Saturday, July 10, 2010

Extraordinary Book of Poems: J. Michael Martinez, HEREDITIES

When Juan Felipe Herrera selected this manuscript from the many competing for the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, I bet he jumped, danced, hollered, and phoned or e-mailed his best friends. At least, that's what I did -- because J. Michael Martinez has done so much more than write good poems here. HEREDITIES plunges into both myth and history of Meso-America, presenting Quetzalcoatl through Toltec myths; "conqueror" Hernan Cortez through his own letters to the Spanish king; the instructions given by Bishop Torquemada for the Inquisition; and modern Hispanic/Chicano/a questions of identity and language.

Using "the page" in multiple dimensions, Martinez lights each strand of language and belief on fire, by rubbing it against the others. There aren't just alternating voices -- pages contain trains of poetry crafted from stretches of Cortez's words, accented by marginal columns of the Inquisition; and throughout, the beauty and glory of the Toltec landscape and people erupt. Surprising (and perhaps highly personal) blocks of prose commentary stand in figurative corners, giving stage directions. Here's one I especially like:
In 1519 Hernan Cortez sent five letters to
Emperor Charles V of Spain. Its paper a species of
wing without feather. The letter arrives as a
paper Christ extending cursive hands onto an
unspoken Lazarus, the past incarnated as word.
Cortex speaks of his "discovery" of New Eden.
And that is perhaps the most prosaic of the language -- from there, it rises in glory and wonder. The page that follows this interruption (and for which I can't do justice, because blog pages don't format the way poetry does), begins this way: "ii / We gathered language // rendered in honey and beeswax / from the beaks // of peacocks, / lined integrity with masonry // and mortar, gold and stone mosaic. /// At the hour of Mass, //// we grazed on justice, / lips pierced with two needles of jade."

I hope you're catching from this what Martinez has marvelously done: extracted "found poetry" that paints the Meso-American world in magically illuminated text, mysteriously drawn from the very language of the invader. More again, he links sections and poems to each other through repeated phrases that demand attention in their newness. At the opening of the book, he makes it clear that this is conversation as well: "Margin is the whiteness of our silence. [...] Your irises, close, black flowers folding toward / the silence of their beginning. I place a cup of coffee before you. I / said, The noun never sutures to the named body."

The center section of the book, from which the Cortez/Torquemada passages come, is without doubt its center of power. Along with these mingled tongues, it includes anatomical drawings of "Articulations of Quetzalcoatl's Spine" in which the "Ligaments Connecting the God's Spine to Creation" are described, like this one:
The Two Capsular Ligaments (fig. 155) surround the condyles of the occipital bone and connect them with the articular processes of the atlas; they consist of wept ashes, reeds of cane and water grasses; these enclose the narrow silence all hours become.
Those reeds and water grasses appear in many places in the volume, evoking the massive interior lakes that the Toltecs lived among and on. But again, Martinez presses beyond the expected, to place beside this spine of the Toltec god, "The Sternum of Our Lady of Guadalupe" -- a Catholic image who becomes grounded in the same place in turn, bound to "a hymn of praise above and of marigold below" and "of piƱon and continuity, ... a union of fire, water, earth, and sky."

Martinez's poetry strikes me especially strongly this week because in this particular Vermont summer, amid the wet green hills and the rocky rivers, I've heard Spanish repeatedly within the grocery stores and at the lakeshore. To a New York or Los Angeles resident, that's probably part of life -- here in northern New England, however, it is new and amazing. The wave of immigration from south of the U.S. border is finally splashing on the granite hills. And there is surely not enough time to light all the minds around us with respect, admiration, and enjoyment for and of the heritage that this wave brings with it.

But this finely crafted drama of languages and images is one way for those of us whose heritage is not Meso-American to catch a glimpse of wonder and to turn us into curious welcome committees, eager to discover this new/old heredity of the Equatorial lands and people. Would that poetry might spread in flames among all our readers, that this book could become the signal fire of a new amazement and delight.

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