CIENTO: 100 100-Word Love Poems

Lorna Dee Cervantes
Wings Press ($16)

by Sharon Olinka

Cynics beware: this book will stir sensual memories, and make even the most jaded reader smile. In a world full of hackneyed love poems, Lorna Dee Cervantes manages to be witty, lyrical, and wise without a trace of self pity or sentimentality. Her voice is direct and natural, like the voice of a friend. Each poem in Ciento is exactly one hundred words long; this almost creates its own form, and Cervantes plays it like a jazz clarinetist out to soar one last time before the set ends.

The first thirteen poems deal with that shadowy time before love is acknowledged, and how the speaker finds herself changing as stagnant energies dissolve. This is expressed beautifully in “100 Words On Being Done”:

I'm done with demons; dying
by the dram. I'm done
with dealing diamonds from my
hand; done doubting the way
destiny pays; done doubling up
on trouble; done with the debits
defining me, dollars dividing me;
done doing it up just
to have it undone; done
denying the outcome. I'm done.
I want bread and your red
arabesques on my neck. I
want the guards at my
borders to grant you entry.

Not only is there a clever use of alliteration, with that pounding “d” like a triumphant drum, it also signals the speaker’s release toward a new world shared with her lover. “I am radiant to imagine you,” says Cervantes in another poem.

And imagine him she does: in salmon, a geode, a full refrigerator, olive oil, a whale, heartwood, a horse, lottery tickets, and many other images. There are also homages to Lorca and Neruda. But from the very first page the reader knows how the story ends: things won't work out. The lover will be gone. In “100 Words, 100 Toys For You” the speaker says, “The villain was our own. Possibly”; in another poem, which mentions wind, there's the disturbing image of an exhausted wind-up doll. Cervantes knows every love has its crest and decline, and if there's sadness in many of the poems there's also humor and gratitude, even if the love becomes a distant memory. A generosity of spirit prevails:

I don't carry a grudge
against the government.
I have the nation of you.
I have your hands and
what they can do. I have
the heart of you—special
core of your purpose and
power. I have the gift
of your sweat stained sage,
your hummingbird's bliss,
sanctuary that you would find
in me. I don't carry
a grudge for any mortal.

Ciento is a book to cherish. Give it to your seventeen-year-old student who just fell in love, or to your grandparents, married forty years. Or when in doubt yourself about love, go to these pages. You will find a worthy voice who speaks to you.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2011/2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011/2012