Mothermorphosis, by MK Chavez
Nomadic Press, 2016, 52 pages, $10
As if I needed another reason to cry, curse, bang my elbows on the piano, and scream on the downbeat, I now have a hundred more thanks to MK Chavez’ brilliant, sympathetic collection Mothermorphosis. These are wonderful and sad poems, completely unpreoccupied with the poet’s own voice. Instead, readers join the author in a search for point of view, which is nearly impossible since the political and intimate worlds make us want to shut our eyes.
Chavez leads us into places she hasn’t fully discovered. It is a murky trek through a dark wood shaded by mental health atrocities (“Ways to treat schizophrenia: infect with malaria, inducing convulsions with camphor injections”) and American-backed death squads in El Salvador. Yes, these are poems of witness, but aren’t all poems? Could there even be images at all if we didn’t have eyes to see part of everything?
Chavez, a seasoned poet who is part of the throaty, vibrant East Bay poetry scene in San Francisco, makes good use of the poet’s old friend Doubt, in language that agrees and disagrees in her struggle to understand her own energy — her nature and nurture. The facts are simple: a nation destroys its own people; her mother’s schizophrenia is a form of survival, yet this too is destructive. But this is not an Agatha Christie whodunit (who killed the poet): This is poetry. Consider “The Archeology of Disappearance,” which both touches upon the massacre of innocents and the way in which we construct our identities by disconnecting from experience: “Perhaps there is one survivor, perched / in a tree / suspended in history / in silence.” The poem concludes with art:
She considers the death
of those on the ground
to be fallen fruit
and the suffering
to be a peculiar hardness,
in the same way
that an insect
might come to be incased
There is something not quite right about disconnecting, and yet beauty comes from it too, and it isn’t a lie or truth, but it’s distracting, or maybe like trying to find a way to breathe when anyone else would be holding her breath. In “Autobiography #7 (Apartment on Delaware)” a young speaker witnesses: “Each morning broken glass made everything glitter. / I was a clumsy girl. My mother pulled glass shards from the meat of my bloodied knees. / Sunlight sometimes caught the blood and the wound and made them shine.”
Chavez’s poems are very elastic. She moves back and forth between the outer and inner worlds, between “Ours was the smallest home in the middle of the city’s maze of empty warehouses,” to her mother treating her wound with a forked stitch ripper, to reaching for a blanket where “At the center of all that softness, she found a perfect mouse family.” In “Difficult Child,” Chavez begins with an image, her mother “tearing her clothes off under an arc of sprinklers,” then gives us a street intersection, nuns trying to teach her Latin, the mother dancing naked. Chavez’s lens tightens on the shot, from panorama to looking into her mother’s “fragmented and tender eyes,” her mother asking, “Do you hear voices too?” and the daughter saying, “Yes, I hear them. I hear them talking all the time.”
If Mothermorphosis were a horror movie, we could expect a brief flash of static or menacing cello sounds between these long and short takes, between each line and stanza. But the author’s skill lies in making numerous seamless transitions without using any transition words or devices. She is associative, but without swerving, as she braids the personal and political, the inherent introspection with what the World War II-era poet Keith Douglas called “extro-spection.” Douglas, who was celebrated by Plath and Hughes for his Simplify Me When I’m Dead, renovated experience by renovating language. I imagine Hughes would also say of Chavez’s language, “its air of improvisation is a vital part of its purity.”
Above all, while the press kit focuses on this book’s “exploration of the sublime terrain of mother,” Chavez must be read as a war poet even though she is a very different sort of soldier than armies tend to recruit. This one knows battle. This one knows the feeling of a first breath filling a newborn’s ribcage. And this one knows mortality as none of us do. Her closing poem “Thanksgivings at Cemeteries” both descends from “Lady Lazarus” and gives her ancestor a place to rest eternal:
Call me heart and the final escape.
First, eat air.
Do not let secrets become stone. Do not let them
take your breath
Come to me after they’ve killed the god in you,
when all that’s left
is cold as marble.
I’ll open my wings and kiss
what no one else is willing
“Literacy is freedom,” was one of the first slogans to be shouted after Eden Pastora led his army of farmers into Managua to return Nicaragua to its people. To this, Chavez adroitly might add: You take your literacy when and where you can. You take it from the world, you take it from your mother no matter her imperfections, and you give it to your child because your language is her freedom.