Monday, April 12, 2021

Commentary on the Book ‘An Exercise in the Darkness’ by Elizabeth Lara


Commentary on the Book ‘An Exercise in the Darkness’ by Elizabeth Lara


In An Exercise in the Darkness / Ejercicio en la oscuridad, Xánath Caraza has given us poems that vibrate on the page. The writer’s ink, imbued with a throbbing life force, is barely contained by the white spaces that surround it. Nature envelopes her, speaks to and through her. Color, light, and sound play against each other. The world shifts between dark and light, between internal and external landscapes: gray skies over shimmering lakes; a blue dragon on the face of the moon; birds devouring her fears.


Each of the 66 poems in this volume is dual in nature: first we encounter a poem in prose, followed by a very brief poem of no more than six short lines. In the prose poem, certain words and phrases are highlighted in bold; these become the text of the short poem that follows. The short poem – sometimes only one word – speaks to the subtext of the prose; it may crystallize, complement, or confront it. For example, in the poem, “Se extiende en las manos / It Extends in My Hands,” the poet turns her eyes toward the sunrise. Her dream – “a tranquil dream I embrace in the early morning sun / sueño que abrazo en la claridad” – is fading, and the birds are now silent. Magically, the golden light of dawn flows from her hands. And yet, these four short lines follow:


It fills

and reflects

the night

around me


This is mysterious: despite the bright light of the dawning day, we find the writer in darkness; night is embedded in the preceding text.


The book is divided into three sections, arising from three geographical spaces that the author has inhabited: Fertile Land / Tierra fértil (Mexico); The Great Plains / Las planicies (Kansas); and Random Punctuation / Puntuación aleatoria (Vermont). Running through all the poems is the author’s rootedness in nature: when Caraza opens a window on her creative process, she plants her words in the soil of the earth; when lonely or broken-hearted, she imagines the moon extending a hand, or envisions the passion of water as it strikes the rocks.


In the first section, we experience with her the sound of the rain, birds singing at dawn, the plantain leaves that frame her view. From the opening words of her first poem, “The symphony of this forest engulfs me / La sinfonía de este bosque me envuelve”, Caraza plunges the reader into the darkness from which she writes, where the underlying silences are so profound that we can hear our own breathing, where birds, frogs, crickets, and fish croak or chirp, sing or swirl in a wild accompaniment to her songs. Together the sounds make a chorus; even the raindrops are musical instruments. In “Sound / Sonido”, she writes: “… every waterdrop is distinguishable, it tells us the thickness, the roughness, the texture of the leaves … / … cada gota se distingue, nos dice el grosor, la rugosidad, la textura de las hojas …”. Water from a well shape-shifts into blue ink, and then becomes a memory of hydrangeas on a mountain path. Water is everywhere throughout the collection; the sulfurous water in “The Natural Spring / Ojo de agua” is the life force, her lover: “… boiling water, I melt in your arms. /… Agua hirviente, me derrito en tus brazos”.


The Great Plains / Las planicies, the second section of the book, evokes the voices of the ancestors and the world of dreams. Here, in a region that often lacks for water, water abounds – rain, snow, and fog; rivers and seas; tears. Mythic figures are born out of the earth: in “Another Place / Otro lugar”, a chorus of women arises from “the pulsations of mud / las pulsaciones de barro”.  Of a goddess-like figure whose heart of jade so frightens her lovers that only fire dares to kiss her, Caraza writes, “She called herself water, and the wind howled between the syllables of her name / Se llamaba agua y entre las sílabas de su nombre ululaba el viento”. The author frequently reflects on the writing process and the interplay between writing and reading. In “Tornado of Memories / Tornado de recuerdos”, the poet opens a book of poems that awaken her deepest memories. As she reads, what strikes her most are the letters on its pages; she sees the white of the paper as merely a cloak tangled among them. In “The Quill / La pluma”, the ink is a plant whose roots sink into the paper. The poet’s pen and paper are instruments she will use to write a new landscape.


Immediately, as section III opens, there is a change in the light, paralleling the transition from winter to spring. Caraza begins with a street scene; blue flowers are scattered everywhere “until the streets are filled with miniscule corollas that drown our sorrow / hasta llenar las calles de minúsculas corolas que ahoguen la tristeza”. Even as she faces the inevitability of death (“From the Passage of Time / Por el tiempo”), in the poem that follows she responds with its counterpoint: “The river calms the demons. Its current makes illusions flow. / El río calma los demonios. Su corriente hace fluir la ilusión.” Again and again, her poems call to each other across the pages. In one poem the maple trees “weep as their translucent blood is drained for humanity / sollozan al perder su translúcida sangre para la humanidad”, and in the next the poet herself drinks of the “water from the tree of the north / agua del árbol del norte”, an experience so erotic that she urges it to “Flow within me, impregnate me  / Fluye en mí, préñame”. With the poem “Windows of Joy / Ventanas de felicidad” the writer has now fully come into the light. The poems are full of sounds and colors, from the rumble of thunder to the indigo night sky. Still, love remains elusive; it calls her name, yet with the sound of a train departing it seems to vanish once again. In the final poem, “From Winter to Spring / De invierno a primavera”, Caraza pens a final reminder of the power of words, commanding her poetry to “… rend the pages. Sprout from the subsoil of this book that is born of the darkness / … rasga las páginas. Brota del subsuelo de este libro que de la oscuridad nace”.


While the book’s structure, with the prose poem followed by a short poem, evokes the haibun, and the use of repeated words engages the reader much like a sestina, Caraza’s forms are completely original. One way to proceed through the book is to move in linear fashion, reading each pair of poems together. And it’s possible, of course, to read only the prose. Nevertheless, the author designed the two elements of the poems to be independent of each other, so a reading of the short poems, composed of only the words in bold, offers an entirely new text.



If there were any one word to sum up this collection, it would be "mystery".  Caraza writes from within the vortex. Her words literally crackle with electricity. In whatever order the poems are read, whether it is her heart that is breaking or her breath melting the ice, they tell a compelling story. For the poet, syllables, letters, and words are embedded in the lived experience, not just of human beings but of trees, flowers, rivers, the sky. The language of nature and the human body – the writer’s body, in particular – are intertwined. While Caraza has invited the reader to accompany her on her journey through the darkness, she has not forgotten about the power of the light.



Elizabeth Lara

Silver Spring, Maryland


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