Hopefully Tucsonans who enjoy poetry will never take the University of Arizona Press for granted. Through its Camino del Sol Latino and Latina series and Sun Tracks American Indian literary series, the press publishes at least six poetry collections annually (in addition to dozens of titles in every field). The books are powerful; look no further than the avalanche of awards, including a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for Half of the World in Light by Juan Felipe Herrera.
Awards no doubt will be forthcoming for at least three collections the press published in 2010. Each offers a unique perspective on difficult issues confronting not only the Chicano/Latino communities of the desert Southwest, but also the country, as debates on immigration, war and social welfare intensify.
First, Dixie Salazar's Flamenco Hips and Red Mud Feet. While Salazar pushes the theme of duality—the author was born to a Spanish-speaking father and Southern mother—her work isn't so conceptual that it distracts from her strengths: evocative language and narrative verse. "Frost," for example, is a full-blown epic, relating the sad death of her immigrant great-grandfather in a Colorado snowstorm while flashbacking to points in her life when the coldness of weather, of childhood alienation and mystery, creeps into her life:
They had followed the trail of stars,
familiar to their footsteps,
the stars swollen as large
as they could remember,
pushing the herd higher up
toward the greasewood and sage
on the sunny side of the butte,
led by the scrape and bong
of pebbles in rusty cans.
Flamenco Hips isn't grim realism. Her playful poems present an alternate universe where "Davy Crockett Meets Coronado" ("Davy, / humming like a bear in a winter trance; / Francisco, dragging his feathers / and heavy coat of mail / from one mirage to the next"). There are formal touches, too, like double sonnet "3D Jesus," for sale "between Tampax machines, cinnamon / breath mints, and headlines of movie / -star adoptions and mercury overdose." Fun, fiercely imaginative, Salazar has a painter's eye; no surprise, then, that she's better known as a painter.
Maria Melendez's Flexible Bones is a darker, angrier but no less remarkable work. Don't let the fractured appearance of her poems discourage; Melendez is readable. Consider her prose poem "Aging Goddess Seeks Companion, Understudy," which is more than a humorous personals ad. A nameless goddess, poisoned by an environment overrun with mortals, drafts a to-do list: "Worry if food can be both transgenic and traditional. Worry about who will sanctify the slag heaps of gold and uranium mines, who will die for the eco-sins of 'the industrial world.'"
Another bright, shining moment in Bones is "Roasting Grasshoppers," in celebration of a well-known food source in Oaxaca that makes white readers wince. Still, Melendez understands, and pokes fun at, the idea of 10 steps required to partake of chapulines:
First, to praise
the old cast-iron fry pan,
second to praise the crunch.
Third to say Fear is no
just a small fire in a basin of land,
Deep Time hunkered in ridges and crests;
just a bony ring
cradling the eye.
You'll learn more about food and other pleasures in this rapid-fire, technologically unchallenged collection.
Lastly, there's Valerie Martinez's Each and Her, a lyrical rumination on the tragedy of Juárez, where 500 girls and women have been murdered going as far back as the early '90s. A murder mystery with no resolution, Each and Her hungers for justice. Superior to any true-crime book or work of fiction, this collection offers 72 short, brutal poems, each bearing a number. You should be warned: There are sudden, gut-wrenching moments of violence.
Martinez is a poet who feels necessary in a globalized culture growing increasingly disposable, like the lives of women whose names and birth dates the poet lists as a way of bringing attention to this evil. As with many parts of the world, Juárez is rife with inequality and desperation, and it's just across the border. Martinez brings it to our faces and asks us why we let it occur. We don't have to answer now, but probably at a later date.