A Review of Mikeas Sanchez’s How to Be a Good Savage and Other Poems by Nicole Yurcaba

Translated from Zoque and Spanish by Wendy Call and Shook, and published as part of Milkweed Editions’s Seedbank series, Mikeas Sanchez’s How to Be a Good Savage and Other Poems is fiercely personal, feminist, and deeply prophetic. In poems that represent the self and the collective, the speaker takes readers on a journey that explores ancestry, environmentalism, and colonialism’s generational toll.

Drawing from a well of folklore, ancient beliefs and rituals, as well as personal intimacy with one’s ancestry, the poem “Ore’yomo” is bold and feminist. Despite the “ancient voice” running through each of the poem’s sections, the poem reads like a declaration of female independence. Images of “Girl running barefoot / through the brambles” exemplify historical and contemporary female bravery. Young women who do not know their ancestral roots are called to “come sing with me / come forget what wounds us.” The restorative power of the collective rejuvenates ancestry and personal belonging as the speaker announces to a “Fearsome / old woman / knower of right and of wrong” to “Remember me when I arrive.”

Similarly, poems like “Mokaya” not only invoke the ancient as a means of self-discovery, but they also celebrate female bodies. In Mokaya, the speaker declares, “I am woman / and I celebrate every crease of my body.” Rather than despair about the creases, the speaker embraces them as places where “each tiny atom that composes me / where my hopes and doubts flow.” The body becomes a place where the speaker guards their “ancestors’ secrets” and Zoque language is given a place to exist and thrive. As the body becomes a sacred space for ancestral and linguistic remembrance, the speaker remembers a grandmother “whose wide, flowered / skirt / was always the butterflies’ and duendes’ / favorite place.” The grandmother becomes a foundation for the speaker, especially in moments “When everything falls apart / and your grief is lichen.” The speaker proclaims that the grandmother is “the northern wind that brings rain” and “the highest note of the reeds’ song / that brings back joy.” These speaker’s associations of the grandmother with the natural world not only establish the significance of nature to the Zoque, but they also challenge the patrilineal origins of the Zoque people.

“And One Day You Will Know” is a sleek poem, contemplating the nature of the soul. Phrases like “memory’s cauldrons” create a mysterious flair. A sense of destruction emerges as “a beam of light” appears “determined to burn up dawns.” Facilitating the mysterious tone is the speaker’s assertion that the “soul has no name / no connection / no return.” Futility seems unavoidable, and “And One Day You Will Know” becomes one of the collection’s more noticeably comfortless poems.

“Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers” takes an intimate look at colonialism’s cultural, linguistic, and social ramifications. Again, just as in “Mokaya,” images of the grandmother become the poem’s foundation. The grandmother is resistant to a new religion and language:

  My grandmother never learned Spanish
  was afraid of forgetting her gods
  was afraid of waking up in the morning
  having forgotten the wonders of her

The indentation of the word “lineage” establishes the importance of ancestral ties to the Zoque people. The indentation also reinforces the concept of the grandmother’s resistance to a new religion and language threatening her. The speaker juxtaposes the grandmother’s faith with Christianity by stating, “Jesus never listened to her,” “Archangel Michael never listened to her” and that her grandmother’s prayers “were sometimes blasphemies.” The speaker’s allusions to two relevant Christian as well as the reliance on the word “blasphemies” creates an even deeper understanding of the chasm between Christianity and the grandmother’s beliefs.

“Feast,” too embraces the bold, generational, feminist rebellion inherent in many of the collection’s poems. The opening lines adeptly capture this rebellion: “The subversive young woman I am / broke barriers.” The speaker describes falling “on every forbidden word.” The ancient gods appear not as saviors, but as beings “irritated by such female recklessness.” Thus, like “Mokaya,” the images of “our sisters the turtles and gophers” not only unite the speaker with the natural world, they also challenge Zoque culture’s patriarchal nature.

“We Are Millions,” a poem of cultural and ancestral defiance, also challenges colonialism and industrialization. The speaker challenges the outside world to “Come to my land” and “install your machines” which will “poison the rivers our livestock drink.” Images of power and money—the allures “of the First World”—permeate the poem’s first stanza. However, when the stanza break occurs between the first and second stanzas, a separation forms:

  Come to my land,
  install your peace-destroying
  show us pain and despair,
  bullet wounds.
  We are millions
  and we stand unafraid.

Ancestral, personal, and cultural resistance and defiance resound in the face of modernization which threatens the speaker’s ancestral lands and culture.

Thus, How to Be a Good Savage and Other Poems is not simply another poetry collection. Its pages are, notably, a means of cultural and linguistic preservation, and each and every poem is call for attention to and awareness of the cultures, beliefs, and peoples colonialism has long displaced and overshadowed.

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.