Employing the Texas landscape as a metaphor for her speaker’s troubled psyche helps Iliana Rocha give shape to personal history in her exceptional debut Karankawa, winner of the 2014 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. Karankawa takes its title from the Native American culture buried under the “concrete musculature” of Lake Jackson, the setting for this emotional journey in which a young woman mourns her mother’s death and absence as she navigates the distressing terrain of womanhood.
The five poems bearing the title “Creation Myth” pulse like a heartbeat at varying intervals, each one imagines the speaker’s birth, which is another way of re-starting the mother-daughter relationship that came to a premature end. This bond is not idealized however, as each birth is presented not as a blank slate but as a harbinger of things to come: “a lifetime of everyones gathers around to cigar-stork-celebrate all the ways we will surprise & disappoint.” Indeed, the past and the present are collapsed into a single plane, just like civilizations come stacked one atop the other on the same land, and therefore one cannot be explored without the other.
Another connecting tissue in the book is the appearance of a number of Texas cities. Besides Lake Jackson, there’s also Wharton, Victoria, Big Bend and Corpus Christi—places associated with different memories. A past, and a path, is mapped out with the speaker’s history of places she has live in, but so too with the notable hurricanes she has lived through. The two lists come together to chart a record of conflict and recovery. Reconstructing the broken and damaged material things becomes a valuable lesson in healing. From the poem “Wharton, TX”:
On the porch,
she stops & wonders what blew apart,
recalls the hurricane where all things collided:
the bluebonnets, the parakeets, the futile
instruction of how to fill her empty spaces
while they hurry to widen. After a violent
rain, old material settles: marriage, family.
Although grief becomes the prominent tone of her language, Rocha textures it with startling beauty, not as an apology for the sullen subject matter or even as a strategy for permission to write about it, but as an artistic flourish that presents mourning as a complicated experience, very hurricane-like—a devastating reality but also a transcendent one. A few stand-out lines in the book include the following: “you knew how I admired horses/ not just for their luck, but for the way they outrun their great sadness”; “When sleep finally comes, keep your dandelions. Let mine/ be a funeral of stalks”; “I hear you died as beautifully as a yellow cloud chalked onto sidewalks”; and “If we only/ had one row of stars to follow,/ we would never be lost.”
The second important presence in the speaker’s formative years is her father. Afflicted by alcoholism, the widower becomes an impressionable influence on his daughter’s view of herself and her sexuality. “I was born drunk,” she says matter-of-factly in one of the “Creations Myth” poems. And this intoxicated state remains a critical lens, as shown in the poem “Looking at Women,” in which the speaker asserts: “My father taught me how. His curious eyes, perpetually amber from drinking, would scan a woman, rest on a bold curve they liked: tits or ass.” And later: “My stare isn’t all that different from his—start from the face, scroll down. I love a woman in a tight dress, done up like a drag queen.”
The drag queen makes another appearance in the poem “Night Sticks (2011)—Excerpts,” in which the speaker remembers her father taking on his late wife’s domestic duties: “Dad stands in his drunk kitchen washing dishes, starching our jeans until they’re glitterbest. The body in opposites: Dad in her nightgown. I try to forget her leaving the hotel room on the tip of Florida’s penis in search of a bar.” This moment in the book is one of the most compelling since it demonstrates the inner hurricane of the speaker’s emotions: the yearning for her mother to be alive, the desire for her father to be sober, the love she feels for both, despite her absence, despite his distance, all swirl into a single haunting gender-fluid image.
Eventually, the speaker does shape her own sexual agency, beginning with the recognition of her femininity: “I noticed my own body, legs half-tree trunk, half-lightning rod.” And the poem “A Study of You, Love,” about a romantic outing in the desert is meant to contrast with the two poems called “A Study of You, Grief,” in which the focus is on the bodies of the deceased mother and the beleaguered father, respectively. By shifting perspective to the self, the speaker is able to imagine (and define on her own terms) the language and expression of desire in close proximity to, but not hindered by, her family values and religion. From the provocative and lively litany in “Descriptions of His Tongue”:
His tongue is a bra unhooking in my mouth,
a suede sofa, unhinged armoire in my mouth,
cashmere wet with rain in my mouth, wrung
out until it’s dry, shrunken in my mouth.
Catholic, sitting on the toilet reciting prayers,
Santo Niño de Atocha knocking on my mouth door.
Tangerine giving birth in my mouth,
litter of three—no, four—in my mouth.
The process of sand turned to melting glass
being blown into a swan’s arch in my mouth.
In the moving poem “Reconstructing the Burial from a Few Fragments,” the speaker makes a valiant effort to fortify her strength: “I won’t/ pull back the dirt. I won’t confess. I won’t/ regurgitate sadness—enough ghosts.” Karankawa is the evidence of the struggle to achieve that hard-won goal. It is a book that honors the dead, the past, and the history of the foundations—culture, family, memory—upon which the living build their futures, and experience their bittersweet todays. Mining the ground beneath our feet, our emotions, Iliana Rocha tells us, is the key to gratitude and inner peace. Karankawa is remarkable poetry, impactful and, despite its gravity, a joy to read.