July 14, 2008

The Weeping Woman: Review of Deborah Miranda and Pascale Petit

Book front cover
Title:
The Zen of La Llorona / The Huntress
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Deborah Miranda. The Zen of La Llorona. Cambridge: Salt. £8.99
Pascale Petit. The Huntress. Bridgend: Seren. £7.99

The Mexican folktale of La Llorona, sometimes known as the ‘weeping woman’ tells a story of infanticide as a lineage of violence is passed down from the conquering Spanish conquistador to the oppressed Mexican woman who must father his child. The power of this story filters into two new poetry collections: Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona and Pascale Petit’s The Huntress.

The Zen of La Llorona begins in the voice of La Llorona’s child. In ‘Three Months Without Electricity’, the daughter struggles to understand her mother’s coldness:

In the warm water, I am first a fish,
then a dark seal, then a turtle, peering out of my ocean
to see the wax well up, lucid, drench
the burning air of my mother’s silence.

The metrical and alliterative emphases of the first two lines fall on words describing water creatures. Like La Llorona’s drowned infant, the child is intimate with the river and water. The image of wax welling up is ambiguous: does ‘welling up’ evoke an outpouring of tears or does it refer to frozen and repressed feelings? The ambiguity of La Llorona is clear; in murdering her own children she must lack emotion, yet she is the weeping woman. The miscommunication between mother and daughter is clear in the image of blistering silence.

Later in the collection, Miranda’s view shifts and in ‘Driving Past Suicide for Three Novembers’, the voice is that of La Llorona herself:


When I arrive home tonight
my husband will reach for me in the dark–
his need, his comfort, his right.
Who will tell my children
marriage is more
than a glistening soul
served up on a silver platter?

The conversational tone of delivery is disarming as it builds to a final image of appetite and consumption. In a style dominated by monosyllabic words and avoiding regular meter, Miranda describes the horror of the marriage matter-of-factly. This angle views La Llorona from a different perspective. Miranda admits that a legacy of suffering can emerge in the relationship with one’s children, because pain is distancing and difficult to explain.

The Zen of La Llorona maps a journey through suffering towards understanding, yet it deals with not only women’s pain, but with the distress of all outsiders. In ‘After San Quentin’, Miranda discusses her family name and the Spanish language:


In Spain it used to mean looking.
Here, Miranda means you have the right
to remain silent…
it means
our own words can and will
be used against us; it means
a court of law is not surprised
to find my father, again and again, within its gates…

Miranda’s father wants to retain the difference, the specific name, that links him to his ancestors and roots, yet to have a Spanish-language name in North America is to be defined as a criminal. The irony is that such a pronouncement is self-fulfilling and brutal social judgements create a lineage of suffering to the father and his extended family.

The idea of lineage is also present in Petit’s The Huntress, which juxtaposes colonial violence and gender conflict. Some critics have made the mistake of thinking that Petit’s The Huntress is set amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but, drawing on Aztec myths of blood sacrifice, The Huntress uses a Mexican setting—few realise that Mexico contains its own rainforest.

Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point, since Petit’s earlier collection, The Zoo Father, was set in the Amazon. Like The Zoo Father, The Huntress represents confrontation with an abusive parent, but here it is the mother. The narrative of La Llorona is at the heart of the collection, as the daughter-narrator uses Aztec mythologies as a means to communicate and understand. The initial reception of Petit’s collection has been somewhat preoccupied by the intense anger directed at the mother. In ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, the narrator tells how she will only be reconciled with her mother in ‘the grave / where we will torment one another’. Yet in other poems, such as ‘The Rattlesnake Mother’, the daughter states, ‘I think now how hard it was for her / to be a rattlesnake’. Petit’s poetry is designed to subvert readers’ expectations about female relationships and there will never be a Hollywood ending with saccharine tears and reconciliation. Sometimes Petit’s subversiveness can seem inflammatory, such as in ‘Portrait of my Mother as Coatlicue’:


Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.

Coatlicue is a monstrous mother-goddess who in Aztec mythology wore a Medusa-like skirt of snakes. The daughter views Coatlicue with anxiety reminiscent of male fears about the female body and sexual appetite. In mentioning Cortez, Petit makes the connection here between the female body and the Orientalist view of other cultures: the ‘exotic’ and ‘sinister’ Aztec temples become the foundations for Roman Catholic cathedrals, just as the female body is appropriated to create a patriarchal lineage. What is so unnerving about this poem is Petit’s positioning of her daughter-narrator as Cortes, the coloniser, and it is problematic to consider where this comparison leads. Yet the narrator relents, stating: ‘But she was my mother, / as much a victim as a devourer.’ As in The Zen of La Llorona, the narrator of The Huntress comes to recognise that her mother’s violence and cruelty are inherited from her own experiences of pain. One of the most powerful poems, ‘Lunettes,’ creates a chain of association that begins with her father’s ‘glasses in the moonlight’ working its way through image after imager, until Petit finds an explicit motif for men’s brutality and women’s pain: ‘a forked iron plate / into which the stock of a field-gun carriage is inserted’.

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