cover image Raft of Flame

Raft of Flame

Desirée Alvarez. Omnidawn, , $17.95 ISBN 978-1-63243-081-6

The powerful second collection from Alvarez (Devil’s Paintbrush) explores the remnants of Central American cultures after the 16th-century Spanish conquest, examining what endures and what doesn’t after plunder, colonization, and the destruction of a civilization: “Chile, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, mezcal, peyote, tomato, ocelot, tequila—the words survive months of siege, 240,000 dead in Tenoctitlán.” These objects appear alongside cultural touchstones, artifacts, and spiritual traditions: “Mija, travel the day at night, plant five fields for the maize god,/ wear a braided pelt of corn husk.” Throughout, the poet assumes the personas of different speakers, many of them figures from works of art related to Spanish conquest. She is one of Las Meninas in Velazquez’s painting, and elsewhere, an urn crafted by an indigenous woman. The speaker becomes the artist, drawing color out of the natural world: “I’m thief of sixty shades of blood, mashing/ bright beetles with mortar and pestle.” Alvarez’s images are startlingly potent: “the lavender moon guts the highway with her audacious harvest,” and her language has a distinct artistry; words are carefully and cleverly chosen, as in the opening line of a poem called “Noche Triste”: “Worship of ships now. Warship.” Alvarez brings the reader to an ancient world that is, in fact, still alive. (Mar.)