Thursday, April 26, 2007

Naked Wanting, Raven Eye, and Her Sacred Body

Here's my review of both Naked Wanting and Raven Eye. If you're looking for spun sugar literary confection, and easy comfort, move on. But if you want to encounter poetry that disturbs you in the best possible way, keeps you up at night, demands that you respond with your heart and your mind, read these books.

Margo Tamez is a poet whose work is not easy, clearly born of experience raw and real, making the reader touch that place of pain, of personal wounding far, far, away from the romance of the Southwest and the stereotype of the "stoic noble" on the rez. Her writing forces us to look where the bodies are buried, when we want to turn a blind eye to the violence wreaked upon the individual and environment. Both Naked Wanting and Raven Eye gave me that gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, the tight, clenched first buried in the chest. Bless her for that.

And bless her, too, for somehow still weaving threads of redemption and reemergence in the face of soul breaking sorrow, for offering real mythos and confronting false spirituality. But to put a finer point on it, read what others have written about this singular poet.

This book is a challenging cartography of colonialism, poverty, and issues of Native identity and demonstrates these as threats to the environment, both ecological and social, in the borderlands. Each poem is crafted as if it were a minute prayer, dense with compassion and unerring optimism. But the hope that Tamez serves is not blind. In poem after poem, she draws us into a space ruled by mythic symbolism and the ebb and flow of the landscape—a place where comfort is compromised and where we must work to relearn the nature of existence and the value of life. —Norman Dubie

Margo Tamez’s poetry is an emotional journey, and I find myself softly invoking a line from her book: ‘may the way be in peace.’ Read it; you’ll know what I mean! —Simon J. Ortiz

Margo Tamez’s poetry works like a heartsong, it makes us brave. Her alive response to what kills makes us want to stand up with her and sing in the face of the enemy. She shows how hard it is to fight oppression and reminds us what is at stake: living beauty. . . Margo Tamez’s call to battle both instills fear and thrills us. —Heidi E. Erdrich

In Naked Wanting, Tamez' lens tightly frames the direct links between miscarriages among indigenous women in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands and environmental racism, when damage inflicted on the environment by herbicides comes back to haunt us all at the level of women's reproduction. These are the bombs ticking within these astute and subtle lyrical narratives rendering the pierce of "the chemical cocktail seeping into the air ducts."

This poet speaks as someone who has experienced first-hand the body, literally re-structured by chemical invasions in air, water, soil and food, exposes the consequences and implications when our land and water are compromised.

For Margo Tamez, earth, food, and community are the essentials of life, our deepest wants, beyond human 'rights'--our responsibilities. She brings all of them together in these cautionary and lyrical poems that inspire us to move through compassion and, more concretely, to actions for a more sure footing on earth. Below is a sample that beautifully illustrates just that.

My Mother Returns to Calaboz

"The Lower Rio Grande, known as the Seno Mexicano (the Mexican hollow or Recess), was a refuge for rebellious Indians from the Spanish presidios, who preferred outlawry to life under Spanish rule." -- Americo Paredes, With Pistol in his Hand

The fragmented jawbones
and comblike teeth of seagulls
sometimes wash up from the gulf
to the levee of the river
and gather straited along the berms
where my grandfather irrigated sugarcane.

My mother, returned after forty years
working away from Calaboz,
walks there often now,
hassled by INS agents
when she jogs by the river
where her ancestors planted, hunted,
prayed and resisted invasions.

The INS think she runs away from them,
that she is an 'illegal', a 'savage'
'trespassing' from Mexico.

Used to the invasion,
she asks them how they assume,
exactly do they know
if she came from here, or there?
When she tells me this story
she exaggeratedly points to the spot
she stands on (here) and the land
I stand on (there) which means:
you idiot...we indigenous don't recognize
your violent settler borders

I am an an indigenous woman,
born in El Calaboz, you understand?
she says loudly, in mixed Spanish and Lipan-Nahuatl,
and they tear out,
the truck wheels spinning furiously,
sand sprayed into the humid air.

When I was a girl walking on the levee with my grandfather,
I thought I saw gull teeth
chomping at the soil wall.
The air was dank steam,
the scent of sand, roots,
and something alive beneath the soil,
deeper and older than memory.
when I immersed my hand inside
the cloudy water,
it became a fluid form,
soft, something becoming,
something ancient.

The air is still heavy with heat and damp,
and smells like diesel and herbicides.
the scent reminds me of failed gestations.
My reproduction, the plants', and the water's,
each struggling in the same web of resistance
and survival.

When I was a girl, my grandfather taught me
to put a small clump of soil in my mouth,
and to swallow it. I watched him.
Then I did.
I used to watch the gliding and swerves
of uprooted reeds in the river's unhurried flow
to the Gulf.
I reached with all my body,
stomach on the bank of the levee,
hands and arms stretched out like an acrobat
to touch and grasp their slender stems.
Once, my feet pressed into the soupy bog,
and stepping up was heavy, yet with the sound of gurgles,
puckering, a mouth opening,
like seaweed and millennium of soil, my ancestors and water breathing.

Now, I think I'd like to be,
that I will be
running with my mother
when she tells of la migra.
Listen to the bubbling duet of water and plant life,
listen to the sound of grandmothers and grandfathers
Again and again.

This is a visceral longing for home, for groundedness in the deepest and most literal sense. It reflects an abiding love for la tierra, but not the convenient, fantasy laden Southwest. It is a personal, damaged homeland, smelling of chemicals, shot through with run-off that is still somehow, unquestionably sacred. Tamez writes of border dwellers unbowed, unabsorbed, defiant, and ultimately triumphant---not noble, but stubbornly flawed and human.


In her second collection, Raven Eye, Tamez explores desire and the construction of indigenous identity, while imploring readers to unite against oppression in all its forms.

Written from thirteen years of journals, psychic and earthly, this poetry maps an uprising of a borderland indigenous woman battling forces of racism and sexual violence against Native women and children. This lyric collection breaks new ground, skillfully revealing an unseen narrative of resistance on the Mexico–U.S. border. A powerful blend of the oral and long poem, and speaking into the realm of global movements, these poems explore environmental injustice, sexualized violence, and indigenous women’s lives.

Ceremony of Peyote

A snakebird sinuous dim form silhouetted
On the porchroof of the hogan--

Comes out of a monsoon sky
Banded thickly red and flint

Snakebird in me curves slowly
Over my bed

the sinew of what can't be said

Nine months full of ocean and yolk
Scents of beautifully made starmatter

A smell of tongue and lip
Of moisture a scent of Snaketown's Gila clay

I'm a brown and black puddle a scent I know


You spent hours in the heat of midday fidgeting with rage
I'm unpredictable not the kind of Indian you can present to

Men all wrapped up behind panIndian shawls eagle fans
Who never bring their women to pray
Whose diabetic eyes devour
My pregnant belly
Full of a bird boy raven boy
Ripe with beautiful worlds

Corn meat and berries
You say the order
Morning food for the relatives
always like that you say
The look in your eyes
don't mess up don't embarrass me
don't talk too long when you pray for the water

Can't risk my prayers to the morning star
Risk what I can say about
This medicine a Mexican Indian woman brought
North got Christianized by subjugated men

My morning prayers only suitable
For waterbirds
Anhingas and herons
Not men or women
In shawls
Fanning and chanting
In chorus of what they deny

My body
The yolks of my body
Stories we must tell to undo
What has been done

There is no easy, pro forma way to reconnect, no perfect prayer that can be prayed. Colonialism and racism have taken their tolls both in daily life and spiritual practice. But this poem reclaims and reframes ritual with a frank, and unvarnished fervor. Tamez refuses to shirk from the distorted in herself, or in her people. But in the boldest move, Tamez' poetry reveals that Spirit still lives, lives deeply for her in the body, in the process of birth and renewal and in the threads of communion that emerge despite everything.

Naked Wanting ISBN-10: 0816522480
Raven Eye ISBN-10: 081652565X

My own words seem pale as I try to end this piece. Let me use last words of her interview last week -- gonya'a' golkizhzhi' (it has come a colorful place)

Margo, for truth's sake, in Her Name, thank you.


In the "It's so good it bears repeating" department, I was able to attend the Victor Hernandez Cruz reading last week, and was also lucky enough to be part of a intimate welcoming dinner just before the event, hosted by Palabra Pura.

A memorable gathering, with Francisco Aragón, Mike Puican, Mary Hawley, and Ellen Wadey pulling together a salon-like experience for a small group of local poets and writers. We broke bread, exchanged ideas and met with Victor in a relaxed, vibrant atmosphere. And on a personal note, Hernández himself could not have been more open and engaging, talking with us about all things poetry, the love of good food, and his time spent between both Puerto Rico and Morocco.

Things just got better with the reading at HotHouse. Introduced by nationally known writer, Achy Obejas, we were treated to poetry brimming with musicality, resonant imagery and a lyrical sensibility. In a set that contained both material from the beginning of his career and his new book, The Mountain in the Sea, Hernández spoke eloquently to issues of Puerto Rican identity, the Afro Caribbean diaspora and urban culture. Achy also held a brief Q & A for the audience, where a larger group could also connect, discuss, and exchange ideas with a seminal poet and his work. Bravo to Palabra Pura!

And for those who are unfamiliar, Palabra Pura features Chicano and Latino poets reading work in Spanish, English and a combination of the two languages. The series offers Chicago’s large Spanish-speaking population, the third largest in the United States, a venue to read their poetry as originally composed and helps audiences learn more about the strong tradition of poetry in Spanish. A special emphasis is placed on poets who have recently published books or won recognition for their work.

Palabra Pura is a collaborative project between the Guild Complex, Letra Latinas of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the Rafael Cintron-Ortiz Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Arena Cultural and contratiempo. Co-sponsors for this special presentation are The Poetry Foundation and HotHouse, the center for International Performance & Exhibition. This series is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.

And to further entice you, The Poetry Foundation's website posted an interview conducted by Francisco Aragón with Victor Hernández Cruz, plus five poems with commentary by local poets.

Get a glimpse of this spare and evocative poetry:
5 poets comment on 5 Victor Hernández Cruz poems

Francisco Aragóninterviews VHC:

Lisa Alvarado

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