I don’t mean to alarm you. Texas is a Death-World . . . .
–mónica teresa ortiz
How does one continue to live within a “Death-World”? In her second poetry collection, winner of the 2019 Host Publications Chapbook Prize, mónica teresa ortiz explores this question in what she describes to be a study and admiration of “Mbembé’s necropolitics and . . . Flores Magón’s commitment to publishing the truth.” autobiography of a semiromantic anarchist includes twenty reportage poems, or crónicas—two sections that include seven paragraphed verses intermixed with thirteen prose poems—all titled with double virgules or what might be read as caesuras. Each caesura seems to ask the reader to take a “breath” before embarking on the next apocalyptic, technological and lovesick fascination-horrification with the buried. In a smart and lyrical introduction, Hana Masri describes the “displaced, forgotten, or erased-from-history dead speckled across the southern United States and far beyond its borders, left behind in the twinned wakes of racialized capitalism and imperialism.” ortiz’s “erased-from-history,” socio-political examinations invite readers into a legato-staccato verse that is fresh in form and woven through the real, the God-soaked and the mythical.
In section one, “the waiting room,” ortiz’s first poem, a paragraphed verse titled “/ /,” the speaker explores queerness through the lens of her mother:
. . . she did not believe / my apocalyptic visions / said it might be / the devil / but she hadn’t begun begging God / every night / for my soul / she didn’t worry then / it was only the 80s / I wasn’t gay yet / just a child / there was still hope / for something different[.]
With layered rhetoric, an immediate connection forms between the apocalypse of Northern New Mexico and the perceived apocalypse of a child’s sexuality as seen through her mother’s eyes. “. . . it might be / the devil.” This is not to say that the identity critique is one-sided. ortiz explores her subjects with articulate fairness, a child seeking to understand and accept a parent’s inability to accept.
“I possess an obsession with the apocalypse, perhaps the same healthy amount as anyone born of the Nintendo Generation . . . ,” ortiz confesses in the tenth poem of the collection, an 80s callback that challenges the reader to also consider present violence in New York and “a young white boy with a gun sitting inside a church in South Carolina[.]” For ortiz, death is an old friend, kissing her on the cheek, marking “epochs.”
“cuando llega la oscuridad / a dónde se va la luna . . . .” In the eighth poem of section two titled “sanctuary,” darkness comes where the moon goes, a return to the chiaroscuro, the lightness within the dark where the heart might flourish, perhaps. A sanctuary. ortiz departs from her original form in this section, allowing for the first time, terminal punctuation, four poems ending with periods. A single poem contemplates mass graves in Mexico and Sugar Land, Texas, ending with a question mark: “. . . are we sitting anxiously in the waiting room of extinction, popping Xanax to expedite our forgetting?” In this poem, the speaker wishes for goodness, again, for habitable communities devoid of death-makers, both the physical and silent violences perpetrated.
The last poem, a paragraphed verse, returns to original form and does not offer terminal punctuation. “do not resuscitate me / let my body crack open / like a sea of ice on Pluto . . . I only want to exist as earth and ash / my bones belong to me / even when I don’t belong / to the earth[.]” The final enjambment “I don’t belong /” recaptures the dichotomy of marginalized identity and voice in a southern landscape where the socio-politics of conservativism, capitalism and imperialism reign: “I don’t belong / to the earth[.]” This dichotomy suggests that the very body born of the earth (if one is to accept the God-soaked theologies of the land), the very body that will return to the earth (if one is to accept the practices), exists in a liminal space where the self is not sovereign over self in living or dying, and yet, expected to function within the sovereignty over both.
“Imagining politics as a form of war, we must ask: What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power?” Achille Mbembé’s quote, offered by Masri in the introduction, explores the relationship between sovereignty and power over living and dying. ortiz overlays this sovereignty on a canvas of southern heritage and immigration, were so often death is a space of the finite and depressive, but in ortiz’s language, becomes a historical roadmap for the living to better understand the present and the future. Make no mistake. She is not asking the reader to moralize the apocalyptic, but rather, she asks the reader to study it, a discourse of graves, so that the apocalyptic might provide a better pathway. In this, she seems to say, the apocalyptic need not be feared but rather respected and memorialized.
This collection is an understated powerhouse. Don’t be deceived by its twenty-nine pages or each poem’s brevity, no single poem exceeding a page. ortiz wields a wickedly perceptive discourse, each poem, a tricky little gem bursting with as much life as death and shrewd artifice that is delicious.
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeneys, DIAGRAM. Her work has won prizes, scholarship and fellowships from Johns Hopkins, American University, Aspen Writers Foundation, VCCA and Whidbey Writers and has been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, The &NOW Award, Lorian Hemingway, and Pushcart. Rae earned an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins where she teaches creative writing. She is currently an MFA student at American University, where she is recipient of the Starr and Sartwell scholarships. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency.