Saturday, November 04, 2017

Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Beast Meridian


That I commune with the dead as I oil your feet. My house at the throat of the river, the door to this world, I wait for you. That I ask of the spirit and receive the knowledges: yerbabuena, vela de virgin, baño de alhucema. Cut the joint at the hoof & fatten the soup. Accept this offering, thank the plant. That I love you with the knowledge of our ways lost to violence. That you will call me up from the silt in your bones.

On my final night on this earth, the smoke pours from my nostrils. I cut the cards. The melon in the moon, the rose climbing a ladder. Thick coins in my cup. That my heart closes its fist. That my body succumbs to its constant nurture.

What you will say in my memory: that my serenity. That my softness. That my skirt is the sky pattern. That the cedars kneel for my passage. That my laugh was kind. That your feet carry my body. That I am the helix that roses climb. That the illness spreads north as we cross. That these are the end days. That heaven groans blood. That I have scienced the stones into a circle. That they speak of failure. My daughters.

Agony in the garden.

It should be clear to anyone paying attention that New Mexico publisher Noemi Press is producing some remarkable work, the latest of which is Houston, Texas poet, writer and video artist Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s first full-length poetry title, Beast Meridian (Noemi Press, 2017). As the “About” section of Villarreal’s website includes: “It has been the aim of my life to excavate the record of how we got here. There are significant gaps in the narratives about how my family arrived to the United States. All I know is that the women in my life are survivors of extreme and brutal gender and intimate violence, who fled to the U.S. pursuing safety and autonomy for themselves and their children. My grandmother Angélica and her story is central to all of my work—her survival, strength, and sacrifice are gifts I have inherited that I choose to honor through my writing. She died at 50 years old of preventable cervical cancer, yet another consequence of race, gender, immigration status, and class oppression which created insurmountable barriers to regular women’s health and medical care.” She goes on to write:

My first book, Beast Meridian, out from Noemi Press in the fall of 2017, explores the early racism and sexism I endured after my beloved grandmother’s untimely death, and the subsequent dreamscape I inhabited in the dissociative states afterwards as an at-risk youth, marked in the school system as a juvenile delinquent, expelled and sent to alternative school for adolescents with behavioral issues, a kind of institutional corrections facility, and eventually, a psychiatric hospital. It also documents various other pipelines I survived—school to prison pipeline, immigrant working class to grueling low-pay service jobs, surviving conservative classism as a Latina in Texas, queerness, assimilation, life wrapped up in frivolous citations and fines and penalties.

Constructed as an exploratory portrait of her grandmother, her grandmother’s death and the author’s own grief, Beast Meridian is a powerful collection composed as an intimate, uncompromising and critical collage of photographs, prose poems and lyrics rooted in family, memory, love, grief and landscape. In a recent interview posted at Bitch, conducted by Soraya Membreno with both Vickie Vértiz and Villarreal, Villarreal opens: “Beast Meridian started as a project of trying to write myself into existence. I remember reading a lot of Chicanx work and feeling like it was so varied, what every poet and every writer was trying to do with their books, yet it all gets lumped together as this documentarian project of ‘this is how my abuela was’ and ‘this is how it felt like to be poor’ and ‘this is what it felt like to do this.’ Especially when it comes to writing about identity and history and family, Chicanx and Latinx work across the board gets unfairly overlooked because people have certain expectations about that. I wanted to create a project that was rooted in place, was rooted in the act of remember and misremembering, in the act of creating your own narrative from the ruins of erasure. And of mapping the emotional textures of that, instead of trying to access real memories. Because those memories are eroding quickly and what the missing feels like, what the longing and the memory feels like, that is what I wanted to capture formally and through the strangeness of language.” One of the most powerful poetry collections I’ve seen in a while, Villarreal’s Beast Meridian is a heartfelt offering that also progresses as a book-length study of her grandmother, racism, grief and the landscape of what it means, at least for her, to be of Mexican decent in America.

The girl takes a knife to her scalp and crops her hair, braids the wild black strands to each braid as offering. She remembers her father’s suffering, her mother’s, her grandmother’s, all of her family, mourning this similar way. Traveling to the top of the mountain, she begs to be made the moon, to lure all suns with her song into the darkness. Tries to believe in the dream. She runs through the forest in the old way, her grief becomes passage—into the land, into her body, into the waters of herself and all the mothers before her. Beneath the surface of the river she hears their voices, in the rustle of the trees she begins to know the world.

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