Review of Anita Endrezze's
At the Helm of Twilight

by Leslie Ullman

This is an extract from a review of five books of poetry, published in the Kenyon Review, XV, #3. The other books reviewed were South America Mi Hija by Sharon Doubiago, The Business of Fancy Dancing by Sherman Alexie, Among the Dog Eaters by Adrian Louis, and The Ice Lizard by Judith Johnson.
Anita Endrezze and Judith Johnson write very differently from one another, but each of their books touches more than occasionally on love as it challenges the self's balance and boundaries. Both poets deal only incidentally with a loved one, and more with the dynamics taking place in the self as it is marked by love, as it submits and recovers, as it plays at the heady edge of its own intactness.

Endrezze's collection, her first, is luxuriant with fragments of myth, the voices of different personae, striking visual images and always, as a backdrop, metaphors interweaving the natural world with the landscape of human emotion. Her heritage is half-European and half-Yaqui Indian; in these poems, native American sensibility manifests itself in the earthbound nature of her images and in her deep sensitivity to the rhythms of nature rather than in the subject matter. Endrezze is also a professional storyteller and a painter (one of her vivid, dreamlike paintings is the book's cover.) These abilities, which also arise from a warm, primal sensibility, surface in her beautifully visualized images and in the strong narrative movement of many poems.

Endrezze's is a voice, or vision, that constantly redefines familiar things, sure of itself at every turn but respectful of an abiding mystery. Throughout these poems Endrezze strikes arresting balances, via metaphors, between the human world and the natural world, as in these opening lines from "Calendars":

the days are circles of bread, paper-words, the light in the egg
the nights are grass-moons, volcanic glass
        the dark wine of the body
The calendar of water is lightning-flint, the dew that scars
        the iris, the bitter salt of blood

my wrist is time's turning on bone, the sinew of grace (66)

Often she seems to be translating passionate feeling directly into landscape, which allows her to speak from the very personal realm of desire and loss in such a way as to link personal dynamics to the less personal, more encompassing workings of nature. In "Searching for the One in My Dreams," she conjures the searched-for lover through a metaphor, making him more a natural force rather than a specific person: "Your name is a red branch. Your eyes have been the western twilight . . . . Though you be the only rain on a high plateau, I will find you" (26). And in "There Are Roses You've Never Given Me," she uses images of roses to honor, with particular grace, the sensual, expansive, powerful feminity of the speaker: "I carry . . . . Roses made of teeth / and threads of rain" (34-35).

Passion in Endrezze's work is enduring, yet full of ebb and flow, linked as it is with natural laws. In the example above, it has a lyrical quality, something gentle and plantlike. Elsewhere, however, passion has the heat and rankness of animal life. In a poem called "Fox-Woman Goes Man-Hunting," Endrezze's Yaqui background and her skills as a storyteller come into full play, as a fox "take[s] on the illusion of womanskin"(79) in order to find the man who killed her "kits" and to become impregnated by him so that she can have more. She hitches a ride into town and enters a bar where she sees:

. . . . the evasive eyes of gray-suited men who think they are wolves. There are hands that snap-trap the flesh in dark corners. There are the growly words that smell like old meat on the teeth of urging men. But I got savvy. I know some tricks of my own! I take the smoky light into my nails and scratch my sign on their groins. Now there's some action! (80)
Endrezze's poems are brave in their willingness to witness and accept the mutability of eros, the "geography of love" as "terra firma" ("The Mapmaker's Daughter" 13). Several poems sing out the ebb side, the loss of self, that can follow the harvest of passion:
For when I am mute
it is because your words mean too much to me
and not the sea which moves so beautifully
in my walk and not my own two hands
which convince my skin of silk.

("When I am Mute" 41)

She acknowledges the deadly shift, the loss of balance, when love alchemizes into addiction, and the body sickens like a blighted plant:
Beloved, haven't you noticed
how thin I've become?
Look how my rings fall off
gold and silver
and the way the moon shines
through my hips . . .

You don't neglect me but
in the absence of water
I'd drink my own blood.

("Twelve Love Poems" 32)

And she acknowledges marriage as no protection from, but instead as consent to, deep laws of change, which sometimes involve forays into dangerous territory; " . . . you remind me that in Danish / to get married means the same as being poisoned . . . ," she says in "Skal" (45). Ultimately she sees marriage, like any relationship fueled by so volatile a force as love, as ongoing engagement in a system of balance maintained by constant bargining and shiftings of position. Her poem "Offers" contains a striking image for this play between internal and external boundaries: "I wonder if marriage is between two people / the way the sky is between two birds?" (27).

Endrezze pays homage in this book not so much to romantic love as to eros, the force that moves the smallest cell to change, interact, and lose itself to new forms. Love, for Endrezze, both tests and nourishes the part of the self that is most porous and creative, the imagination. Her poems imply that the balance love forces us to regain over and over is nothing less than the grist for the mill of self-exploration and definition:

the circular motion of our journeying
is the radius of sky and sea, deep
territories we name
after ourselves

("The Mapmaker's Daughter" 13)

© 1993 Leslie Ullman

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