Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Lorna Dee Cervantes’ DRIVE (Wings Press 2006) is a collection of five poetry collections bound together. The Collections are titled “How Far’s the War?” “Bird Ave,” “Play,” “Letters to David” and “Hard Drive.”

On my initial reading of the book, the section titled “Letters to David” was most appealing in its imaginative scope and its homage to David A. Kennedy. Many of the poems in the book are inherently political, but not preachy. They work to play with language in new and innovative ways, all the while opening themselves up to varied and multilayered interpretations.

There is a firm yet genuine bluntness here in the language, coupled with a keen sensibility for not only language, but living. These two polarities create the dramatic tension that keeps a reader reading. Cervantes writes,

“Today, goddamned David Kennedy drank himself to death…” Such an opening catches our attention, and yet later the harsh tone shifts to an empathetic one and recounts, “When he was only 12 years old, young David stayed up in his hotel room late at night and watched his father on television. A family friend found him seated in front of the set switching the channels to the different news broadcasts to watch the tape play over and over. The friend recalled that there were no tears, only a look of stunned horror.” Here the speaker's tone softens and we too are taken in by the trauma. Such sympathy or compassion rings out through this dense book of many poems, many with varying styles and aesthetic tendencies. The scope is broad and the book challenges us to open up our minds and hearts to what’s going on outside of ourselves, to hold in reverence the dead which haunt us, and the poems remind us to respect the living. This is in itself a statement of art, a statement of belief, a statement of faith in humanity despite the dark underbelly of our flaws which is often revealed.

Cervantes makes wonderful imaginative leaps from line to line and always surprises a reader with the unexpected. In “Just a Postcard from My Dreams” we read:

You arrived, “just a postcard
From your dreams,” you said, like a jackalope,
A hybrid lover, long-necked
Long-legged patched-up trouble.
A new kind of vision…
The poet allows a dreamlike sense to overlap hard straight political statements, and the playful manner in which this is done allows us to see what’s unseen, to feel what tension lies beneath the surface of our dreams, our realities, our passing.
Some poems are playful like “Bananas and Peanut Butter”:

She suspects he’s a banana
& peanut better kind of guy,
corn-raised and hell-bred
retread from the factory
of failed marriages and broken dreams…

Other playful titles “She Hated Men in Discount Underwear,” “Tattoo Nation,” “Whole Lotto Love,” “Sleeping Around (On Dead Pablo’s Birthday),” and “Axe Heads Hanging Off the Tops of Capitalized Letters, Like the Letter “T” for Example” give us a sense that despite trials, difficulties and a sullenness that is in the collection, the poet knows the value of humor, and the value of our instinctive need to survive and hope. This continual movement between lamentation and praise works.

In “Tiny Shadows of Leaves” Cervantes is at her best, in that she leaves us with the faint aftermath of experience passing. We can understand the wound, the making of something good and beautiful from “language too clumsy for/ your tongue” and the hint towards what it means to be an immigrant, a person on the margins.

You were born on a patch of dirt
Named for a grid of unchartered
Desert. Your grandparents fled
The Long March and disappeared
Into blood canyons rather than stand
Disappeared and bloodied. Your mother
Ever washed a dish in her life, but pressed
The spines of cut cactus together
Which dried into bowls. Your sutures
Never healed when you lost them both.
Your father’s heart, too small. Your
Mother’s heart, too large. You scraped
The arroyos of roots and hard seeds,
mouthed a language too clumsy for
your tongue and tried to forge
love from the tiny shadows of leaves
in a foreign country—your own.

The sense of being foreign in one’s own land and the sense that communication is difficult for those persons (in the poem) who fled a long March in order to survive is haunting. The double play on march as the act of forced walking or March the month is subtle and interesting.

In the earlier section titled “Bird Ave” we get a similar play with “Tasco”: A woman carved her grief/into glittering rock, the stone/broke open a cloud mass and /water tore the paths to the church./ A basket of bread wept/on the table. A window/of breath disturbed the air/between the white-washed walls/ as it opened, thrown wide/ with the force of a punch./ A silence greened slow as summer…
Here/few hands grow tender that work/the mountains, extracting fossilized/ tears from the refuse/ of the mine.”

Again the speaker hints at history, and losses infuse the work with a sense of mournfulness, yet there is always something beyond the silences and heart break of the poems. The woman and the fossilized tears at this mine “carved her grief” and we get the sense of something beautiful made from the experience of suffering, and in a country where suffering is something people pretend doesn’t exist, the poems themselves are a testament to the human spirit, the strength of mere language to convey the mystery of human hope.

DRIVE is a hefty book which requires and invites careful reading and rereading. One can continually mine something from these gems.

Despite the sadness in poems with titles like “Murder,” “Blood: Black Burned Oil of the Race” and “For Love, for Sept. 11” there is a something to be found in such death and sadness:

I find them on a summer’s night
in mind like a magician’s sleeve,
their narrow piercing guesses are/ whatever you believe.

“How Far the War” is the first section which closely explores the aftermath of war and often ties such hopelessness with restraint, willfulness and rebirth.

This is a very brief glimpse into a volume by the foremost Chicana poet in the history of our literature. She shows here once again that she has earned her place in the canon of American Literature.