Book Review: KARANKAWA by Iliana Rocha

9780822963844 Karankawa
Poems by Iliana Rocha
Pitt Poetry Press, 2015
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The most striking element of Iliana Rocha’s debut poetry collection Karankawa—in addition to its lavish Día de los Muertos-inspired Betty Boop cover by sculptor Michael Brown—is that it perfectly articulates the disorienting strangeness of grief. “I hear you died as beautifully / as a yellow cloud chalked onto sidewalk, & the / grief-dog starts gnawing on the black rain boot / stuffed deep inside me,” Rocha writes in “Departure/Aperture.” This and other poems in the collection are full of those out-of-body moments we experience in the throes of our most extreme emotions.

So it seems especially appropriate that Rocha would see the story of the Karankawa Indians as indicative of these poems. She borrows the book’s epigraph from R. Edward Moore, who writes that “much of the history of the Karankawa is lost…. Making things worse, the Karankawa were favorite targets of many false myths and made up stories.” As a guiding metaphor for the collection, the Karankawa are perfect; Rocha writes these poems to memorialize bygone people and half-forgotten recollections through beautiful stories and images that don’t quite make sense. From the pop-camp tragedy “La Llorona as Andrea Yates,” with its amplification of Mexican folklore alongside American justice and images of birth arising from death, to elegiac representations of Texan cities and the poet’s dead grandmother, this collection seems a fitting tribute to the simultaneous grief, erasure, and pride that come with being Native American in the contemporary United States. In this way, it’s perhaps as much an anthem to those Native American tribes who have been expunged from history as it is to queerness, the state of Texas, and Central American culture.

Rocha also succeeds at illustrating the interstitial experiences of our lives, from puberty to coming out to living through grief, and illuminates their repetitious, cyclical, unending nature. For instance, she lets time go slack in “Coming Out” and defies our ideas of chronology when she writes:

They say, said, will surely say, they do
not, does not understand this time, sequence of
events, but who ever will, does. For a while, this
pause, pausing, much like guilt is a pause, does
not, will not, did not go anywhere, but planted,
is planting, itself into intestines, golden leaves
emerging, flirt with the wind, will flirt with other
branches, hands, will always be is, is, was.

And it’s not just time that can exist in the in-between, but people too. Rocha alludes to this when she discusses sexuality in general, but eventually chooses a drag queen to be the emblem of this threshold between realities. Her “Sonnet for Jinkx Monsoon” brings us the quip:

       I bet you fuck in
pentameter, pink-corseted confusion…
       but I cannot say
I ever wonder you as lady-naked:
I know what you’ve got going on under there.

Whether grieving, forgetting, or mixing up realities, Rocha still finds space for liberation—from empowering her ghosts to creating her own saints. Much like the Texan landscape ravaged by a hurricane, she finds herself broken and exhausted, but also transformed. “I leave & think of you leaving,” she writes, “somewhere now in the sky with me, glowing with / the earth’s invisible halo.”

The Karankawa’s enemies, not to mention the general march of American colonization, have done much to obliterate indigenous history. This is the plight, on some level, of many marginalized groups. But, as Rocha shows, some of our proudest and most powerful stories can be the ones we tell about ourselves—especially those that blend our fantasies with a vow never to go unheard.


 

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