Natalia Toledo. The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems. Trans. Clare Sullivan. Phoneme Media, 2015. 172 pages. $16.00.
Friedrich Schleiermacher tells us that the translator has two choices: she can translate so as to move the writer toward the reader or, head in the opposite direction and move the reader closer to the writer. In Clare Sullivan’s fine translation of Natalia Toledo’s award-winning The Black Flower, she has chosen the latter, refusing to domesticate the volume’s “Zapotec cosmology” and attending to the ways these poems provide “an entryway to Zapotec culture, its history and current struggles.”
It is a collection rife with both riches and difficulties. Woven throughout is what seems to me a particularly indigenous sense of the erotic, most evident in a cluster of poems focused on the fecund: food, sexuality, childbirth—nourishment writ large—and gathered under an epigraph, the Juchitecan saying, “A hand in the bush makes sweet work in the kitchen.” In “Chocolate Chili Pepper,” she writes:
Yellow and green cornhusks open
filled with light.
You open your legs wide
when you sit down in the hammock
so that the chocolate chili of your man
may enter your calabash
and stir up the cocoa beans
browned on the comal of your desire.
A few poems later these felt and forged connections between sex and food have morphed into the delicious pleasure of childbearing:
Heart of softest cotton,
wrapped in a blanket of seeds,
red and yellow
cloud of earth,
I bite your newborn skin.
Poems emerge at the intersection of various threads—cultural, historical, and individual. As welcome as this book is as a translation into English of a major Zapotec writer, poetry is not anthropology, and what Toledo (and Sullivan) have given us is also one poet’s unique landscape. And it is a marvelous landscape in the truest sense of the word, filled with marvels, likely to conjure wonder in any reader. There are formally playful poems—the invented glossary that is “Childhood,” the question-and-answer form of “Hide-and-Seek.” Yet the book is not without its grievances. In the volume’s final poem, untitled but dedicated to T.S. Eliot, she writes:
Perhaps I am the final branch who will speak Zapotec.
My children, homeless birds in the jungle of
will have to whistle their language.
Published in a trilingual edition by Phoneme Media (or rather a double-bilingual edition: open the front cover for the Zapotec to English; flip the book over for El Olivo Negro y Otros Poemas, the author’s own Zapotec-into-Spanish translations), this is a powerful and important collection. —JMc
Iris Jamahl Dunkle. There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air. Word Tech Editions, 2015. 96 pages. $18.00.
Irish Jamahl Dunkle is the new poet laureate of Sonoma County. It’s hard to imagine a better gig. I like to believe this post comes with an unlimited supply of wine, cheese, and resentment toward Napa. However, Dunkle’s sharp, historically minded collection, suggests being the bard of this storied region means less drinking and more remembering. For example, in “Language is a Map of Our Failures,” Dunkle creates a cartography of that which has been forgotten, repressed, or overwritten. “It was after all this that the history was recorded,” the speaker says in the final sentence, acknowledging all of the pre-history that mere “history” ignores.
“Language is a Map of Our Failures” is a prose poem, and it reflects the formal range of this ambitious collection. There are narrative poems, short poems, persona poems, and a passel of sonnets. My favorite of these is the title poem, which tells the story of an early Irish immigrant who built a cabin in Indigenous land:
After a season passed, he was surprised in the middle of night
by the ones whose land he had stolen: dozens of young Coast Miwok
men running bare-chested down the sloped flanks of the fog wet
hills, their arms extended into fiery wings; their hands clutching the
three feet of burning Tule that hissed and popped from their arms.
Originally inhabited by different Native nations such as the Coast Miwok, Pomo, and Wappo (a legacy Dunkle tracks in “Tending the Sledge”), Sonoma County has long been a contact zone of Anglo and Indigenous populations. There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air never shies away from this reality; instead, it seeks to dramatize (rather than romanticize) the deep connections of past and present. In “The Linguist Staff,” for example, the final poem in the collection, the speaker muses on this:
Perhaps this is a way to proceed on the rutted path of history.
If we keep our fingers locked tightly on those golden ears
perhaps we won’t forget that the past is listening,
that the past expects us to circle back.
What I love about Dunkle’s project is that she knows it is the poet’s obligation to circle back. —DR
Joan Naviyuk Kane. “The Straits.” Voices from the American Land, 2015. 36 pages. $13.50.
“The Straits,” by Joan Naviyuk Kane presents poems from the circumpolar north in a complex utterance of love for an imperiled place. Kane’s family lived for “untold generations” on King Island in the Bering Straits, but were removed en masse by the US Government in 1959. Kane took a forty-two-foot aluminum boat twenty-four hours across the most dangerous seas on the planet to visit and write about the home of her ancestors. An extraordinarily careful and precise poet, Kane describes the land with intimate tones: “Her sky above the horizons, her stone and pewter light” that never indulges in nostalgia. We read these poems as intimate in other ways, too, understanding the emblem for a troubled relationship in lines such as “We thought we saw the dark cursive of a wolf / circling on sea ice, miles out . . .”
These poems admit comparisons, too, as when Kane writes that in the city “one finds it simple to conceive nothing / but a system, and nothing but a world of men.” We understand we are clearly NOT in a man made world in Kane’s poems. We are, rather, in a landscape so little witnessed by humans that we cannot know it in our terms. Even Kane’s attempts to address her traditional homeland in her indigenous language won’t work as poems like “our distant northern sea” illustrate. Perhaps the best we can do is accept, as Kane states, “it goes on without us.” And hope that it does. —HE
David Campos. Furious Dusk. University of Notre Dame Press, 2016. 88 pages. $17.00.
The most recent Andres Montoya Poetry Prize winner, Furious Dusk is an accessible, narrative collection of confessional poems. David Campos is unflinchingly observant of his subjects—highlighting the dark, uncomfortable elements with a commendable specificity. Poems like “At the Entrance of a Back Alley,” “Cast Iron,” and “Hollywood Endings” are strong examples of the image-filled, prickly specificity that show Campos’s literary skill. The haunting elements of a street altar for a murdered child, a bloody black toenail, and dead moths in a lamppost begin the ruminations of familiarity and loss. A collection centering on issues of masculinity, machismo, family, cultural expectations, and feelings of inadequacy, Furious Dusk follows the persona’s reflective journey upon learning of his father’s impending death. The dynamics of the father/son relationship shadows over the collection. This is most obvious in poems like “Drywall Dust,” “Washing Dishes,” “I Make My First Delivery,” and “Fences.” From the dissection of childhood trials and injuries to more contemporary fights and travels with his wife, Campos’s persona negotiates the ingrained pressures from his father to act stoic, physically strong, and aggressive. The poems that resonant most tend to focus on labor, monetary frustrations, and physical connections to the past. “Inheritance” follows the trajectory of a table that has found itself in the persona’s home twice, unfolding its history while discussing the ways people have touched and responded to its existence. “The Language of Masa” chronicles the movements of an older woman making tortillas beautifully and with deft descriptions. One of the strongest pieces within the book is “He Holds out His Hands.” The pathos derived is earned through the strong narrative of the piece. Through the catalyst of bringing a gift of strawberries to his father, the readers learn the most about the father character. It is also one of the few poems where intimacy is noticeably achieved between the individuals depicted within the work. Despite some unevenness within the sections, the collection shows ambition. —SO
Karenne Wood. Weaving the Boundary. University of Arizona Press, 2016. 78 pages. $16.95.
Voice. If I were to choose one element that most successfully characterizes Karenne Wood’s Weaving the Boundary, it would be voice. Despite the range of subject, form, and style, these poems impress through Wood’s adept control of voice.
The first of the collection’s four sections considers the land and its creatures, including human ones, and their sacred relationships. “The Egg” describes a fallen bird’s egg, “shattered” before it hatched. The speaker is attentive to the “bit of dried albumen” and to the form of the embryo. Following the nearly scientifically accurate imagery, the poem concludes with a direct assertion of the embryo’s lasting value:
. . . The hapless cells, dividing. And then.
In this case, potential hatchling, unhatched. It never
breathed. I scrape the shell’s remnant from glass
and set it under the hydrangea.
its spirit has already diffused into everything.
The continuous incarnation.
This poem describes nature’s losses with care but without sentimentality. The speaker nearly mourns and nearly rejoices, emphasizing not the absence of life but rather its boundless presence.
Section three, “Past Silence” explores the history of European contact with indigenous Americans. “Bartolomé de las Casas, 1542” is particularly effective in conveying de las Casas’s disillusionment. “So it was that we discovered a flowering island,” the poem begins. And it ends, “The milk in the women’s breasts dried up, infants / perished, and thus was emptied that place which had seemed paradise.” The absence of life that concludes this poem is completely different from that which concludes “The Egg,” for this emptiness is contrary to nature. Colonialism has created the empty space it had claimed as its justification.
The poems in Weaving the Boundary are accessible, but they are not easy. They invite the reader in, but they require that the reader proceed slowly and attentively. —LD
Suzanne Buffam. A Pillow Book. Canarium Books, 2016. 104 pages. $14.00.
Two loves I have of comfort and despair. One is sleep, one is wake. I can’t often tell which is which, which is why Suzanne Buffam’s marvelous A Pillow Book must have been made for me. Buffam’s keen prose poetic meditation seeks entry to the elusive land of Nod through that signature companion, the pillow. Some entries consider Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book published in and about imperial Japan (“We know that she slept, when she managed to do so, on a small hollow pillow made of polished bamboo.”) Other entries concern sleep remedies old and new, some from the burgeoning sleep industry (“Melatonin. Lunesta. Nyquil. Zzzquil. Ativan. Ambien. Lorazepam. Trazodone. Warm milk. Hot baths.”) No diatribe against sleeplessness, the book pursues intertwining strands of activity. This is all about what the mind does in the absence of sleep or when the mind enters (or exits) sleep. Research on the nature of sleep or the history of pillows thus commingles with meditations on motherhood, the recounting of dreams, and a series of extraordinary lists. Lists are symptoms of and salves for anxiety, and they show the impulse to organize even the most random of thoughts, be it lists of “Extinct Languages” or “Unpopular Perfumes” or “Moustaches” all arrayed from “A to Z” or “Things that Give A Dirty Feeling” (“Hamsters. / Back-jacket blurbs. / Public Pools. / Private school. / Someone else’s hairs on the soap.”). Funny and illuminating, quirky and devastating Buffam’s A Pillow Book wrestles with the ancient symmetry between sleep and death in the darkness of the ancient night: “We are already dead, I repeat, as I punch down my pillow. We are dead, I say, and I bunch up the sheets. We are dead, I sigh, as I study the back of my husband’s head.” Keep this book, for its comforts and despairs, right by your bed. —JC