not so much the dreaminess and the escape from the surreal (the world) into the real (the mind and its imagination of time), as much as it is the boldness with which she bangs out these images, feelings and revelations onto the page. I can see coffee mug circle stains on her page of poetry, I can see her crushing the pen into the page to get out lines like, “This archetype has teeth!” When I read, I imagine what stormy or ebullient mood led her to a blank paper. Usually I am wrong in what I imagine to be true, but the imaginative exercise itself helps me get involved in a poem, and maybe it will help you, too.
I’ll turn now to a very different kind of poem titled “Now This Night” written by Sara Marie Ortiz. Here are a few lines from the piece: “O, loss. O, light,” “vast fast-blossoming,” “O, little prism of this,” “to see such light through God,” “histories unwritten, save for the emblazoned/narratives in our skin.” Lines like these make more sense in the poem when you know the subtitle, “Now This Night: November 4th, 2008.” That’s Obama’s election night, or what might have been McCain’s election night, had votes swung the other way.
Ortiz plays amusingly with the “O” in Obama’s name. She does it splendidly when she writes: “Now, the people, now the light, now the night, now-this-O, this, now, this night. Come forth into it.” And stunningly here with, “O, inheritance. O, loss. O, light. O, far away/ radiant. O, this night, O, let this.” Oddly enough, Ortiz (the starting vowel in her name now cannot be ignored) flips her poem at the end, similar to Liz Munoz’s technique—she changes our idea of her motivation for writing.
It seems that while Ortiz’s speaker certainly pinned all her hopes on the “vast fast-blossoming possibility” of Obama’s election, she also hoped with all the poem’s intensity that the loved one she was with in a hospital would survive. What we thought was a cheer for Obama, for the nation, was actually a powerfully gentle prayer for a person she loves: “You are an estuary of fluid light/in this cold, vast, dark desert of night.” She also introduces survivance, a belief held by many indigenous Natives, of having an active sense of presence over historical absence, racism, and oblivion (Gerald Robert Vizenor, Survivance: narratives of Native presence). Then we enter the narrow “raw nerve in a dark hospital room.” The speaker admits, in a sharp and sturdy line, “Not enough money/the world to keep her alive for the world: no insurance, no.” Ortiz plants us in a desert wishing for a democratic election. Then she drops us into a hospital where people genuinely hope and pray more than in any other place. When it comes to life or death we have no biases—it is light over shadow; it is life we want.
In my second-to-last poem review, I’ll look at a more traditional love poem, which I briefly mentioned earlier. “Desert Moon” by Reva Mariah Gover starts with a beautiful construction. The physical look of the poem and the words drew me in, and I’m confident they will draw others in, too:
My story begins—razor, desert mountains,
high, pale and translucent
firm in the morning blue.
These opening lines could be the whole poem. Like a landscape photographer, Gover has given us so much to look at and admire all in one glimpse. While the rest of the poem could be sharper in some places—to match the powerful opening—“pearls” exist in the poem that make it worth reading twice, three times and more to appreciate its fullness.
I find this to be a poem I am familiar with—and I imagine other readers will think so too—because of the strange and simple, and at times frightening, language. This playing with language and meaning, which I call “pearls,” define for me the spontaneous ghost-nature of writing a poem. Like creating a riff on a piano or guitar, the musician closes her eyes and instinctually finds the notes she wants—and each one sings. Painters often choose and mix colors based on an emotion, an idea, or drive. When the painter finishes her work and puts down her brushes, she sees that she has created something sensational, though she can’t quite tell what it is. The same thing happens in poetry with words. If I write a phrase I truly want and need to say, even if it has no meaning outside of the poem itself, it is a pearl. Reva Mariah Gover’s pearls include “sight-images of your hands,” “dust...strong in the birthing” and “your desert moon is carved into.”
I appreciate how Gover lets herself shimmer in the landscape she set up in the beginning; she does not leave us alone to wander the desert, and then the unknown landscape of her mind. I’m not sure who or what it is the speaker “loves” in the poem—is it history? Herself? A man or woman? The mother she speaks to in the end? She writes:
is where you live.
The great breath of Baboquivari
bares your voice.
The granite of this valley
is where you held me.
To note: Baboquivari was a U.S. forest reserve in 1906 in Arizona. In 1908, the government changed it into a composite national forest. It is interesting how Gover chooses to make the landscape specific, how she makes the “granite of this valley” into a home.
In Turtle Island to Abya Yala, Jennifer Elise Foerster’s poem, “Magdalene in the Desert, Part I” is strikingly complete. It is also harrowing and sad. Section four, a pearl-filled section, reads:
If there were horses now, electric
blue on the ridge of these
canyons we dip through,
we would not see them, pressed up
against the moonlight as we are,
our bodies just shadows of doors
where I cannot distinguish
my fingers from yours. Interwoven
in corners, we sleep.
Nets around our feet.
This section could be a poem in and of itself, in how Foerster achieved such a compact and thorough emotional range. However, this is just part of a section of the poem. The entire poem captivates, and is exceptionally warm. This is the kind of poem I celebrate rapturously. First, Foerster’s speaker not only encompasses but wrestles with the human spirit, its countless woes. Secondly, the poem is beautiful. “Shadows of doors,” for example, will stay with me a long time.
The whole Turtle Island to Abya Yala anthology will also stay with me. The raw, unpolished work in this anthology, along with poems ready for a steady stream of critics, is what makes the collection rare and important. If all the poems were as complete as Jennifer Elise Foerster’s, for instance, the collection would not be as true to its roots, which is, I believe, diversity, multiplicity, range. And so my blanket statement for the book is: Buy it. Read it. Learn from it. These poets aren’t experimenting with and composing verse just because someone once said they were good at writing. These writers remember, know, sense, and seek. Collections like these, as far as I know, are very rare. In each poem I hear a vibrant voice that has something to say.
Mollye Miller holds an MFA in poetry from The New School University where, in 2010, she won the university’s Annual Chapbook Poetry Award for her manuscript, “Shade Particles.” In 2011, she was a semi-finalist in the Indiana Review’s 1/2 K Poetry Prize Contest for her prose poem, “Hallmark.” She currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
For more information on the book: Turtle Island to Abya Yala