Eric Morales-Franceschini



A little wolf’s howl:  Sara Lupita Olivares’ Migratory Sound

Migratory Sound. Sara Lupita Olivares. University of Arkansas Press, 2020. 94 pages. $16.95



Born in Puerto Rico and raised in southern Florida, Eric Morales-Franceschini is a former day laborer, US Army veteran, and community college grad who now holds a PhD from UC, Berkeley and is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia. He is the author of the chapbook, Autopsy of a Fall (Newfound 2021), winner of the 2020 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, and the scholarly book, The Epic of Cuba Libre: the mambí, mythopoetics, and liberation (under review at University of Virginia Press). His poetry and reviews have appeared at Moko, Kweli, Witness, The Rumpus, Boston Review, Tropics of Meta, and elsewhere. 

When one thinks of the pastoral (as literary or artistic referent), one thinks of the Edenic: abundance, ease, beauty, regeneration, sanctuary.  Sanctuary from the overcrowded and polluted city or sterile suburbia, the crime and anxiety, the banality and estrangement.  The pastoral, in short, is marked by the absence of such ills, its charms indebted to a world either before or outside of so-called “civilization.”

That said, when we think of the US-Mexico border, we think in anything but Edenic terms: poverty, narco-violence, the Wall, “illegals,” white militias, la Migra, precarious labor, incarcerated children.  In this regard, it is not sanctuary inasmuch as the seeking of sanctuary that the border conjures—the migratory vicissitudes of that treacherous camino from the Global South to el Norte, not least that which traverses the Sonora and Chihuahua deserts.

Winner of the 2020 Canto Mundo Poetry Prize, Sara Lupita Olivares’ Migratory Sound is a dissident articulation of the pastoral.  Hers is a poetic cartography of landscapes that are treacherous, if subtly so, and the stillness that they hauntingly possess.  In her poetry, landscapes like deserts and pastures become opaque archives where dangers, enigmas, loneliness, and forgetting lurk.  But this is not to say that such landscapes lack an idiosyncratic beauty, or that they can’t bespeak a capacity to adapt and thrive in (seemingly) inhospitable spaces.  Olivares seems to be saying that it is too easy to look at a desert or a pasture and see only barrenness or homogeneity.  She sees life and ecosystems as much as skeletal silences.  Not coincidentally, then, is her poetry inhabited with mums, poppies, finches, minnows, moss, cacti, grass, and swans.  There are no cities and scarcely any humans.  But, to be clear, hers is not a transcendentalist poetics akin to a Thoreau or a Wendell Berry.  Here there are no psalms to nature’s serenity or to the integrity of wildness.

What you’ll find is restraint, not exuberance.  Indeed, what stands out most about Olivares’ poetry is its sparsity, or rather its economy: short, punctual poems; sparingly used punctuation and capitalization; blunt or understated titles such as “Manifest,” “Hinge,” “Numbers,” “Toward,” “Tint,” “Clarities,” “Maps.”  In many respects, Migratory Sound reads like a book of haikus, that genre of economically written verse dense with wisdom.  And this is performatively consistent with her content, the deceivingly simple or innocent landscapes that are in truth complex and weighty, both historically and politically.  In its restraint, thus, her poetry possesses, in Canto Mundo judge Roberto Tejada’s words, an “elegance,” the way that an “elegant” scientific theory is that which is the simplest but nevertheless the most powerful.  

Unlike science, of course, what explanatory power Olivares’ poetry has is at the reader’s interpretive discretion.  These are not transparent poems.  Hardly.  It is a poetry that enigmatically evokes more so than socially or politically “testifies.”  That said, this reader sees in it a poetics that calls into question el Norte as sanctuary and the pastoral as Edenic.  The eponymous poem, “Migratory Sound,” does not portray an idyllic milieu.  We find dimmed colors, dead animals on the road—a “terrain,” all told, “to think abstractly of one’s body/tracing north to south and back again.”  Such bodies are usually abstract in Olivares’ collection, but occasionally they are particular, as with the woman named Guadalupe in the poem “Of Inheritance.”  Guadalupe “hated the north because it was/too blanco and she spoke little English,” and this fated her children to inherit “a kind of muteness.”  And so el Norte, that famed land of opportunity, becomes a vacant or insipid promise, a place where “The tops of the pines point/toward nothing.” 

We see this bleakness in the poem titled none other than “Pastoral.”  Herein we find a pond that is “incidental,” an orchid that is “misplaced,” “sheep’s wool that yellows.”  Nothing is as bright or as providential as it should be.  Instead, there is uncertainty, if not mystery: “at night the woods call back their animals.”  Where were they during the day, the reader wants to know?  Where did they find sanctuary or sustenance?  And it seems the only answer is nowhere—utopia, Latin etymology “no place”—or as Olivares puts it in “Glimpse,” “one’s own habitat empty.”  And which animals are called back?  If only for its numerical frequency, one might answer: birds.  No other animal is cited as often throughout the poetry.  But they are neither songbirds nor a symbol of beauty (let alone freedom) inasmuch as that quintessentially migratory animal that comes and goes as the seasons dictate, always in search of a home, a habitat.

There are other animals, too.  The closing poem, “Drawn Animals,” harks back not to birds but to the domesticated animals that populate her poetic landscapes: oxen, mules, mares, and cattle.  What is noteworthy here is that these are laboring animals, literally yoked or corralled.  In other words: someone’s property.  And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are winters, too, in Olivares’ poetry.  It’s not about a static landscape (or economy), but about, as she says in “Seasons,” “the hole in the dirt where a root is pulled.”  In other words: the uprooted peoples of Mexico, El Salvador,  Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Puerto Rico… the “free trade” and “war on drugs” refugees, the disposable bodies that have nothing left to sell but their bodies.  That said, I would wager that Olivares is not thinking in terms of proletariats—let alone revolutionary subjects—inasmuch as “bare life,” the subject as mere animal one can kill or cage with impunity.

All of which brings us to monarchs, that symbol of the Dreamers.  Monarchs are renowned for their regal beauty and for their seemingly impossible flights to and from Mexico.  They are symbolic, thus, as animals that can defy the Wall—and defy it with grace.  But they are vulnerable, too.  Without habitats and sanctuaries, they die.  But monarchs are a conspicuous absence in Olivares’ poetry, as are the two variables that best explain the migratory saga, namely capitalism and imperialism.  We might say, then, that Olivares is trying to bring us back to those places “without ideology,” where everyone and everything is (like all animals) reducible to bone.  In other words, this “little wolf” (lupita) howls a hushed, almost somber howl—and all the more unsettlingly for it.  Hers is less testimonial or transcendental than it is cartographic and existential: “How much can anyone be but without/anyone knowing.”


© The Acentos Review 2021