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Book Review: Naked Wanting and Raven Eye by Margo Tamez

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If you're looking for spun sugar literary confection, and easy comfort, move on. But if you want to encounter poetry that disturbs you in the best possible way, keeps you up at night, demands that you respond with your heart and your mind, read both Naked Wanting and Raven Eye.

Margo Tamez is a poet whose work is not easy, clearly born of experience raw and real, making the reader touch that place of pain, of personal wounding far, far, away from the romance of the Southwest and the stereotype of the "stoic noble" on the rez. Her writing forces us to look where the bodies are buried, when we want to turn a blind eye to the violence wreaked upon the individual and environment. Both Naked Wanting and Raven Eye gave me that gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, the tight, clenched first buried in the chest. Bless her for that.

And bless her, too, for somehow still weaving threads of redemption and reemergence in the face of soul-breaking sorrow, for offering real mythos and confronting false spirituality. But to put a finer point on it, read what others have written about this singular poet.

This book is a challenging cartography of colonialism, poverty, and issues of Native identity and demonstrates these as threats to the environment, both ecological and social, in the borderlands. Each poem is crafted as if it were a minute prayer, dense with compassion and unerring optimism. But the hope that Tamez serves is not blind. In poem after poem, she draws us into a space ruled by mythic symbolism and the ebb and flow of the landscape—a place where comfort is compromised and where we must work to relearn the nature of existence and the value of life. —Norman Dubie

Margo Tamez’s poetry is an emotional journey, and I find myself softly invoking a line from her book: ‘may the way be in peace.’ Read it; you’ll know what I mean! —Simon J. Ortiz

Margo Tamez’s poetry works like a heartsong, it makes us brave. Her alive response to what kills makes us want to stand up with her and sing in the face of the enemy. She shows how hard it is to fight oppression and reminds us what is at stake: living beauty … Margo Tamez’s call to battle both instills fear and thrills us. —Heidi E. Erdrich

In Naked Wanting, Tamez' lens tightly frames the direct links between miscarriages among indigenous women in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands and environmental racism, when damage inflicted on the environment by herbicides comes back to haunt us all at the level of women's reproduction. These are the bombs ticking within these astute and subtle lyrical narratives rendering the pierce of "the chemical cocktail seeping into the air ducts."

This poet speaks as someone who has experienced first-hand the body, literally re-structured by chemical invasions in air, water, soil and food, exposes the consequences and implications when our land and water are compromised.

For Margo Tamez, earth, food, and community are the essentials of life, our deepest wants, beyond human "rights" – our responsibilities. She brings all of them together in these cautionary and lyrical poems that inspire us to move through compassion and, more concretely, to actions for a more sure footing on earth. Below is a sample that beautifully illustrates just that.

                           My Mother Returns to Calaboz

      'The Lower Rio Grande, known as the Seno Mexicano (the Mexican hollow or Recess), was a refuge for rebellious Indians from the Spanish presidios, who preferred outlawry to life under Spanish rule.' — Americo Paredes, With Pistol in his Hand

      The fragmented jawbones
      and comblike teeth of seagulls
      sometimes wash up from the gulf
      to the levee of the river
      and gather straited along the berms
      where my grandfather irrigated sugarcane.

      My mother, returned after forty years
      working away from Calaboz,
      walks there often now,
      hassled by INS agents
      when she jogs by the river
      where her ancestors planted, hunted,
      prayed and resisted invasions.

      The INS think she runs away from them,
      that she is an 'illegal', a 'savage'
      'trespassing' from Mexico.

      Used to the invasion,
      she asks them how they assume,
      how exactly do they know
      if she came from here, or there?
      When she tells me this story
      she exaggeratedly points to the spot
      she stands on (here) and the land
      I stand on (there) which means:
      you idiot…we indigenous don't recognize
      your violent settler borders

      I am an an indigenous woman,
      born in El Calaboz, you understand?
      she says loudly, in mixed Spanish and Lipan-Nahuatl,
      and they tear out,
      the truck wheels spinning furiously,
      sand sprayed into the humid air.

      When I was a girl walking on the levee with my grandfather,
      I thought I saw gull teeth
      chomping at the soil wall.
      The air was dank steam,
      the scent of sand, roots,
      and something alive beneath the soil,
      deeper and older than memory.
      when I immersed my hand inside
      the cloudy water,
      it became a fluid form,
      soft, something becoming,
      something ancient.

      The air is still heavy with heat and damp,
      and smells like diesel and herbicides.
      the scent reminds me of failed gestations.
      My reproduction, the plants', and the water's,
      each struggling in the same web of resistance
      and survival.

      When I was a girl, my grandfather taught me
      to put a small clump of soil in my mouth,
      and to swallow it. I watched him.
      Then I did.
      I used to watch the gliding and swerves

      of uprooted reeds in the river's unhurried flow
      to the Gulf.
      I reached with all my body,
      stomach on the bank of the levee,
      hands and arms stretched out like an acrobat
      to touch and grasp their slender stems.
      Once, my feet pressed into the soupy bog,
      and stepping up was heavy, yet with the sound of gurgles,
      puckering, a mouth opening,
      like seaweed and millennium of soil, my ancestors and water breathing.

      Now, I think I'd like to be,
      that I will be
      running with my mother
      when she tells of la migra.
      Listen to the bubbling duet of water and plant life,
      listen to the sound of grandmothers and grandfathers
      closely.
      Again and again.

    This is a visceral longing for home, for groundedness in the deepest and most literal sense. It reflects an abiding love for la tierra, but not the convenient, fantasy-laden Southwest. It is a personal, damaged homeland, smelling of chemicals, shot through with run-off that is still somehow, unquestionably sacred. Tamez writes of border dwellers unbowed, unabsorbed, defiant, and ultimately triumphant – not noble, but stubbornly flawed and human.

    In her second collection, Raven Eye, Tamez explores desire and the construction of indigenous identity, while imploring readers to unite against oppression in all its forms.

    Written from thirteen years of journals, psychic and earthly, this poetry maps an uprising of a borderland indigenous woman battling forces of racism and sexual violence against Native women and children. This lyric collection breaks new ground, skillfully revealing an unseen narrative of resistance on the Mexico–U.S. border. A powerful blend of the oral and long poem, and speaking into the realm of global movements, these poems explore environmental injustice, sexualized violence, and indigenous women’s lives.

                    Ceremony of Peyote

      A snakebird sinuous dim form silhouetted
      On the porchroof of the hogan–

      Comes out of a monsoon sky
      Banded thickly red and flint

      Snakebird in me curves slowly
      Over my bed

      the sinew of what can't be said

      Nine months full of ocean and yolk
      Scents of beautifully made starmatter

      A smell of tongue and lip
      Of moisture a scent of Snaketown's Gila clay

      I'm a brown and black puddle a scent I know

      ____

      You spent hours in the heat of midday fidgeting with rage
      I'm unpredictable not the kind of Indian you can present to

      Men all wrapped up behind panIndian shawls eagle fans
      Who never bring their women to pray
      Whose diabetic eyes devour
      My pregnant belly
      Full of a bird boy raven boy
      Ripe with beautiful worlds

      Corn meat and berries
      You say the order
      Morning food for the relatives always like that you say
      The look in your eyes don't mess up don't embarrass me
      don't talk too long when you pray for the water

      Can't risk my prayers to the morning star
      Risk what I can say about
      This medicine a Mexican Indian woman brought
      North got Christianized by subjugated men

      My morning prayers only suitable
      For waterbirds
      Anhingas and herons
      Not men or women
      In shawls
      Fanning and chanting
      In chorus of what they deny

      My body
      The yolks of my body
      Stories we must tell to undo
      What has been done

    There is no easy, pro forma way to reconnect, no perfect prayer that can be prayed. Colonialism and racism have taken their tolls both in daily life and spiritual practice. But this poem reclaims and reframes ritual with a frank, and unvarnished fervor. Tamez refuses to shirk from the distorted in herself, or in her people. But in the boldest move, Tamez' poetry reveals that Spirit still lives, lives deeply for her in the body, in the process of birth and renewal and in the threads of communion that emerge despite everything.
    My own words seem pale as I try to end this piece. Let me use last words of her interview in a previous column: gonya'a' golkizhzhi' (it has come a colorful place)

    Margo, for truth's sake, in Her Name, thank you.

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