Tuesday, May 13, 2008


All the lives we have yet to name

Last fall when I read DRIVE: The First Quartet by Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings Press, 2006) -- "new poems 1980-2005" it says on the cover -- it swept me away into itself like a wild fierce river, an ocean of light, a surging of the earth. DRIVE is an epic gathering of poems, assembled in five somewhat separate sections, with constant interweave between the many parts of the poems and the sections and the many movements of the book as a whole.

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 buzzard
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.
Reading 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.

That was another age. I held
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.
(From the poem "Tierra y Libertad.")

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
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.
(From the poem "Love in New York.")

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 dodging
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.
Ave María.
DRIVE: 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.

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
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,
left alone
with anything but
those girlhood horrors --
the touching, the hungry
leaden meltdown of the hours,
or the future: round
negation, black
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.
(From the poem "Poet's Progress.")

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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


And sing against the cold

In the mail last week came Snow Has Fallen, a CD of poems and songs by Timothy Young and Yata Peinovich. I've known Tim Young for many years by now; this was my first introduction to Yata Peinovich. The poems and music on this disk are a great pleasure and delight to listen to.

Whether reading his work on the page or hearing him read it out loud, I've always liked Tim Young's willingness to let go of all harnesses, cast away fear, and jump into a poem all at once. He has written much about the joy and difficulty in men and women trying to relate with each other, the heat and the coolness, the great dance and, sometimes, the wound. Many of his poems reach into the connections between deep pain and intimacy and the public events and occasions of the larger world.
If someone touched you wrongly,
if you weep through the night
if your life is a river of sadness
If brown clouds are rising and the sun's fading too fast
If the water's dark and angry
If you're losing your work, your children are crying
If your home is no longer your castle
If you don't own your soul
If you're looking for a way out
If you're ready to hold and be held
(From the poem "My Heart Is Your Home" on the above CD.)

Over the years, here in Minneapolis, I've taken part in various poetry writing and performing groups, sometimes impromptu, sometimes organized with intention. I've lost count of the number of times I've gathered with poet friends in a church basement, a small bookstore, a hippie cafe after closing time, to read poems and beat and tap on various drums and bells and woodblocks, improvising our way through another joyfully disheveled night. Bare pipes and concrete walls and thinned-out rugs, a used couch in the corner on its last legs. Tim was frequently among us in our mixed-bag gatherings. I recall one evening at the Seward Cafe on East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis when he showed up with a buffalo bone he'd found in a gravel pit somewhere outside the city. He used it to thump on a large round drum all evening.

The old man pulls the blues
from deep in the earth
His licks are twinkling
like old sea fossils
asleep in a limestone bed.
There's no traffic in this small town
so I stand in the middle of the street
The moon's a bone over the road.
Tonight no dogs will sleep.
(From the poem "Best Blues," again from the CD Snow Has Fallen.)

The best of Tim Young's poems read as though they have been written by a geographer who has just emerged from mapping the interior bones of the earth. My thanks to Tim for sending the disk of poems and song. His words are set off brightly by the soulful and sparkling music of Yata Peinovich (vocals and guitars), Bruce Hecksel (guitars, bass and percussion), Dalyce Elliott playing exquisite violin, and the various others who have contributed.

Take a walk on the bright side of the moon with the poems and music of Timothy Young, Yata Peinovich and friends.

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