Being a total smartass who brings mockery and irreverence, at least in some small degree, to almost everything I do, I found myself at first, um, rather humbled by Lourdes Figueroa’s yolotl, the latest chapbook from Spooky Actions Books. Reading yolotl is not a humorous experience. Because yolotl is the story of a murder (a literal murder, certainly, but perhaps in some sense a figurative murder as well) and an elegy to a murdered woman. Because yolotl is a thirty-eight page multilingual dreamscape of rage, sadness, history, addiction, love, sex, personal and collective memory, legend, violence, with even an occasional splash of journalistic objectivity, all coalescing around the figure of a woman’s / women’s violently misused and discarded body / bodies against the backdrop of the Mexican-American border. (The fates of a pregnant migrant worker and illegal immigrants figure in heavily as well, in addition to that of a drug mule.) In other words, if Weeds were LOL, then yolotl is #shitjustgotreal. (Okay, Weeds was more of a ‘dramedy’ than pure, laugh-out-loud comedy, but it definitely included a lot of ‘hi-jinks,’ so hopefully you see my point. There is nothing even remotely ridiculous about yolotl.)
The language in yolotl [‘Yolotl’ literally “heart” in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs, but according to an online urban dictionary I consulted, also “a sweet, caring, nice, and smart girl”] glistens as viscerally as an organ in the body. Check out this fast rush:
let us believe in the shoot of the wheat in the budding poppy hoy le ruego que me
recuerde in a palpitation i dreamed of us walking through rows of apple orchards
i held a hoe you kissed my upper lip gave me a gun we danced a valse we bowed
and prayed the earth reeked of coal under the cold moon you stuck your tongue
in my ear
put the barrel to your heart sin canción held out your hand full of maiz amigo entre
sus granos nos buscamos alli the trigger pulling the finger to point the barrel
voice soft in my eyes
There’s no other way to say this: Figueroa’s language, which I choose to read at a slow breakneck pace, makes my heart beat faster and has all the velocity of a bullet traveling through an idea. And yet, despite the violent image of “gun” and “put the barrel to your heart,” there also exists genuine tenderness in this passage—“‘voice soft in my eyes,” not to mention the dream of the apple orchard. What the speaker examines here may in fact be the nature of love (and of memory) itself. Sure, it’s dreamy alright, but it’s also fraught with real danger. We may go down “sin canción” (without a song). We may have to beg to be remembered (“hoy le ruego que me recuerde”). This passage comes towards the beginning of the chapbook, and sets us up perfectly for what I believe is one of its central themes—the speaker or speakers in yolotl are asking us to remember what might otherwise remain invisible. (I’ll write more about this later.) Also, what we find in this passage, and throughout the entirety of the chapbook, is lyric intensity that tells a story, hell, many, many stories. Personally, I love when this happens.
“everything is a poem say yolotl”
What strikes me about some of the figures in yolotl, is that they don’t seem to experience particularly good luck—and that’s a huge understatement. They’re on what we might consider the wrong side of the border, the wrong side of economics, the wrong side of gender. (Of course, I use the term ‘wrong’ here not to denote ‘bad’ or ‘of lesser human worth,’ but rather ‘without as much power as the so-called ‘right’ side.’) And while much of the action in yolotl takes place in what may be perceived as a foreign country, or at least in ‘foreign’ territory that will remain unexplored in practice by me, one version of the average American reader of poetry [this version, in particular, happens to come from a white, middle class background], yolotl, in its entirety, reads like an invitation, maybe even a challenge. At first I even experience momentary confusion—will I step away from the proverbial window and become more than a mere voyeur—voyeurism would accentuate that distance and ‘foreignness’ I mentioned earlier—or will I descend into a page-turning stupor, experiencing horror perhaps—because terrible things are described in these pages—but also perhaps never understanding what I believe is the true tone of yolotl? [Anyone who’s ever gone dull after being caught up in one of those endless Law & Order: SVU marathons on USA may know what I’m talking about here.] In the words of Figueroa, I feel as if:
I don’t know how to genuflect the word bends me I walk my
legs move we move across borders we are wide open
But reading yolotl ensures that I rise to this very challenge. Because yolotl is angry and sad and loving and asks me to care. Perhaps it is the fragmented nature of much of the language in these pages that in and of itself ensures my participation. Here, physical space is a “wide open” door, yet “in the pores of our bodies we are not that far apart.”
We are and we aren’t. In language of urgency and tension, a story emerges, piece by broken piece. And that story is one of yolotl rising, despite what happens, as a great, possibly mythical mother figure:
she scattered her self making mothers upon mothers
each and every one containing her rhythms and she
danced making drums of their skins and she looked
at her self in them and saw their skins gleam like
the dark oceans and the stars
And thus the act of writing / speaking breaks silence, ensures visibility, elongation, life. The act of being, of creating is, in the end, perhaps the best revenge.
Everything is a poem.
Consider this: a narrative told in fragments that compose a body of work only to explain how that pre-established body cannot possibly continue to exist within the established parameters.
The fact that this body cannot continue is rendered in language that throbs and pings , once again, like an accelerated heartbeat. Check this out:
her lips she presses her lungs into the feathers nahuatl does not speak we do
not speak two carry the line separate the olive trees from the almond trees
clumping soil the hoe splin- ters into her flute there is more to the esophagus
than you think the belly emerging as we inhale there is no skin to dream as the
voices of hers migrate al norte they want to say we have sung this
before the sun of the suns the mountain almost built five more
vagus sin nombre el vagabundo into the plump of the lettuce
head beheading her nameis the same as yours the plate is
full roots un earthen ing pesticide in her liver we are
fumigating each other the distances cirrhosis
reaches so far there is no window
in her eyes her throat is soft
he breaks the hyoid
hides her under
the seven caves
Beginning with long lines and lungs and proceeding to mid-length lines outlining a slow poisoning through pesticide and ending with short lines and a strangling, this section serves to illuminate just how easily ‘body’ peters out, that even a very specific body can become a disposable object to be hidden away out of sight.
Now consider this: as we can see from above, ‘body’ doesn’t refer to some intangible, ethereal concept but rather to the flesh and blood body of a young woman. Or maybe it would be more accurate to write, “the body of young women,” because plurality / multiple strands exist plentifully in this chapbook. Some of the narrative strands in yolotl refer to a drug mule, perhaps, others to a pregnant migrant worker, not to mention to the now decomposing and almost completely unidentifiable body found “by a child selling chiclets in the fifth cave of the seven caves a tourist site near a tiny village northeast of Sonora that is also part of the president’s property…” This nearly-a-sentence comes near the end of the chapbook and the almost harsh objectivity of the journalistic style differs starkly from what precedes and follows it. (In fact, the text on this page appears laid out like a newspaper article.) That the child presumably sells chiclets to the tourists and that the body is found on the property of one so privileged and exulted as the president only serves to highlight that the central body/bodies in question in yolotl are commodities to be consumed and then thrown away, not unlike a used piece of chewing gum. The tragedy that is central to yolotl seems at least partly to be the idea that those in power will always have the power to secure more chewing gum (if you’ll let me extend the metaphor). Consequently, the fate of the powerless is not only brutal but also anonymous. But in my mind, the inherent mission of Figueroa’s chapbook isn’t necessarily to put names to faces, but rather to confront the brutality and sadness of anonymity head on. And by sewing language to subject, by evoking strong emotion with strong language, Figueroa creates an altogether new body—a deeply-layered body at that—in and of itself in order to mark and honor the experience of the unnamed characters that populate the chapbook.
Addendum (but keep in mind that this has nothing to do with the writing itself, but rather with my feelings of inadequacy as a reader): I don’t speak, read, or write Spanish. I admit that I am obsessive enough that I tried to translate every single word of that language in this text. Sometimes, I found this illuminating, at other times confusing. I didn’t know what to make of my own inability to intellectually understand the complete content of a text I was reviewing, i.e., supposed to be analyzing. When I did finally step out of review mode, I found myself caught up in something that was much larger than my own comprehension, in fact, even incantatory. This in turn created a tensile friction that was both dreamlike and visceral, which only added to my enjoyment of the book. In ending, I’d like to share a quote about multilingual writers from the University of Arizona Poetry Center website (thanks to Craig Santos Perez for posting on his FB page):
“Where some forces work to shut down, seal off, and contain, multilingual writers work to expand, forge links and refresh: like language itself.”
And indeed, the overall project of Lourdes Figueroa’s yolotl is one of reaching out, of joining present with past, and of giving new voice to those whose voices have been cut off. Highly recommended.