Born in Los Angeles on the winter solstice and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Chicana mestiza writer Lisa Chavez, whose first two books have catapulted her into the front ranks of contemporary American poetry, writes her narratives against a backdrop of astonishingly beautiful and often brutal landscapes, which serve as metaphor for the struggle of many of her speakers.
In her powerful debut collection, Destruction Bay (West End Press, 1999), Chavez's mostly Alaskan narrators are women who live on the margins: prostitutes and widows, woefully unprepared mothers, left-behind addicts who pray for nothing more than "a blizzard of white static, / numbing it all out." But matched with Chavez's bleak-fated heroines in Destruction Bay are their flipsides: women who not only dream of escape but also accomplish it, usually through a form of self-transformation ignited by dramatic action. The speaker in "Hands," for example, catches her man in bed with another woman, and "[W]hen I / saw that, I raised his old / shotgun to my shoulder / and squeezed the trigger." Sometimes, though, the action need not be so violent. In the collection's lovely final poem, "Approaching the Winter Solstice," the feat required is a simple opening of the ears: "Listen, you are of this earth," demands a gust of wind. "Take what is offered; / it is a gift."
In her second collection, In an Angry Season (University of Arizona Press, 2001), Chavez's work, while retaining the intrinsic sensibilities of Destruction Bay, becomes more overtly political, countering facile notions of American history. Three of the opening poems, for example, are captivity narratives told by real, historical white women captured by Native American tribes. Ultimately returned to their white culture, the women are given a voice by Chavez that is far more subtle and ambivalent than any historical record indicates. Remarkable for their depth, these relatively short poems manage to convey the complexities of entire lives. "White Pony" ends this way:
Those days are gone, even the language
discarded with the memories bitter
as ash. Sometimes still, I see myself astride
a white pony, a warrior's bride. Impossible,
of course. Outside my window,
the sea fog moves like smoke,
spirits calling to me in a tongue
I refuse to understand.
The biggest shift, however, from Destruction Bay to In an Angry Season is not the poet's subject matter so much as her style. Whereas Destruction's poems are tightly crafted, short-lined, controlled narratives, Chavez's voice in Angry Season, especially in the second half, opens full-throttle, and what emits is a kind of unexpected, welcome abandon, as if the poet had, like many of her speakers, suddenly and surprisingly been released from captivity herself. Tellingly, this transformation occurs toward the end of a section called "Surrender." Beginning with the prose poem "The Tattoo Artist," in which the initially wary speaker comes to realize "My flesh demands design," and moving through a series of poems by turns funny, erotic, desperate and soulful, Chavez frees her speakers to admit being "deranged by desire." The narrator of "The Good Wife," who loves her husband dearly and cannot imagine actually straying, still lets loose about the (most recent?) object of her lust:
He's the chain gang I'm shackled to; he's razor wire, searchlights, and the baying of the hounds. A heat-seeking missile. He's my terrorist insurrection, my Holy Resurrection, my only indiscretion. He's the smoky slow-burn of chipotle on the tongue. My golden idol. My gospel revival. He's hashish sweet and languorousmy body's one desire.
Chavez's playfulness here is disarming and delightful, even as she toys with and subverts the Petrarchan convention of transforming living women into objects of desire. In a strange way, too, this explosion of desire adds an even greater moral force to her political poems. What does a poet fight for, after all, if not the freedom to feel? To Chavez, the personal seems righteously political, as in the collection's ferocious title poem, which ends the book.
In the first stanza, a young couple, both 19, stand on a bridge over the Yukon River's "mad / descent into spring." The boy's "pale hand / turns her tawny face to his and / they kiss, roar of loosed ice echoing." The second stanza finds the couple in a claustrophobic tavern in a mining camp a hundred miles from any town. In the tavern, besides the couple and a man "face flat in a puddle of beer," are "Six menthey've been drinking / all winter." One of those men, Dave, tells a story about gang-raping an Indian woman. The other five men laugh. The poet writes: "One girl. One nervous / boyfriend. [...] / And Dave stares / at the girl. 'What do you think of that?' "
And she thinks: There is so much evil
in this world. And she thinks of her hand,
squeezing the bottle till it breaks, scraping
this man's face to bone with the shards.
And she thinks of the river, how in some
angry seasons it could not be contained
bridges snapped like thread, whole villages
devoured by the Yukon's flood and fury.
And she hears the river shift and growl.
As her first two books amply prove, Chavez is a writer to be reckoned with, a poet unafraid to mix anger with compassion, tenderness with rage. In these days where menacing, mean-spirited vitriol passes as morality, it's a pleasure to read a poet who knowsand feelsthe true meaning of the word.
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