Hands That Break & Scar
by Sarah A. Chavez
Sundress Publications, 2017
Magic and the sacred, ultimately, spring from the physical. Herbs have to be set aflame or consumed, hands must be clasped together, crystals need to be charged, blood must escape a wound, and lips have to touch the skin of another in hopes of something larger, more wondrous flourishes from it all. In Hands That Break and Scar
, Sarah A. Chavez's poetry understands and hones in on this fact. Each poem here is a spell, each word building up to something so big that you can't help but feel like you're holding your breath as you go through each line of each poem; the payoff is more than worth your breath.
I think what draws me to Chavez's work is this overwhelming feeling that something's going to happen. It could be love, it could be death, it could be violence, it could be the most hilarious thing ever, or the sweetest. I don't know. But it's coming. This feeling establishes with the first line(s) of every poem, like: "I don't know how other people kill bugs, but my family used fire." Will this be funny? Scary? Both? Or how about: "On the night of my first kiss, / I was supposed to have been home / by 10 p.m. …" There's going to be something either lovely or unfulfilling, but damn if it wasn't at the cost of breaking someone's trust. Try: "The homeless man squatting / in the abandoned house next door / seemed to be building a throne / in the backyard. …" Will this be whimsical? Tragic? Because it's already both. And oh man: "Dear Carole, do you remember the time / you and I went swimming / in the middle of that lightning storm?" Chavez just has this way of setting up these promises we want to see pulled through, culling our interest and imagination to stretch themselves beyond than what we had them before we read those lines.
Chavez's poetry is at its best in these moments where the descriptions pick up details of blunt reality that also reveal something larger, grander. For example, ever have those moments where you remember something from your childhood, first nostalgically, but then you think deeper and say to yourself, "that was kinda fucked up?" or, "aw, that was so corny!" The poem "Quinceañera" begins, "Maria looked like a brown Cinderella / as the jeweled hem of her blue / satin gown skimmed the floor / of the VFW Hall on Belmont." I know exactly what that looks like, and it's gorgeous. Maybe to some degrees, it does look kinda funny, this attempt to make something sacred out of these odd pieces. But what is more magical than making a brown girl into something mythical? What is more amazing than turning something as normal as a VFW Hall into a place of ritual and transformation? There's this poem about learning to dance that has the description: "We kicked and dropped, spun, / pushed out our chests / and shook our hips and adolescent asses. …" It's a beautiful moment where two people share this human desire to pass on the art of good dancing, but it's mired in so much awkwardness ("adolescent asses"? Ha!) that it's like a dream of the first time you danced. How about this quaint description of a yard: "After all, it is a yard with common grass, / where family dogs shit and Uncle George / taught me to shoot a crossbow using a stuffed bunny for a target." What unravels from this description is this epic narrative of a yard that has survived generations and nations. Again, it's all about how Chavez compiles these descriptions to build to something bigger. I've never met Chavez, but each poem spins a narrative with these details in such a spellbinding way that I can hear a voice reading to me. It's in this narrative temperament that the magic flows through, concrete details and straight-up storytelling. I can tell you what literally happens in each poem and give you more of her words, but what I can't explain is the feeling left behind from each last line.
There's magic at work here. Maybe not in the overt sense of spells or illusions or concoctions, but in the sense that in the physical and every day, there's hope and vessels hungry for love and anger. What is sacred other than human attempts to be bigger than what we are? Chavez knows that therein lies real magic, not necessarily in the results but in the process of wanting and creating methods to access that which we cannot comprehend. Just how you burn sage, light candles, close your eyes, clear your mind, and breathe in deep to allow the divine nature of peace fill you, Chavez uses words that form lines, lines that become poems, poems that build a collection. Hands That Break and Scar
was given to us by Chavez to turn us into conduits of something bigger than ourselves, each poem leaving an impression that you'll just have to experience for yourself.
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