David Churchill, editor, The Music of the Aztecs, Pony One Dog Press, Bethesda, Maryland, 2019, ISBN: 978-0975309544, 138 pages, available at various online venues
Honest Pools: A Review of The Music of the Aztecs
The Music of the Aztecs, a poetry anthology edited by David Churchill, opens with the epigraph, “Should we too have rules, / our clothes like / robes converse / instead of us— / Or unrobed meet / in honest pools / and freely speak our hearts?” The poems of The Music of the Aztecs are honest pools.
I appreciate that this anthology is comprised of only eight contributors, with most poets offering several poems to the reader. Unlike other anthologies that permit only one to a few poems per contributor, The Music of the Aztecs allows the reader an opportunity to better know the poet and his or her style.
In the first section of poems, we meet Marianne Szlyk whose verse often walks in nature. The Summer After the Bridge Closed provides a perspective of a human-free environment. “Without hawks or humans, / birds have no need to fly” and “[t]he birds’ notes replace the rain / during this dry summer. // Yet the grass is greener” (9). A bitter truth lies behind the beauty of nature reclaiming its space; the health of the planet would be more secure without people. Nature takes care of itself and exists in peace. “Facing East at Dawn” also highlights human-less nature. Just as the light of sunrise begins to fade the stars, a lake “rests beneath the sky” (12). The personification of water dominates as the entity that should live in this space. Everything exists around and within the water. In the end, the power of the natural world is interrupted as “someone’s car rounds the curve…Its light is a fallen star.”
The speakers of Jan Claire Starkey’s poems at times become elements of nature. In “To Sleep,” cacophonous noises make way for a sort of meditation in which the speaker’s hair becomes “like sea-weed, bunches of knot-grass, flowers…” (25). Only in a state of being one with nature can the speaker find the peace for sleep. “Kingdom without Space” dives down even deeper into the connection of psyche and nature. Simultaneously in control and at the mercy of natural forces, the speaker “walk[s] on water then sink[s] in silky sand / to touch like moss / the feathery goo / of wombs and caves” (33). The poem recognizes the place of birth and death are the same, a “kingdom without spaces,” and “we are the ghosts / along for the ride.”
So aptly named “Small Gods,” John MacDonald’s section celebrates how individuals along with multiple small acts of goodness can unite for a larger purpose. “Blanket Weavers” offers an all-encompassing message in which the “weavers” who provide comfort and warmth to others are, in the end, the same people they help and are now “under a blanket / of stars” (49). The reward of kindness is immaterial; the reward is a connectivity to others.
Ethan Goffman’s “Music of the Aztecs” strikes with the reality that “[w]e will never hear Aztec music,” the sound of “flutes snaking melodies” (57). Our present is left with only impressions of who we think the Aztecs were. The Aztecs died with their perspective, and no matter how much we try to imagine or recreate experiences of the past, we can only conjure up “drums vibrating / a ghostly facsimile.”
In “Spells,” Annie Finch takes us swimming in circles with her whirlpools of words. Her language circles upon itself, mimicking a carefree swimmer or the movements of fish. The speaker must interact with nature in the right way with the right tools in order to properly communicate with and positively experience the natural world.
Similar to those of the Beat generation, Reid Baron’s poems sway with a rhythmic musicality. Within this musicality, Baron utilizes descriptions of nature and place to provide social commentary. “’Empty-headed Man’ Begins to Tank in Early Round” we stand with the speaker on an empty beach where “[g]hostly hotel structures stand and hold / [t]heir posts” (71). Later, the speaker recognizes all the emptiness and abandoned places must be “[s]ignifying something.” Whether it’s a retreat from the ability to leave busy jobs for a relaxing vacation, humanity’s slipping away from a spiritual connection to nature, or something altogether different, the starkness of the landscape and island businesses cannot be ignored. The reader know too that this emptiness is significant.
Alan Brit’s poems construct (often harsh) cityscapes in which ghosts of nature and history haunt the streets and buildings. While “[o]n cable TV two dry-cleaned / bodies embrace,” the natural world begins to dismantle the man-made world as “.38 caliber raindrops shatter / the asbestos roof & invite / eggplant’s juvenile blossoms” (88). No matter how we try to imagine nature into something else, attempt to rename it or build up barriers against it, nature is more powerful than humans who are just one tiny part of nature itself.
The anthology closes with poems by David Churchill. In “The Year I Didn’t Go to School in Ankara, Turkey,” Churchill revisits lovely memories of a different sort of education. When unused, calculus formulas will leave a brain, but impressions of “the nests of storks / on their chimneys, / empty since autumn /…dusted with snow” remain imprinted on the brain as clear as the day they were seen (99). Experience –
……………“a hundred hours staring
……………at tea urns and tambourines—
……………eighty hours in doorways—
……………twenty hours on a bench
……………in Youth Park—
……………ten hours in a train-station—
becomes identity, growing with us.
Whether harkening to more traditional forms or embracing the flexibility of free-verse, the poems of The Music of the Aztecs bare their honesty as they swim in sparkling pools of words.
© David Churchill and Lisa Stice
Lisa Stice is a poet/mother/military spouse. She is the author of two full-length collections, Permanent Change of Station (Middle West Press, 2018) and Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016), and a chapbook, Desert (Prolific Press). While it is difficult to say where home is, she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. You can learn more about her and her publications at lisastice.wordpress.com and at facebook.com/LisaSticePoet.