March 26th, 2008

Review by C. St. Pérez

by Emmy Pérez

Swan Scythe Press
ISBN-13: 9781930454217
2003, 40 pp. $12.00

The solstice marks the time when the sun is furthest from the equator. Solstice is an apt title for Emmy Pérez's first collection because her poems exist in the place of solstice: a site of heightened perception where we remain suspended in the tension between distance and intimacy, gravity and suspension, light and darkness.
In an Ars Poetica toward the end of Solstice, Pérez writes: "I want geography--to know it like driftwood knows it". Throughout this collection, Pérez drifts through various geographies: Castroville, California; El Paso & Ysleta, Texas; Anapra, New Mexico; as well as larger places such as The Americas, The Border, and The Breathing. To know these geographies, Pérez captures their light and angles:

The church beside the tired
panaderia is empty. All
are smiling at the Artichoke Festival.
Boys with shaved heads
remind me of you and all boys
with brown skin who died young.
[…] Farm workers
crouch in lush strawberry fields
with bandannas veiling their mouths.

I isolated just a section from this poem to show how Pérez brings together absence and presence into the geographical moment of the poem. In Upon Seeing Pecan Trees in the Outskirts of El Paso, we witness a similar palimpsest:

Rows of living soldiers
stand wounded with winter
until spring returns. Canal
water floods the orchards
and dust storms tear
new leaves. My will to find
you floods this land
of adobe missions
roaming the gypsy
Rio Grande. U.S. citizen
by natural disaster,
are you deerskin
or dirt brick, agave
or scorpion? You wandered
over the bridge and back,
bridge and back for booze
and women, until your family
grew tired and left on a wind-
blown day--sky-brown
eyes crying from the bus window [...]

Searching the personified landscape, the speaker conjures her grandfather and his tired family who left "on a wind-". The break at "wind-" leads us not only to a brown sky, but to their "sky-brown / eyes". The people and ghosts who populate Solstice define place by bridging and haunting the geography.
Besides contouring human presence and absence, Pérez creates geography through an exquisite attention to the natural surroundings:

Cottonwood crosses
planted in sun-
cracked mud: Inca dove
bones among olla shards.
In this desert, trunks of fruit trees,
crosses without names and all
are washed white. Gypsum.
Lime. Here, dirt is life,
shaped into utensils
and adobes--here, dirt holds
seeds soaked with irrigated
water, hoping to blossom.
Here, when canal water drains
hungry children dig in bottom
sand for crawfish. Dust storms
live in teeth, dreams and eyes.
Loose cotton blows over
empty fields months after harvest
and the roosters crow all day.
Every moment is torment
and sunrise.
My mother's home
was a bowl made of clay.
I will perish into finding
all the pieces.

Within the descriptions of the desert, Pérez evokes lyric intensity through her surprising use of line-break. The break at "sun-" suspends us in a moment when it's possible for the cottonwood crosses to be planted in the sun itself. After falling from that moment, we are returned to an earth of sun-cracked mud. Similarly, "Inca dove" evokes a living bird until the gravity at the end of the line reveals "Inca dove / bones". Further into the poem, we read: "sand for crawfish. Dust storms". This line alone is quite powerful as we can imagine dust storms orbiting the line to stir up the sand. In turn, the line break onto "live in teeth, dreams and eyes" completely surprises. Not only does Pérez have an impeccable eye for the imagistic moment, but she also weaves these images into complex prosodic tension.
Alongside these narrative lyrics, Pérez composes labyrinthine prose poems:

The sunflower seed cracking in the parrot's beak; the cassava connected to earth, filtering rain; the pink afterbirth of sky, leaf, and beast; the waking from dreams to our loved one's sleeping; the waking from horror to the bells of the distant cathedral; the reverberations of family, gunshots and home traveling in our blood, congealing in the heart, in the stomach; the small strokes weakening brains, erasing equations, retaining: deer drawn on the damp walls of its caves, beats on thick skins of drums, flutes carved from trees, reeds intimate with tongues.

Interestingly, Pérez's lyricism emerges most forcefully in her prose poems, as if the absence of line breaks allows the onrush of imagery and action to travel in our blood and congeal in the heart and stomach. Many of the other prose poems utilize this same kind of listing and layering, offering quite a different movement from the quieter and deeper images of the verse poems.
One of the most compelling aspects of Solstice is Pérez's willingness to ask questions: "Will I recognize you / --me--within the strata / of this new gathering?"; "what kind of terrible / accident would it take // to make me love the sight / of blood?"; "Grandmother, what are you / remembering when you cry out diosito?"; "What tells the juniper // to berry pewter-blue?"; "Without solstice would we fall?". Although the text never explicitly answers these questions, the questions create a cumulative echo that permeate Solstice's images, lists, geographies, and borders.
At a slim 40 pages, Solstice is an impressive first collection. Pérez, not "frightened at seeing life opened", shows us what it means to catch light and to know geography. In the Ars Poetica, she writes: "[o]pen window shades and feel the sun. To know it is to lack it and lick it. We're lucky to shower everyday like starfish pyrotechnics". Through her starfish pyrotechnics, Pérez proves it's "possible / to blossom standing still" because there's "an orchard / of stars in [her] belly, / reflecting the slow leak / of lake into the desert".


C. St. Pérez is the co-founder of Achiote Press and author of several chapbooks, including constellations gathered along the ecliptic (Shadowbox Press, 2007), and all with ocean views (Overhere Press, 2007). His first book, from unincorporated territory, is forthcoming this year from Tinfish Press. His poetry, essays, fiction, reviews, and translations have appeared (or are forthcoming) in New American Writing, Pleiades, Rattle, The Denver Quarterly, Jacket, Sentence, and Rain Taxi, among others.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.