This month In Review brings you 3 books:
Spider Woman / Rezo a la Mujer Araña By Renato Rosaldo,
The Devil’s Workshop by
Demetria Martinez and J’Accuse by
Aharon Shabtai. Enjoy!
By Renato Rosaldo
ICOCULT of Saltillo, Mexico, 2003
Renato Rosaldo began writing
poetry shortly after he suffered a health crisis in 1996. Written in
English and Spanish, his poetry has appeared in such magazines as
Puerto del Sol, Many Mountains Moving, and in What Have You
Lost?, an anthology edited by Naomi Shihab Nye. As a cultural
anthropologist at New York University, he is the author of
Culture and Truth. In 2000, he was awarded first place for
poetry in the El Andar Prize for Literary Excellence. The book is
available in the U.S. by sending a check for $10 and your address
to: Renato Rosaldo, Dept. of Anthropology, NYU, 25 Waverly Place,
New York, NY 10003-6790.
Reviewed by Juan Felipe Herrera
Reading Rosaldo's first collection of poems,
Prayer to Spider Woman / Rezo a la mujer araña, I cross the
barrio in Logan heights, San Diego, back in the fifties with a
finger sliced by barbed wire, on my knees, find a spider hole with
its vast webs, curl them around my wound, then walk away, healed.
This is the art of the spider-work, her writing, her system of
inscrutable solutions. Renato Rosaldo has studied the spider and
indeed these forty-eight pieces webbed in three thematic arcs take
us into a silky labyrinth woven by a careful technician; weavings
that provide beneficial meditations.
Already a cultural beacon as an anthropologist
and literary critic, Renato Rosaldo makes his debut as a poet appear
effortless. He presents us with a well designed web-voice; the
web-writing is expansive and precise; we leap from one genre to
another, from one tonality to another, from report to seance, from
memoir to dream. And we cross ages and epochs in the writer's life
as well as in Chicano/Latino poetics. For instance, we peer into the
lives of "Papa," “Mama Meche," and "Mama Emilia" in poems such as
"Family Adjustments,” and "Border Crossings." We visit familiar
Chicano bilingual voicings as in "La Big Sister" and "El Tony," then
we sit next to "The Poetry Chair," for day-to-day meditations on
metaphors about Institutional power and personal transcendence, and
deeper still, we enter the realm of the dead as in "Mama Emilia
Returns," and "He Leaves His Body," —
My father smells of
he slides inward, cocoons.
His meal matters less than the arm chair
where he slips along the seam.”
We spiral through terrains and time cycles —
Mexico, Chicago, New Orleans, Mayan villages, the Philippines;
cultural and historical icons collide, dissolve and interpenetrate
into each other: Charlie Chaplin, Christopher Columbus, and Our Lady of
the Serpent Skirt or Coatlicue, the Aztec Goddess of Death, Rebirth
and Fertility. Death, dream, cultural and aural slippage insist on
blurring our boundaries and perceptions, between story and poem,
medical chart and vision, memory and desire. Rosaldo takes
inner-travel cues from Dante and lyric harmonies from Lorca and
escorts us to the realm of liminal separations and interconnections
as in "Guardian Angel.” In this poem, central to his poetics in this
collection, we float between "derrame" — the torrential psychic
overflow that comes out of nowhere and greets us as a "stroke"— and
duende, the limp shaman that steps on our consciousness and
giggles when we are about to fall apart:
yellow light looming
a green wave passes through my skull.
I feel the sound without hearing it.
When I try to walk, my left foot drags.
The angel glides in, rubs my toes...
Rosaldo's web is taut with amazements, yet
the text does not fall into intellectual machinations; here we sense
a living voice, tender, open, wounded, tremulous, caught in the
wondrous and painful waves of mist, "inward cocoons," rage,
"succulent bites," "boyish wickedness," and prayer.
Rosaldo's first collection, with companion
poems translated into Spanish—the best I have seen in decades—is a
masterpiece. Prayer to Spider Woman also weaves a delicate
new bridge between Mexico and the United States, being published by
the State of Coahuila and the Coahuila Institute of Culture.
Perhaps, as in Manuel Puig's novel, The Kiss of the Spider Woman,
two imprisoned voices speak to each other, one of them in rapture,
the other in detachment; the detached one, the listener-reader
little by little, enters into the web, then both are consumed by the
combustion of unexpected forces of radical perception, then
released, together, healed.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s
recent books are Notebooks from a Chile Verde Smuggler and
Super Cilantro Girl. He lives with his soul-partner, the poet,
Margarita Luna Robles in Fresno, where he is Professor and Chair of
the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at CSU-Fresno.
by Demetria Martinez
University of Arizona Press, 2002
book of essays, Confessions of a
Berlitz Tape Chicana is forthcoming from University of Oklahoma
Press in 2005. She is also the author of the novel Mother Tongue (Ballantine,
1996), the poetry book Breathing Between the Lines
(University of Arizona Press, 1997), and the manuscript "Turning" in
Three Times A Woman, an anthology of three Chicana poets
(Bilingual Review Press, 1990). For information on readings and
workshops lead by Demetria Martinez, go to
Reviewed by ariel
I was nineteen when I saw the light
Of God escape like steam
From every living thing.
Now doctors say it was just
A tap of neurotransmitters.
But I know what I saw and what I heard:
How His heart pumped inside the heart
Of the Sandia Mountains like an accordion.
Like the Sandia Mountains at dawn and dusk, the
pages in The Devil’s Workshop bleed from beginning to end. In
this autobiographical collection, Demetria Martinez’s speaker has
been pricked at the skin, until bloody and worn from false
accusations, loneliness, receding love, and political rhetoric, and
she surrenders the most fantastic and most painful moments of her
As a girl, Martinez’s father warned her that
“idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” A master weaver, he taught
her to value the power in each stitch. The impact of her father’s
lesson is evident in the distilled language she uses to recount her
life lived under the watchful eyes of the powers that be. Arrested,
tried, and acquitted in 1987 for smuggling refugees from Central
America into the United States, Martinez is familiar with activism
at its most active root. Unlike the tedious wave of poets
whose humanity is hidden deep in the cracks of dogma and pathetic
nostalgia for a revolution left spinning its wheels, Martinez steps
to the universal megaphone and dares to say,
Get your revolution
Out of my house
It’s pissing all
Over the floor.
Martinez’s powerful language forces us to look
straight down into the still muddy waters of a summertime Rio Grande
where we find a reflection of our most tarnished and wounded selves.
Her language of introspection and healing requires us to strip down
to bare flesh and submit to a full desert sun. The chances are we
will get burned, but as Martinez’s rap sheet proves, anyone who
lives a full life will be burned occasionally.
For many, love has become a trite topic, one
explored too often in poetry, yet Martinez’s pen refuses to override
the legacy of her heart. In the tradition of writers like Sonia
Sanchez and Ana Castillo, Martinez reminds us that love itself is a
political act. Ironically enough, in her poem “I Don’t Want Love”
she testifies to the most overlooked variety of love: self-love.
With three simple lines she reinvents the welcome mat of her
Albuquerque home: “When I love myself / As I loved you, / I will
invite you in.”
In Martinez’s poetry, the world is not outside
the window waiting for the poet’s magic wand to bring it to life.
Her words know no such arrogance. They assume themselves to be
neither judge nor jury of a world unhinged. Instead, each poem is a
prayer bead, a red bloom on an ocotillo tip, a leg of a shuttle’s
journey through the loom, a thread of life giving hint to patterns
only made visible by the subtle passing of time.
“My lungs inflated
like sails, distance was nothing.
I went everywhere, passed from lap to lap
Of women who kept their loneliness secret
Until it happened to me, like the day of my first bleeding.”
In a world of hyper-marketed happiness that can
be bought from on-line pharmacies or realized in virtual video
games, feelings as ugly and cross-eyed as loneliness have no place
amongst us. Still, with as much cojones as heart, Martinez dares us
to look at loneliness as if it were the person standing next to us,
with eye color and cold palms much the same as our own. She unties
the cross-shaped load from the backs of poet martyrs who went into
death with a sense that there was no cure for the human condition
and welcomes them back on the sacred winds of someone who has
outlived the malady.
ariel robello is a poet
based in Echo Park, Los Angeles. In 2002, she was awarded an
Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellowship with PEN West. She runs FULL
MOON PHASES, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational women’s writing
cipher and teaches poetry in the high schools. My Sweet
Unconditional, Robello’s first book of poems, will be
forthcoming from Tia Chucha Press.
by Aharon Shabtai
translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
New Directions, 2003
Aharon Shabtai, born in
1939, teaches at Tel Aviv University and is the author of 16 books
Peter Cole is the author of
two books of poetry, as well as numerous translations from Arabic
and Hebrew. He lives in Jerusalem.
Reviewed by Sesshu Foster
The title of this volume is taken from Emile
Zola’s famous letter denouncing the anti-Semitism of the French
government during the Dreyfus affair. Here, Shabtai, one of Israel’s
leading poets and winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for
Translation in 1993, denounces his government for the oppression of
the Palestinians. It seems one of the critical roles that falls to
poets anywhere and any time is that of conscience and of witness,
and Shabtai delivers his scathing testimony with Bertolt Brecht’s
rhetorical clarity and his own potent poetics, steeped in the
classic Greek drama which he has translated into Hebrew.
Several of the poems refer to the killing by
Israeli snipers of the 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durra in his father’s
arms that was televised world-wide. Others refer to “the dentist and
activist/ Dr. Thabet Thabet/...gunned down,” and to Neta Golan (an
Israeli peace activist beaten by police, her arm broken) “thrown/
into Kishon Prison/for binding herself to an olive tree/ before the
army’s bulldozers.” In yet another: “Yesterday, at the edge of the village of
Sanour, a pack/ of army snipers killed Raada. She was picking/
olives in the grove with her family, early in the morning./ She died
on the spot, a bullet in her neck.// Eighteen years old...”
Shabtai is not merely outraged and grieving for
the “shot dead/ a young woman, age 19/ ...hanging up laundry on her
roof in Hebron” but for a land where “the tanks murdering in my name
are digging a grave for my people as well,” where the olive trees of
the Holy Land are being razed by soldiers for replacement by “Burger
King/ and Kentucky Fried Chicken.” An essential voice from the
Middle East, terribly relevant and fiercely intelligent, we’re lucky
to have Aharon Shabtai in Peter Cole’s superb versions. His previous
translations of Shabtai’s work, the longer Love & Selected Poems
(1997), is available from the Sheep Meadow Press.
Sesshu Foster lives in
Alhambra and is the author of Atomik Aztex, a novel due out
from City Lights in 2005, and two poetry books: City Terrace
Field Manual (Kaya Press, 1996) and Angry Days
(University of New Mexico Press, 1987).
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