The greatest achievement of Maria Melendez’s poem in the March/April issue of Orion is its management of reductivism: its speaker challenges the reader’s concept of what might (culturally, sexually, temporally) separate Chicana from Rilke, and thus refuses to be satisfied by revelation on the basis of those identities.
In my reckoning, the most immediate touchstone for Melendez’s piece is from Rilke’s Duino Elegies:
Nowhere, Beloved, will the world exist but within us.
Our lives are constant transformations. The external
grows ever smaller. Where a solid house once stood,
now a mental image takes its place,
almost as if it were all in the imagination.
Our era has created vast reservoirs of power,
as formless as the currents of energy they transmit.
Temples are no longer known. In our hearts
these can be secretly saved. Where one survives—
a Thing once prayed to, worshipped, knelt before—
its true nature seems already to have passed
into the Invisible. Many no longer take it for real,
and do not seize the chance to build it
inwardly, and yet more vividly, with all its pillars and statues.
Beginning here, the query ‘Am I now to build Zapotec temples within me?’ reads less as an interrogation than a good humored reflection. This is the deft pitch of the speaker throughout the piece: a mixture of personal imperatives (‘A 6,000-year-old maize garden/of the mind is my sun-worship site’) with earnestness (‘And I have built my ship of death [. . .] its fear of rank inadequacy stinks so bad’) gives texture to the touchstones of diet and architecture that those outside of this Chicana will count as ‘typical’ of the Chicana. By embracing such norms (the construction of ‘milpas’ or consumption of ‘masa’ instead of mansions or hamburgers), the speaker asks whether it is the ‘thingness’ of these items that has been exhausted, or rather our own surface association of a culture with them.
It is not sustenance that the speaker gets from the combination of ‘corn, water, [and] slaked lime,’ but ‘might.’ The ‘dreamed-of/mano of the future//becomes an interior grinding stone to scrape/the realm of concept completely’—and we see those ‘concepts’ breaking about us, as Americans embrace sushi and agave nectar, and the Chinese Project Runway.
More importantly for Melendez, the concept that is ‘scraped’ is the one sated with a Rilke that, by cultural status quo, must remain somewhat untouchable. There’s no impression that ‘each moment/[is] a metate’ for the Latin American any more than the German, nor that the earth cobbles rock in the former’s interior alone. Here is a poem working with identity poetics in a way that inherently challenges the limitations of that claque—the queer can write to Hemingway only in a way that involves longing or ire, the poet to the actor only as starstruck ogling. A few of the ‘towers,’ perhaps, the speaker in “A Chicana Writes to Rilke” has no ‘taste for.’