Monday, January 20, 2020

Poem366: “Tales from the House of Vasquez” by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland



Tales from the House of Vasquez by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

Tales from the House of Vasquez by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland, Studio City, California: Rattle, 2018

I love getting lost in a book of poetry, partly because they’re all so different. Some work their magic through flawless reasoning or beautiful words. In Tales from the House of Vasquez, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s particular magic is … magic, actually—and it makes for compelling reading.

There is the magic described in the poems—a specialized understanding carried down through generations of women—but there is also the incantatory quality of the work itself that helps to effect the numinous quality of this chapbook.

There are fourteen poems in the collection, all beginning with “The Tale of …” (“The Tale of the Serpant,” “The Tale of Kitchen Spirits,” etc.). The tales are family stories that involve mothers and aunts and grandmothers, and through them, the intelligence behind the poems comes into her own.

A prevalent symbol in the collection is the eye. Some of the Vasquez women have four of them, two in front and two in back. “The Tale of Madness” explains the story; in it, a bear visits one of the speaker’s ancestors, and the ancestor sang a song that pleased him. In exchange, the bear offered her the ability to see.

Pero señor, Inez said. I can already see.

This sort of seeing opens your other eyes.
The ones in the back of your head.

The bear explains that the back eyes offer a different kind of sight. The ancestor accepted the gift, but as the bear began to open one of her back eyes, the moon emerged and interrupted the process, and the bear could not open the second eye. The bear tells the ancestor, “One of your back eyes will see what is behind / you. And the other will see what is within you.”

The bear continues,

The madness will gather under that closed eye.
And it will be passed on to your daughter,
and her daughter, and her daughter,
until one of your daughters will not bear
it any longer. It will nearly kill her,
but she will pry the other eye open
with her bear hands, and she will see
the spines of stars.

It’s a powerful prophecy that begins to play out in the book in fascinating ways through tightly linked, mystical poems.

In these poems, madness is held in awe. “The Tale of Desire” explains that madness comes from terror:

                  … The fear that causes your spirit
to break into pieces and run into all directions,
one piece under the crook of the lily leaf,
another over the eyelid of birch.

What is so striking to me as a reader is how these fantastical, imagistic explanations of a woman’s magic seem so accurate. I believe every word of what is presented as a kind of fairy tale.

Something is happening beneath the surface of language in these poems, so that “The Tale of Kitchen Spirits” feels almost like an answer key when it says,

If you listen close, you can hear
her talk to the spirits. Sometimes
she even prays aloud, even though
the spirits have always preferred
fingers and bone.

Tales from the House of Vasquez is a small book that has big things to say, and I’m happy to have stumbled across it. The poet’s bio notes that she has another book to her credit, Dirt and Honey, and I plan to hunt it down and read it in one sitting.

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