Mortal, Ivy Alvarez

Red Morning Press, 2006. 63 pp. ISBN 9780976443926 $12


With Metis, Zeus fathered Athene, and with Demeter he fathered Persephone who became goddess of the Underworld. This Greek myth underlies a section of the poems in Ivy Alvarez’s collection Mortal. Other poems in the collection are modern-day stories, telling of the struggle between mothers and daughters and they paint vivid pictures with intriguing resonances.

Alvarez takes as her themes what might ordinarily be considered feminist topics: the birth of children, growing children, mother and daughter relationships, discovering a tumour, and the poignancy of memory. Yet there is nothing sentimental about these poems. Compassion, reflection and acceptance motivate the speaker whose unwavering gaze attests to her engagement with these subjects.

The first poem "born" sets the mood for poems to come with its movement from the image of birthing ("blood bathed my body") to the child’s "first teeth" – from a tone of pain to quiet acceptance. The last stanza thus turns attention from birth to the continuation of life:

and her gums
took my flesh
her first teeth
nipping like a cat

Comparable with a short story, the first poem in the "Demeter and Persephone" section is a prose poem called "The Abduction of Demeter", in which Alvarez’s light touch shows best:

This time it is Demeter Hades wants. He
drags her through the garden, throws her to
the ground. It opens like a mouth.

In "Demeter in the underworld", discord between this world and another, a creeping awareness of the afterlife and a mounting fear prods the story along and creates a sense of eeriness:

Demeter’s down below
—the earth is on her: a pressed flower.
A sour breath has filled the hole,

something has her by the throat.

Persephone waits for her mother and in "Persephone presses her ear to earth", we see her "mute mouth" and reddened cheeks as she "dreams of her fist pushed in that earthy mouth, / of hauling Demeter out—safe, rescued."

The poems in this section are all relatively short, so too are many of the stanzas and lines in which Alvarez refuses to embellish or dramatise her subject. A sparingly-drawn story reinforces the message of rebirth, as Demeter sleeps below the earth, waiting for her daughter to come to her aid. The last lines of the poem make us aware of the seasonal changes and the fact that new life will spring from death and decay:

A worm butts its head inside her palm’s cup,
dislodges a wheat seed, which germinates,
its thin self rising through layers and months,
so that a stalk cracks the soil, turns green, lives.

                                                ("Demeter sleeps")

The continuation of poems about Seph and Dee: "Seph growing up", "Seph and the matchbox spiders" and "mother, daughter" invite us to remember the myth. The musical qualities of these poems arises from an assemblage of sound images, whereas in Alvarez’s "linea nigra", it is based on allusions to the "one-note love song" of the unborn child and the rhythmic pulsations of birthing:

a siren sounds
and my flesh opens
you leap out
push against me
so eager to start the race
ready to win and break
that finishing line

What reconnects the speaker with nature and with a child’s development is witnessed in the scene of the child, Seph, picking up a worm in the prose poem "a memory of worms" and running after her mother. Dee remembers "falling in a pit with worms at the bottom" and screams as the worms touch her skin:

Seph loved to scare her mother in the garden by
picking up a worm with the tines of her gardening
fork and chasing her with it, the dirty-pink body
twisting on the end.

The beauty of this poem stems largely from its allusions to the relationship between mother and daughter as they play in the garden. The soft alliteration and assonance of the lines contribute to an atmosphere of hushed intimacy.

In "Seph tells Dee", Seph says "You don’t know anything about flowers" and advises Dee not to pick them: "No—don’t pick them, and be picked. / Don’t tempt fate." Chilled, detached and sorrowful, the narration continues in the present tense as the heroine develops though childhood and adolescence. But the voice of Dee is changeless. She speaks in a monotone that makes her seem almost ghostly: "when it rains here / I can pretend it’s home" ("vena cava").

Alvarez writes with the most celebratory tone in those poems which feature birth. In "to a daughter born 1920", the initial euphoria of, presumably, the poet’s mother is equated with the lines "lit by candlepower / you walk / serenaded by radio". The poem then announces "your smile / denies / the pain in your breast" and we conclude from this that the mother is seriously ill. The daughter in "to a daughter born 1948" is described as having "beehive hair glossy black / lips bee-stung in black and white". In "my first baby", the poet writes about holding someone else’s baby:

when your mother
takes you back
you point your tongue
little arrow

that is how you say goodbye

Her more lyrical poems, especially those with a nature setting, tend to be more direct. A distinctly natural reality is to be found in poems such as "the jonquil" in which the speaker is forcing a jonquil bulb "in a clear glass vase". We witness the growth of the flower in its container:

little white fringeling fingers
grow down
tipped with yellow
and move a little
below the water’s surface

Family ties and relationships, like the physical and spiritual themes, frequently overlap in Alvarez’s writing. Where illness is depicted as cutting people off from one another and their own spirituality, nature serves to connect them again. Whether through allusions to picking flowers, loving the rank air, or feeling the rain, one cannot help but feel moved by the poems in Mortal, although all of these poems make one look hard at various inter-personal relationships, particularly in the painful poem "gen", which presents a picture of a woman examining her breast:

she palpates her breast
panic sews her mouth
a grim closed pucker
this, a thin, red thread
through her life, and mine
this pain in the flesh

Everywhere in the text, there are convergences, flowings together, twistings on a common core, times, places, memories, people folded in on one another: "my skin is written / in a limited language / only natives understand" ("breast") and "her left forefinger / pulses / with the life of poppies / killing her pain" ("visit"). Making use of family stories, relationships, illness or the barrenness of a rose bush, Alvarez’s themes have a quality that feels unforced – the decades interleaved on every surface to blur and redefine the nature of life. To make more complex folds from these folded meanings is to attempt an activity which, in Alvarez’s hands, is never less than exhilarating for the reader and which mimics another kind of social order – that of experience and memory. In the poem "unwanted", we see the author as she experiences her own pain and that of the daughter she is trying to reach out to:

she fetches pad and pen
I write apologies
her distress is distant
a dropped stone in a well
and I’m at the tunnel’s end

The poems in the last part of the collection are demonstrations of the quality of Alvarez’s affection. Quality here meaning, not merely intensity, but a freedom from sentimentality and self-indulgence, a kind of achieved purity of affection recorded in a matching purity of diction, as we see in the poem "risen", where the persona sponge-baths Dee:

Dee’s chair receives her
regal and tender the green
brush against skin embroidering its
print flesh insensate
as risen dough I imagine
the yeast-smell of morphine smudges her
eyes to bruise she sits
breast bare like the belly
she once showed me smooth then scarred and waits
for my sponge to clean
her from the blood-crusts of fresh

Again, we see the stoic acceptance of the sufferer, the patience and compassion of the carer and the ties between the two people. Without punctuation or stanza breaks, the ongoing lines move the reader smoothly through the scene with perception and awareness of another human being’s frailty.

The objects of Alvarez’s affection range from babies to menstruation ("her mother shows her a ritual / with her first blood / soap and water"); from the gift of two cacti to pregnancy ("My / belly cannot curve to tightness, / my skin cannot hold a drum"). Friends and family are part of the heritage created by the quality of affection and they remain forever true in the poet’s imagination. The affection is measured (emotionally and as poetic response) by the honesty of response, of a willingness to give and to receive. In the nature poem "earth", we see how the rain gives of its abundance to the earth and the way in which the earth responds by producing new life:

the rain loves the earth by extinguishing
the sweet burn of day, smoothes the dry furrows
with wet blunt fingers, signals each visit
by taps on the door. it does not forget
to wake the buried seeds warm in their beds,
gently thrums until each pokes out a head
first yellow. darkening when the sun comes

The achievement of the poems in this collection lies in part in their counterpoising of the profoundly personal with a kind of objectivist impersonality, with the discovery of idioms in which the two can co-exist.

Mortal is a fascinating text containing a fluid sense of time, place, individual and family which generates complexes of meaning and feeling with which most readers will be able to empathise. Alvarez’s use of sentence and paragraph in her prose poems and, elsewhere, her use of stanzas, minimal punctuation, rhythm and assonance, and her ability to use both structures in a very accomplished and meaningful way, make for constantly thought-provoking reading.