by Leslie Contreras Schwartz
113 pages, Saint Julian Press, 2018
Review by Layla Benitez-James
If one has not read her first book, Fuego, the initial pull towards Leslie Contreras Schwartz´s Nightbloom & Cenote could accurately be inspired by a swift judgement of its striking and taxonomical cover: “Ascidian” by Earnst Haekel from Kunstformen der Natur, showing colorful illustrations of marine invertebrate filter feeders, in combination with its enigmatic title. The image invokes night blooming jasmine, whose intoxicating scent is present in many poems, smell being the most powerful trigger for memory, as well as cenotes, which Schwartz gives the dictionary definition for at the beginning of the collection: a natural underground reservoir of water. The cover´s shapes recall eggs, ovaries, coral, cells, and a host of other links that might partially prepare a reader for what they are about to experience in these pages. Though the poems are even more varied, denser, more layered, than this vibrant image implies, the sketch helps to begin a collection which unpacks what is passed down and passed on, all with the wild backdrop of Houston to act as stage. As Haekel did with his aquatic subjects, using both symmetry and taxonomy, so does Schwartz with the facets of Houston which only a native could accurately dissect and reproduce for study. Here we see the power of scientific observation and its brilliant translation into the service of poetry. At first pass, Nightbloom & Cenote reads more like a collected works than a self-contained second book of poems.
Nightbloom & Cenote rewards rereading tenfold. At its watery core, this book is about inheritance in every sense of the word—the unexpected literal inheritance of money stashed and sewn into curtains; the physical attributes a child gets from parents, as well as their words which become burned into the brain. Schwartz as explorer has studied inheritance and brought back these cross sections as a poetry collection. Her poems are layered with images; ¨Houston Tableauz, September 6, 2017´s¨ fragmented patchwork of images unfurls like a quilt of haikus and leaves a reader feeling like they have walked Houston´s streets, or perhaps desperately need to. Yet each poem is connected by a studied confidence that has arrived after careful consideration and classification of the many layered shades which fold in around these experiences. Personal family stories that are inevitably etched onto each of us are explored but explode, too, out into the narratives of a city, a landscape, a place, language. Schwartz’s subject matter is concerned with inheritance; the theme weaves its way through nearly every poem, yet she somehow manages to stand on both sides of the exchange, mapping out how things came to her and how she can´t help but pass them on as in “The Comal and My Hands,” it which she realizes:
…It was the real thing, the thing that
you needed, which I gave you, without knowing I could: a
flour mound pressed to your tongue, a little cake where I
hid myself without knowing I did.
This speaker is obsessed with the ways in which motherhood and parenting are reflexive, automatic, at times etched in the blood and brain in a way with defies control. Its origins are spelled out in the poem “Inheritance” as she explains:
My body holds pockets full / of other bodies, secreted cells
of my grandparents, / inside my parents, nested / in an
infinity of theirs…
My mother hiding under the house / of my body,
my body the leather belt / from which she is hiding.
Using spaced out dashes to dynamically fling even more pause and line break into her verses, the lyric voice here is patient in the way it explains the more complicated facets of inheritance which allows, and sometimes requires, a daughter to be both child and parent simultaneously. This patient explaining takes form as repetition. Just as jasmine and cenotes both make appearances throughout this collection, “fist” and iterations of the word make a dozen appearances and “smother” nearly that. Crush, clutch, crack, curls, cement, and concrete all crop up repeatedly to help construct an environment rich with threat. Repetition is the most oft-used tool as Schwartz immerses the reader in this dark universe; the connector and used with repeating words helps the lines take on an urgency, an insistence, and gesture to a pattern of speech of a speaker who is used to needing to repeat herself to break the silence: boil and boil, long and long, pecks and pecks, drip and drip and drip and drip, practice and practice, I stand mute, I stand mute, I stand mute, and hurt and hurt, hangs and hangs, laps and laps, sitting and sitting, touching and touching, swipe and swipe, loaves and loaves, lose and lose. Among many others, these instances of insistence mark out a speaker who refuses to let words go unheard without echo. While silences are discussed in the work, it is also remarkable how often the words tiny, little, and small are used. From tiny white petals, tiny sigh, tiny crescent, tiny cracks, tiny prayers, tiny boat, to small neck, small shoulders, small closet, small cry, small muscles, and, little cake, little lump, little pressed finger, little nest, with just over four dozen of these instances, the diminutive takes hold in many descriptions which adds to the feeling of collection and specimen, but also must be fought against as the speaker fights to take up space in the world. Some poems, like “Annabelle Washes the Dishes Reciting a Litany of the Blessed Virgin,” are haunting and obsessive, taking the repetition away from explanation and into incantation:
Was it my
its endless deep cavernous sound, that led her here?
I called her back washing the same dish over and over and
over—I call her back—I called her back—
Describing a futile stay against a darkness which is already comfortable inside, this obsessive repetition is not fearful, rather it becomes a powerful chant the speaker uses to psych herself up for an eventual escape.
The scope and sprawl of Houston is immediately apparent and only grows throughout the collection; Schwartz sounds equally comfortable calling in the more expected voices of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (via Edith Grossman´s translation), Frida Kahlo, or Emily Dickinson as she does evoking Texas codes of law on assault and the hauntingly ineffective Homeland Security advice for how to survive an active shooter event. These layers not only invite comparisons but answer questions posed as in “O Great Terrible One.” With the casual authority of Auden´s “Musée des Beaux Arts” triggered by a pause created by dashes and a line break which leaves ¨wishing¨ hanging above whim, Schwartz again shows her lyric authority with a measured tone:
The Hindus have it right—Shiva—in one hand you create,
in the other you destroy. Abraham was not surprised when
you asked him to butcher his son. After years of wishing
for this son, he knew his son could be taken away at whim.
(Thanks be to the Circumcision of God´s Love. Amen.)
What Sarah knew was that God was hiding in terror of
himself, of us. Even before the angel appeared to stop it all,
to call on the ram, O Great Terrible One, with your blurry
eyes, blinded by tears and fear, you started taking back
what you created. You have hated us from the beginning,
Focussing on Schwartz’s end words often draws out an attention to sound which more often leans on alliteration and assonance rather than rhyme: create when wishing whim Amen of all blurry back beginning. Athletic logic flows through connections which feel at once universal and tied to the multiethnic hydra that is Houston. Here Schwartz finds a strange sympathy for the aggressor, for the abusive God, the reckless creator, the O Great Terrible One charging violently through the delicate world it crafted to be so breakable. Beyond all hope of redemption, this creator is urged to “turn that hand on yourself” as this speaker has “stopped looking for you in the pews/of synagogues, churches, fields of grass, cliffs.” There is no longer any use for a petulant deity as the speaker realizes definitively that true divinity is found in these human beings and their ability to sing out and sing through the injustices heaped upon them.
But we can taste the tears inside this feed…if we are made in
your image, how terrified I am. It is hard not to feed you,
with those blood-rimmed eyes that only the lonely
Here, with eyes and recognize, we have more overt internal rhyme (also present in her first poem which speaks of “A secret, / hidden from the nuns with their tight and coiled buns.”) which is a rare occurrence in the collection.
Cenotes have always had their magical pull, but Schwartz´s evocation of the dangerous wells with her verse gives them an acrobatic flexibility. In ¨Dear Master, ¨ jumping off from Dickinson and transposing this desire to please only a different faith system, she ends with a promise:
I will throw baskets full of myself
Into your dark mouth.
This image recalls the offerings cast into the deep cenotes by the Maya. Cenotes drift through various poems and lend their shadowy connotations to others as metaphor for womanhood, girlhood, inheritance, trauma (both individual and collective). Schwartz is clever enough to see the connection between the human sacrifices that horrified early colonizers of the Americas, and the way we as a society continually sacrifices young girls and women with our refusal to protect them from constant dangers, as she explains in “Run, Fight, Hide:” “Because this is a roomful of girls that stretches/ across the country through the dark road of the world.”
Part of what makes the collection so expansive is the step into story in the prose poems. Discursive and anecdotal, they give slices of Houston and the United States’ cultural and racial history, often times highlighting the painful twists and turns which still need to be remedied. A family history is unravelled here which shows why some aspects of culture are cut off and kept hidden, but Schwartz is aware of the complex layers of colonialism. Revisiting “Inheritance,” the speaker tells how:
The Spanish of my body / butchers the trees until the
landscape is bald / and yet my body remembers.
Language is passed down in pieces, sometimes only surviving in a last name or fragmented in snippets of speech. A welcome surprise in the middle of the collection is the inclusion of the Spanish translation of “Photograph of Frida Kahlo Sin Aderezas, 1946, by Antonio Kahlo” by Rita Garcia-Prats. Though the translation loses the multilingual element of Spanish phrases being sprinkled into the English original, it adds a new lens with which to view the collection´s relationship with language as one reads for the images rather than the alliteration or shape of the stanzas. The translation takes great liberties with changing line breaks and extending especially the final lines out from their thin finish:
In this, she will hold up
cielito lindo, its
of little sky,
in canta, no llores,
to her crown.
becomes in Spanish:
sostendrá el cielito lindo,
y sus listones contrabandeados.
Doblados en canta, y no llores,
Y adornando su corona.
It would be interesting to see how other poems took to different versions of Spanish but certainly “A Litany, A Song, January 2017” also stood out as a reflection of Houston´s great linguistic diversity. Mixing many languages, this poem was most exciting as it maintained Schwartz´s voice so clearly while borrowing from other tongues:
L´chaim la vida
Ya hayati habibi
These small freedoms:
Zum leven das zeitliche
Das zeitliche segnen.
To depart gracefully
From the branch,
This full-throttle song
In our throats…
As Adrienne Rich dove in searching for “the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth,” so too does Schwartz´s speaker find solace in a partner who “knows—not the story, but the way I had been broken and reshaped.” This lyric voice is direct, even as much of the trauma here is left unnamed in specifics, or, rather, there are many traumas which swirl around but “Who wants to remember such things?” The sparsest of these poems in which gaps of text are erased from the page leaves the reader understanding lost details because:
here´s what you
need to know
I lived I lived I live
The details of the story, the names, the places, are less important than the speaker´s vibrant survival, the ability to keep that claim on life and the ability to write and own the story. In the understated “Times I Didn´t Say Much,” threads are untangled until they nearly echo the conclusions in “O Great Terrible One,” reiterating the value of humanity separate from divinity and our own power to heal: “We are better than angels…I think about how each person holds a bit of God, not some holy figure sitting on a lit throne with a white woodsman beard, but a God made of people, the God that sits and circles inside people.” There is a quiet force which lurks within the overflowing lines of the longer pieces; the collection leaves us with the idea that:
Having a body is like riding a bus with unreliable air
conditioning in the middle of the summer in Houston,
where I need to make two transfers to get to my destination.
Because of all that has come before this moment, transfers takes on its full transcendental meaning when placed within the context of having a physical body and destination expands ominously. Diving deep and deeper still into darkness is the remedy to trauma within these lines, fight fire with fire, close one´s eyes and use every inch of the other senses when the lights go out. Revisiting the cover, its colorful filter feeders recall our worn Gulf of Mexico with all its potential ability to regenerate and cleanse itself if left with enough time to heal. Wading into these poems, so too are women left to cleanse and sift the world, but they need time and space to do so. Room to breathe and stretch out; Schwartz does this deep breathing and expanding best in darkness, with the aid of her nocturnal jasmine and down within the deepest wells. This collection forges a healthy faith in darkness by pulling us into this natural well from which we won’t want to return.
Layla Benitez-James is an artist and translator living in Alicante, Spain and serves as the Director of Literary Outreach for the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid. Her poems and translations have appeared in The Acentos Review, Anomaly, Guernica, Waxwing, Revista Kokoro, La Galla Ciencia, and elsewhere. Her audio essays about translation can be found at Asymptote Journal Podcast. Her first chapbook, God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode But He Had to Make Sure was selected by Major Jackson for the 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and published by Jai-Alai Books in Miami, April 2018.