- Flexible Bones
Maria Melendez's Flexible Bones is an ambitious book. Few subjects are beyond the author's scope: border/identity politics, the environment and indigenous people's traditions of farming, current and past wars, and a mother's ferocious mothering, to name a few. Outrage at injustice may fuel many of these poems, but I suggest that wit and grit charge them both dynamically and inventively. This is a collection that bears close attention.
Melendez lays claim to a hybridity of technique and identity on which the volume builds. Just as, in "A Latina Poet Can Be a Good Dog," the [End Page 440] speaker notes that as a "half- // breed," she can "pass for friendly" (63-64), so these poems may "pass" for "chicana // lite," as "Latina Poet" puts it, but we readers should not miss the irony at the heart of the volume (63). As the speaker in "El Villain" remarks acidly of a meditation technique intended to shift the negative energy of American racism, "I am to breathe in prejudice and breathe out light?" (28, emphasis added). How it feels to be the object of the seemingly innocuous but actually snide observation "not from around here, are ya?" is some of the "news" from inside the culture wars that Flexible Bones brings to readers.
"El Villain" is a good example of Melendez's astute poetic "passing," with its rehearsals of opposing perspectives and juxtapositions of hate-filled comments with embodied experience. The poem is written in unrhymed blues quatrains, but in introducing W. E. B. DuBois into the poem (rather than, say, Langston Hughes), Melendez signals that the poem examines not the Chicana equivalent of the "lives of black folk," but how "double consciousness" is adapted to poetry. The poem mimes—that is, makes visible and audible—the prejudice with which the speaker deals, by repeating it, in order to bring it into the poem's field of awareness. The poem is an assemblage of ethnically disparaging remarks drawn from Internet sites and collaged into lines of personal detail that address the question: "How does it feel to be a problem?" (28; emphasis added).
Another poem, "Maíz Desmadre," investigates the ramifications of "corn" in the Americas. Its subject, the effect of Genetically Modified corn on native corn, is significant. Stylistically, the poem is as varied as corn's ancient genetic makeup. The poem opens in autobiography: two friends on a road trip munch "corn" as we know it: junk food ("Smartfood White Cheddar Cheese Flavored Popcorn"). The poem moves in its second part to an associative riff in which indigenous corn—"little deer / little serpent / little corn maiden / little green daughter"—is "modified" by corporate-sponsored genetic and economic monopolies into "monsanta / techno-ag" that "terminate[s] (not germinate[s])" a rich genetic line of maize, and small farming methods of which maize was at the center (56). The poem asks trenchantly who controls "what comes from the earth?" (56). Its answer is a free-wheeling, "mad-libbing" that poetically counters "translexic contamination," the fourth section's Nahuatl chant recorded in 1629 and transplanted into English: "I shall honor / my elder sister" (61). The poem's double action of exposure (of greed) and restoration (of rooted, linguistic integrity) comprises a revisionary double consciousness adapted for a new century.
Melendez's wit occasionally edges into a glibness that I wish the author had resisted, but in sum, her poetic alchemy works inventively to change [End Page 441] minds through shifts of language and awareness, which function like verbal "seeds" traveling on poetic winds. As "Ars Poetica: Platanus Racemosa" so beautifully remarks, "Love breaks open the bark to feed itself / on what's exposed" (69). Such lines suggest profound poetic method; exposure (including of the self) forges a poetry tender and brave in its exhortation of hope: "May language be an act of love" (69). Melendez fuses ancient wisdom with ecopoetic insight into an innovative poetry that is, like the "maíz" she contemplates, truly and importantly desmadre.