Review by Craig Santos Perez

by Brenda Cárdenas

Momotombo Press, Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame
230 McKenna Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556; ISBN# 0-9710465-6-5, 48 pp.

The Nahuatl term for poetry is "flower and song," a literal translation that only hints at its figurative suggestion of poetry as la frontera where the material, finite, and visible borders the impalpable, infinite, and invisible. According to the introduction by Maurice Kilwein Guevara, the title of Brenda Cárdenas's From the Tongues of Brick and Stone refers to the Nahuatl glyph for "language." In this collection, Cárdenas situates us within la flama, el templo, y el cielo of language becoming flor y canto.

Momotombo Press, named after the volcano in Nicaragua, primarily publishes emerging Latino/a writers. In addition to its stellar production, the press also maintains web-exclusive author interviews at the Momotombo Press website.

In Cárdenas's interview, she describes her code-switching between English, Spanish, Nahuatl, and Quechua:

I am experimenting with the harmonies, dissonances, and rhythmical nuances that emerge via the patois [and reflect] the larger notion of cultural transformation via syncretism and polyphony. It reflects my interest in the interconnectedness and juxtapositions of difference and similarity between seemingly disparate peoples, events, places, and experiences.

The French word patois has been used to describe non-Parisian French and regional languages, and often refers to Pidgin, Creole, and local dialects. The word has implied that such nonstandard languages are inferior to the dominant language (the origin of patois, though uncertain, may derive from the Old French patoier, meaning 'to handle clumsily, to paw'). Subverting this perception, Cárdenas imagines what might emerge from the patois as an opportunity for cultural transformation and aesthetic experimentation:

        La araña weaves her web of music
        tuning its strings while she sings
        de sus companeras obrando
        en las cabañas, labrando
        en los campos de caña.
        She holds the high notes,
        pulling filaments taut.
        And when a fly's wing
        touches one fiber,
        everything vibrates. (33)

From the Tongues of Brick and Stone constructs a lyrically taut web haunted by songs of disparate experience. For example, Cárdenas weaves an intimate poem about a mother who insists that her daughter's hair smells like corn tortillas; in contrast, she writes a mythical poem about "Lacandona" (the rain forest), whose hair is "a translucent cocoon" and whose lungs contain "a clearing / where stone pillars / hold arches of sky" (11). Another poem, "Turning (1998)," turns our attention to the killings of 300 people in Chiapas in 1997 and a protest in Chicago where the speaker chants: "Zapata vive, vive […] Alto a la militarización! […] Alto a la repressión!" (14). The succeeding poem, "Abuelo y sus cuentos: Origin of the Bird-Beak Mole," captures a conversation between the speaker and her grandfather:

        Abuelito, what's that on your arm?

            Este? This little bump?

        Sí, qué es?

            Pues, oye, un dia cuando era joven
            estaba trabajando en un jardín bellísimo
            cuando lo and behold a little bird
            swooped down and stuck his,
            how do you say?

        His beak.

            Sí, his beak in my arm,
            and I twisted and I twisted
            en circulos, around and around,
            until his beak broke off
            right in my muscle. Y ya, mira,
            tengo su nariz en le brazo. (18)

Not only does Cárdenas juxtapose these various contents, but she also experiments with different formal techniques. While many poems are in free verse with stanzas of variable length, one poem is in prose, one is in Sapphics, one is in Old English alliterative verse, and one is in Spanish with its English translation on the corresponding page. This syncretic formal impulse reflects the polyphonic texture of Cárdenas's language-scape.

From the Tongues of Brick and Stone compels us to listen so we will "remember / the texture of [its] stories" (42). In the title poem that ends this collection, Cárdenas listens to stones and mountains ("Camel Rock, lava rock, / las montanas Sandia, Jemez, y Sangre de Cristos"), to the ocean of wind ("that washes the Santa Fe Hills, / its Anasazi tongue as comforting / and unforgiving as Ojo Caliente"), and to the city of Chicago (its "boom in the bass that rattles the whole block"). As she listens, we press our imaginations against the tongues of brick and stone and flower and song to hear: oye, oye, "to voices never removed" (43). 



Craig Santos Perez's reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, Jacket, Rattle, How2, and Traffic, among others. He blogs at, where he has links to his other reviews.


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