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The 1519 Project

by Lee Rossi

A Poem Is a House, Linda Ravenswood, Madville Publishing, Lake Dallas, Texas, 58 pages, $18.95 paperback,

LINDA RAVENSWOOD'S NEWEST OFFERING IS less a book than a long poem. Individual sections are separated from one another by blank pages or pages with just a line or two announcing a new direction or theme. And yet it is wonderful, a wonder of compression, of outrage. The sections are various, yet form an urgent whole, each section introduced by one or two lines which taken together form a kind of list poem: a poem is a house, the poet tells us, a house floating on water (i.e. a ship, a Spanish ship filled with iron and soldiers and conquistadors); a poem is a woman, a slave, a footnote; a poem is history, genocide, diaspora; a poem is a husband who is also stranger and ghost. Other poets and other poems haunt this work (most notably Brigit Pegeen Kelly's "Song"), yet it is distinctively Ravenswood's own, and demonstrates her leap into poetic maturity.

We live at the scene of an accident, she tells us repeatedly, an accident that is the scene of a crime. Her earlier book, the Stan Poems, interrogated the prerogatives and privileges of an exploitive patriarchy, and this book deepens that examination with historical and sociological evidence. But the book also problematizes questions of race and class. We might think of it as a psychopathology of American life (from the beginning or at least 1519, when Hérnán Cortés first landed in the Americas).

The focus throughout the book is on women, a girl who can imagine that the desert is a street, the border fence the way to school, a girl who turns herself into ice and floats down the Rio Grande until there is barely enough to scoop out of the water ("The children turn themselves into ICE"). And yet there is almost a quietism about these figures, the realization that their only escape lies in the imagination. They have no choice, says the poet, but

To go on living

by the scene of a crime…

To wander

to the other side of grief, vacantly.

To fidget, to be mild.

To sigh in the silence of moderation.

There's music here, the music of defeat, of restlessness, of acceptance.

The poems swoop daringly along the timeline from then to now. In "names of Malinche.…" we encounter Cortés's "interpreter wife concubine spy peacemaker pacifier map maker collaborator / translator messenger captive-girl woman nahua slave indigenous chattel…Our Mother." Malinche, a figure compromised by her many betrayals, is "Our mother." Not the Virgin. And in the very next poem we dash forward in time to the speaker's grandmother, who tells of her father's murder by police:

when daddy got arrested

he thrashed so hard

in the cop car

they sent a bill to mama

for damages.

it arrived

to the funeral parlor

& followed us

every place we moved

for years.

i don't think we

ever did pay it.

Outrage and resignation war with one another in this tiny passage. The force of the collision is indelible.

Formal experiments abound. Typefaces change from line to line, from one side of the page to the other. We encounter fragments and collage. We find multiple poems on a page. And yet it all makes sense of experience which is haphazard and kaleidoscopic.

Poised against the disruptions of post-colonial oppression is the continuity of indigenous life. In "Untitled Note from Oregon" the poet offers an unromanticized vision of that life, a life in which women, their labor and their creativity, are the focus:

we saw native women coming with Camas hanging from their belts.

They placed the bulbs in a pit & covered them over with sweet grass.

When the Camas had steamed they sliced them like onion heads.

A sweet purple taste. Smokiness of earth & seeping greens.

Despite physical discomforts (fleas and ticks) the speaker recognizes the value of this moment, which is "a bridge from our grandparents," from which she can see that "they had left us everything."

Yet this vision of wholeness and connection vanishes like water in a desert. One encounters contemporary cruelty at its most refined in "in the sky which is called history." Here we meet "mexican / pilgrims [who] walk. across the desert / eyes belting / their way by Joshua trees. / their song / a steady breath" and a few lines later "a sheriff… [who] pours drinking / water onto the / ground // left out for the / travelers in agony." For the sheriff, of course, this is just a job, not an occasion for "psalm or / dance of thanksgiving." Or is it? Notice the spacing, how on the one hand it mimics the struggle of the migrants' journey, and on the other the deliberateness of the cruelty.

As the poet reminds us in "Elementary school," which is dedicated to Brigid Pegeen Kelly and which reprises lines from Kelly's deservedly famous poem "Song," men are cruel—but it is a socially sanctioned cruelty:

it's built into society to forgive them

to punish them hard and then forgive them

to punish them hard and never forgive them

In the swirl and confusion of post-colonial life, there are so many ways to get lost, to lose track of one's past. There's "aunt susie," the lipstick derelict, Rapunzel in her prison tower. "Send down your lipstick kisses…," intones the poet, "send down your deep aerosol lipstick eyes your deep iconic yellow hair y lipstick fingernails y magenta lipstick trigger finger on your gun en Mar Vista" Poor aunt Susie, performing Anglo femininity. Poorer still are the souls who renounce their past to become 'real Americans.' As she tells us in "Receipt," "in the great tremble / of Invented Americans / some dreams come / on long legs / with short memories."

Anyone can be a victim of their dream, man, woman, child, Irish or Aztec, but the situation seems particularly dire for women. "anyone who saw me might've thought I was dancing," says Lot's wife. But no, she is frozen for eternity, a symbol of all those women driven from their homes and silenced by conquistadors, whatever their names, Jehovah or Cortés.

Many poetry books can be read like a vinyl LP, just drop the needle on your favorite track. But Linda Ravenswood's A Poem Is a House is best read from beginning to end. The individual pieces are strong enough in isolation, but one would miss a compelling emotional arc, a resolution that incorporates all the misgivings and outrage, all the advances and retreats of a mixed-race woman as she discovers a sense of purpose and place, a sense of abiding self.

Lee Rossi is Contributing Editor for Poetry Flash. His new poetry collection is Say Anything. His previous collections include Darwin's Garden: Studies from Life, Wheelchair Samurai, and Ghost Diary. He is a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, who juror books for the Northern California Book Awards; his poetry, reviews, and interviews have also appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in San Carlos, California.

— posted February 2024

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