Nightbloom & Cenote
Nightbloom & Cenote by Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Saint Julian Press, 2018; 113 pp
Reviewed by Chloe Martinez
Leslie Contreras Schwartz’ simmering second collection, Nightbloom & Cenote, takes aim at any number of worthy targets: sexually predatory men, racial and gender stereotypes, vulnerabilities born of social and economic inequities and those of the body. Schwartz uses language to explore, expose, and rage against those vulnerabilities, as in the first poem in the collection, the striking “After her death, we find thousands of dollars in my grandmother’s curtains.” The poem moves from the image of the money that “floated out from the curtains, pouring out / like dusk,” to the reality of that incremental saving-up: “Twenty dollars from making a / wedding dress in 1952. Bills forgotten from a social / security check cashed in 1971.” At this point, we might anticipate a story of a lifetime of working while putting aside every cent to help the next generation. Instead, the poem keeps moving to show us something more complicated and more real—a woman who was both victim and perpetrator of abuses:
At ninety years old, her eyes watery and brimmed with bruises
of years she turned away from.
The eyes that hated the fat or the bony
or the beady-eyed and the whorish in every girl
The savings discovered at the start of the poem become, by its conclusion, a kind of reparations for a lifetime of cruelties; the poem itself is an even more powerful undoing of those patterns.
The first section in Nightbloom & Cenote is concerned with these multi-generational histories of violence, and with the intermingling of sexual, emotional and physical violence in the context of society and the extended family. The second section of the book narrows its focus to the body, and the embodied self, asking questions about pain, God, and motherhood. The poem “Weep holes in body” addresses illness and pain in an effort to wrest control from both:
me the knife. I will be the surgeon. I want to look at this
Beast—I want to see what it feels like in my quivering
The book’s final movement ranges more broadly in its subject matter and in its tone, and moments of solace and joy come through more strongly. In the final poems of the collection, Schwartz turns her anger into a defiant celebration of “what flaws, / what missteps have I made and kept” (“Late night”), and of the body “both real, / And unreal, made of heavy weight // And wings” (“A body made of people”).
Nightbloom & Cenote wields rage like a sword of righteousness, and shows the real power of anger expressed. But Schwartz also shows us what power we might find after the wildfire of anger and pain passes through us—a power that taunts death even as we accept mortality:
Come and take it
this suit of a body
its machine and wheels of
pain and knotted joy…
(“Come and take it”)
Chloe Martinez lives with her husband and two daughters in Claremont, CA, where she teaches on the religions of South Asia at Claremont McKenna College. She is working on a scholarly monograph and seeking a publisher for her first poetry collection. A graduate of Boston University’s Creative Writing MA and the MFA for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her poems have appeared in The Normal School, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review and elsewhere, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.