Take a moment and read a review of Valentin Sandoval’s new book. It’s worthy of your time.
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Sherman Ascher Publishing, Santa Fe 2014
she’s been immersed in
serving food to schoolchildren.
“My son, look at my hands,
imagine what you can accomplish
Believing that to give voice is an inherently political act, Donna Snyder offers free, weekly writing workshops through the Tumblewords Project which she founded in 1995. Until recently, she worked as an activist attorney on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities. Snyder has read her work in Alaska, Boston, New York City, Colorado, Los Angeles, and throughout Texas and New Mexico. In 2014, Chimbarazu Press released her collection Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal and Virgogray Press reissued her 2010 chapbook, I Am South, as a paperback book. Three Sides of the Same Moon is due from NeoPoiesis Press in 2015. She is a contributing poetry editor for Return to Mago.
Donna Snyder: Poet Sandoval’s collection shows love for, and darkness of, El Paso-Juárez border
Valentin Sandoval is a true son of la frontera, this U.S.-Mexican borderland of the Juárez and El Paso area. The opposite of the often-repeated lament of a Chicano, ni de aquí y ni de allá, “neither from here nor from there,” he is unequivocally from both sides of the border.
In Sandoval’s hands, his two cities and his land become as vivid as any character drawn by a skilled novelist. Imagery shimmers under the glaring sun. The air is filled with redolence of cilantro and creosote. The music of corridos, the bounce of basketballs on pavement, the eeriness of dogs barking in moonlit nights resound throughout his book “South Sun Rises.”
The collection is an autobiographical cycle of poetry bookended by two poems, each called “India.” While some might translate the Spanish word as “Indian” or “indigenous,” Sandoval has explained that his mother used “india” to express an awareness of self as disconnected from acceptable or dominant cultural mores, while yet being empowered and recognizing the beauty found within that marginalization.
The first poem sets the context for Sandoval’s bi-national life experience, like that led by a majority of people here, with El Paso and Juárez separated only by a river. It explains that Sandoval’s mother crossed the river, risking her life, because of the desperation causing most immigrants to leave Mexico for the United States, “for the opportunity to fulfill her desire, her dreams.”
That first poem also introduces themes of the poet having been born of this landscape with its prickly nopales, chiseled mountains and earth baked by a brutal sun; the indivisibility of El Paso and Juárez, both “bathed in the dry peach orange sunset” of the Chihuahua Desert; and the overwhelming prevalence of death.
Many poems in the collection praise the poet’s mother — and other Mexican mothers she symbolizes — sacrificed to labor in factories or fields or forced into prostitution to provide their families food and shelter. As in most families, however, Sandoval’s parent is more complex than a saintly maternal figure.
“Open Range” describes egregious neglect and abuse, a child locked out of the house in the rain both cold and hungry, and being beaten with a leg from a broken table that
left the body
patched with red stains
as the blows tore my skin,
where I stored
the burning fury
of each strike.
The last poem of the collection clarifies that Sandoval’s love of his mother, as of this harsh and dangerous land, is not merely nostalgia. He describes a confrontation in which he asks why she had beat him so cruelly, leaving him with a “darkness” that “shrouds” his memories with anger, which he was forced to “sublimate” to grow and find success beyond the hardships of the desert and the poverty and violence that plague the streets of his two cities.
Like his devotion for his mother and the landscape, Sandoval’s love for El Paso and Juárez is blackened by the violence of the drug trafficking culture. He uses the term “narcopreneur” for the drug lords who make their millions both from the blood of low-level drug dealers caught up in turf wars and the lives of those whose addictions are manipulated and fed by the contraband. The potential of young men is squelched by the truths of life described in “Young Refuge” as
a world premised
off the culture
of souls downtrodden
into the sociological
realms of hell.
In “Desert Cold Again,” Sandoval captures this tragedy and its symptoms:
Yet these young men,
with the broken hearts and spirits,
they arise from broken homes.
Their bloody wounds of maimed romantics
caused them to move slower,
drinking became a twisted type of cathartic experience.
Sandoval’s life, like so many people here, has been haunted by death, beginning with fathers who die before they have the chance to father, friends who die before becoming men, people who drown in the river crossing into the United States.
In “Shrub,” the poet reminds us that this community is made of laborers “plowing, picking, sewing, building.” The life of the working class is grueling and takes a toll in physical pain and abbreviated life spans.
Yet in the prose ending of his final poem, Sandoval speaks of “benevolent sunrays … made tender through the layers of diffusing the heat and pain, that would devour our existence otherwise … to bring about this sublime lucidity.”
This poet’s ability to recognize beauty in a dangerous and austere world, his soulfulness of writing, are the foremost strengths of “South Sun Rising.”
No doubt Sandoval’s reputation will continue to grow and his voice will be heard far beyond the borderlands he loves so well.
Susan Hawthorne is a polymath – linguist, poet, script writer, aerialist, ecologist, publisher, and scholar. She has worked in a circus, as a professor, as an editor for Penguin Books, and as a publisher with her own independent press. She is fluent in English, Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and conversational Italian in various dialects, as well as the history and art of each of those cultures. She also possesses at least a working knowledge in languages such as Linear A, proto-Indo-European, French, and the Angelic tongues, and is quite capable of making use of Old English, Etruscan, Kartelian, Akkadian, Vedic, Prankrit, Sardinian and other languages.
Hawthorne peppers her poems with references to calculus and physics, demonstrating yet two more arcane languages with which she is conversant. She has published on biodiversity and erotica, and has books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. This diverse expertise and learnedness provide the vocabulary and content of Hawthorne’s poetry, which is no less than an attempt to rescue and resuscitate Woman in all her power and glory, to restore the lost culture of women ignored or obliterated by previous scholars. In Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne ably incorporates almost all areas of her skills and knowledge, except, perhaps, her work as an aerialist.
A book of poems, scripts, fragmentary artifacts, myth, and myth-making, Lupa and Lamb has characters which blend together through time and “fold in and out of one another’s stories,” from pre-historic archetypes to contemporary travelers in Rome, as described in the Main characters page that precedes the body of the book itself. Two characters go by multiple names and represent various female personae throughout time. As described in the poem “nuraghe,” these two characters
. . . walk hand in hand
between the lines . . . tread winding paths . . .
spiraling through intangible space.
Indeed, the book itself proceeds in a spiral, moving back and forth through temporal planes, between myth and history, between fact and imagination. The first poem of the collection, “descent,” captures the liminal nature of dates and time expressed throughout the book, and mentions the recurrent theme of history and memory reconstructed and reclaimed.
I was here before
thousands of years before
your hundred mouths
shouting. . .
shouting descent into
the dark thighs of your cave
. . .my hair snake-wreathed
speaking with a hundred voices
the sibilant hiss of prophecy . . .
I flail at vanishing memory
bruised rise from the darkness . . . .
A third character is called Curatrix, described as the “framer of this manuscript and responsible for collecting ‘lost texts’ from ‘the present to as far back as 300,000 years.” Another character is Sulpicia, who lived in the time of Caesar Augustus and is “the only woman whose poetry has survived in Latin from Ancient Rome.” She and the Curatrix work together to re-see the remnants of her poetry, looking at it with eyes who want to see strength and beauty, a source of inspiration and comfort to contemporary women. Livia, another character, was empress of Rome by virtue of a marriage to Caesar Augustus, the mother and grandmother of later emperors, and a woman whose power in Rome was recognized throughout the Mediterranean region’s countries and cultures. In the central conceit of the collection, it is Livia who has organized a great party and invited women and goddesses from various epochs to gather at her home with the intent to create a new text from the forgotten, suppressed, fragmentary, or merely lost records of women of power.
A PhD and university professor, Hawthorne created this genre-busting and inventive collection as a tool to educate but, as the Curatrix states, “academic tedium only gets you so far.” Notwithstanding its side bar commentary, explanatory endnotes, bibliography, description of main characters, and a note on dates, Hawthorne’s creativity transcends academia and scholarship. She wields images and emotion deftly, creating a thing of grace and beauty exquisitely balanced between scholarship, cultural history, a linguist’s pyrotechnics, poetry, and theater. Come to think of it, perhaps she does make use of her background as an aerialist. But make no mistake, this book is poetry, epitomized in the poem “ancient nerves,” set forth here in its entirety.
a day of ancient argument
when with zealous ear and helpless eye
I go in search of Etruscan relics
find italic grapes oozing sweet nectar
on a frieze birds tweeze worms from soil
ewe wolf uterine maze
night’s death hour I wake
to a giant ginger object
rise and sink into oblivion
it was only the moon
sailing through cloud
breast parrot orange
on this feathered planet
or a brazen angel trumpeting dawn
Her poetry easily stands alone as poetry, irrespective of the depth of scholarship, and the exceptional quality of her writing has been repeatedly recognized by being short listed or placing for various prestigious prizes, both in Australia and the US. Her poetry has been translated into both German and Spanish. As well, she has won residencies funded by the Australian government, living, studying and writing in Rome and at the University of Madras in India.
As noted by Danica Anderson, a sociologist and international expert on healing from war crimes and other catastrophes, says that “what are remote events become social relationships threaded from the past to our life . . . [and] manifest meaning on what it means to be female.” Danica Anderson, in a December 27, 2014 conversation on Facebook labeled Blood & Honey Herstories- Charting the life. According to Anderson, we carry buried within us the memory of experiences, particularly trauma, that our ancestors encountered. Hawthorne’s book is a beautiful tool for us to access those memories. Repeated motifs include rape, incest, sacrifice, and martyrdom, demonstrating how violence against women is either suppressed, recast in euphemism, or transformed into sanctity. Hawthorne grieves the deprivation of a full life for women of patriarchal religions, as in “Hildegard,” where she describes nuns as
separate and celibate
they have dragged themselves
into exile like doves without nests.
She provides lists of goddesses who were repurposed as saints, having “dual citizenship,” she puts it.
While certainly quite serious in her aim for her collection’s cultural significance, Hawthorne’s book also makes use of puns and has recurrent erotic passages. Like so many such exchanges throughout history, sometimes a poem works on multiple levels, the sensual details hidden within the text, recognizable only to one looking for them. The poem “Diana shears Livia’s flock” sets out the steps of shearing sheep, yet the details are so sensuous it is hard to imagine that the writer intended nothing more than a description of a mundane task. Here are a few lines that underscore my interpretation.
. . . it’s a trust thing
she has to relax
fold her into your knees
with a firm but not tight grip
hold her close
begin on the soft belly
and back leg
dance your way
and step through
to neck and shoulders
so intimate a move
her head tipped sideways
Like the listing of the many goddesses in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hawthorne’s poems often feature lists. She names ancient rulers and writers, goddesses from cultures around the world, and female friendships through history, drawing parallels between these heroic women and more modern or contemporary artists, writers, and activists. Her litanies create a new universe, spiraling out into the cosmos, both into the past and forward into the present, populated with the “forgotten women,” causing, as she writes in her poem “breasted,”
a vibration in the air rarely felt in these past
six thousand years.
The illustrious guests at Livia’s party permit Hawthorne to educate the reader through poetry, translations of “lost fragments” of ancient texts, while simultaneously linking lives of women that transcend the ages to heroic and creative women in today’s society.
In Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne’s artistry spins the silken strand that connects women and their achievements throughout time.