Anyone keeping up with current events is no stranger to the marked body: the female body, the brown body, the liminal body. But it’s easy to forget that those markings are a site of not only danger, but of promise. For Sarah A. Chavez, the body works as a site of difference and violence, but also magic and wisdom. In Hands That Break and Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017), Chavez’s debut full-length collection, she offers us an invitation into that reality through her careful, expertly balanced meditations.
Chavez’s gaze maps the tension of identity. The first poem, “The Mexican-American Parade,” seamlessly slides into the way heritage operates as a site of potential. Standing over her as a child, her father points to the space between the Mexican and American emblems on a flag and tells her, “Esto es usted y usted debería estar orgulloso” (“this is you and you should be proud”). And Chavez is.
But nothing is one-dimensional, as Chavez reminds us with her keen awareness that she inhabits both worlds, in that space where her Mexican and American heritages overlap. Dissecting herself as a daughter of two cultures in “Heredity,” Chavez proclaims “the only thing left for me to claim is this vigilant tongue.”
In “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly,” the speaker watches the classic Western film with her father, where she learns how American society depicts Hispanic people:
I point to the screen
and say that Tuco looks
a lot like Uncle Emanuel.
That’s the ugly, my dad smirks—
my first lesson in understanding
that even in our house,
Blondie is always the good one.
That they can only find representation of themselves in the villain is reflective of typical depictions of minorities in our culture. However, Chavez reminds us of what we already know—how wrong this depiction is—when the father smirks, as if to say “That’s how they see us, anyway.”
Chavez’s careful separation of appearances and truth keeps us grounded through tougher subjects. Growing up Catholic, the theme of childhood mischief extends into religious connotations of female disobedience when the speaker’s younger sister ruptures a pomegranate with her explorative groping in “Temptation,” the seeds spilling out as “tiny bombs of blood.” This spirited desire to break out of containment is echoed in “Thirteen and Catholic,” when speaker first has stirrings of sexual pleasure:
_________________________________________As my nipples
harden and warmth begins to bloom between my thighs,
I try to remember if this is a mortal or venial sin, and cant [.]
This struggle between society and the bodies of young women revs up to feminist awareness in “Doing Laundry,” when growing breasts leads to patriarchal attempts to discipline her corporeality at school:
the video where a priest explained that breasts led
to sex with boys, and sex was a sin God punished
with pregnancy. My cousin Angelica got pregnant
when she was fourteen, and her feet swelled so big
she couldn’t wear her Adidas anymore.
With characteristic dry humor, Chavez captures the teenage woe of not fitting into trendy footwear while experiencing divine punishment. This is another keen example of Chavez’s knack for liminal inhabitance; the space between adolescence and womanhood is beleaguered not only by life-changing responsibility, but by the humiliation of not looking cool while transitioning into motherhood. As the poem continues, its dark narrative underpinnings explore how women are taught to feel confined by becoming mothers; in the circular logic wherein an extended punishment operates as its own reward, we can’t be surprised when the speaker tries to shove off those expectations after her friend complements her skills for domestic chores:
I stayed home, did as I was told. I’m never going to be a mother, I said,
knowing neither she, nor anyone else, would believe me.
This fatalistic push toward the roles of mother and wife coupled with the hunger for adult freedom is a duality that will be familiar to women of all heritages. While practicing dancing with her female friend in “Quinceañera” the friend’s father arrives unexpectedly. Laughing sadly he pleads, “Don’t try to grow up too fast, / mija, […] My heart couldn’t take it,” a confirmation that the young speaker is convincingly “practicing for later,” as her grandmother describes the faux-nuptial ritual of the quinceañera celebration.
Not long after this, the book plunges into the hardening realizations of adulthood: the speaker becomes a waitress whose coworker gets mugged. As with most of Chavez’s poems, there is a surprise embedded in the end, the moment when the speaker reveals she feels she has nothing to lose so she arms herself with nothing more than a defiant stare.
Her façade of toughness is part of the way Chavez’s adulthood shakes off expectations of gender in embodying masculinity. In “Waiting for the Bus,” she pines “I miss feeling capable,” comparing herself to the male laborers who watch her. The speaker feels exposed in her summer-wear, reminding us how she was raised to see women as passive recipients of shame and childbearing. The men who ogle her have no idea she too “used to do what they do— / lift and pull, pound the sidewalk / in work-boots and ripped jeans[.]” To these men, her strength is invisible.
But Chavez is quick to complicate this expectation of the working body as well. In “Working with Tyrell at Uncle Harry’s Bagels,” she reminds us that the strife of being a have-not scraping by in a service job to the haves isn’t without its charms. When gag gifts are exchanged at a Christmas party at work, we witness how hard the speaker and her peers work to enjoy the gag itself:
He and Jesse chipped in
and bought me a lacy, pink-trimmed
Victoria Secret camisole and matching thong.
“Hold it up, girl. Hold it up for everyone to see,”
Tyrell shouted when I looked up, confused,
from the contents of the meticulously wrapped
box, its gold satin bow drooping unevenly.
The hilarity of this moment—its absurdity, the mockery of gender, the intimacy between coworkers—forces us to enjoy the laugh alongside those who pride themselves as able to laugh at anything and because of that, to relish deeply “what little we had for ourselves.”
Chavez knows how to reel us in and keep our attention as she unpacks the complexities of life and the textures of one’s identity. She is at once outsider and insider, hero and storyteller, a woman who does hard work, a Mexican-American. In these poems, the body is the site of that beautiful capacity for liminality; a way to transcend our fixed ideas about identity while at once anchoring the histories of our bodies where those notions of identity come from to begin with. In the middle of a continuum where the body can be hard enough to break things or soft enough to simply lie scarred, Chavez shows us poetry where one can enter the fray between strength and vulnerability without being lost or erased.