(Tolleson, AZ: Tolsun Books, 2019)
In her collection of unusually powerful utterances, Elizabeth Quiñones-Zaldaña, with only her first book, has done more for my hopes for religious feeling — a poetry of faith — than any other modern poet. The poems are full of description and characters and life events, as many of us write, yet these are not conventional modern poems. They are testaments of an average life reaching for eternal perception. They are lush, appreciative paintings of our world and our lives with a desire to break down the physical bonds of containment in favor of the spiritual essence of things.
When she sits down to write, I suppose from reading this collection, the author first acknowledges the edges and structures of her world, then seeks to dissolve those edges in favor of the eternal essence behind. This essence has many names — god, God, the dharmas, the dao, existence, the ineffable — but the poet seeks names and descriptions that show what is best and deepest and holiest in our world, without doctrine or settling simplicities.
This poetry is therefore not easy, not direct, not simple. At first blush, one hears the power of deep thoughts laid open without the clarity of simple narrative. We feel that power even as we experience considerable uncertainty as to context. The first reaction of other seekers and writers is often an interested obsession with the words — as in “What did she say?” Repeated readings yield deeper understanding, but there’s rarely easy understanding. It’s difficult to plumb bottom of her work because the author is dedicated to break down our ease in favor of her greater meaning, a broader perception. If I need to name that perception — Love, a Christian but also pan-theistic exploration of Love in life, is the closest I can come. It includes Love of children, parents, family. For example:
I Don’t Know How To Sleep
When you tell me
I don’t know how to sleep
Eye-level at my bedside
I will sit with you
Let you talk or not
Sing, pray, walk
You back when it feels right
Or scoot over and wait
For your breath to settle,
Find the way with you
The poems portray the gentle quality of closeness but also an enviable fierceness, as in this last stanza from ‘Walking to Bethlehem’ which is a poem built around Old Testament stories of Elimelech, Naomi, and Orpah:
I fear nothing that is frightening,
Coming in from outside.
My heart is turned towards you,
And from you my heart will not turn.
The poems include a Buddha-like concern for the creatures with whom we inhabit this world. There is also her uncompromising insistence on grace, as religiously conceived: “Every prophet and beggar / Is offered wonders, signals” (from the poem ‘Mercy’); “pray past venom and withdrawal / To see which branch may bear both our weight” (From the poem ‘The Visitor’).
Elizabeth Quiñones-Zaldaña is reaching through doctrinaire versions of religion or even Poetry to give us uncompromised nuggets of fine spirit. And what else can we ask of a writer? Of the people who inhabit our lives? She tells the story of families, of the immigrant American experience, of the modern seeker. By nature and impulse as a writer, I have gone in an opposite direction on almost every aesthetic choice this author makes. Yet these poems restore my faith in the contribution possible by a religious poet following her private vision in a profane age.
As this poet has grown and become more confident in her readings, there is a hypnotic sense in presentation that can send the listener to a spiritual netherworld, a better world, the world of creation. I hope she will continue in this vein and become even more conscious of the power in the aural music of her voice. Tolsun Books has done a beautiful job of consonant design here. Yet my greatest hope is for the poems and writing to come. In some ways, this poet is more akin to the writings of the young William Blake than the poets of our own era. She insists on finding the eternal in her writing, in her experience, in her life. I await the prophetic books — the vast private vision to restore the balance between spirit and flesh for our times. This is a young poet who has that capability. She has begun a path worth noting (a milestone from). She may be in the wilderness. Or she may be held up. She may even be reviled. But her readers will be inspired and take heart:
Should you find yourself
Of a common language
In cities of hostile observance
Or among their milder companions
I am with you,
Life upending death,
Wake, beloved, wake.
| | |
Bruce Isaacson earned degrees at Claremont, McKenna, Dartmouth and Brooklyn College, where he wrote a thesis for noted American poet Allen Ginsberg. His Zeitgeist Press has published over 100 books of poetry, and is often associated with the SF Cafe Babar 1980s spoken word revival. He is known in New York as a finalist in the inaugural Nuyorican Poetry Slam, and in L.A. from the 1980s-90s Hollywood Review readings. He has lived or worked in Mexico, France, Russia and Berkeley, CA. He was the first Poet Laureate of Clark County, Nevada, a community of two million souls encompassing Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Strip.