by Sawnie Morris
Mid-way through Valerie Martínez’s Each and Her, the poet quotes a newspaper clipping in which a young man reportedly speaks of the adrenaline high engendered by a successful shipment of drugs from Mexico to the U.S. — a high that in his reality results in the urge to “celebrate by killing women!” It is clear by then that the young man is among many at the epicenter of a pathological context. Given the resulting atrocities, how might a female poet – born and raised in the border state of New Mexico – respond?
“In this way/ could she” begins Valerie Martínez’s book-length lyric poem concerning the murder of hundreds of girls and women over the past two and half decades, many of them employed by U.S. owned maquiladoras (factories) on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexican border. Martínez employs seventy-two numbered sequence-fragments in which the speaker “enter(s) the fray/ viciously/ with Keats” and truth and beauty have it out by means of carefully end-noted documentary collage, numerical relations among fragments, and language as spare, essential, and disturbing in its revelations as the trail “two teenage boys/ and their dogs// follow…// in scraps of women’s clothes.” Martínez’s skilled deployment of repetition (the poem is punctuated by lists of the dead) and layers of cliché-defying, elegantly conceived metaphorical juxtapositions serve to link a range of concerns, including international border economics, the Rio Grande, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the landscape of art, and the landscape of the human body. Something new is suggested when we read, for example, of “three thousand maquiladoras” where workers are paid “fifty cents an hour” followed by a description of “Rivera’s girl on her knees…enormous bale of calla lilies/lifted to her back,” or when we read of the apparently ritualized mutilations of young women, their “right breasts severed/ left nipples bitten off” shoulder to shoulder with the speaker’s collaged observation of: “The assembly line/ revolution/ in commodity forms.” The Rio Grande joins the two countries of Mexico and the United States, while a jump rope held in the dark “bed-to-bed” connects the speaker and her sister, in childhood – a sister whose repeated suicide-attempts echo the international violence against women taking place at the touching place of two countries. In the house of mirrors that this book-length creation of fragments assembles, even the “and” in the title Each and Her is implicated as river, as jump rope, as link between “each” of the missing and murdered women and the “her” who is intimate – and by way of empathetic experience – our own sister, daughter, lover, mother, friend.
As is the case with many postmodern poems of resistance, we trust Each and Her in part because the speaker implicates and interrogates her own position while examining the socio-economic and cultural forces that have made the murders and their growing numbers possible. Threaded throughout are fragments depicting the speaker’s childhood, including domestic skirmishes, such as hair-pulling between the sisters and a spanking delivered by the parents, as though the poet is attempting to comprehend the entire spectrum of violence, starting with minor disagreement, in an effort to gain traction in the face of atrocity.
Included in the speaker’s catalogue of childhood experiences is the employment of a woman named Amalia. Amalia’s contribution to the speaker’s family’s economy apparently included cooking and childcare, but the last time we see her she is with the speaker’s mother, it’s “July in central Juárez,” and the speaker’s family car has broken down. The two grown women “haggle with the men/ for an engine fix,” while the speaker and her sister “huddle tight” in the car locked for their protection. The poet’s choice of the word “fix” skillfully reminds the reader of the drug cartel’s choke on the present, while the alliteration of “haggle” and “huddle” serve to emphasize the bond between the women and children.
While Amalia’s employment and relationship to the speaker’s family members serves as a counterpoint to corporate employment of Mexican labor on the far side of the Rio Grande, Martínez isn’t letting anyone off the hook. In reference to Amalia’s role, the poet doesn’t use the term “domestic worker”; rather, she employs a quote from Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex,” in the fragment that follows, to associatively take the unspoken apart:
—–“What is a domesticated woman? A female of the species? The
—–one explanation is as good as another. A woman is a woman. She
—–only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a
—–prostitute, or a human dictaphone in certain relations.”
Amalia’s eventual return to Juárez leaves the reader with another unspoken issue, presumably haunting the speaker’s own mind: is Amalia among the murdered? One imagines the assembler of these fragments searchingly turning over, in her own hands, images of the past in an effort to make coherent the present.
The image in the hands of the speaker/poet throughout the making of the poem is the rose. Roses first show up in fragment 11, which begins: “in the backyard/ all six fail to thrive” and ends with a statement of the speaker’s psycho-emotional investment in the roses: “tending them as if my life – .” The sentence is abruptly broken off, as have been the lives of at least 600 women in Juárez. It is the blight on the rose that paradoxically brings us to the core of this book whose moves ultimately mean to honor not just the slain women, but all women, and what the archetypal feminine brings to the totality of existence. One moment Martínez is effectively grafting a history of roses to statistics about the missing and murdered, the next she is deftly inserting the story of “fifty-seven-year-old/ Juan Diego// day laborer/ maker of mats” who encounters the “Blessed Mother/ Virgin Mary/ of Guadalupe,” at roadside in the desert, with the resulting miracle of fresh red roses spilling from his tilma as proof of the existence of the Holy Mother. In this way the rose is a signifier of love and protection within a story of hope, a story that is foundational to the cultural and religious realities of many of the murdered and missing young women and their families.
The most expansive moment in the poem occurs just after the poet provides an adaptation of “Veneration of the Virgin Mary,” by Michael Polsky, who draws a connection between the origins of Eve and Christ, and thereby between Adam and Mary:
—–“The means whereby Eve and Christ came into being are identical:
—–both received human nature by the power of God from one sex. At
—–first the woman (Eve) did so from a man, and thereafter the man
—–(Christ) did so from a woman.”
—–“For this reason as Adam said of Eve so can we say of Mary, and
—–through her even of Christ: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh
—–of my flesh.”
The collaged fragment, begun with conception, ends with a focus on kinship and communion in relation to a grueling martyrdom that was political in context and psycho-spiritual on a grand collective scale in results – and, in this way, prepares the reader for what follows. Martínez overwhelms the limitation she’s set up of one-page-per-fragment with the irruption of a three-page recitation of the full names of sixty-four women who, in addition to their murders, share the first name “Maria.” Thus, the anaphoric lines serve as a powerful trance-inducing dirge and suggest – by calling upon the shamanic aspects of poetry buried deep within its historical rhythms and arranging impulses –the poet’s aim and art achieved through the power of the imagination, to, as Martínez states in the final fragment, “– remake the world.”
Each and Her
The University of Arizona Press
Cover Photo: Kathy Vargas
Cover design: Leigh McDonald