Reviewed by Sadie Hoagland
University of New Mexico Press 96 pp.
A book about the West. About the Rio Grande and El Paso and the border. No, maybe more so a book about writing. A book about poets. A book about ghosts. Ray Gonzalez’s Feel Puma is all of these things and more because, as he writes, “All creatures have the power of speech.” And also because, as I’ve come to believe, Gonzalez is truly writing, to put it in his own turn of phrase. a “poetry of forgiveness.”
I am from the West, and to some extent consider myself a western writer, and so was raised in a certain “aesthetic” of the West not at all divorced from Western films. The West, we learn in these films, is a place of silence and violence. The character who talks too much inevitably meets a poor end. The landscape is unforgiving and the people even more so. It’s a brutal place, impossible to tame, and yet it must be tamed—it doesn’t get much more dire, more masculine, or more white. Gonzalez gives a nod to this version of the West in “Owning It All,” a poem notably dedicated to Bill Kittredge, wherein the speaker recounts Kittredge’s story of his grandfather’s wealthy ranch and of his own slaughtering of rattlesnakes. Kittridge’s story prompts the speaker to remember the largest rattler of his childhood and his family’s own loss of land to Pancho Villa, until he asks: “Who owns the river and the currents / on either side of writing our stories, / myths where everyone dies hating / the land but loving the earth?” As if in answer to this question, and to the tradition of violence and silence, Gonzalez speaks a breath of air and the West becomes, in the title poem, “a white / landscape marking magic with / plants and roots from the tree / of quenching silence—the notes / of the unborn.” And thus the western landscape, instead of desolate and dry, becomes fertile, storied and historied without losing any of its stark beauty.
In Feel Puma, we see the West in the repetitions of images of cottonwoods, scorpions, snakes, cacti, trees and the river, the Rio Grande. The land seems full of this magic, a place of surrealist images, as in “In My Head Is My House Unless it Rains,” where we hear “the piano outside the moon / searching for the crooked fingers of a cloud where the musician plays / during the season of atoms.” Which is not to say that the violence that seems to belong to the land isn’t there; it just isn’t central. We see Geronimo suffer over and over again, we see images of the Rio Grande: “You can hike along the now dangerous miles, / the other side of the border waiting with guns, / masked men.” The violence, then, is part of a larger story and a larger history, because this book about the West and this book about writing both have their ghosts.
Feel Puma is full of these ghosts’ stories, of healers like Cabeza de Baca and brave warriors like Crazy Horse. Outlaws like Billy the Kid haunt the speaker directly in one poem, while other ghost sightings serve as almost homages, as in “Geronimo’s Canyons” where we see Geronimo, his family slaughtered, becoming a myth, appearing as San Jeronimo, carrying into battles a rattlesnake or a Gila monster in his mouth but also sitting in “the opening to the snake den, waiting with / his leg wrapped in diamondback light.”
These ghost poems of a haunted landscape, told in almost hypnotic lyricism, somehow bleed seamlessly into the latter part of the book where we see haunted writers and artists suffering in landscapes far from the West. We see Picasso as he draws himself after his friend Apollinaire’s death: “sitting in front of the mirror, pencil and drawing pad in his hands / hair neatly combed, the look on his face reversed to meet the poet on / the other side of the glass—people asking for decades about the last / time he drew himself.” In “The Death of Gerard, July 8, 1926,” we see Jack Kerouac as he mourns his brother and grief remakes him. In “Three Poets on The Stairs,” we see three poets Larry Levis, Mark Strand and Philip Levine drunk on the stairs at a poetry conference, “distant thunder/ approaching as the three poets hesitate to meet the crowd, / Larry weeping to himself because the Colorado mountains / keep getting closer…”
It may seem that Kerouac and Crazy Horse are unrelated, or that the image of Geronimo in his grief wrapping his leg with the skin of a snake he has killed is worlds away from the image of Picasso in a hotel in Paris mourning his friend and drawing himself, but that’s where this book is at its strongest—when it shows us the interconnectedness of these worlds. Both have a place in this book because, as Gonzalez puts it in perhaps my favorite poem “If By Chance The Child Prodigy”: “The northern stars draw closer / while the galaxy becomes a cooking / pan used by a woman in a rotting / cabin on the Texas plains in 1832.”
Indeed, Gonzalez convinces us easily that we all own the West, and we all own the stories, just as we all have a place in the tradition of our greatest poets. Yet despite the open heart and accessibility of the collection, I’ll admit that the title, Feel Puma, is one that I pondered for a while. Gonzalez tells us that it comes from a quote from César Vallejo about what seems like writer’s block: “I want to write, but I feel puma.” In the title poem, Gonzales writes of a black creature looming over the “written snow,” “the hunter entangled in the trees, / unable to write what he saw.” The escape for this writer’s block, at least in this poem, is that focus on the land, when the writer “puts faith / in scorpions and birds.” Even as Gonzalez bring us so many stories of people and poets in this collection, it remains about the land. The West, finally, is cast as the silence not of death, but of the “unborn,” of the stories not yet told and where “if the child prodigy / survives the cluster bombs, let her / walk again, because bloody feet / can cross the desert without having / to rename the earth”—a potent image that comes near the end of the collection. We’ve learned by then that we don’t need that old adversarial relationship central to the Western tradition, of “hating the land,” because this is indeed a poetry of forgiveness where everyone has a story; be they The Writer with a capital “W” or the child scrambling the canyon, not to mention the grief-weary ghosts, it’s a story worth hearing. Just as Feel Puma is certainly a collection worth reading.
Sadie Hoagland is the author of Strange Children (May 18, 2021; Red Hen Press) and American Grief in Four Stages (November 1, 2019; West Virginia University Press), which earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the former editor of Quarterly West. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, Foreword Reviews, Necessary Fiction, Largehearted Boy, Alice Blue Review, The Black Herald, Mikrokosmos Journal, South Dakota Review, Sakura Review, Grist, Oyez Review, Passages North, Five Points, The Fabulist, The South Carolina Review, Writer’s Digest, Women Writers, Women’s Books, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of several fellowships and her work has earned extensive recognition, including four Pushcart Prize nominations from 2015-2018. Image Credit: Stephanie Paine.