It is difficult to resist the temptation to compare, if not the style of poems, then simply the location of Mary Mackey's The Sugar Zone to Elizabeth Bishop's series, Questions of Travel, written during her fifteen years in Brazil.
From Bishop's The Riverman:
They gave me a shell of cachaca/and decorated cigars./The smoke rose like mist/through the water, and our breaths/didn't make any bubbles./We drank cachaca and smoked/the green cheroots.
While Bishop may have smoked cachaca and drank potions, Mackey takes her Brazil sober. No cachaca, no ayuhaca, no substances in evidence whatsoever. Still, she is altered, moved to deeply felt observations:
From Walking Upside Down on the Other Side of the World
Quando falamos nesta cidade perdida/When we speak in this lost city/our words bubble out of our mouths/like the prayers of drowned children.
In both narratives we experience the elusive spirit of south of the Equator life; both poets are stunningly imagistic and musical and awake to topography, sociology, and the world beyond.
But there the comparison between the two accomplished authors ends.
Mackey is a visitor to Brazil, not in Bishop's mid-twentieth century when that country's indigenous culture still retained some quotient of innocence (and insularity) but rather in the third millennium, a time fraught with environmental destruction, drug trafficking and when the abandonment and orphaning of children is an epidemic, and life has been cheapened in value:
From The Night You Never Saw:
Indian women in huipiles bearing branches/of candied apples dipped in sugar dark as dried blood/families drinking mescal... you would have walked across that plaza... and found in some dark alley... scuttled with rats/some teenage girl about to cut her wrists some heroin/addict with a needle in his arm/some disappointed lover/already holding a gun to his head.
Mackey's Brazil can be strange and wonderful but more often than not is doused with a sobering dose of cold reality:
From Epidemic: "The petals of the flowers are razor blades." And "outside my window two suns/are copulating throwing shadows/that scald like acid."
Mackey also employs the use of the Portuguese freely, sometime translating immediately and others merely allowing the foreign words to just be a part of the fabric of the poem with no explanation. This technique gives one the immediacy of experience of traveling, with the very real experience of understanding and not understanding occurring simultaneously.
Mackey also travels where Bishop would not tread. After exploring the outer landscape she dives deep into the equally challenging, equally exotic inner landscape; the landscape of personal history and sexuality. The Sugar Zone includes several intimate poems about her marriage. The inclusion of these love poems are a beautiful expression of how travel can effect a marriage by giving it time and space and breathing room (as in the Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number Five,) but also how travel can stress even the best partnerships-as in the scathing "Santa Marta to Bogotá's" last stanza: "Where have we been? /where are we going? /why the fuck do you interrogate me?"
The poems in The Sugar Zone examine Brazil's multidimensionality like a crystal, examining the wonders of refracted light, the horror of graft, the rage of abuse and the disgust over the basest self-interest. Oh, and not to forget irony -- finding yourself enjoying a vacation meal of fish and beers by the beach across the street from a repair shop specializing in bullet damaged windshields.
Where The Sugar Zone is sweetest is in the poems that invoke Solange -- a mythical character. Solange makes just a few short appearances throughout the collection but her appearance is a happy bonus.
Mackey allows Solange mystery and ambiguity: Is she a friend, a traveling companion, a guide, a spiritual teacher, a shaman, a daughter, a muse? We don't know but some of the book's finest poetic moments are in the Solange pages:
Solange wants something white/a shard of bone/a broken cup/something that steams like dry ice/burns her lips/flays the palms of her hands.
And from How We Lost Solange:
They said you/had turned into a parrot/and flown into the jungle/that your legs had been eaten off/by termites/that the Kayapo found you/wrapped you in bark/made you whole again/and fed you bitter potions concocted from/dragon's blood milk of the ila, cat's claw, and lanhuiqui.
I suspect we will be hearing more about Solange, and perhaps Brazil as Mackey continues her travels to that enticing, exotic, beautiful and frightening country.
The Sugar Zone
Marsh Hawk Press, Oct. 2011
Also available at Amazon and on Kindle
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