Review by Raina Lauren Fields
CANTICLE OF IDOLS
by Raina León
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2008, 100 pp., $18.00
I just want to be my own prayer of thanks to you.
–from “Oracion del cuerpo”
Lines like this in Raina León’s first poetry collection, Canticle of Idols, are the tamest, most sensual drops. Her first collection brazenly balances the sticky sweet sentiments of lovers and the seemingly blasphemous invented details about Christianity’s dearest family.
Try being a Puerto Rican Catholic schoolgirl in 1990s Philadelphia. The days of nuns threatening punishment with yardsticks and rulers have passed, yet your uniform is still a monotone, polyester flap of cloth and your earnestness internalizes every Catholic mentality into your teenage being—aching for respite, for solace, for understanding. What else can you gain but confusion from this dichotomy of the streets and the pews? This is where Canticle of Idols begins—at least on an emotional level.
Each poem moves from thought to reflection in its attentiveness. Yet, whether some poems teeter between the jagged road of simple Biblical imagination or outright blasphemy is up for the reader to decide. Though León may not be the biblical Good Samaritan, dusting off the downtrodden on this jagged road, I believe she means no harm. León simply refuses to beat around the bush. She refuses to allow her words to settle on a page, quiet and inept. This woman wants to make a statement, just like one of the collection’s main characters, the Virgin Mary.
León rejects the traditional Virgin Mary, the one draped in baby blue robes, caressing her child wrapped in swaddling clothes, in absolute and eternal prayer. No, Mary sashays her hips around Jerusalem and Nazareth, tempting men into marriage, or at least into its more desirable counterpart, sex. She is woman, as exhibited by the following lines in the poem “Sonku for God’s Girl”:
yes man come
on down here
make a home
lands wet up
make me fat
León doesn’t let Mary get off that easy. Not only does she explore the sexual identity of the “Virgin Mother,” we become introduced to the personality of a woman, her “truest” identity. You can call her a whore or a bitch for her actions, but if you’re struck down for it, don’t blame me.
when nimble and young
that virgin shit lined her pocket
in town she swished her blue hips
gentiles and jews wanted her bad
joseph just strolled in with lilies hanging from his staff
preacher man’s pregnant daughter
always marries quick
up Joseph all the time for leaving
his tools lying here and there being just a man.
Just as spirituality is shown in the collection, so is sensuality—that awareness of body, of touch, of part. Whether León is writing about scar or bone, caress or punch, we feel and understand the range of emotions and physical interactions that these events possess. For example, consider the first stanza of the poem, “Nude”:
your scars are beautiful
glittering in the light
swallow the words
León recognizes that poetry is everything, is everyplace, whether it is “around the way” in the streets of Philadelphia, the olden Catholic classrooms, the lessons from families, the wisdom of friends, the rhythm of soul and hip-hop music, the neighborhood bodega, the prayers of children and fools in love. She also contends that poetry is simply present in sex, in beauty and pain, in speculation, in suspicion, and in superstition.
León engages a mélange of words, colors, and emotions. She does not tiptoe around supposition or care that her words may offend. This is not to imply that León’s writing is off-putting. Her candidness is part of her gift with language, and an impressive trait, especially at such a young age.
I am reminded of Midwest Poet Albert Goldbarth (with lines such as “The parents are fucking,” from his poem “Invisible”) and Harlem Renaissance Poet Frank Horne (“I offered up /the Sacrifice of Body / upon the altar of her breast…” from his poem “Letters Found Near a Suicide (To You)”) both known for their jarring verses, their honesty that may warrant the reader to think that tactlessness is being used. I disagree.
Surprisingly, despite the different themes approached in the book, León’s verse reads perfectly together. Poems meld as if each one was carefully chosen for its place and length, each meant to be part of the collection.
León’s strength as a poet does not lie only in the messages of her poems; she jumps into various free verse forms and verse shapes with a deep consideration to the aural. This is not only seen in her transitions from English to Spanish, but also in the way she quotes various poets and works of literature, from Marilyn Nelson to Wuthering Heights to of course, our friend, the Bible.
Canticle of Idols was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (2006).
Raina Lauren Fields is Philadelphia native and 2008 graduate of Loyola College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing and Music. Her poetry has been published in Poet’s Ink, apt, and Gargoyle. She will attend the Master of Fine Arts Poetry program at Virginia Tech, starting in fall 2009.