Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Remain here to imagine

I recently re-read The Red Window, the first book of poems by Marianne Aweagon Broyles (West End Press, 2008). These are quiet poems of patient observation, poems of great compassion and presence. Broyles' poems resonate with a deep organic connection with the earth, and an instinctive feeling for the lives and realities of the people close to her and around her.

I first met Marianne in 2007 at the Albuquerque Cultural Conference that year, and we've met face to face a couple of times since, and have traded e-mails once or twice. She lives in Albuquerque, where she works as a psychiatric nurse. The biographical note in her book says that she spent her early childhood in Boston and Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and grew up in Tennessee; that she is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation; and that she graduated from Emory University.

A number of poems in The Red Window (from which all quoted passages here are taken) offer sharp portraits of people Broyles has met. Her poems reveal a keen sense for listening and hearing people, both their actual words and the heartbeat moving softly within the words. From the poem "Mohawk Horse Breaker":

His eyes shift focus from me
toward the ceiling
as he reaches for memory.
How do you break them? I ask.
Philip laughs. You just stay on.
When I was nine, I was breakin horses
with men who were twenty.
Then his eyes darken over --
stars covered by a bank of storm clouds --
as Philip leaves the moment
and returns where he lies now. He releases a sigh,
the same kind of sigh
exhausted Pintos must have
let go under his craggy weight.

All human activity takes place within the context of all other human activity -- within the context of history. All human activity is political, we act in this context of history. I find that in general poems speak to me with the greatest power and clarity when they are written with at least a basic awareness of this historical context.

Broyles' poem "American Revolution" begins with a dedication, "In honor of Popay (San Juan Pueblo), instigator of the Pueblo Revolt, 1680." At the beginning of the poem, Broyles explains that in the days leading up to the revolt, the Pueblo people used knots tied in a rope as a kind of code to pass clandestine message among themselves.

Each knot represented a day until the revolt.
The runners you sent knew, too, that what could
be counted, what could be seen and held,
could transcend language.

When the last knot was reached
the time arrived. Like night dissolving
for daybreak, human blood not
labeled Spanish or Pueblo melt
in the earth for liberation.
To abandon mines of prosperity,
to walk their land without fear.

Your people kept knowing they'd wake
in a different world.
Tell me, since your statue won't,
where did you wake?

One of the qualities I especially notice in Broyles' poems is how thoroughly she is immersed in what she is writing about.(I think, by comparison, of the many poems I've read over the years -- expecially those fueled by the various dominant aesthetics of university creative writing programs -- that seem to move in a contrary direction, seeming to put as much distance as possible between the poet and the poem, as though one were not related to the other.)

I hear this kind of immersion and intimacy in the following lines, from Broyles' poem "Shell Shakers (Never Stop Dancing)":

I use cans tonight instead of turtle shells, which John's father says
could be filled with ghosts.
I wonder what the cans held before -- tomato soup,
green beans, peaches, hominy, pickled beets?

John helps me lace the cans so they'll stay on my shins.
Then I'm ready.
My feet sweep/sweep/sweep/
lift/lift/lift. I concentrate to keep the rhythm
because it's been such a long time.

But the cans slip, begin to cut. I study feet ahead of me, who
move with strength, with certainty. Whose cans stay on their
shins, where they belong.
I try to concentrate on the burning wood, the hot sparks,
try to be tougher.
Finally I step out. John sees the shakers
down on my feet. I feel their heaviness.

He ties them tighter, tighter but they slip
over and over as if they really want to touch
this ground, full of rock and water and the shells of our ancestors
where it is always night and somewhere else
spirits like us form a great water serpent
and, no matter what, never stop dancing.

To be political, whether in a poem or in any other aspect of life, really is just to live with an awareness of what's going on around us, in the same room, in the same city or valley, on the same prairie or ocean shore, on the earth on which we walk. What happens somewhere else on the earth also happens here. The borders of countries are fictions, lines on a map, property deeds. We do not own the earth, we cannot buy it and sell it; it embraces us, gives us a home, waits in the greatest abiding.

Inside the Blue Window Bistro, diners
admire the bright decor and the patio -- a jungle
of flowers beaded by a drizzle.
There is little talk of the anniversary of
the bomb on Hiroshima sixty long years ago.
Rather, it is a happy and busy place here.
Regulars laugh, drink French-pressed coffee.

Then a small group enters, their silence out of place here.
A Japanese woman in a red kimono leads them
through an open door to the patio garden.
The rain has stopped. Its brief visit to the desert
is done. The clouds break and go their own way.
No one really notices the changing weather,
just like we don't notice the quiet gathering.

Except they all carry a single sunflower.

Running through all of Marianne Broyles' poems is an explicit sense of the power and importance of memory, of keeping memory alive, of speaking it out loud. The cultures that attempt to govern the world in our time attempt to persuade us to forget, to forget who we are and where we have come from, and so also to lose sight of where we are going, to lose sight of our own capacity (as individuals and as a collective) to make choices and act together. We are not just passive observers. History is not the personal property of those who would plunder and destroy the earth and all life on it. We are here and we are real.

I'll finish with some lines from the poem "Bettie Dunback Does Not Rest Here," which begins with the dedication, "For my great-great-grandmother, Bettie Dunback, who survived the Cherokee Removal, also known as 'The Trail of Tears,' as a young girl."

We leave a hanging basket of striped petunias
by her headstone for our own
who walked the Trail as a girl.
We know the flowers won't stay for long.
They will soon be an offering for the living
or moved from grave to grave.
I don't think Bettie would mind too much.
She's not here beneath this plot marked
by an obelisk engraved with vines
that climb away from this earth.

We remain here to imagine.

Poems of Marianne Broyles are indeed unique. Only a very creative mind can find so much poetry in empty cans. Her descriptions are so original and breathtaking.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful article well supplied with rare excerpts.
Lyle (and Hazel), I hope I did not post this twice--I am so technologically handicapped! I wanted to tell you how touched I was by your review, and comments. I am working on a new manuscript and reading your words was just the shot of oxygen I needed!

hello, just dropped by in search of some good old poems for a project of my daughter. Nice blog you have here and I hope you won't mind me getting some prose here but referencing it though on the project. - Ana of Philippines
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?