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In Review Archive

In Review

Edited by liz gonzález

This month In Review brings you 3 books:  Prayer to Spider Woman / Rezo a la Mujer Araña By Renato Rosaldo, The Devil’s Workshop by Demetria Martinez and J’Accuse by Aharon Shabtai.  Enjoy!

Prayer to Spider Woman / Rezo a la Mujer Araña

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 dried leaves,
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.

The Devil’s Workshop

by Demetria Martinez
University of Arizona Press, 2002

Demetria Martinez’s 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 www.demetriamartinez.com.


Reviewed by ariel robello

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.

     —from “Psalm”

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 life.

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.

     —from “Retro”

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.”

     —from “Loneliness”

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 of poetry.

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).

Poet, please email me your review of a book of fiction, memoir, or poetry (including chapbooks). See guidelines below.


  1. Paste the review in the body of your e-mail. No attachments.

  2. 250-300 word limit. (If you have strong grammar skills and know how to write a review, this limit is flexible. Contact liz for info.)

  3. Include a two-sentence bio for the book author: City in which s/he lives and publication credits. (Include your one-sentence bio: Publication credits.)

  4. Use quotation marks for poem titles and excerpts of poems only.


  6. Refer to the other reviews for format and to use as a model.

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach