Monday, September 26, 2011
Mike Amado’s The Book of Arrows
reviewed by Alice Weiss
Mike Amado’s posthumous fifth book of poetry, The Book of Arrows, edited by Jack Scully and Nancy Grace Cunningham, gives us a chance to do two things, consider his poetry as Amada himself said, “In all its beginnings. . .its blooming. . .its endings,” and to consider his position as a poet in a community.
It is this last that I want to consider first. I never knew Mike so when Doug Holder asked me to review the Book of Arrows, one Saturday morning at Bagels with the Bards, I began asking other bards about him. Many said as a reader he was unmatched, electric, spiritual, performing so fully his empathy strengthened his listeners. He was, they said, a healer. Although a slight man when he performed his voice was deep and projected, reaching the whole room, taking on a different character with each new persona. There was a selfless quality about his projection that said, “not me, but you. . .I speak of your experience.” It seems as if he was the heart of whatever community he felt himself to be part of. As such he filled an oracular role, like Isaiah or Homer. He told us stories about ourselves and in so doing healed us.
It is in this context that I consider his poems. First the communities the poems create because to be the heart of a community is also to create it. It may be that until you hear the poet’s voice you do not even know you have a community. At its root and maybe at its most powerful, Mike’s poetry creates the one community of which we are all members: we mortals.
Mike’s mortality is a restless one. He wants “to be reborn/Reborn as a gun that shoots sound.”
He morns his friend Philip “His Body lies—But Still He Roams,” “You know I’m not a bad son [this addressing his mother], just a dead seed.” In his meditation on the Iraqi war, “Yes, dead don’t forget:/Their eyes stand open like curses.” Mortality is intimate, indeed intimately connected with his dis-ease: Life, he says
is a journey of forgetting.
"Every cough that barrels from my chest tires to erase
the ill from my body but it keeps growing.
I don’t believe in fate,
but now I remember who I am.” [Misrepresentations]
Who he is, as I have already implied, is also a matter of community, but the issue of identity, as opposed to mortality turns him back to human institutions. So his first community is his family and inextricably his connection to his Wampanoag forebears. But also to the confusion that race and color causes for him personally and for the larger community. In “I Love Rock-N-Roll…” he says “I’m playing around with colors in words/until I can find the color I own.” Mike’s narrator in the Rock-N-Roll poem begins in the middle of a dance, sister and brother in the mirror. The detail of the mirror, which doubles the number of dancers, also works as a complex metaphor for what we see. “She smiling into a coarse bristle brush,” and then the next line, “The kind my hair is too fine for,” requires us to see that the mirror is reflecting more than the dance. It’s allowing the speaker to meditate, even in all that noise and movement, on how he and his sister are different racial mixes. The lines that follow pinpoint his dilemma,
“I, like alabaster. I always thought
that I was adopted."
but the poem finds a release “both of us are day-glo under the black light, shrieking. . .”
It is through his grandmother that he is connected to the Wampanoags.
My native name is Spider Song
Spider is my guide,
a strong Medicine woman.
Spider Grandmother wove
the world and I live to sing about it; [Name]
It seems that Spider Grandmother wove more than the world; I found the two poems about his grandmother, elegies really, “6-13-1916 11-13-2006,”and “Talisman” to be among the most moving in the collection. But then there are the poems, or poetry, or Mike as word smith. “Like my Native blood,” he says, “poetry is a live fish, un-caught.”
The watchers around me are Baudelaire, Blake and Bly;
Shaman and Storyteller. Just to be alive with a found soul
is all the test I have time for.
We are bones swimming in soil-waves,
We emerge with a sunken jewel. . .[Test]
This collection tells the story of a guy who struggled mightily to express beauty in his life despite his long and desperate illness. There are some very angry poems about doctors and their failure to acknowledge his fellow humanity, much less save his life, and a few angry political poems. But what jumps out at me are the moments of simple lyricism:
He smiles in the bathroom mirror,
knows it looks cool with his safety-pin ears.
That thin sheet of paper
On a table cloth of pastel flowers.
Sitting in the kitchen, after dinner,
her voice the voice of God.
Prayer is her rock, fire, wood, and water.
Her whisper calls in the dawn.
You don’t have to hold my ashes.
Return them to the earth.
It is almost as if you can hear the drums that gave him his first artistic experience still drumming the poems past his time, here.