Tuesday, May 13, 2008
All the lives we have yet to name
Lorna Dee Cervantes is one of the most fearless writers I've encountered, writing about any subject matter, pushing always to grasp the inner essence and announce the public identity of whatever is at hand, whether a vast collective movement of people, an intimate shadow of love, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, a flower petal on a window sill, the immediate and personal presence of a friend. This is poetry without hesitation, shunning the academic dance that tiptoes around the truth, insisting always on the true substance of the million and billion faces of the real and more-than-real world.
From the poem "Coffee:
In Guatemala the black buzzardReading Lorna Dee Cervantes, other poets of epic reach come to mind quickly. Throughout DRIVE I hear echoes of Pablo Neruda in Canto General, his great poem epic of South America, the history and politics and the shaping of the earth and the song. I think also of the astonishing poetry of Sharon Doubiago, her great book collections and book-length poems grown up around her life and travels across North America (especially the west coast) in the constant battle zone that is the 20th century.
has replaced the quetzal
as the national bird. The shadow
of a man glides across the countryside,
over the deforested plantations; a death
cross burnishes history into myth
as it scours the medicinal land into coffee;
burial mounds that could be sites
of unexcavated knowledge hold only
blasted feathers and the molding bones
of freedom. Golden epaulets glint
in the fluorescent offices, crystal
skulls shine in the eyes of the man
with the machete, within the site
of an AK-47. Under the rubble
of the ruling class, a human heart
beats in the palm, the tumba of ritual mercy
drums in the thunder clap, a hurricane wind
sounds the concha. In Quetzaltenango, foreign
interests plot the futures of Mayan hands
and Incan gold. While on Wall Street,
the black sludge of a people trickles through
cappuccino machines like hissing snakes.
That was another age. I held(From the poem "Tierra y Libertad.")
you in my arms, drunkenly.
Your trembling moon gone
down the smogged horizon.
Your stunted form, your
survivor's heart, your steel
string thumbs working, painting
history in what little space we
wrested -- stolen wall of pock-
marked chalk, matted colors
in a welfare jar. We parted on
the rented rooftops, in a hillside
slum on a rico street of glass
and Spanish tile. One day,
you said, this will all be ours.
Cervantes's voice in her poems modulates with subtlety and ease through the many registers she calls on to tell her story, which is the story of the world in which each of us places our feet and touches the walls and feels the rain. (Even the Bushes and the Cheneys and the Rices of the world cannot escape the rain, though they may delude themselves that they can.) A poem that calls out the liberation of the world from the grip of empire is, also, a love poem, and a love poem is also a poem that dreams the liberation of the world.
Snow sifted in strands(From the poem "Love in New York.")
upon the slicked elms.
It settled in the branches,
gentle as my fan of black
would be upon your chest; the waft
at the thought of your hair
made me ache from the cold
of wanting you -- your love, the sick
sparrow of your heart.You understand.
This love, the nest it's found. My better
dreams, my inner day, are all inextricable
in you, my woven secret. My breath
in a sigh is angel's hair on a sub-zero
morning, murmuring your name; you,
holding up the winds that could take me
away sure as the brief word no.
It'll never be.
This train I'm on runs south.
I'm pure as a certain wall
of sadness, nothing muddled
in this sleep of loss or never had.
If I could be with you here
there'd be sun, blinding beauty
binding to a sheet of ice. It cuts
straight to a light so sheer, a set of gold
fingers currying your hair -- I adore you.
What is the power of speaking out loud in the face of sorrow, of unspeakable sadness? What do we say to give a life meaning when the noise and chaos surrounds us muttering that it all means nothing? Is there any place where poetry is more needed? One of the poems in DRIVE that moved me the most, that I've sent to friends, that I've gone back to and read again, is "Summer Ends Too Soon":
[...] María dodgingDRIVE: The First Quartet is also, among its many lives, an act of beginning a new creation epic, or retelling one that has long lived on the earth. In this respect I think of much of Joy Harjo's poetry, evoking the most ancient sounds and rhythms of the tides of all life. As the pale armies of Death, Incorporated, march across the earth, a new creation story, a new dream of creation, is one of the essential acts we will need to save us and preserve this island of life.
father's fists -- and his. María praying
under the table. María crooning pain
songs in the bathroom. María combing
his sludge out of her hair. María
serving masters. Seventeen year
old María. María: Your Lady
of the Kept Secret. María dancing
to his temper. María washing
her panties in the toilet. Two
days after graduation, María
swaying from the limb. María:
sweet purple fruit of his sin.
One of the poems in DRIVE that spoke the most directly to me is "Poet's Progress," in which Cervantes reflects on the road that has brought her to the place she stands in her life as a poet. I felt that they could have been my own words, more than once in my life. It's an honor and a great pleasure to have had the chance to spend true and beautiful time with the poems of Lorna Dee Cervantes.
[...] Now when(From the poem "Poet's Progress.")
the red-bellied woodpecker
calls his response to a California
owl; now, when the wound
transformer in the womb
slackens and I wait
for potential; all
the lives I have
yet to name,
all my life
I have willed into being
alive and brittle
with the icy
And it's enough now,
listening, counting the unknown
arachnids and hormigas
who share my love of less
For this is what I wanted, come to,
with anything but
those girlhood horrors --
the touching, the hungry
leaden meltdown of the hours,
or the future: round
suction of the heart's
conception. Save me
from a stupid life! I prayed.
Leave me anything but
a stupid life!
And that's poetry.
If you would like to find out more about what Lorna Dee Cervantes is doing, and where and when she's doing it, you can visit her blog, here.