Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review of Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]"

Barbara Jane Reyes' "[ave maria]" is written in the form of a praise poem. I view it as an attempted subversion of the form, and I think the attempt is most successful where the subversive energy is strongest. Because the poem is not a traditional narrative, but a kind of "list" poem with discrete lines that can work on their own, it is easier to read and consider each line on a line-by-line basis.

The strongest lines of "[ave maria]", mainly in the middle of the poem, have a real sexual/religious undercurrent. Lines such as "our lady of unbroken hymen," "your uterus is a blessed receptacle," "our lady of neon strip joints," "blessed mother of cholo tattoos," and "our lady of filas and lipliner" are provacative and interesting. They stand out not just because of their sexuality juxtaposed with a wild religiosity but because of their originality of language. The third and fourth stanzas are especially strong.

Some lines, mainly at the beginning of the poem, don't work as well for me, either because they venture too far into cliche or because they aren't showing me enough. Lines like "our lady who crushes serpents," "our lady of building demolition," and "our lady of crack houses" don't really provoke as much thought or emotion as the aforementioned lines. Perhaps "our lady of garbage-sifting toothless men" might have worked better as "our lady of toothless men" or "our lady of garbage-sifting men." (I'm actually not a poetry handyman in the business of rewriting poems according to my own warped vision here, but, you know, I might as well make suggestions when they come to me.)

I feel like this poem would work quite well read out loud. Especially the final (or next to last) stanza before "amen." In a spoken word venue, each line could be given a different inflection, and the strengths of the poem could be emphasized while the weaknesses skimmed over. The poem also builds energy as it goes along, which can more effectively keep the audience from drifting and thinking about their shopping lists and other places they could be.

It is never easy to write a provocative poem. I think that narrative and provocative poems are two of the hardest types of poems to write. I appreciate Reyes' "[ave maria]" for its willingness to juggle and engage in complicated themes of sex, religion, and class. The poem really does do a lot of work in a fairly small amount of space.

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