By Vanessa Angélica Villareal
Reviewed by Norene Cashen
Against the concrete walls and closed minds of the world, there are voices that echo. I'm afraid to imagine the silence, finality, and loss of humanity that would exist without these voices. So for that reason, among many others, I find Beast Meridian, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal's debut collection of poems, to be an essential and silence-shattering book.
Via her own life and blood, Villarreal takes readers on a creative exploration of social justice, feminism, race, and identity. All the while, she proves herself to be a poet who's unafraid to share all the things she's been holding in her heart: photos, fragments, documents, memories, recurring images, and scars.
Beast Meridian is a time capsule, a protest, and a script of dreams fused into one thing. It's a bravely personal journey if a non-linear one. The only real structure of the book comes from its division into four asymmetrical parts: "for Angelica," "An Illness of Pines," "A Halo of Beasts," and "The Way Back." The cycle is a heroine's journey through darkness into more darkness where her insights make their own light.
The poet's autobiography is central to the work here. Villareal was born to Mexican immigrant parents in the Rio Grande Valley borderlands, but that's not a beginning that moves forward in chronological order. Instead, the details of her life spiral through a racialized space characterized by exile and alienation where every word anchors the speaker to her own strength.
All the while, her vision oscillates between a life that has been painfully real and other lives vividly and powerfully imagined, sometimes through evocations of spirits, symbols, art, and archetypes. The poet's discovery of the self and its possibilities brings to mind a quote by Frida Kahlo: "I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better."
Villareal echoes this determination to see and understand herself in "Gulf Pines, or Final Assimilation Room" after Kahlo's iconic painting, "The Wounded Deer."
. . . an animal body's instinct is to survive pain and flee its
hunter the girl attached to the thrashing
creature is calm, nearly smiling another
another another of us in a hospital room
The image of the antlered woman or wild creature surfaces again and again, most notably in one of the short narratives in the collection's final section:
She is trapped in a state of night among the pines, a monstrous antlered creature wed to her grief. She canters through the woods, overcome with loneliness that manifests as flowers that burst forth from her antlers. She runs East toward the dawn, but the clouds gather their ink in the sky. No one in the white kingdom can see the girl or remember her.
The obsession with the inherent beauty, mystery, and dignity of life takes on mythic proportions in "Horned Woman Ancestor," where spiritual visions meet poverty and desolation.
I will know you by your heavy horns and two faces
to look always South as you look North
to survive this nightmare so American
where you count coins
you do not have
The deer with flowers blooming from her antlers stands in contrast against the flat hopelessness found in the poem that precedes it. "Assimilation Progress Report" is a glossary that redefines school-related terms: Gym, Physics, Texas History, English, Government, Work, and Expulsion. Inside each definition, there's a new indictment of a system that failed to truly teach or inspire. In fact, it sounds more like a prison:
lighter confiscated alternative school at morning patdown turn out pockets
Part ode, part rebirth, part paradigm shift, and part political resistance, Beast Meridian is a fearlessly rendered revelation. It enacts and documents a poet's courage and commitment to the higher truths of life, despite the towering institutions that exist to obscure them.