Poetry

Raquel Vasquez Gilliland:
“The Tale of the Earth” and “The Tale of Spice”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In  “The Tale of the Earth,” 20 free-verse lines are organized into five 4-line stanzas. Lines are of variable length and, as with all free verse, do not use meter or end rhyme. Each stanza except for the last consists of one complete sentence, with conventional line breaks—that is, lines are end-stopped by punctuation or conclude where a reader would naturally pause to take a breath. In the first three stanzas, sentences are declarative, and the subjects are “earth” and “he,” “You” and “he.” In the last two stanzas, the sentences are injunctive, with the subject of the injunction or order an implied “you.”

“There is an earth inside you” could be a metaphor for a lot of things, but in this poem one thing it certainly refers to is a child in the womb, a connection made clear by the word “he” (whose antecedent is “the world”) in line 2. Strictly speaking, neither the world nor an unborn child is capable of howling, and we understand that reference to be metaphorical. The child is a huge presence within its speaker, the mother, large as a world and loud with frustrated restraint, birth pangs, and the need to be born. Howling might be a way to express the child’s agitated kicking, or the more profound movement of positioning to enter the birth canal, or maybe it’s the verbal equivalent of labor pains. In any event, it communicates the urgency and agony of birth.

As if in response, the mother (here given the perspective of a first-person “you”) screams, a cry composed half of wind and half of bear, and the baby is born, covered in vernix and blood that to the speaker resembles huckleberry jam. Generally speaking, first person communicates the “I/we” perspective, second person the “you” perspective, and third person the “he/she/it/they” perspective. It is possible, though. to use “you” to express other points of view. The “generic you” employs “you” to express the same idea as the pronoun “one.” We do this all the time, actually, when giving instructions on how to do something, as in how to tie a shoe: “First you find the ends of the laces, then you cross them,” etc.

Writers are also, with increasing frequency, using “you” to express the first-person point of view, sometimes called the “first-person you.” One reason for doing this is to more authentically communicate stream-of-consciousness. Think for a moment about how you refer to yourself in your own thoughts; sometimes it is with an “I” but sometimes, especially when giving yourself a talking-to or a to-do list, you may find yourself addressing yourself as “you.” Use of “you” for “I” or “me” can be a distancing device and a way of coping with things that are negative and painful, according to one 2017 study. In contemporary poetry, the first-person you offers a way of reducing usage of the “almighty I,” a pronoun rendered obnoxious after a long era of confessional poetry.

When the speaker says “you scream,” she is referring to herself, but the first-person you lends a modicum of detachment; contrast the feeling with what it would be if “I” were substituted in these lines. The detachment is heightened in the stanzas that follow, with no emotion or other subjectivity glossing the events of the birth, and the sentence mood changes from declarative to injunctive. The result? It’s almost as if the speaker is at a remove, hearing herself scream, and is watching herself carry out the postnatal instructions.

“Lean back against the tree” is startling. Did this birth take place outside? Was the speaker alone? But it also has the effect of continuing the project the poem began, of rooting the child in nature and equating it with the world. “Lean back” communicates a lessening of the urgency in which the poem began—the hard work of the birth is done, and now it is possible to take some time to get to know the newborn.

The first warming in the speaker’s attitude toward her subject—the birth of her child—comes in lines 15-16, where we feel tenderness in “little earth” and awe  in “ancient earth.” Interestingly, both modifiers are given equal syntactic weight. The child seems rooted in the earth and the earth in the child. Both “have oceans / and moons.” About half of human bodies are composed of fluid of a salinity close to that of seawater, and of course include salt tears and sweat. The “moons” could be the child’s full cheeks or dimples or eyes, or maybe the moons are the people (both actual and ancestral) attending the birth. Earth and child, equally, are “held with stars,” a lovely phrase that communicates beauty, wonder, and divine intervention. By this point the mother seems all in, completely invested in the profundity of new life.

Being free verse, the poem eschews meter and rhyme, and diction is plain-spoken. It has no interest in dressing up the difficult fact of birth—its pain and horror, its bloody aftermath, the odd sense of alienation many mothers experience when seeing their children for the first time. The title, “The Tale of the Earth,”  suggests the poem is also a creation myth, something that attempts to explain the world and all perceptible reality. Instead of being a Hallmark card, the poem presents birth in all its profundity and horror, the miracle along with the great bloody mess, the connection with a child that is snapped at the moment it is newly forged.

Today’s second poem, “A Tale of Spice,” is in the form of five variable-length stanzas of 5, 3, 11, 6, and 5 lines. Here, stanzas function like the Italian word for “room” from which the word “stanza” derives, each one enclosing a separate subject. In the first “room,” we are introduced to the speaker’s earliest experience with saffron, a pigment whose tint mixes with others to create the color of her own skin. It’s not clear here whether she is talking about actual paint, for example to create a self-portrait, or a metaphor used to express the way many colors mingle to create any skin tone, but in any event, it’s an effective and subtle way for the author to clue readers into her ethnicity.

In the second “room”(stanza), we are taken to a later point in the speaker’s life, in “college,” when for the first time she saw the dried plant parts ground into the spice we call saffron. What we know about the speaker so far is that she was a perceptive child with an uncanny understanding of color, but her modest background precluded the use expensive spices in everyday cooking. Stanza 3 goes yet further back in time to the kitchen of the speaker’s childhood, a place where saffron was so completely unknown as to not even be the subject of desire (“did not dream”). Instead, the speaker tells us, her mother flavored their rice (“arroz”) by toasting the grains and adding salsa. In that context, saffron was an unheard-of luxury, communicated with wonderful delicacy in “How could we imagine things / like the most secret parts / of flowers, plucked by hand?” If you detect a sensuality there, reader, you are not alone. “[S]ecret parts” makes us think of the most personal parts of the human body and indeed, as it turns out, saffron is compounded from the female sexual parts (stigmas)—of crocuses. Is it possible that this entire poem is a metaphor for the speaker’s sexuality, repressed in childhood and ripening after she leaves home? This stanza stops short of making that connection, instead providing more information about the speaker’s ancestors: pickers, possibly migrant workers, who harvested “apples, avocados, [and] fresas (strawberries).”

This childhood memory sparks others, and in the next stanza the speaker recalls how her family’s cuisine changed over the course of each month, depending on how much there was to spend for groceries. When the money ran out at each month’s end, they subsisted on mustard sandwiches, but when they were flush (“rich”), there was a wealth of spices to flavor the food: comino (cumin), chile (chili peppers), ajo (garlic). And, “If our father got overtime,” the rare and wonderful treat of pink sea salt the speaker envisions sprinkled over her noodles and chicken “like jewels.”

I like this poem’s slantwise approach to telling us about its speaker’s history, using spices and food to locate her in her culture and economic situation, and showing rather than telling us that she is Latina and from modest means. And I enjoyed the particular naming that happens here, specifying foods and flavors by name, often in Spanish. All writing tries to open a window on something, and here the window is food. As Proust reminds us, memory is often triggered by the senses of smell and taste, and nothing evokes our childhood like the dishes our mothers used to prepare. Here, we feel the child’s wonder, and our mouths may even water a little over a basic condiment we all tend now to take for granted, Vasquez Gilliland’s way of following Pound’s adage for poetry to “make it new.”

Today’s poems are from a new chapbook called Tales from the House of Vasquez, winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and they are representative of the book as a whole: 14 spare, free-verse poems about motherhood, feminism, family, and origin. Tales from the House of Vasquez melds autobiography with folklore, fairy tale, and myth into a feminist history and, as one reviewer put it, “an archetype of the human.” The poems use simple diction and a show-not-tell approach, with a refreshing lack of posturing or erudition that captures with tenderness and poignancy the drama of everyday, often domestic, lives, exploring hereditary mental illness and postpartum depression. Some tales were passed down from the author’s mother and grandmother, and some are from her own imagination and reading, but the sum is a resonant and moving journey in verse. Grounded in psychological truths, the images—even surreal ones like literal eyes appearing in the backs of heads and parsley-leaf hands emerging from a grave—feel authentic and powerful. As one reviewer puts it:

This book and its stories enthrall and embrace the reader. Welcome to parsley ghosts in the graveyard, motherhood that feels like your spine is forever on the outside, and seeing through multiple alchemical eyes. A brilliant invitation to the inside of a Mexican-American family! Highly recommend to any poet!
—Doren Damico on Goodreads

At times surreal, at times achingly real, the poems in Tales from the House of Vasquez answer death and despair with energy and hope, and I hope you will order the book and have a look for yourself.

 

 

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