Muse Found in a Colonized Body, by Yesenia Montilla. Four Way Books, 108pp., $17.95
banana [ ], by Paul Hlava Ceballos. University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 112, $18.00
Count by Valerie Martinez, University of Arizona Press, pp. 64, $16.95
If you grew up in the 90’s like I did, you likely remember a slew of PSAs promoting individual responsibility to protect the earth and reduce greenhouse gases. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” was a mantra. We know now that, while individual actions matter, they have a microscopic effect compared to those of large corporations that produce the lion’s share of emissions. Colonialism’s connection to climate change was named for the first time in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2022 report. Colonial and imperialist production methods like resource extraction, relentless expansion, and unsustainable farming practices are driving factors in the climate crisis.
Someone asked me recently how we overcome collective grief. I didn’t have an exact answer, as it’s a question that is on my mind too, but I provided suggestions for how to keep moving in the world. Our days are filled with one outrage after another: one more piece of legislation that dehumanizes or seeks to eradicate, one more climate catastrophe, ever more deaths due to gun violence. Then we forget because we must move on to the next day. No time to grieve. It’s too much for any single person to hold. I suggested they also make time to look for joy in their daily life. It’s harder to find if you’re not ready to look for it. My hope was that looking for joy would be a sort of counterweight. They asked whether I thought poetry could be the solution. Poetry can offer consolation, provide wisdom, or reveal truth. It can move people to action. But poetry is not a replacement for that action. In these three collections, poetry holds up a light for us to see the world a little better amid the darkness, perhaps encouraging us to act.
As was clear in her debut book The Pink Box, Yesenia Montilla is a poet of heart. That heart is still evident in her latest collection, Muse Found in a Colonized Body. By “heart,” I mean the corazón of Spanish language poets of the past. Radical love sinews, sensuality, and unabashed tenderness are marks of Montilla’s writing. The heartbreaking poems in Muse are balanced by the poet’s deep emotional wisdom that offers language as a balm. Montilla’s poems are notably tender and sensual in their luxurious lyrics. Muse focuses on the many and varied ways colonization and white supremacy endure in our country. At times both are portrayed by the news as something unprecedented, but it’s the same violence with the same hate with the same intention to rule and own as that of the conquistadors. Muse Found in a Colonized Body is nothing short of a revelation and a book of our times.
The collection opens with the poem “Muse Found in a Colonized Body,” the first of eleven poems with the same name. Each one has a roman numeral subheading (I-XI), perhaps implying they are parts of a single poem. Distinct poems on their own, when read together they feel like a cohesive long poem contemplating the ways colonization threatens everything from a single person to the entire world. The poems are spread across the manuscript, a binding force. The first in the series positions us in the history of Spanish colonization. Montilla writes,
“They say” is a compelling way open the book. “They” as in those in charge of telling the story. “They” as in those who write the history books—the colonizers not the colonized. The poem explores the commonly espoused myth that indigenous people believed colonists were gods. This myth is two-fold: it suggests that colonists were saviors and the indigenous people needed to be saved. This understanding became a justification for the inevitable violence of colonization. The origin of the myth, at least in Mexico, came from the Franciscans who used it as a rationale for religious conquest. In one telling, the Spaniards said the Aztecs would follow them around with incense to pay tribute to their godliness. Some historians now say the incense was actually to mask the smell of the colonists who did not bathe regularly. Similar “god” myths exist for every country that has been colonized. Montilla’s use of this myth as a way to open the book cleverly demonstrates the long reach of colonization.
In the fable, the wolf looks for an excuse to eat the lamb by accusing it of various wrongs. In response to each accusation, the lamb replies with reasons why those wrongs weren’t possible. Frustrated, the wolf tells the lamb (in Milo Winter’s retelling), “It was someone in your family anyway. But no matter who it was, I do not intend to be talked out of my breakfast.” The moral: “The tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny. The unjust will not listen to the reasoning of the innocent.” By frontloading the myth and the fable, it’s as if Montilla is saying let’s get all the bullshit out of the way so we can look closer at what’s happening now.
The fifth “Muse” poem focuses on connection of colonization to the climate crisis. The speaker of the poem once again begins with “I want to say.” The repetition illuminates the speaker’s desire to make their meaning clear. The repetition also begs the question: why can’t the speaker just say it? Perhaps the “want” results from a history of silencing, perhaps a colonized body hesitates to demand or want.
As previously noted, the IPCC acknowledged colonialism as driving factor of climate change in 2022. The “Gold, Glory, and God” attitude endures after centuries in the exploitation of natural resources, displacement of indigenous peoples who were caretakers and guardians of their land, and the never-enough mentality of industrialization that destroys the rainforest and land that could offset greenhouse gases. Alluding to the increase in “storms” or natural disasters, Montilla reminds us, “When there are choices, the / Earth will tilt slant to rouse us” as a way of saying the choices we make now will be answered by the earth. Colonialism takes and takes without regard to its cost to the planet. Thus, the poem’s final two lines, “We ruin everything & We still beg for beauty—” are especially apt.
The majority of poems in the collection end with an em dash, a gesture towards continuation that often indicates a change in direction. Perhaps Montilla is indicating that the writing of the poem is not the end, but an invitation to the ongoing work of dismantling colonialism and white supremacy. However, in the third “Muse” poem she writes,
Here the poet suggests that it’s perhaps better to “start over—”, that building “a country on trauma” might mean that country is unsalvageable. The suggestion is later echoed in the tenth “Muse” poem, where the poet writes,
The speaker considers two ancestors, one whose “only option / is to burn his world” and another who didn’t know the names of things so he “named them all after his own image.” The impulse to destroy and create conveys a necessary tension. Can we build a better country if it was built on trauma? Can we overcome these toxic roots or should we begin again from scratch? Poets don’t often offer easy answers to the difficult questions we face as a society and as individuals, but they provide a sort of consolation in naming the complexities.
Though we all depend on food for survival, the general population largely ignores the politics of food production and farm work. Do you know the names of the people who gather the fruits and vegetables you buy? Do you know where your produce comes from? Or what process is used to grow it? An easier question: Organic or GMO? If you’re like me, the answer is likely that you don’t know.
Paul Hlava Ceballos’ book, banana [ ] investigates and documents the history of the banana, its production in Central and South America, and the dark politics of banana farming. If that’s not ambitious enough, he also covers issues such as immigration, the violence and murders committed by border patrol, and family history. banana [ ] is composed of traditional forms like the sonnet, Ecuadoran decima, and elegy, along with a more experimental “collage of historical texts.” In both form and content, the book is awe-inspiring in its breadth and depth, a trove of research and ingenious poetic skill.
Paul Hlava Ceballos’s debut book banana [ ] opens with a poem called “Genesis,” a nod to the Bible that introduces subjects such as monocropping, resource extraction, and, of course, the banana. Hlava Ceballos writes,
Monocropping is the practice of growing the same species of crop on the same land year after year without rotation. Despite its detrimental effects on the environment, many farmers favor this practice because it means they’ll have a stable supply of their most profitable crops. Without crop rotation, the soil is depleted of nutrients, making it necessary for farmers to use pesticides and heavy chemicals. Monocropping comes with the risk that an entire crop may be taken out by disease. The banana is an extreme example of fallout from monocropping/monoculture. There are many varieties of bananas though most types aren’t grown to commercial sales. Up until the 1950’s the Gros Michel type was the most common banana in the United States but it was destroyed by Panama disease, which dramatically disrupted the banana industry. Nowadays the Cavendish is top banana but it lacks genetic diversity and is susceptible to diseases that could wipe it out like its predecessor. This is one of the many reasons that Hlava Ceballos’ book is urgent and timely. Practices that put profit over sustainability have disastrous consequences with the greatest negative impact hitting the poorest people.
In the notes section for the poem “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas,” Hlava Ceballos writes, “The poem is a collage of historical texts. Each sentence or sentence fragment was not written but plucked from a unique source that contained the word ‘banana.’ The rules were that I could add line-breaks to the material and remove punctuation but could not alter the language itself.” Erasure and fragmentation are risky poetic tools. For poets working with documents and archives, these techniques may lead to distortion or muddled meaning. When used with skill, truth may emerge from language that once hindered it. In the case of Hlava Ceballos’ work, repetition of the word “banana” creates a one-note melody that binds the incongruent fragments.
Sources for “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas” include a redacted piece of a CIA document that reports surveilling banana workers, information focusing on the dangers bananas face such as pests and disease, and history. Hlava Ceballos’ expansive research includes 296 footnoted fragments. The poem is the clear centerpiece of the book in both its placement as the second of three sections and its sheer length. Part of “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas” reiterates the earlier dangers of monocropping through listing the variety of vulnerabilities bananas have via disease and pests. For example,
The list gives us a better sense of the number of ways a banana crop can fail. It’s important to note that each threat needs to be treated or addressed; often the easiest solution is pesticides or chemicals.
In this long poem Hlava Ceballos also unveils the human cost of the banana industry, which involves the murders of union organizers, workers getting sick from pesticides, and the violent actions of big brands Del Monte and Dole. The most compelling fragments occur in the later part of the poem, which includes statements from banana farm workers. Like a chorus discussing its shared labor, the fragments become a unifying voice but at the same time the voices remain distinct, making for a polyvocal persona sequence. One instance of the unified voice occurs when the workers state what they want:
The simplicity of this request is affecting because it could be easily met.
Though I admire the ambition of “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas,” my favorite poem in the collection is “Irma.” Tender and well-paced, the poem tunes into the wealth of nuances that languages carry as the speaker explores his mother’s history. The poem is exceptional in the subtle way it mixes memory with considerations of language and belonging. I felt myself swelling towards tears at the most surprising moments, and I was moved by the tenderness of love’s attention and at other times wounded by the cost of Americanization. There are many parts to admire, but I continue to think about the following section:
“El abismo entre obtener y tener”—the abyss between to obtain and to have—is a reverberating thesis for this poem. The sonic repetition in “continent,” “container,” and “content” is a fine example of the poem’s sense of play.
Abundant in every way, banana [ ] achieves a level of complexity and poetic ingenuity that is not typical in a debut. It’s a book that can be read over and over, each time with something new to admire.
Following her powerful book-length poem Each and Her that documented rampant femicides in Ciudad Juárez, Valerie Martinez returns with another necessary collection that encourages us to pay attention. Count again uses the book-length form, this time to consider our delicate balance with nature, specifically with our most vital resource, water. Written in 43 sections, Martinez’s poem considers relationships with nature drawing on myth, art, and science.
Opening with a poem in which the speaker’s daughter sees a car wash fundraiser for a school’s football team, we get the sense of how common water waste is in daily life. She writes,
Along with environmental concerns, the speaker identifies the inequities of gender and labor. Overwhelmed by the number of pressing issues, the speaker retreats into a memory:
Is the grief here about her daughter now beginning to see the issues her mother identifies? Recognizing inequities but not being able to do anything about them in the moment is a sort of helplessness. This opening poem sets up the expectation that the speaker will highlight numerous complexities and intersections in her exploration of the environment but that she will not provide one easy answer. Readers are like the daughter, expectant of an answer, but poetry is not an answer to the world’s problems. It is a magnifying glass, a mirror, and an archive.
Martinez’s poems are often a magnifying glass. She looks closely at the connections of our world; between human and nature, flora and fauna, climate and flora, human effect and environment. The tone can feel a bit clinical when Martinez prioritizes scientific language, but each section relies on an implicit metaphor. For example,
Here the poet describes the ways plants and animals adapt in extraordinary ways, but then the poem continues,
The speaker who is experiencing “the unseasonably hot October” removes their jacket, a human adaptation to heat. Though our human adaptations are not as sophisticated as those of the plant, putting these pieces of information together creates a parallel. By collaging the scientific information with the speaker’s life, metaphor blooms from the implicit relationship. Martinez uses this method throughout the book. This approach may feel unsatisfying, but Martinez is teaching the reader how to seek connections on their own. She is encouraging us to attune our eye to look for wonder in the natural world. The fascinating facts included push us to look up the information and engage actively as we read.
Though most of the sections draw upon various sources, a mysterious, unnamed girl continues to appear in the book. Her presence often feels ghostly or like a daydream. The first place she materializes is at the ocean’s shoreline; Martinez begins with a nod to T.S. Eliot,
This nod to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is perhaps confirmation that this girl is a fiction of the speaker’s mind. Reenforced later by, “I see her during the day, at night, / when looking straight on in the highway-drive / hypnotic state.” Martinez rarely uses repetition of images as a technique, so when the girl appears again and again it’s a surprise. She returns again at the shoreline,
Her dress is white, the color often associated with innocence. The setting is ominous with an impending storm. Perhaps the girl returns as a reminder that the climate crisis will have the greatest impact on children in the future. Each year we get closer to disaster so the imagined place the girl inhabits becomes more dangerous too.
Along with the beautiful descriptions of flora and fauna, an underlying current of urgency emerges. “Watching Chasing Ice I waver between wonder, grief, / and urgency,” the poet writes. I feel the same kind of wavering when reading Count. Wonder can be found in the ways nature adapts, grief in what will be lost, and urgency as we await the the impact on human life. We have a tendency to register tragedy briefly before moving on, until it impacts us directly. In places where climate change hasn’t had a direct effect it can be hard to imagine how bad things will get if we don’t do something. Martinez makes the cost clear. She writes,
Climate migration, a very real consequence of climate change, has already displaced many people and will continue to do so—including most of us who live in coastal North America. Reminiscent of A.R. Ammon’s Garbage in structure and topic, Count is triumphant in its balanced approach to the topic of climate change. Martinez demands nothing more than our attention, beckoning us to heed the world around us before it’s too late.
Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has been awarded fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program,and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in AGNI, Guernica, POETRY, and elsewhere.