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BOOK REVIEW

Li Yun Alvarado reviews
How Long She’ll Last in This World
by María Meléndez
81pp. The University of Arizona Press. US$15.95. 0816525153 paperback

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Li Yun Alvarado and Jacket magazine 2007.

Pass Back Through Our Hearts

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From ‘Remedio:’

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Recuerda...from the Spanish recordar
which is at the root not remember or re-mind,

but pass back through the heart —

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María Meléndez’s first book of poetry, How Long She’ll Last in This World, is at once a quiet meditation on the beauty found in daily life and a protest against that which threatens these simple wonders. Throughout, her poems are infused with references both direct and indirect to current events, history, literature, artwork, and folklore. A look at the “notes” section in her book sheds new light on expertly crafted poems that work well on their own, but truly shine when put into broader context.

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Motherhood figures prominently throughout, with poems that are both intensely personal and unequivocally universal. As in the rest of the collection, Meléndez draws strong ties between the world of nature and the world of humans. In ‘Visitation’, Meléndez describes the path of a comet and its relationship to the birth of her son:

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When I moaned through my night labor,
its bright head and salty tail
beaded a blessing on my forehead
and I pushed.

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In ‘Arborphilia Pantoum,’ Meléndez compares her son to a manzanita tree:

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the spark of desire arcs out of my palms, into your veins,
          reaches of red bark thin and smooth as throat skin;
                    loneliness oils my bones, rooted child,
                              at the shock of seeing you standing alone.

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In both poems, Meléndez evokes the vastness of emotion shared between mother and son. Each step the child takes away from his mother, whether through birth or through standing on his own, creates a tension captured expertly in her language, “loneliness oils my bones, rooted child.” The personal nature of the poem shines through, yet by creating these relationships between labor and a comet, and her son and a rooted tree, Meléndez suggests that the entirety of the natural world is in fact connected.

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While the poems about motherhood are quite powerful, perhaps what is most impressive is Meléndez’s ability to write about tragedies such as 9/11 and the attack on Matthew Shepard in a compelling yet almost understated way.

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‘American Adhaan,’ written in October of 2001, captures the gravity of 9/11 from the perspective of someone thousands of miles away in a “petroliferous valley.” On first reading, the first two stanzas of the poem celebrate the juxtaposed beauty and harshness present in the speaker’s surroundings. The speaker describes the night as surrendering:

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to the peach colored breccia  
of sunrise clouds (just water  
          that has lately collapsed  
          into form).

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and insists that:

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the slow arc’d strokes  
of great egret’s wings  
deny the crude thickness  
of this air.

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These descriptions paint clear images in the reader’s mind of the valley and its expansiveness. The language, however, is linked the violence of 9/11. The word “collapsed” conjures images of the falling World Trade Center towers. Similarly, “the crude thickness of this air” brings to mind the debris, smoke, and ash that that lingered after the attack. The images she uses are distinctly rural, yet the language she uses ties together seamlessly the rural and the urban, the beautiful and the violent.

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Meléndez uses that same delicate touch to pay homage to Matthew Shepard in ‘Buckrail,’ a series of six short poems. Meléndez sets the stage in the first poem,  “This is the West, where men are men and beauty / sweeps down from the sky in a cold wind / that batters any color face raw and pink.”

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She goes on to introduce the bull bison, a symbol for Shepard, in the second poem. She shares that a bull bison, who was being hunted in the real world, would appear in her dreams, “proving / he could occur naturally / anywhere in this land.” Meléndez again blurs the line between the world of dreams and the world of reality; one cannot and does not exist without the other. More importantly, though, she makes a strong statement against those who try to wipe out bull bison and by extension any oppressed beings. These attacks are futile; the oppressed will continue to exist and will continue to rise.

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‘Buckrail’ continues to gain momentum and by the fourth poem, Meléndez names the issue explicitly:

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I’d joined as a “straight but not narrow”
protester against Amendment 2,
and narrowly missed realizing the weight  
of the chorus’ mission: not swatting
at laws, but cementing together
a bulwark of music against the slaughter of boys.

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In contrast to the second poem, here the focus is the ability of humanity to do good in the face of cruelty and violence. The fifth and sixth poem honor Shepard directly. The final poem is especially moving; it is as quiet as a prayer:

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You keep singing, This is home,
                         I don’t belong
                                  anyplace else. Matthew
          Shepard, carry us now
          through the haze of our frozen breath,
          through this drifting, chest deep fear.

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The fourth line is especially powerful, since “Shepard, carry us now,” can easily be read as “Shepherd, carry us now.” Throughout the poem and this collection, Meléndez calls upon the sacred to help us cope with the brutality of our world, but this reference is more pointed. Here the biblical image of Jesus is undeniable; by referencing Jesus she challenges the belief that homosexuality is a sin. She suggests that in fact Matthew Shepard, a gay young man, is our salvation, the one who can carry us through this “chest deep fear.”

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All of the poems in this collection speak directly to the soul. Meléndez attempts to bridge a gap between the spiritual and the natural, and succeeds! Her poems are filled with hope and spirited calls to action against cruelty and injustice. Perhaps the beauty of her work lies in the fact that it is easy to get lost in her carefully crafted language; one experiences an emotional reaction to the worlds she creates before any intellectual connections are made. It is that, Meléndez’s ability to write poems you can feel, which makes this collection a success.

 
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