Wednesday, September 03, 2008

 

The University of Arizona Press has a reputation for being one of – if not the – most active publishers of Native American poetry & poetics in the United States. If you are interested in this literature, you’re certainly know the press and its Sun Tracks series of books. But I wonder to what degree outsiders like myself – those who may have only an indirect relationship to the writing – know about the press and its work. I can’t remember when I last saw one of its books in a store. Not that long ago, for example, I was under the impression that it had been ages since Simon Ortiz, a favorite poet of mine, had had a book until several friends, mostly living in the Arizona area, corrected me. Now, reading Margo Tamez’ riveting Raven Eye, I wonder just how much else I must be missing. It would appear to be a lot.

Raven Eye is a book of poems in two movements, one that recounts the lives of women in two generations, Raven & Corn Girl, bringing out the many kinds of violence facing Native women, opening up questions like what is desire in a world in which one is not just a victim of rape, but likewise the mother of another such victim, while the second movement elaborates rituals that might be employed in at least a partial attempt at healing. But this description doesn’t do the book any justice whatsoever, since what it is not is a simplistic black-and-white collection of political poetry. There are not only no simple answers here, there are no simple poems. And Tamez is capable of filling almost any page with some tremendous moments of writing even when what is being depicted is itself utterly horrific. It’s an exceptionally complex project & Tamez shows herself to be completely up to the task. Think of the implicit aspects of “Hanging from Red Cord”:

There exists
A hand-carved boat
With a way to go
Up the long length
Of river
Clogged by invasive species
Toxic sludge

The river calls
In any case
Contaminated or not

Calls a song     moony waxing waft
Heart of a silverhair
Grandma calling with instructions

Outfitted with a bone knife
Pounding stone
Dried nuts   wolfberries   mesquite  nopales
Drinking water and wool blankets woven and dyed the old way

I close my eyes
Grasp my knife
Hanging from red cord
Around my neck    a gift
From she who emerged from water slicklove  wet
Pressing her motherlove into me

Practice
Knowing the beast
Do
What is necessary
She chanted

These are images, or links to further images, that will recur throughout this book, but what makes them work here is the specificity of Tamez’ writing, the boat in the compromised river, the remarkable lyric tone of the song – captured in just three words – and perhaps most of all the list of foods. One might see such detail as superfluous to the forward motion of an underlying narrative, but by the time you reach this piece, a third of the way through the book, I doubt seriously that you’re reading for narrative so much as your allowing it to come in with everything else. Indeed, what first made me pull this book out of the mass of volumes submitted for the William Carlos Williams award was just such wonderful “excess” right on the very first page:

Who will return lamps to the smelted sky?
Who will remember the knots that held up sun?

O! sky!
O! luminous tree!
O! raven! O! muted one!

Falling water
Falling down
Croaking raven
Flutter wind
Nobody hears
not the sound
nor the thought

O
! fist!
O! fist on raven’s head!
Is it night’s or is it sun’s?
Or is it the war?
Or the world of wars?

You can’t write like that and make it work without total confidence in your skills, and utter fearlessness as well. Tamez makes the reader, this reader, feel completely comfortable with both the specificity of her vision – the smelted sky is a direct antecedent of the river clogged with invasive species & toxic sludge some 22 pages later – and the surges of emotion that are part & parcel of this text. The poet she reminds me of most in this regard is someone who, like Tamez, wrote from a deep sense of a mixed (she uses the word mongrel) identity, the late Lorenzo Thomas (Panama-Queens-Houston), and there are moments here, as in Thomas’ work, that make me think that such New York School peers of his as, say, Ted Greenwald must be somehow channeled into the work. I sort of doubt that this is really the case with Tamez, but she is somebody that anyone with a NY School background could read with great pleasure as well as with a shock of recognition at just how far she can take her poetics in the direction of the political. She’s someone you could read alongside David Shapiro & Eileen Myles & Alice Notley, the most social of those poets. And it would be very interesting indeed to see her reading alongside them, and getting published & distributed by the likes of Penguin. As Michael McClure once said of Helen Adam, a voice this powerful you just have to trust. It doesn’t really matter what genre she chooses to employ – the lightning bolt energy is going to go right through you.

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