Mapping the Chicano Identity: A Review of Heredities by J. Michael Martinez

Heredities by J. Michael Martinez
Louisiana State University Press, 2010 (? pages)
"The noun never sutures to the named body." -JMM

According to Chicana poet and essayist, Ana Castillo, "The very act of self-definition is a rejection of colonization" (from Massacre of the Dreamers). In Heredities, his debut collection and winner of the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, J. Michael Martinez seeks to explore this process of self-definition, both as a Chicano and as a poet.

In his work, Martinez displays such humility, honesty, and awareness of the blank page-the ability to document-as privilege, cultivating an American existence, simultaneously building up and stripping down the flood of narratives from which he was born: "The Chicano shapes identity like a an icicle fingering down from / the roof's edge" (from "Aporia").

Xicano son of the American Southwest, with ancestral ties spanning Mexico, New Mexico, Texas, this Colorado native transforms each page into a map, into a tool, into art, embodying the thorny and complex examination of the modern Chicano/a identity. Martinez leads the reader through historical, cultural, and familial investigation via the body of his foremothers, to the Spanish colonization of the Aztecs and the birth of the Mexican people, and back again as he ultimately is faced with his own fear of acting on his love for a woman of another race.

In "Heredities [1] Etymology," the first poem of the first section, Martinez establishes a solid home foundation from which to begin his exploration: five thick stanzas, lines broken only according to the limit of space. Martinez gives the eye a visually strong sense of order as he prepares for a rediscovering, a reevaluation of his history. The speaker begins with the naming of his mother according to his grandmother:

[.] She remembered her tonsils
swinging before her like fleshy apples, then a hand taking them into a fist,
harvesting their sound. She told me her throat opened in two spots like
insect eyes and the names of her children came flying through her open wounds
like peacocks.

Patting my thigh, she said, "That is why the name of your mother is Maria,
because she is a prayer, a song of praise to the Holy Mother." She told me
this, then showed me two scars on her throat-tiny scars, like two eyelids
stitched closed (5).
In the poems of historical and cultural exploration, "White," "He Name Me Miklo," and "First Letter," "Second Letter," "Third Letter," (which contain actual text from Cortez's letters during the conquest) among others, the page becomes a map, as words are used as markers, documenting place upon the page, as well as the white space, the unexplored, wholly representing the daunting act of claim staking:

exchange for blood and ruin

we joined together as one mind
[...] (29)

Are then Hispanics
of his-
panic of culture
no culture
[...] (9)

Moving between the narrative and the lyrical, each poem, each line, works within and without its neighbor as documentation of a journey through an uncompromising existence to the reclamation of the basic human desire. In an interview I recently conducted with the poet, Martinez says of this destination and its journey:

" I want to capture life in language, to have words enter my heart and pull me toward something more rich and more fragile, full of complex risk and love, toward fields of Being, more authentic and grown over with endless hope. I want to deserve my life; that is to say, I want to love."

Martinez distorts the line between a slew of dichotomies as he works to establish the fallacy of naming. Martinez forces his reader to deconstruct prescribed identities, seamlessly synthesizing the many angles from which he approaches many types of colonization: of the mind, of the body, of the land.

In "Aporia," a series of seven prose poems that reads as a crown of sonnets, the speaker, "I," reevaluates a conversation with a heretofore unidentifiable "you," as they discuss the effects of colonization, naming, and language. The poet takes the kind of risks that prove his diligence, his commitment, and his need for autonomy, spreading these heavy stanzas across numerous pages both mapping and establishing a new foundation with the "you."

[2] The Body Is Not Identical to the Self

Like foreshadowing, I said, I inherit the absence of language. You said,
Spanish is drying blood. I said, Embellished language is for the poet who
seeks to forget. Yes, you said, the moment identity is given, the self is erased;
a leaf breaks from its branch. I pour sugar on the table. The light pools in
your eye, drowning adjectives in verbs (12).

Using academic, scientific, and culturally common diction (a mix of Spanish and English), the poet blurs the boundaries between each and simultaneously exists in each sphere. He acknowledges that the human body is not a border, but a wholly identifiable Being. This extracting and accumulating works to separate the speaker's own distinct, although still exploratory, sense of self.

In "Articulations of Quetzalcoatl's Spine," and "The Sternum of Our Lady of Guadalupe," Martinez uses anatomical charts of various parts the human skeleton as epigraphs. Here again, the poet unwaveringly creates an amalgamation of two distinct entities, scientific and the spiritual, the corporeal and the cerebral, the traditional with the contemporary, moving one sect into the other, and thusly unlocking the doors of convention:

The Two Lateral Occipto-atlantal Ligaments (fig.153) are strong fibrous
bands, offering maize and amaranth to the body whose praise is the human
face. These ligaments are directed obliquely upward and inward, attached to
the souls of infants transformed into hummingbirds; below, to the base of
black hair attached to their mother, the first woman.

Much like one who deconstructs bombs, Martinez moves acutely and deliberately, disentangling centuries of hot-blooded savagery and oppression in many forms: caste systems, gender binaries, racial discrimination/expectation both within the Chicano/American paradigm as well as within American letters. He approaches this history as would an anthropologist, an archeologist, a researcher documenting the various bones and artifacts found during a dig deep in the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, then gloriously and generously uses the poetic to explore and analyze his findings into a revolutionary form of documentation.

Reminiscent of Chicano/a poets like Alberto Rios, Diana Garcia, and Gloria Anzaldua, Martinez defines for himself what it is to be a Chicano poet by redefining the self and the self's relation to documentation. This includes an exploration of language: what we inherit, what is given and what is expected, stripping away of generations to the origin of that which is inherited, and embracing the many and complex bloods that flow within the veins of the Chicano people. This is nothing short of forensic investigation: cold case reexamined for the sake of the identifiable self.

Margin is the whiteness in our silence. I said, Difference is
already spread between the body and the gaze. You said, We
lament the name we give; we give word to find respite from the
shallows between. Your irises close, black flowers folding toward
the silence of their beginning. I place a cup of coffee before you. I
said, The noun never sutures to the named body (1, 14).

Cutting through convention and thus establishing himself a force of language, Martinez takes the kind of risks with his poetry that leave the serious reader voraciously seeking more and humbly awed by innovation, origin, self-awareness. This, of course, can be off-putting to the casual reader of poetry, as Martinez demands that his reader be fully present, ready and willing to investigate each line, each word to establish the necessary bridges between the formulation of history and the formulation of the self.

Laurie Ann Guerrero's poems and critical work have appeared or are forthcoming in Borderlands: The Texas Poetry Review, Acentos Review, Palo Alto Review, Global City Review, Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, Feminist Studies and others. Born and raised San Antonio, Guerrero holds a B.A. in English from Smith College and an MFA from Drew University. Guerrero's first book, Babies Under the Skin, won the Panhandler Publishing Chapbook Award. A 2011 CantoMundo fellow and member of the Macondo Writers' Workshop, Guerrero teaches writing at Palo Alto College in San Antonio.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761