by Lorna Dee Cervantes
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press (1981)
68 pages ISBN: 0-8229-5327-7
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Book Review #3 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
Lorna Dee Cervantes (b. 1954) is a California native of Mexican-American and Native-American heritage. Her impact on Chicana poetry prior to and since the publication of her iconic, American Book Award-winning collection of poems, Emplumada (1981), has been tremendous. Her fellow Latino poet, Alurista, once referred to her as “probably the best Chicana poet active today,” and others consider her to be one of the pre-eminent Chicana poets of the past four decades. During the Clinton presidency, Cervantes was invited to a special White House event honoring the top 100 poets in the United States at that time.
Her path to fame began with the Chicano activism and literary movement of the 1970’s. In 1974, she began reading her poetry publicly and now counts over 500 readings, poetic performances, and lectures in venues including the top universities in America: Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Brown, Vassar, and Cornell. Besides the American Book Award in 1982, Cervantes has won over 20 notable prizes, fellowships, and other honors, such as the Latino Book Award, Latin American Book Award, Patterson Prize for Poetry, and two Pushcart Prizes. Cervantes is a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.
As an academic for most of her career, Cervantes continues to exert a major influence on American Latina poetry, despite authoring only three poetry collections besides Emplumada. These are: From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991); DRIVE: The First Quartet (2006); and Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems (2011). She founded the literary review Mango in the 1970’s and was co-editor of the multicultural poetry journal Red Dirt. Her poems have been anthologized since the 1990’s and have attracted wide critical study since the 1980’s.
Emplumada –which means “feathered” as well as “pen flourish”—treats the social issues of Cervantes’ day that still rattle our sensibilities: poverty, domestic and drug abuse, sexism, racism, classism. We relive these through the eyes and heart of a 27-year-old Latina clarifying her place in life. Cervantes occasionally spices her 39 poems with Spanish words and phrases that resonate with her Hispanic readers yet do not detract from the universality of her clear-eyed observations.
Her poetry makes us weep in recognition. Or weep for the deep slashes to humanity that she lays bare in her unvarnished way, capturing the pain we often inflict on one another in unconscious or purposeful ways. Her book begins with one of the more powerful poems, “Uncle’s First Rabbit,” a compressed retelling of 50 years of misery. At the age of 10, Uncle is forced by his drunken, violent father to shoot, then bash to death, an innocent rabbit. The rabbit’s dying cries remind the child of the night his father kicked his pregnant mother till her aborted baby died, his tiny sister’s cries like the rabbit’s. Throughout his military years and his own marriage, the Uncle is haunted by his father’s abuse, and he can’t escape the “bastard’s…bloodline” within himself, a man tormented by demons who one night “awaken[s] to find himself slugging the bloodied face of his [own] wife.” The Uncle’s humanity gasps its last breath as he watches his dying wife in bed and thinks: “Die, you bitch. I’ll live to watch you die.”
- The theme of abuse runs like an unavoidable snake through several of Cervantes’ poems. In “Meeting Mescalito at Oak Hill Cemetery,” a 16-year-old girl “crooked with drug” momentarily escapes her family life by drinking alone in a cemetery but then, at home, “lock[s] my bedroom door against the stepfather.” In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” spousal abuse strikes multiple generations of a family: Grandma, who “built her house, cocky disheveled carpentry, after living twenty-five years with a man who tried to kill her.” Mama endures “glass bottles shattering the street, words cracked into shrill screams” when her man “entered the house in hard unsteady steps, stopping at my door, my name…breath full of whiskey.”
In “For Virginia Chavez,” one of the more gentle, evocative poems of the book, the speaker describes her loving relationship with a young woman, a kindred spirit whose path in life splits from hers. Years later, they reunite, and the speaker sees the abused Virginia “with blood in your eyes, blood on your mouth, the blood pushing out of you in purple blossoms. He did this.” Embracing, the two women, whose lives have evolved in diametric ways, lean on their bond of friendship for sustenance. As in other poems, it is the inner strength and solidarity of women that help them prevail.
Cervantes also celebrates love, often by weaving this with nature, with the natural rhythms of existence that are often overlooked in harried lives. For her, nature is a balm that opens eyes and rekindles the spirit. In “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” the speaker describes her partner thus: “Every night I sleep with a gentle man to the hymn of mockingbirds, and in time, I plant geraniums.” In “For Edward Long,” she salutes an old mentor, writing: “You taught me to read all those windsongs in the verses of Stevenson….I still gaze at the fall winds you once taught me to describe.” In “Como lo Siento [How I Feel It],” lovemaking becomes allegory: “[An owl] lifted from the palm. She showed me how I rose, caught in the wind by your skin and tongue. I feel scooped from the banks like clay….I’m paralyzed by joy….I’m a shell in the cliffs, a thousand miles from sea. You tide me and I rise, and there’s no truth more simple.”
Emplumada is timeless and will continue to be. Its strength flows from the beauty and unpredictability of Cervantes’ phrasing. She takes the ordinary and holds it up for us to see, dressed in descriptions that we ourselves could not conjure. Her language is simple, direct, deceptively unadorned, but it is disarming in its precision: “In rarefied air, absent as lovers, objects are blanched and peppered to gray” ; “I dust pebbles, turn them to sheen”; “our time was mooning away from us and leaving us in mudflats”; “the great peacocks roosted and nagged loose the feathers from their tails.” And always, Cervantes’ imagery enhances and drives home her points.
Cervantes is, in the end, a poet who prefers to see the proverbial glass half-full but whose life experience has shown her the half-empty part in sharp focus. In perhaps the most autobiographical piece in the book—“Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between Races”—she explains clearly how conflict indeed exists: “I’m marked by the color of my skin. The bullets are discrete and designed to kill slowly. They are aiming at my children. These are facts….I am a poet who yearns to dance on rooftops, to whisper delicate lines about joy and the blessings of human understanding….but the typewriter doesn’t fade out the sounds of blasting and muffled outrage. My own days bring me slaps on the face. Every day I am deluged with reminders that this is not my land and this is my land….in this country there is war.”
The passage of time will only cement Lorna Dee Cervantes’ place in the literary tapestry of America. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from San Jose State University, and attended the Ph.D. program at University of California, Santa Cruz. You can learn more about her on her Facebook author page and on her website: http://lornadice.blogspot.com/
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.