Cholla with magenta blooms

Count, Poetry by Valerie Martínez

Review by Leeanna T. Torres

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The University of Arizona Press | 2021 | 64 pages

 
Count, poetry by Valerie MartínezThere’s a word, a stance, used here in Nuevo México which is not easily translated, but in its best attempt refers to a deep love of people and place: querencia. Before the pandemic, I took a course taught by poet Valerie Martínez—who served as the poet laureate of Santa Fe from 2008 to 2010 and has published eight books—where she admitted to the class: “I’m always looking for that deeper querencia for myself….”

Martínez’s most recent book, Count, published in the distinguished Camino del Sol series by the University of Arizona Press, both expands and explores this notion of querencia though its scaffolding of story, science, community, and insight.

What is perhaps surprising about Martínez’s poetry here is how she draws out the local and intimate cultura of Nuevo México to speak to the larger looming climate condition impacting us all. Essentially she meets the dilemma at the micro level and then expands it to the global. For instance, she writes:

Near the La Luz trailhead, 7,032 feet, we sidestep a thicket—
Cylindropuntia imbricata. Drought tolerant, difficult to kill,
stippled with bees and magenta blooms, the spaces it fills
in the shadows of colossal boulders. We hike up, southeast,
watch a lip of brown creep up the foothills, inch by inch,
below which the green world disappears. It’s hard
not to think akin, continuous, north and south—Greenland
with its radical ice melt, the advance of the Atacama Desert—
when I hear it: a brimming, a lapping, a sequence of little roars.

When reading the numbered sections of the book-length poem that is Count, we ask: Is this a countdown to something, even though the sections begin at 1 and end at 43? The question, and tension, remain throughout.

If natural facts reflect spiritual truths, as a professor once told me, then that is just one of the truths Martínez leads readers to in Count. Sections weave between narration, poetry, science, and Indigenous storytelling, all of which lead us to the ultimate thread within this work—our damaged environment, far removed from its once-natural state:

Before I leave Miami for good I take the long ride
out to Key Biscayne for the lift of two bridges—
two high points between the Keys where the road
seems to disappear and bicycle and I float over the bay.
In the landlocked west something similar happens
on the descent toward the White House Ruins
in Canyon de Chelly—the trail narrow, the drop deep
enough to frighten, line of the rim above a ragged
circle if you spin slowly around. Both sensations
spell ancient, and beyond it and the abandoned
cliff dwellings, deserted caves, empty mansions
under the sea are simply versions of a repeating
story, and I can let go of the girl and the effort,
Professor Wanless can you blame us, we’ve had
our short time—brilliant and careless—
much will remain after our disappearance.

Martínez’s brilliance, beyond her lyrical lines, is her querencia, her deep love of people and place, which moves us to a deep longing. Through the poet’s personal narration, science, and mythic story, we also understand even more deeply the drastic impacts of climate change.

Count ends with a story of the adolescent goddess Hadanisht’é, in which her people are made by “reassembling the fragments of a disintegrating world”:

After much toil each piece—
cleaned and burnished—flashed a sliver of sunlight
by day, moonlight by night, billions of which could not
be looked at directly. In this way they learned
to be reverent and disciplined, to live on the edge
of great balance—the sum of incalculable beauty.

Can we also, in our own disintegrating world, find lasting balance and beauty? Through a powerful poetry both of sorrow and hope, Count helps us believe we can—if we are collective in our response. If we too have a deep love of people and place.

 

  

Leeanna TorresLeeanna T. Torres is a native daughter of the American Southwest, a Nuevo Méxicana who has worked as an environmental professional throughout the West since 2001. Her essays have appeared in Blue Mesa Review, High Country News, Ofrenda Magazine, and High Desert Journal. More recently, she has an essay in the 2022 anthology First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 (Torrey House Press, 2022). She is also currently at work on a creative nonfiction manuscript centered on landscape, culture, and querencia.

Header photo by AZArtist, courtesy Pixabay.

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