By Ada Limón,
Corsair Poetry (2019, 95 pp.)
"What if, instead of carrying
A child, I am supposed to carry grief?"
The woman narrator in the poem "The Vulture and the Body," a delicate yet ferocious meditation on fertility and death, has passed five dead animals on the way to the fertility clinic -- not good signs.
She wants to share with the doctor her conflicted feeling about her body (that "my body is not just my body, but that I'm made of old stars"), her feelings of foreboding, despite his optimism, a duality that we all carry between our grounded existence and impending death:
"Some days there is a violent sister inside me, and a red ladder
That wants to go elsewhere."
The poems in Ada Limón's latest thrilling three-part collection, her fifth (after "Bright Dead Things"), frequently sound this cri de coeur over "a raging battle with [her] body," striking a carefully calibrated note as pain delivers both a curse and a blessing. Plagued with incessant vertigo, problems with her spine and anxiety about getting pregnant, the narrator plunges into nature for solace and finds the answer from the trees' stubborn emergence in spring, as in "Instructions on Not Giving Up":
"Patient, plodding, a green skin
Growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
To the strange idea of continuous living despite
The mess of us, the hurt, the empty."
In landscapes poised between the lushness of California and the horse country of Kentucky, the poet carries "cargo" between the material and the mystical -- carrying in her being the dead stars of her ancestors, but also the gift of prophesy, as a poet does. She is the seer who is able to descend to the depths of the underworld, as in "Notes on the Below," and bring the message to the light:
What it is to be quiet, and yet still breathing."
Limón will be the first of the Writers Showcase poets to read at SOMOS during Poetry Month, on April 9, at 5:30 p.m. on Zoom.
The Gospel According to Billy the Kid
By Dennis McCarthy
University of New Mexico Press (2021, 165 pp.)
The Wild West violence that opens this first novel is nearly mechanical, like in old Western movies where the cowboys are all shooting randomly at each other from horseback and bodies fly out of saloons. It begins as a true confession first-person narrative by Billy Bonney, now older and writing in hindsight, in order to correct Pat Garrett's fanciful work, "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid," which established Billy's nasty reputation as a killing boy wonder, though it was hardly factual.
Instead, McCarthy presents Billy here as thoughtful and tender, writing to the brother of a dear friend, Carlos, who once saved Billy's life. In his youth, Billy, an orphan whose parents were killed by Comanches in Buffalo Gap, Texas, and raised by Aunt Cat, worked as a hand for John Tunstall, and got caught up in the so-called Lincoln County War of early New Mexico territory -- essentially a tit-for-tat vengeance blood-letting between rivaling posses. It's not pretty reading.
Pursued by Sheriff Pat Garrett, Billy has to flee the law, renounce his girlfriend in Fort Sumner, Paulita Maxwell, who is pregnant with his child, and strike out to California -- with a beaten-up dog named Mangel and a trusty horse, Buck. But Billy doesn't get there yet: bitten by a rabid bat, he is cared for by the monks in Chama, who had ventured west from Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and settled into the wilderness where there were "fewer distractions."
But not dangers. Billy learns many things from the monks, and especially from the wonderful Brother Charles, aka Carlos. The resourceful Billy teaches the monks many things, such as about survival in the raw wild, while he experiences dreams nightly in which his Aunt Cat and the ravens seem to warn him about impending death.
Sadly, the blood-letting catches up with them, and it is sickeningly heartbreaking and senseless.
McCarthy, who lives in Santa Fe, is the brother of Cormac McCarthy, and that is a hard literary road to follow. Still, this is a fine, affecting narrative to give pause to what is supposed to be the historical record.