Turtle Island to Abya Yala –Book Review

This is a book review that a good friend just wrote for a wonderful new poetry and art book that is coming out soon. You can find out more about how to get a copy of the book or to get in contact with the editor (Mica Valdez) here. As a lover of poetry and its ability to heal, I wanted to share this review and Mollye’s beautiful words.

I also LOVE the lines she described from the poem“Indigenous Woman: Portrait of a Lady.”  Enjoy!

This is her review:

A Vibrant Voice: A Poetry Review of Turtle Island to Abya Yala

by Mollye Miller

What is a vibrant voice? Howdoes a vibrant voice sound in a poem? Is it light and pure? Bold and enigmatic?In music it is evident when a singer captures our attention, if not our souls,by the sheer voluminous power of her song. In a poem, a vibrant voice is oftenharder to locate, but is equally as resplendent. For me, a vibrant voice in apoem startles me with clarity, force, and accurate words. Appearing toward theend of Turtle Island to Abya Yala, apoetry and art anthology edited by Mica Valdez, stands a poem by LeAndraBitsie. One part of Bitsie’s poem, “Indigenous Woman: Portrait of a Lady,” reads:

To be

To be of truth

Indigenous Woman

It’s your way

Like the shine from the stars

The beauty in bead work

The beauty of grandma

It’s my way

To keep negativity as a stranger

To never be jealous, envious, vindictive

To never ever snag a fella

But instead I choose to snag my dreams,ambitions,


To be

To be a light

Bitsie has a vibrant voice,and a poem that indeed shines a light on this collection of poetry by Latinaand Native American women. The women writers in the collection are powerful thinkersand communicators with poignant, emotional prowess. Combatting and ultimately learninghow to overcome discrimination, hardship, heartache, horrific ancestral histories,and the whole list of tragedies, comedies and joys included in any human life, ofcourse, these artists choose to make something original out of their human stories.

Instead of sharing the sagaof her hardship with us, the poet speaks to us in processed tones: each poethas already done the work of processing her pain and sadness (though it stilllives within her and her poems). That is, each poet in this collection—whetheror not you like all of their styles, voices, and subject matter—is on her waytoward, or has already arrived at, a self-sustaining and self-actualizedpresence. How many artists do you know today that come across as being completelyself-accepting? These writers speak to us in sharp, quill-like feelings we can understand,and join in on lamenting or celebrating.

In a poem by Cassandra P.Rendon called “(my body in Anishinaabe: niiyaw),” she celebrates the beauty ofthe body and the strength of the will. In a vibrant voice, she writes about herdesire, “to get away/from centuries of being pushed/into a tree/onto theground/and torn apart.” In the poem “Within Me” by Alethea Chamberlain, however, the speaker wishes people wouldtruly see her, but admits that instead people choose to “only see a tree in thefield/they don’t see her strength and will.” Toward the end of the poem thespeaker states, “She fights for her existence./They will not win; this sheknows.”

Many of the poems in thecollection are a troubling mixture of anger, bitterness, sex, solitude,survivance, peace, aggression, self-assertion, self-love, love-love, and rage.

For instance, in Ire’ne LaraSilva’s provocative poem “Love of People,”she describes the healthy reasons for rage; that is, she articulates to uswhy and how she has accepted the rage she feels for the atrocities committedagainst her, or her speaker’s, family. To accept ones’ emotions is a powerfulfeat in itself, a life-changing one. As Silva suggests, though, one must becareful with love, though it is “like a river” and with our behaviors, too. Inone part of the poem, she describes, “rage like the grief that can’t be/forgottenonly made into machetes/ rusty with llanto not to kill but to cut/rage likelove of people like pain in/the sleep of night time.”

In another section of thepoem—which is all in block form with spacing between shifts in purpose or mood—Silvaarticulates how she was, in fact, taught rage and how it has, in turn, taughther: “the rage I was taught first the/rage between languages between people/ifI had been born into a world with softer/ edges been a child outside of thepot’s boiling water love would not/transformformingform to rage but love/ inthis language is not enough rage a/ rage a co-rage a courage a coraje.”

With her inventive play withlanguage—both Spanish and English—she invites questions, strong reactions andvisceral feelings of pain, coupled with courage. Throughout Turtle Island, and in poetry in general,it is often difficult to decipher which story a poet wants to tell most, whichexact portion of her life she wants to reveal on the page. In turn, it is alsotricky to know the emotion she most urgently wants to express. At least tothese Native American and Latina poets, it seems not choosing one subject toconcentrate on—much less one emotion—steered them away from telling only half-truths.In other words, each poet chose a wide selection of subjects and emotions to communicateto readers the whole truth, or at least the truth as it lives and breathes inher.

Some of the weaker lines inthe poems as a whole do not interfere much with the powerful, poignant ones. Whatmakes some lines weaker is when the poet simply writes a phrase that borders ona traditional idion or cliché. Lines like “our indigenous tongue” or “Mi sangrerecuerda (my blood remembers) are only powerful when paired with lines neverbefore written, as far as I know, in poetry. A few lines in Reva Mariah Gover’spoem, “Desert Moon,” are greatexamples. Her poem begins, “Dust,brown-red-black./

Fragile./ Strong in thebirthing.” That last single line is so original, it makes up for any lines thatmight border on the ordinary.

Looking at a poem by KarinaGonzalez Amaya called “Cultural Theory 101,” a reader immediately feels compelledto read the poem from start to finish, given the structure of the world she creates.In one line, she writes, “From the depths of my jungle, I breathe truth topalabras (words) long forgotten en rios de lagrimas (rivers of tears).” Amayathen ends her poem with an exuberant, if not fearlessly virulent, “!Presente!,”her declaration of self as truth.

Speaking of truth telling inpoetry, as a poet who also knows the difficulty, but ultimate beauty andfunction, of opening up I will be honest: the poems in Turtle Island are not types of poems I usually read or am drawntoward. I am not Latina or Native American, as you can probably tell by my name.I am an Anglo-American woman, with German, Scottish, English and Norwegianancestry. But this is where the great equalizer comes in: poetry is one of the greatestart forms for revealing the authentic voice. It doesn’t matter who, what orwhere you are. If you read or hear a true poem, in translation or evensometimes without, you will hear an authentic voice.

A wonderful example of a poetand poem with authentic voice is Griselda Liz Munoz in “The Earth Says.” Thisis one of those poems you start reading with one idea or mood in mind, and end upsomewhere totally different. Note the beginning lines: 

The sun, it shines outside

and as we walk I feel the pull of Earth,

of the ground,

of the ghosts,

living and dead

that still haunt our home.

I lay still at dawn.”

And in the end, Munoz writes:

Your Mexicana: Loca with a wild streak

Crazy bitch in arracadas and heels in tightjeans,

makes love to you like a howling wolf in heat

and when you’re done she blesses your sleep

Your Mexican woman, that’s me.

Your Mexican woman, that’s me.”

I am as surprised by the majormood-shift in the poem as much as I am by the speaker who accomplished it. Shepulls of all her masks, all her worries and insecurities of not being goodenough, all her fears of rejection, inadequacy, and self-acceptance. When allthat filth comes off of her body and her life, she can declare, not once buttwice, who she is. It seems to me this is the first time she has answered thequestion “Who am I?,” with, “I am a Mexican woman.” When she asks again, “Who amI?,” she answers more specifically, “I am myself.”

Essentially, the speaker inMunoz’s poem rejects all the things she will not be. She becomes a form oftruth telling of and for herself, and for the man she loves. While the poem hasits lesser lines, I admire how boldly Munoz shifts the poem to focus surprisinglynot on herself or her partner, but on earthiness and ancestry. She states,mid-poem, “Take heed;/This archetype has teeth!” And, toward the end of thepiece:

Mexicanas hold the Earth’s power

We give birth to ancient flowers

We understand the honor that children mean

Your Mexican woman can sense your needs

Your Mexican woman makes rice and beans.”

It’s striking how well thepoet glides from the spiritual to the earthy, what we might think of as basicstuff, like cooking dinner. In Munoz’s poem, healthy pride, sex, ancestry,jealousy, food, and the clothes we wear are all synonymous with who we are,which is a spiritual thing: we are who we are because of where we’ve come from,the choices we make, and from love, or the quest to find love. Munoz’s humorousand intensely serious self-love of is admirable. Personally, I’ve never read apoem which such a flux of energy, and range of emotions. Some might say it needsediting, needs focusing, but I say it’s great how it is, much like the poemteaches me to believe.

What I appreciate about thispoem is not so much the dreaminess and the escape from the surreal (the world)into the real (the mind and its imagination of time), as much as it is theboldness with which she bangs out these images, feelings and revelations ontothe page. I can see coffee mug circle stains on her page of poetry, I can seeher crushing the pen into the page to get out lines like, “This archetype hasteeth!” When I read, I imagine what stormy or ebullient mood led her to a blankpaper. Usually I am wrong in what I imagine to be true, but the imaginativeexercise itself helps me get involved in a poem, and maybe it will help you,too.

I’ll turn now to a verydifferent kind of poem titled “Now This Night” written by Sara Marie Ortiz. Hereare a few lines from the piece: “O, loss. O, light,” “vast fast-blossoming,” “O,little prism of this,” “to see such light through God,” “histories unwritten,save for the emblazoned/narratives in our skin.” Lines like these make moresense in the poem when you know the subtitle, “Now This Night: November 4th,2008.” That’s Obama’s election night, or what might have been McCain’selection night, had votes swung the other way.

Ortiz plays amusingly withthe “O” in Obama’s name. She does it splendidly when she writes: “Now, thepeople, now the light, now the night, now-this-O, this, now, this night. Comeforth into it.” And stunningly here with, “O, inheritance. O, loss. O, light.O, far away/ radiant. O, this night, O, let this.” Oddly enough, Ortiz (thestarting vowel in her name now cannot be ignored) flips her poem at the end,similar to Liz Munoz’s technique—she changes our idea of her motivation forwriting.

It seems that while Ortiz’sspeaker certainly pinned all her hopes on the “vast fast-blossomingpossibility” of Obama’s election, she also hoped with all the poem’s intensitythat the loved one she was with in a hospital would survive. What we thoughtwas a cheer for Obama, for the nation, was actually a powerfully gentle prayerfor a person she loves: “You are an estuary of fluid light/in this cold, vast,dark desert of night.” She also introduces survivance, a belief held by manyindigenous Natives, of having an active sense of presence over historicalabsence, racism, and oblivion (Gerald Robert Vizenor, Survivance: narratives of Native presence). Then we enter the narrow “raw nerve in adark hospital room.” The speaker admits, in a sharp and sturdy line, “Notenough money/the world to keep her alive for the world: no insurance, no.” Ortizplants us in a desert wishing for a democratic election. Then she drops us intoa hospital where people genuinely hope and pray more than in any other place.When it comes to life or death we have no biases—it is light over shadow; it islife we want.

In my second-to-last poem review,I’ll look at a more traditional love poem, which I briefly mentioned earlier. “DesertMoon” by Reva Mariah Gover starts with a beautiful construction. The physicallook of the poem and the words drew me in, and I’m confident they will drawothers in, too:

My story begins—razor, desert mountains,


                        high, pale and translucent

            like smoke

firm in the morning blue.

These opening lines could bethe whole poem. Like a landscape photographer, Gover has given us so much tolook at and admire all in one glimpse. While the rest of the poem could besharper in some places—to match the powerful opening—“pearls” exist in the poemthat make it worth reading twice, three times and more to appreciate itsfullness.

I find this to be a poem I amfamiliar with—and I imagine other readers will think so too—because of thestrange and simple, and at times frightening, language. This playing withlanguage and meaning, which I call “pearls,” define for me the spontaneousghost-nature of writing a poem. Like creating a riff on a piano or guitar, themusician closes her eyes and instinctually finds the notes she wants—and eachone sings. Painters often choose and mix colors based on an emotion, an idea, ordrive. When the painter finishes her work and puts down her brushes, she seesthat she has created something sensational, though she can’t quite tell what itis. The same thing happens in poetry with words. If I write a phrase I truly wantand need to say, even if it has no meaning outside of the poem itself, it is apearl. Reva Mariah Gover’s pearls include “sight-images of your hands,” “dust…strongin the birthing” and “your desert moon is carved into.”

I appreciate how Gover letsherself shimmer in the landscape she set up in the beginning; she does notleave us alone to wander the desert, and then the unknown landscape of her mind.I’m not sure who or what it is the speaker “loves” in the poem—is it history? Herself?A man or woman? The mother she speaks to in the end? She writes:


is where you live.

The great breath of Baboquivari

bares your voice.

The granite of this valley

is where you held me.

To note: Baboquivari was aU.S. forest reserve in 1906 in Arizona. In 1908, the government changed it intoa composite national forest. It is interesting how Gover chooses to make thelandscape specific, how she makes the “granite of this valley” into a home.

In Turtle Island to Abya Yala, Jennifer Elise Foerster’s poem,“Magdalene in the Desert, Part I” is strikingly complete. It is also harrowing andsad. Section four, a pearl-filled section, reads:

If there were horses now, electric

blue on the ridge of these

canyons we dip through,

we would not see them, pressed up

against the moonlight as we are,

our bodies just shadows of doors

where I cannot distinguish

my fingers from yours. Interwoven

in corners, we sleep.

Nets around our feet.

This section could be a poemin and of itself, in how Foerster achieved such a compact and thoroughemotional range. However, this is just part of a section of the poem. The entirepoem captivates, and is exceptionally warm. This is the kind of poem Icelebrate rapturously. First, Foerster’s speaker not only encompasses butwrestles with the human spirit, its countless woes. Secondly, the poem isbeautiful. “Shadows of doors,” for example, will stay with me a long time.

The whole Turtle Island to Abya Yala anthology willalso stay with me. The raw, unpolished work in this anthology, along with poemsready for a steady stream of critics, is what makes the collection rare and important.If all the poems were as complete as Jennifer Elise Foerster’s, for instance,the collection would not be as true to its roots, which is, I believe,diversity, multiplicity, range. And so my blanket statement for the book is: Buyit. Read it. Learn from it. These poets aren’t experimenting with and composingverse just because someone once said they were good at writing. These writersremember, know, sense, and seek. Collections like these, as far as I know, arevery rare. In each poem I hear a vibrant voice that has something to say.


Mollye Miller holds an MFA in poetry from TheNew School University where, in 2010, she won the university’s Annual ChapbookPoetry Award for her manuscript, “Shade Particles.” In 2011, she was asemi-finalist in the Indiana Review’s 1/2 K Poetry Prize Contest for her prosepoem, “Hallmark.” She currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

 Poets mentioned in the review: LeAndra Bitsie; Cassandra P. Rendon; AletheaChamberlain; Ire’ne Lara Silva; Reva Mariah Gover; Karina Gonzalez Amaya;Griselda Liz Munoz; Sara Marie Ortiz; Jennifer Elise Foerster

What do you think of the review? Would you enjoy this book of poems?

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