Perhaps a Southwestern state of mind is a prerequisite for a full appreciation of the Sandia Mountains and Chaco Canyon landscapes that populate Donna Snyder’s latest collection of poems, The Tongue Has Its Secrets. Yet a stranger to these parts can approximate a high-desert way of knowing, in the same way that a male reader may discern, if only as a tourist, the invocation of ghosts from a woman’s way of seeing, the subject at the heart of Snyder’s latest work.
Lara’s tongue severed by the sky for indiscretion
Love led her on a spiral path deep into the laurel
She gave birth to little gods but was forever silent
She lingers at cross roads
Tends the dead
What is evident from the first poems is that Snyder avoids the fear of modern vernacular that seems to occupy many poets who visit natural sites, hoping to evoke ancient gods. We could all be judicious with our language while trying for the perfect Mary Oliver setting, but any ancient god worth a prayer won’t mind the occasional reference to a pop song or video game. Snyder’s language is at once formal and casual, giving works like ‘Prepare to Ululate’ surprising depth.
In the North Texas Panhandle, southbound truckers
blast down Hwy 83, headed to where the wind’s not
from the north and not called blue.
Winds and storm outside become Valkyries,
the concrete septic tank a magic stone. Women
warriors ride like furies across the frozen plain.
An Irish woman outruns a chariot,
gives birth to twins,
lays a curse.
The wind takes my spirit in its arms and flees.
Mama lights the candle, locks the door.
There are plenty of two-lane highway odes in this world paying homage to modern gods of transport, and plenty of chants that attempt to revive Anasazi imagery, but Snyder is rare in being able to meld the two. Poems such as ‘Blue Norther’ and ‘My Heart Makes Chorus with the Coyotes’ successfully bring the two worlds together with an impressive degree of success.
Snyder obviously takes the most time with the multi-stanza works spanning two or three pages that attempt to disentangle layers of spirituality. Sometimes, the longer poems are not as effective as the shorter, more direct works. ‘Bear Who Loves a Woman’ is an obvious exception to this rule, a complex and interwoven longer work that is one of the book’s highlights.
The collection ends with the tight and disciplined ‘Supplication,’ which seeks to call upon the right panoply of gods without a wasted syllable. Many of Snyder’s fans may find the poem a perfect summation and distillation of the entire collection. But even those of us more secularly grounded in cynicism will find the pair of poems near the book’s end, ‘The Truth of Vikings’ and ‘Aqua de mi sierra madreTM ‘ to provide just the right mix of breathless voice and raised eyebrow. In short, there’s a brand of salvation in The Tongue Has Its Secrets appropriate for just about any seeker.
The truth of Vikings
The music in her head makes her scared,
as if Vikings still brandished their blades
from the decks of ships fierce as dragons.
Afloat in an ageless river,
the leaves are chill flames.
Cold rains obscure the water’s source,
hiding it away like the secret of a woman’s
aging body, rain, a woman’s sluggish heat.
She is apples and pears ripened
in her own sweet skin.
Only the moon can match
the luster of her opalescent belly.
Her mouth makes shadows. Her hair
a burning bush.
Her fingers a doorway,
iconic as a religious artifact. She is on route
to the end of being on the back of a red swan,
on the way to nothingness made tolerable
by ritual and fire.
Through the wind, she hears the shriek
of disconsolate women who no longer
believe love will save them from sorrow.
There is no home now, they wail.
There is no safe place.
Death tastes like winter flowers.
She knows this because she knows
things she is not supposed to know.
She stands so close she can hear
warriors tell each other secrets.
The truth is that neither love nor death
diminishes you. The way to truth
is a life suffered, a drunken waltz.
She stands so close her howl is lost
in the roar of music inside her head.
She is wordless before the fact of Vikings,
truth found in a harsh yellow light.
Review: New poetry by Donna Snyder
Michael R. Wyatt, Special to the Times
“The Tongue Has Its Secrets” by Donna Snyder
El Paso performance poet and human rights activist Donna Snyder has published a new book of her poetry, “The Tongue Has Its Secrets” (NeoPoiesis Press).
The slender volume holds some very powerful imagery and might be thought of as setting forth Snyder’s ontological theory of poetry. After all, Snyder is a poet, and what is poetry but the deliberate revelation of secrets held by the tongue? And, closer to home, what proof is there that a poet exists, but for this revealed poetry, and what the poetry reveals?
The book contains 57 poems, equally divided between three parts. The first poem, “The tongue has its secrets,” precedes Part 1 and is in the nature of a foreword. In it, Snyder begins to lay the foundation for the universe she later develops.
Her deity is conceptually female: “Praise Her in five songs.” Her creation myth begins with a thought, which requires the tongue to express it; until told, it is just a secret. And her existence of the self is mouthwateringly sexual: “The spurt of the mother / a creamy desecration of the dark.” And, as is true in most maternalistic ontologies, she expressly acknowledges the cycles of life: “Out of devastation new growth green as a jungle / A verdant blanket.”
To set forth such a vibrant and vivid world-view in a mere 30 lines of text on the first page of her new book demonstrates the power of Snyder’s mental and expressive capacity, as well as the tenacity of her work ethic.Snyder, a lawyer by profession, an activist by inclination and a poet by compulsion, has an extensive list of published work to her credit, including “Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal” (2014 Chimbarazu Press), a lamentation in three parts commemorating the lives, and untimely deaths, of three men central to her life. The three parts of her new book are not as clearly delineated, although one can sense a flowing movement from themes of Nature to Voice to Prayer. Throughout each movement, the Tongue, as a necessary component of the voice that guards the Secrets, and as a sexual organ, provides a constant point of reference.
In the first movement, Snyder introduces the Corn Maiden, one of numerous mother-gods she invokes, and draws out for the reader an explicit connection between Nature, sexuality, and the thoughtful, deliberate act of creation. In “Masa on the tongue,” she writes:
I want to feed on Corn Maiden’s flesh
caramelized in the embrace of mother earth
let it melt on the tongue like agave nectar
rain in the mouth of years to come
Other goddesses featured in this work include Dea Tacita, Ixchel, Mother Crow, Epona and Oshun. The reader may be excused for an occasional Wikipedia break.
This also holds true for Snyder’s references to her non-deified muses, which include various fauna of the Southwest (mariposa, colibri, jaguar, eagle, coyote, deer, bear, serpent); a couple literary lights (Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein); and a deep well of half-hidden languages women have invented to share their secrets in plain sight (Lingua Ignota, Nu Shu poets and the so-called “Venus of Willendorf”). In each case, the poet invokes the muse to give voice to the secrets of the tongue, and thereby creates her world.
Snyder’s keen social awareness also requires her to express alarm. Somebody has killed the muse of Juárez, severed the tongues, silenced the girls, left a dead stone: “Nothing but the sound of blackbirds cawing, / crying out in grief.” And her concern reaches beyond the femicides of Juárez to the planet herself. This collection contains a series of contemplations on the environmental degradation man has wrought, which include “Bitter poison of history denied”; “Earth Day”; “The Sunday news”; and “Agua de mi sierra madre(TM).”
But the poet remains sanguine, both in spirit and flesh tone. In “Struggling with fragile” she expresses her conviction, in a most personal fashion, that spilled blood signifies life to come: “bones of the broken moon turn verdant / flesh and sinew become roaming beasts / spilled blood becomes life. …” The moon “quivers / calls forth the waters to flood and surge / makes the blood rush forth between the legs / the fragile moon / her body broken / her bones and body become life.”
And even though life is but a long wait to die (in “Carmine”), the poet concludes with a prayer (“Supplication”) in which she asks that particular “great and beneficient energy flow” to cleanse her soul, heal and protect her, and restore her vitality.
In the morning, feed me honey with fresh yogurt,
and mint or sage tea at noon.
In the evening, stroke me
with the peacock feathers
of your benevolence.
In the afternoon, love evokes remembrance, and in “Minnow slip of the finger” the artist’s sexuality drips from the page: “humidity sudden in the desert heat / monsoon season of the wet country …,” where “a beard of thorns waits to be trimmed / the ruby flash of tuna / anticipation of eager teeth / dripping sweet.”
In the end, she is prepared to ululate! The reader may be forgiven for discerning a secret meaning from the text, and for allowing the Tongue to suss it out.
Michael R. Wyatt is an assistant El Paso County attorney and has practiced law in El Paso for 28 years.
What: Poet Donna Snyder will read from “The Tongue Has Its Secrets” during a BorderSenses-sponsored book release event. The event also will include an all-ages open mic.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Rock House Cafe and Gallery, 400 W. Overland.
How much: No cover charge.
Information: Snyder, 328-5484 or email@example.com, or Richie D. Marrufo, facebook.com/BWOMS.
or for an autographed copy, buy it directly from the author firstname.lastname@example.org
Amalio Madueño’s comment on the back of The Tongue Has Its Secrets
“Donna Snyder’s The Tongue Has Its Secrets celebrates the feminine principle in all manifestations– from its dark root in the earth, the blood & sacrifice & song of mother & daughter, up to the chariot moon ridden by the fertile goddess through skies resplendent with her constellations.”
Amalio Madueño, Poet and Impresario
The back of the book:
“Jaguar sent me a lover…” says aloud Donna Snyder in The Tongue Has Its Secrets. Powerful images, passion between lines, revisiting female mythological figures, and questioning violence against women are crucial in these poems. Donna reinvents herself through these stanzas, and raises her voice in each of the polychromatic verses full of Latino as well as north European myths, full of words as vaporous signs. Let’s walk along her side and discover the secrets of the tongue.
—Xánath Caraza, recipient of the 2015 International Book Award for Poetry
Thank you, Professor Caraza.