May 01, 2012

Reading the Bones: The Poetry of María Meléndez

University of Arizona Press, 2010
I remember listening with rapt attention as my friend, artist Mil Lubroth, recounted her experiences from a trip to South Africa. One in particular that stuck in my memory was her visit to a village shaman who read bones. He scattered a collection of bones on bare ground, gazed at them and into them, then revealed their message to his "patients." Later, when seeing my own bone density scan images, I thought how bones do indeed reveal messages and tell stories. So, a book of poems with "bones" in the title seems both natural and magic to me.

María Meléndez's collection of poetry Flexible Bones opens with this bit of bone knowledge: "The bones of a bat's fingers have adaptations that promote bending...making them less apt than ordinary bone to splinter under stress." --Adam Summers, "Biomechanics," Natural History, February 2003. 

Meléndez's poetry brings stress and stresses onto center and inner stage. That which is incongruous, inconsistent, unjust, wrongly forgotten, produced by greed--all this, all these make their appearances. They appear, however,  in front of the poet, who is also justice and chief in charge of restoring balance through thought and language. She finds a way through the stresses, staying flexible, taking us into a kind of beauty we may not have recognized before.

From Inner Stage


The washcloth has failed
to notice, the socks and the hairbrush
don't see  
                      that although I used what God
gave me
                      (drew a husband in, grew
                                    some children, basic
I think of myself as male.
                      Does anyone ask the age of the spirit
                      shivering inside the box elder tree?

                      Who will seek the shape of clouds
                               disguised within clouds?


"The shape of clouds disguised within clouds." What do we see? What do we know? Is there not always a yet-more-inner place and person than what we see? As gentle as this poem's language is, the more I read it, the more I feel thunder inside the clouds. The fault line between "I used what God gave me" and thinking of oneself as other than how "God made me" puts the mind just moments away from an earthquake. What is to keep the fault line from opening and then splitting one's Self? I believe Meléndez provides the answer in her last two stanzas, but it's an answer I don't want to dilute with any commentary.

Inner stages are usually well-set for religious questions. Meléndez is fearless when it comes to religion, its history, its physical and psychological architecture. Nowhere more so than in "As Witches Do:"

Jews don't usually describe G-d's hair,"
said my best poet-friend, an Israeli-Berkeleyan;

she was coaching me on how to know
a mortal addressee, in Hebrew poetry, from one divine.

"They usually won't lay claim to have seen His face."
With or without all due respect, I lay claim to it all.

I say I have seen the toenails, sucked the knuckles,
yanked a hand of the Author's hair, taboos be

damned (that's how we do), for what is Man
but that which G-d is doing at this time?


I also enjoyed the poet's journey into "el mundo guadalupano" in "Googling Guadalupe (a little ranchera number):"

I'm Googling the Virgin,
I'm dragging the Net
so that muchacha santa 
can show me the way. 

On Center Stage

It's impossible for me to choose one or even several favorite poems in this book, but it is equally impossible for me not to choose the "tour de force" poem of the set: the four-part poem "Maíz Desmadre." In Part III, we learn that desmadre means "all mixed up." What has been mixed up in this case is corn, maíz. Corn has lived at the center of Latin and North American agriculture, mythology and daily life for millennia. With amazing skill, Meléndez takes us on the whole journey, starting with (counter-intuitively) "Smartfood White Cheddar Cheese Flavored Popcorn."  Part IV of "Máiz Desmadre," "Translexic Contamination: Mad-Libbing a Chant for Planting Corn" ties three worlds together: the Aztec, the American (as in continent of, not as in USA), and the industrial.

In order to appreciate this mad-libbed chant fully, it helps to know something about industrial agriculture, genetic modification, and special interests, a 20th- and 21st-century tale; and something of the Aztec culture and one Fr. Ruiz de Alarcón, a Roman Catholic Priest who wrote a treatise on Aztec culture for his fellow priests (1629), with the aim of helping them fight the Aztecs' "heresy." In the process, he preserved for posterity some of the Aztecs' poetry in Nahuatl. In 1992, Francisco X. Alarcón, a well-known poet currently teaching at University of California, Davis, provided English translations for some of these poems. Meléndez begins Part IV with a Nahuatl poem that speaks to Mother Earth, saying: 

on your open hand
I am setting down
my elder sister

Tonacacihuatl is described as the female principle, the wife of the Creator, "Lady of Our Flesh," depending on the source(s) you read. Her name was also used as a name for Corn.
Even if you feel handicapped by lack of exposure to Nahuatl, it's worth the time and effort to attempt reading the lines in this ancient language, work at sounding them out, so that you can appreciate the subtle rhythms, the tightness of the consonants, that magic "l" that curls back in the throat after the "t" it attaches to. 

nomatca nehuatl                      I myself 
nitlamacazqui                          Spirit in Flesh

tla xihualhuian                         hear me, Tonacacihuatl
nohueltiuh                                elder sister
Tonacacihuatl                          Lady of Our Flesh

Woven into the center of the chant is a second set of verses "frenetically modified by Market Interests, early 2000s," in which Meléndez writes:

I myself, Profit
Potential in Flesh
ask you open for me,
Tonacacihuatl, elder sister, 
shopping mall of our flesh.

The poet's fury (which I share) at what has been done with, to, and against our sister Corn Tonacacihuatl is sharply, painfully expressed: 

(I shall honor
the finger-
nails of my sister
as I yank them out.)

But, after acknowledging the market's malignant forces, Meléndez returns to the Nahuatl chant and its translation by Alarcón, letting these take us back to that which was and still is sacred.  Whatever the market forces may do, they cannot turn that which is sacred into anything else. The sacred cannot be undone. It may take a beating, but it cannot be made un-sacred. It reminds me to ask myself, as Meléndez asks in her poem "Catamite:"

--what do we carry
       as holy?

Whether as challenge or  reassurance, María Meléndez's poems carry us closer to what is holy. Is there anything greater that poetry can do? 


All poems cited, copyright María Melendez, all rights reserved.
Purchase and / or read an excerpt here.

María Meléndez is Editor and Publisher of Pilgrimage magazine. You can read her bio here.

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