MORTAL by IVY ALVAREZ (2)JEANNINE HALL GAILEY Reviews
Mortal by Ivy Alvarez
(Red Morning Press, 2006)
Mortal, Ivy Alvarez’ first book of poetry, takes a familiar myth and destabilizes it -- Demeter, instead of Persephone, is snatched into the underworld, leaving Persephone alone and grieving. Alongside poems of mothers giving birth, a daughter struggling to come to terms with her mother’s breast cancer, and the fragile lives of flowers and insects, these mythological poems evoke a mournful and timeless struggle with mortality. The idea of matrilineage is explicit in the collection (which contains a poem of the same title;) not only the passing down of genetic factors for cancer, but the convivial sharing between generations of bodily characteristics, hope and desire, fear and struggle.
The book alternates between lyric and narrative poems, chunks of surreal prose poems next to short-lined, unpunctuated fragments. The second poem, “a memory of corn” is typical of the prose poems, setting an ominous tone for the next poem and a scene of a bucolic relationship before crisis:
“A sky blue with hysteria, roses blowsy and promiscuous, bees fat-bottomed and buzzing-it is a shaking, baking summer. Dee and Seph eat by the reservoir…Mother and daughter take a corncob each; shuck off its clothes and yellow filaments…”
Alvarez’ obvious delight with the language in these lines contrasts with the stark style and simple declarative sentences in the next poem, “Demeter and Persephone: The Abduction of Demeter,” which begins: “This time it is Demeter Hades wants…” and finishes with “The wet earth swallows. Demeter disappears. Persephone falls silent. The garden grows cold. Her mother is gone. There is only mud.”
This contrast continues throughout the book, each poem’s style and form serving a different purpose for the different speakers and storylines, different generations of mothers and daughters. The mythological poems give way to some startlingly intimate, touching poems about a speaker visiting her mother in the hospital. My favorite of these, “visit,” uses a brilliant device, changing the hospital’s sterile and forbidding scenery to that of a startling garden. “Silver-stamened needles/ stab her wrist” and “wires enclose her like roots/ sucking at the earth…” In these poems, the distance created in the surreal poems between reader and speaker disappears; immediately, we are with the speaker, experiencing the strange, hostile new home her mother lives in. Another poem that creates this intimacy is “Seph,” in which the speaker, ‘Seph’ (a winking shortened version of Persephone,) laments her inability to keep her mother’s assorted gifts of plants and her legacy, alive. Here’s the poem in whole:
“After she’s packed, Dee gives me two cacti
books, coffee, a framed degree, her fourth.
Coaxes this last gift, green blades gleaming,
dormant orchids in black pots, all leaf.
Eggshells a cracked mosaic. The whites shine.
‘Flowers in spring. They like shade,’ Dee said.
Gives me manure, blind to my panic.
Hands make their faltering awkward grab.
‘I won’t kill these’ my hollow mantra.”
In that poem, Alvarez voices every daughter’s anxiety -- that her efforts will not be enough to make her mother proud, to live up to her expectations. In the context of the other poems in the book, this anxiety is made more poignant by the fear that, no matter what the speaker does, her mother will probably not live to see whether the flower will survive or die.
This first collection follows an intricate series of characters in a confident and lush series of poems about one of the most difficult subjects a poet can tackle. I hope to see more of Alvarez’ work and look forward to hearing more of her otherworldly voices.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is the author of Becoming the Villainess from Steel Toe Books. Poems from the book were featured on NPR's The Writers Almanac and Verse Daily, and will appear in 2007's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. She helps edit The Crab Creek Review.