A Review of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s
Sueño: New Poems

Candice Amich
Sueño: New Poems
By Lorna Dee Cervantes
San Antonio, TX: Wings Press, 2013.
116 pages. $16 (paperback)

In Sueño, a finalist for the 2014 International Latino Book Award in Poetry, Chicana/Chumash poet Lorna Dee Cervantes celebrates rebellious love and life. These poems ground survival in the performance of cultural memory, awakening ghosts of family and community history. Their lyricism is dense and requires work, refusing to offer a transparent window into “the Chicana experience.”

Sueño is Cervantes’ fifth book of poetry. Critics agreed Cervantes’ first book, Emplumada, published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1981, marked the arrival of a major poet. Though the poems from Emplumada and Cervantes’ second collection, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991), have been widely anthologized, the poetry from her three most recent books — the long-awaited DRIVE: The First Quartet (2006), Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems (2011), and Sueño (2013) — all published by Wings Press, defy easy categorization.

Each poem operates like a dream with its own uncanny imagery and logic, and like a dream or “un sueño/ in a cup of remembrance,” disparate elements often swirl together (“Kitchen Grief”). The marriage of lyrical beauty and political pain is at times unsettling: the dead bodies of immigrants haunting the desert are “blind desert snakes,” “sinuous ghosts of the ones/ gone down” (“Blind Desert Snakes”). Insisting on the veracity of the poetic fragment, Cervantes weaves dense tapestries of sound that wield intimacy to unravel genocidal logics. In “Testimony, Trial,” for example, she insists, “Touch them,” referring to a group of testifying Maya who “lie/ against the hardened offices, guttered/ and guttural against the elements/ of an elemental losing.”

Delirious word play propels many of the poems:

The silence of worms fasting and fusing,

the crime of their slime, brilliant

and fulfilling: the order of their days,

their ambiguous mating — all seems

a syntax of sense and decision …

In this poem, simply titled “Language,” the orgiastic copulation of the worms is likened to the sensual stirrings and turns of poetry itself. Moving down the page through assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme, Cervantes’ lines suggest the more muscular musicality of Spanish language poetry.

The book’s literary and cultural allusions are wide-ranging — T.S. Eliot and Alfred Arteaga, Memphis Minnie and Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes and Anne Sexton — and re-interpreted freely: the poet confesses, “I always wanted to be/ Neruda, fine-boned/ and a lyre.” The collection opens with a nod to poet Allen Ginsberg’s dictum “first thought best thought.” Often misconstrued as an excuse for sloppy writing, Cervantes’ riff on Ginsberg (who co-founded with poet Anne Waldman the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder where Cervantes has taught) puts the emphasis on the performance of presence: “You taught me to care in the moment, / carve day into light, or something, / moving in the west that doesn’t destroy / us” (“First Thought”).

The volume is dedicated to the poet’s father, Luis Cervantes, whose death spurred the poet’s return to the San Francisco neighborhood where she was born. A well-known muralist in The Mission, Cervantes’ father is only one of several Chicano and Chicana luminaries addressed in these pages. Poems are also dedicated to Gloria Anzaldúa, Alfred Arteaga, and Jim Sagel. The poet’s relationship to landscape and race, and the intertwining of these two forces, is a recurring motif:

Were we to discover, we would uncover a myth,

the stories we tell to renew the pact

with this earth. This, love. Nothing lasts

but the land and our love

of it. (“Nothing Lasts”)

As in the myth of Aztlán — taken up by the Chicano literary and civil rights movement Cervantes helped to build through her independent press and magazine Mango in the 1970s — this statement of love for the land is a decolonial gesture that reclaims place in an era of renewed racist hate and fear.

“A Chicano Poem” is a whirlwind retelling of this history, which Cervantes penned for a Librotraficante “banned book bash.” Librotraficante formed in response to the banning of Mexican American texts in Arizona classrooms in 2012. Linking the contemporary ethnic studies ban to a long history of colonial repression, the poem opens:

They tried to take away our words,

Steal away our hearts under

Their imaginary shawls, their laws,

Their libros, their Libranos Señor.

The poem’s parallel structure, its repetition of, and variation on, the refrain “They tried to take,” makes it ideal for public performance. (See Cervantes read the poem at the Guadalupe Arts Center in San Antonio here).

Cervantes does not attempt to hide the machinery of her poetry, but openly credits, for example, her annual participation in National Poetry Writing Month, or “NaPoWriMo,” in which poets write a poem a day for the entire month of April and post them online, in her Acknowledgements section. She often posts drafts of her poems on her blog LornaDice, demystifying the work of the poet and forging intimacy with her audience.

These poems hunger to be read aloud — alone, or in the company of strangers and friends — for the sheer pleasure of their sounds:

Hunger heals the hardened heart

in an ideal world. The hunger of mares

filling up the field. The hunger of rare

fish kissing every bit they see, the wild

hunger of those who fly and dive… (“Hunger”)

Perhaps hungrier than when we started, we are invited to “fly and dive” back into “an ideal world” composed of hungers that promise, at the very least, to loosen our hardened tongues.

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