This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
The Karankawa, as explained briefly in the foreword to Iliana Rocha’s debut poetry collection of that title (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), were a tribe of Indians who lived on the Texas gulf coast. Very little is known about them because no one bothered to study the tribe while they were still in existence. Now they are gone, and in the absence of documented facts about the tribe countless lies, false myths, invented stories, and slanderous legends have sprung up to describe them. Since we’ll never know who the Karankawa really were, they’ve become whatever any individual wants them to have been. Rocha chooses this near-mythical tribe as a totem for a collection of poems that focus on real and invented family histories, personal origins, and identities within a mixed culture. What was real and what was invented, and which is more important?
Karankawa is focused on the immediate past–the poet’s mother, father, grandmother, Texas childhood, and Latina heritage–through the lens of the sharply present–No less prominent cultural prophets as Kanye West and A$ap are invoked among others, and modern slang is peppered in throughout, along with Spanish words and phrases.
With the scattershot trajectory and organization of memory, the book moves loosely chronologically through eras and aspects of Rocha’s personal history. The book is divided into fourth parts, and the first part takes as its primary subject Rocha’s mother, a character the poet will grapple with throughout the book as a muse, a foil, both a silent and vocal teacher, a grief, a longing. Her mother’s death and the resulting grief is an open wound in the book, but one that blooms only intermittently like a fresh and fragrant loss.
grief-dog starts gnawing on the black rain boot
stuffed deep inside me”
– from Departure/Aperture, page 15
Rocha’s mother leaves a need that goes unfilled, and while it is clear from these poems her mother and their relationship had deep failings, she was nonetheless a magnetic North in Rocha’s life whose absence has left a spinning needle.
“Like the tiniest moth, when the light
of you moves,
I move to follow it.”
– from The Impossible You, page 5
Parts II of the book turns inward, focusing on Rocha’s self and developing sense of identity in adolescence, through the emotional messiness of puberty and the emerging independence of young adulthood. The best poem of this section–and one of the defining poems of the volume–is Elegy Composed of a Thousand Voices in a Bottle. This nearly stream-of-consciousness piece is speckled with Spanish and explores the cultural schizophrenia of being the child or grandchild of immigrants, particularly during the maelstrom of adolescence, trying to figure out where one belongs, which culture is home, if it is possible to be a part of both.
“¿Girl, why you trying to be white? Güera.
Sinvengüenza. The fortune cookie’s jaw cracks,
on its tongue: Remember this day, three months
from now. Mija, querida linda. Lazy daisy. You
were my first Mexican girl. ¡Mexicana, habla
– from Elegy Composed of a Thousand Voices in a Bottle, page 20
Part III continues this exploration of identity and carries it into adulthood, looking at womanhood and sexuality and what both mean in the context of being bicultural. The poet reflects on her father’s womanizing tendencies in Looking at Women, which begins like a punch to the throat with the line My father taught me how (page 39). This section is a swirl of transcendent and vulgar imagery and language, as sexuality tends to be. In one passage the poet says:
“you made love to my shoulder, gnawed
on the round bone like an apple you didn’t want
– from A Study of You, Love, page 41
while in another she references a sexual position, much like the Dirty Sanchez (From Parts of the Alphabet, page 42). In this duality of the poet’s expressed sexuality, there is a mirroring of the disparate parts of her own identity, a conflict between whom she is able to be at any one time.
Part IV of the book brings everything back to origins, returning once again to the subject of Rocha’s mother and looking also at her father and grandmother. Looking at her caretakers and progenitors now from a place of adult maturity, there is a poignant melancholy to these poems, a mercy given weight by the pain still present in its offering. This is where the poet comes from, these are the people she is made of, these are the stories she will always wrestle with and mine for clues. These poems are at points raw with the sharp ache of grief, as in the section’s first, Orgy:
“This room confirms grief as much as the uselessness of porn:
I want so many people all at once & no one at all.”
– page 51
And they are at points raw with sharp rebuke informed by her upbringing:
“Why I’ll never
turn to marriage–
‘wife’ is a wince.”
– from Self-Portrait with Headphones On, page 62
Karankawa ends with the appropriately titled Origin (page 69), in which Rocha speaks to…her mother? Herself?…and concludes with the line “Open me, you said. I did.” This is the subject of Karankawa – opening own’s cluttered history, who our parents were and were not, where we came from, what our childhoods meant, how we have been hurt, how we have been loved, and who we are when all of these things are taken into account. There is a series of five poems spread across the book all titled Creation Myth, and they ruminate on the ambiguous aspects of Rocha’s personal origins. The final such poem tells us, I want / for the hypothetical me, and concludes:
“…a lifetime of everyones
gathers around to cigar-stork-celebrate all the
ways we will surprise & disappoint.”
– page 60
We do plenty of both, as Iliana Rocha exposes in Karankawa. In the process, we might even figure out who we are.