Guerrero, Laurie Ann. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying. South Bend, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2013. 66 pp. $15.00 (paper), $15.00 (electronic).

Reviewed by Niki Herd

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Contemporary poetry collections about war bring to mind, for me, the survivalist frame of mind that weighs the pages of Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau or the blurred lines between friend and foe in Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet. In these works we become soldiers forced to understand the physical and psychological devastation that comes with killing for country. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, too, is a collection about war, though not in the sense of traditional combat. Laurie Ann Guerrero’s first book, and winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, presents the speaker as a soldier of sorts—exposing the war between white and brown, woman and nation, poet and self.

South Texas, where we find the speaker’s grandparents working cotton fields alongside blacks, represents one of the book’s battlefields. “Lord didn’t make us to mix/with them folk, they said [. . .]” (pg. 6). “They” are the whites who have dominion over brown and black people there and in the rest of the country during the early twentieth century—a power dynamic the speaker traces back four centuries prior to Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés. Using Cortés as a metaphor, the tension between brown and white is depicted historically and in the present day with a clever poem, “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” divided into several sections throughout the book. Juxtaposed against other poems, the poem pops up like a news bulletin forcing readers to remember the savagery inflicted upon the indigenous by Europeans. In part two of the poem, the Cortés figure takes part in a modern-day poetry reading. Here, the anglo may simply question whether the speaker is married, but the line is broken in such a way as to suggest he’s making assumptions (negative) about how she procreates:

Wine-heavy, wise, gold-seeking
god, you red-headed Cortéz in a circle:
you ask about my babies, ask if they carry

___________________________one man’s name.

The poem continues:

The white hair on your chest fingers me closer,
your gold blood, gold chain, feathered serpent
in the skin of an old man: I waited for you: Wine-

___________________________heavy me, Malinchista. (pg. 11)

The reference to La Malinche is a flirty self-indictment by the speaker acknowledging the loose boundaries that can exist between enemies. More specifically, in this poem, it attests to the intermixing of blood between colonizer and colonized, a lineage shared by the poet. The sexual tension illustrated in the poem, as seen through the eyes of the speaker, roots the work in the context of the female body, another location for battle fought both in the psyche and the womb. It’s the complicated position of the speaker as both victim of and accessory to the maligned history between anglos and the indigenous that makes Guerrero’s story compelling and human.  The word victim here is used to describe the speaker as one who has endured the negative physical and psychological effects of colonization. But victimhood, in this context, is not a landscape the speaker inhabits for any significant length of time. To put it frankly, homegirl is ready to fight:

Let them rip the heart
from the fighting cock, stitch
their skins together tight to protect
the unexplored bridge.
Let them know the land, blood
that runs deep to its center.
Let them lead their brother. (pg. 19)

Them refers to the speaker’s daughters, but the lines should be seen as a call to arms for all women to take their rightful places in history and lead the good fight.

Whether represented as an aging and ailing family member, son, or new world explorer, the speaker keeps a watchful eye over the male figures in this collection who energetically remain on the periphery or, rather, serve as a backdrop that allows exploration of the feminine in incarnations from tomboy to housecleaner to rooster woman. And baby killer. The theme of women killing offspring à la Hindu goddess Kali or Medea or La Llorna as illustrated in the poems “Stray Cat,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorna,” and “Babies under the House,” runs heavily in the book and slightly brings to mind Toni Morrison’s character Sethe, from Beloved, who murders her daughter rather than watch the girl fall prey to slavers. While the poems clearly are no exhortation for women to murder their children, the act of doing so can be seen as a metaphor for resistance. Simply put, domination of Mexican culture can’t exist if the lineage ends—and women hold this power.

While the narrator doesn’t completely sacrifice her own children for the cause, she’s not against going to considerable lengths to mold them. In “The Alchemy of Mothering,” the fantastical imagery of cooking children is a metaphor for the process by which the poet arms her offspring with tools necessary not only for survival, but for triumph. Guerrero writes:

The pot boils gunmetal blue.
I hang my babies like shanks of meat,
smallest to largest. My butcher-

white apron smeared with child
mucus. A swab of sugar under the tongue
keeps their bodies from coiling

like earthworms. The toes go first.
They do not cry. Metal permeates youth

The poem ends:

It takes all my life to see their faces
this way—my hands black and burned

through to the bone and scarred
by the imprint of eyes that are my eyes.
My science is the science of war. (pg. 5)

While A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is a well-crafted work, particularly for a first book, there are poems whose form and or placement in the book were less effective. The collection begins with “Preparing the Tongue” and ends with “Birth Day”—both fourteen-line poems with similar pieces found between the two. There is nothing accidental about these works and the line length. Guerrero steers the poems with a controlled hand. Yet given the depth of history relied upon in the book, and the tensions between brown and white, male and female, the English and Spanish language, I found myself wanting the poet to go further (something she does in her upcoming book) to truly shape the poems into sonnets.

The collection ends with the aforementioned “Birth Day” followed by a Jane Austen quote (“One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it”). “Birth Day” speaks to the fortitude of women. In it Guerrero writes, “our mother-bodies protect themselves: / minerals and poems and love: stone” (pg. 62).  The poem, dedicated to Aracelis Girmay and Larissa Mercado-Lopez, with a epigraph by Cherrie Moraga (“I feel a revolution in my womb”), uses the word “teeth” twice and seems to reference Girmay’s 2007 book Teeth. The Austen quote sums up the speaker’s thoughts about the tenuous world presented in the collection. The last two pages (with the dedication, epigraph, poem, and quote) are a testament to the speaker’s literary lineage, but because Guerrero’s voice up to this point has been such a force in the collection, I do question the placement of “Birth Day” and the Austen quote at the very end. The homage seems drown out her voice and place attention on others when the strength of Guerrero’s words would have been a fitting end to the work.

Aesthetic differences of opinion aside, Guerrero wins the battle on the page and beyond. Given the reality of women in America and the ways in which female personhood is suppressed via rape, domestic violence, or policies that render the female body silent, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying is a skillfully wrought alternative narrative that situates itself in the feminist canon with poets who have written about similar topics, poets such as Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton. The poem “Early Words for My Son” exemplifies Guerrero’s entry into this meaningful landscape. It is a poem where a mother explains the choices she’s made as much as it is a manner of ars poetica. Guerrero writes:

But you should know that when we were lonely,
_and you nine, wanting me to hold you,

I just couldn’t do it with my arms. You were born male
_like I was born female, and all I’ve ever known
__is how to carry you in my teeth.

The teeth. Guerrero proves to have a poetic set sharp as knives. The poet explores issues of race and class and gender with a refreshing, complicated and fierce dexterity. Not only does A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying represent for women, but it also affirms and makes visible a history that is currently being erased and outlawed from textbooks by a number of states in the U.S. The message the poet brings is necessary; and there is no better time to hear it than now.

________________________

NIKI HERD grew up in Cleveland and received degrees in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and Antioch in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies and has been supported by organizations including the Astraea Foundation, Cave Canem, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The Language of Shedding Skin is her debut collection of poems. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.