Pity the Drowned Horses
By Sheryl Luna
University of Notre Dame Press
72 pp. (hardcover and paperback)
REVIEWED BY DANIEL OLIVAS
In one of the last poems of Pity the Drowned Horses, Sheryl Luna’s richly textured debut collection, the narrator in “Las Alas” asks: “Can one return to a desolate / past, before one knew one was poor, / before the luxurious perfume?” This desperate query - which is never answered - is the fantasma that haunts every line of this book. Various identities grapple with each other seeking superiority and control: poor vs. middle class, Spanish vs. English, borderland vs. big city, atheist vs. believer, brown vs. white. In “Bullfight,” this battle is a bewildering “river / that divides me, crosses me daily like the forgotten / history of my grandmother.” The narrator has lost much of her ability to speak Spanish and “[e]ven the people I longed for, / la raza, forgot my face.” Yet she knows that her mother, who is half Jewish, suffers this same rupture of identity: “Her own lost / heritage buried in a cemetery plot.”
But in “Learning to Speak,” she admits that something must be done despite likely cultural humiliation: “I spoke / Spanish broken, tongue-heavy. I was once too proud / to speak Spanish in the barrio…. Quiero / aprender español, I whisper.” And her would-be teacher responds without words: “He smiles.” The risk is taken, and a reward received.
In the four-part poem “Woman as a River Between Borders,” we travel with the narrator from the Chihuahua Desert to the Rio Grande to the Potomac to the Vlata. Here is one world: “I rose early to wash the desert grime, watch / the unearthly flight of doves, the way pigeons / were poisoned incorrectly or how an elephant / was beaten with a stick.” And another world: “Years later I loved a blank-faced man in tweed / who drank espresso and ate bagels in a deli outside / Washington, D.C.” Here, far from home, she “lost the desert dance of blood, half-forgot / the closed copper mine, the way the border’s earth / is lead-filled and sullen.” Though this new world offers creature comforts, there is fear and remorse at losing her original, perhaps truer identity.
“It is one of those nights when you fall back into childhood,” begins the title poem, “like the breeze gentle against your half-quiet ears.” But going back to that past world brings tentative memories which shift and fade and reconfigure: “Were they imagined?” The younger self waits for the “cracked hose / to water the dying tree,” and finally “water gushes and the tree’s roots drink / the last waters, the first waters, holy waters brought down from the sky, / and you still may think of Moses and the mist like you did when you / were twelve, and may still imagine god’s waters crashing down / on the heads of your enemies yet pity the drowned horses.” Thus, one “may” be able to connect with one’s past beliefs and concerns but it is nonetheless an uncertain endeavor.
Luna’s poems have graced the pages of some of the most prestigious literary journals published today: Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Puerto del Sol, Kalliope, and many others. A native of El Paso who now teaches in Denver, she was a finalist for the National Poetry Series book awards and the Perugia Press Intro Award for women poets. With this collection, Luna won the first Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize sponsored by the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame; she has set the bar high, indeed, for future prize candidates.
Daniel Olivas is a writer living in Los Angeles. His most recent book for adults is Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press). This review first appeared in LatinoLA.