Shoot the Message

Maricopa's Margo Tamez pushes an environmental agenda in her poetry debut.

For reasons beyond this critic's understanding, Margo Tamez's debut poetry collection, Naked Wanting, is clothed in the cumbersome trappings of ecology.

"Tamez affirms our natural love of life" is just one of many sentimental statements adorning the book jacket and its accompanying news release. Am I alone in adhering to the notion that poetry should not affirm anything and challenge everything?

In any case, such affirmations call into question what effects a contemporary poet should strive to achieve. The phrase "preaching to the converted" is used to criticize artists who are disinterested in provoking their audience. As a convert, however, I find that a little preaching now and then acts like a balm on my bruised and battered faith--in God, (wo)man and nature. After all, faith is a slender lifeline, a fragile state of mind. For instance, we didn't all line up to watch Bowling for Columbine because of its revelations; we paid to watch things we already suspected but were too afraid to ask. Indeed, we nakedly wanted to restore our faith in the knowledge that guns--and people--make for a diabolical combination.

Tamez doesn't restore my faith in environmental issues. At her best, though, she asks questions I've been too fearful to entertain. In "Inhaling Two Worlds," she makes driving a horrifying, existential feat. Pregnant, the speaker of this poem finds herself slipping into the maw of the technology:

Black rubber, the tires melt the morning.
I'm gummed to this machine--
wires, axles, hot oil in its gut.
I move into traffic, but want
to hear music of mallows. Courageous
And wild. I want forgiving strokes
I've felt lying on the sweet grass, its mesh
with my hair. I'd rather be picking young peas
off the trellis, eating them
sweet with life.

The gases from the street infect me;
all I am is unthreading.
Where I enter the pavement
every traffic light stalls.

The hard, ironic note at the end is like a gavel strike, bringing the courthouse to order. How is it that these things designed to make our lives easier instead keep us grid-locked and miserable? Tamez believes it's because we've disconnected ourselves from nature. I suspect she's right. And I enjoy this poem, because it challenges me with the idea that we are infected by the very things we hoped would vaccinate us. Technology never cures misery, pain and death. It only makes these things stronger, more palpable.

"Limp Strings," meanwhile, is one of the few poems that uses humor to convey its poignancy and to laugh at motherhood--in particular the chore of breast feeding--in all its ruination:

I see myself like a Mad Magazine cartoon,
a distorted body,
when you know it's the mind
that is the real subject.
When telling stories, I refer to my boobs
as two long strings
to cheer myself.
If I didn't wear a shirt to conceal them,
they would flap like shoestrings
in the monsoon winds of August.
My husband hears and watches me say this.
Roll his eyes.
He likes flapjacks.

But the most unforgettable moments in Naked Wanting come when the speaker probes nature to uncover its dark mysteries. In "The Lightness," while collecting some wormwood seeds on the farm, she encounters a spider's web, where

Crisp pin leaves,
tentative on spun ladders, spiral past
the one dry body,
its soul without imprint.

Only its frame and a broken wing
are enmeshed and hang
by near-invisible strands.

The death of a fly is the Mother of Beauty? If so, it's the kind of lovely post-mortem that only someone like Hannibal Lecter can render.

There are other heart-stopping moments, other little nightmares, like "A Speed Zone, Inside Out," the collection's highlight. Here, the speaker encounters a dying raven. But unlike other found-a-wounded-animal-in-the road poems, the speaker does the unthinkable, performing some weird Aztec ritual. She rips the bird's wings off and pulls out its heart, "the exquisite part./One she believed to be a sanctuary."

Sure, there are missteps. Lines like "I see a possible earth./One that we love./Where we are liable/for the damages/freighted on her" smack of undergraduate sentimentality. (Curiously, the weakest poems are those that were originally published in literary magazines like The Missouri Review.) But these are few and far between the larger greatness that Tamez offers.

Indeed, Naked Wanting is a book we hunger for and yearn to wrap around us like a blanket, safe in the knowledge that while the world deadens us, poetry keeps our spirits alive.