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Reseñas, Issue 9 | March 2013

     

Empire


Reviewed by JIM CERVANTES

empire-coverEmpire

Iron and Feathers

Thinking to get a grasp of the arc of Candelaria’s Empire, I read the four “Empire” poems that are spread throughout the book’s three sections: “Empire #1: Five and Dime Store, 1949”; “Empire #2: Poet”; Empire #3: Marriage”; and “Empire #4: Mirror.” In “Empire #1” we witness the poet’s mother, representative of an older “empire,” encountering a sales clerk who is a representative of the new world, anglo empire. “Empire #2” presents the poet’s brother made poet in the split seconds of a disastrous accident, “. . . hands reading/feathers, his chest a library,” and the mythic quality of the old empire is evoked: “If he imagined we knew nothing/as we looked up at the stars, dreaming ourselves among them.” In “Empire #3: Marriage” the clash of empires is subtle, expressed through an anglo brother-in-law: “. . . mostly I listen/to him mispronounce, over and over,/the name of a man/he could kill . . .” “Empire #4: Mirror” reveals a persona who can no longer recognize herself or the other.

Xochiquetzal is not heavy-handed in these expressions of encounter. Her stroke is that of a feather, exercised with touches of magical realism in this poem I am compelled to quote in its entirety:

Cortés and Cannon

Before Cortés lops off a messenger’s
hands and has another trampled,
before the branding and burning,
there is wonderment
and, for a moment, endearment
as Cortés dances, off beat, around
the long neck of his field piece.
Stroking it, he whispers into its mouth,
then cocks his ear to the darkness.
He does this several times, then orders
his men to lie on the ground in homage to the iron.
Clapping his cracked hands,
he speaks in a tongue of corkscrew
and wing, telling the Totonacs to bring
themselves closer. And like well-meaning
friends, bearing glinting quetzal feathers
and silver cactus milk, they laugh,
pretending to understand,
believing him wild with love
for the enormous, hollow thing
he has hauled from the hull of his ship.

by Xochiquetzal Candelaria
The University of Arizona Press, 2011
82 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Buy it from the press

The dance of empires is beautifully apprehended here, as it is in a scene set some five hundred years later in the poem titled “Primavera”: ” . . . These town/beauties, who ate beef stroganoff and pan dulce/like the rest of us, who might have split their lips/in recent history on the saddle of the 25 cent/yellow mechanical horse outside Louie’s store,/were on their way. Not to a place, of course. We all/knew that; they were just on their way to us/and for us to smile at as we ate caramel corn and hotdogs.” What perfectly chosen details: “beef stroganoff and pan dulcet” andcaramel corn and hotdogs.” All irony would have been lost had they been eating chicharrones and carnitas.

Candelaria is at her best in moments like the above, using well-chosen detail instead of proselytizing about encounters between explorer-colonizers and indigenous people, or the discovery of otherness, whether societal or personal. For example, when before the mirror in “Empire #4,” “One hand and then the other gather hair away from the neck./I can’t see you anymore, we say, I’m seeing someone else.” Of course one does a double-take reading that line, but that’s as it should be.

Empire is a weave of the ancient, the recent past, and the present, and of family history, Mexican history, and migration. It is of two worlds and two sensibilities, iron and feathers. It surprises and mesmerizes.

Empire