By Brian Dunlap
Originally published in Dryland
by Cynthia Guardado
January 18, 2017
World Stage Press
In Endeavor, Cynthia Guardado has penned 53 very personal poems. These poems that form her debut collection revolve around survival. The survival she discusses—surviving a misogynistic world, surviving the fear and violence of white supremacy or surviving the daily trauma of being invisible to the country at large, for example—stems from her perspective as a Salvadorian American woman from Inglewood, California.
As a woman of color Guardado understands Audre Lorde’s concept that “poetry is not a luxury.” Though Lorde, in her essay, is specifically speaking about black female poets’ needs to pen poems because it’s “a vital necessity for our existence” since it helps “form the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards our survival and change,” the concept easily applies to any female poet of color. Guardado uses this vital necessity to infuse her poems with an unshakeable rightness to her own witnessing.
In Part I and the opening poem, “How Women Grieve,” Guardado reclaims her right to:
“let it drain…
you hang onto yourself and you cup your own face
because only you can love you like this.”
She is telling the reader that she has the right to her own feelings, that the us in the poem, women of color, have this right to express themselves and their experience, to take it back from centuries of patriarchal control, of the colonization of their minds and bodies, of men and society telling women how to think, feel and how to act. For this reason, “How Women Grieve” works well as the opening poem. It allows the rest of the collection to occur.
Endeavor is broken up into five parts. Part I deals with the misogyny and sexism Guardado has personally experienced and that women continue to deal with. Part II delves into the racism, white nationalism and invisibility people of color, and especially women of color, face in this country. Part III explores what is lost, as it particularly revolves around Guardado’s very personal experiences with sex and love, through one relationship in particular. Part IV confronts the struggle of moving on, to trust again in her own believing and witnessing. In Part V, Guardado bears witness to the realization that all her previous experiences have molded her into who she has become and what she needs to do to retain that complete sense of herself.
These five parts act as the frame for Guardardo to pen her “endeavor,” where she eventually, as Lorde asserts, turns it “into more tangible action.” In Part I a poem such as “Your Daughter Beneath the Weight of a Man” reveals Guardado’s painful anger when she rhetorically asks a middle aged man a simple but damning question.
“I wonder if you’ve imagined
a 40 year old man taking your daughter to bed
the way you swallow the nectar
of this 17 year old girl.”
From these first four precise lines, words like “imagined” and “swallow” and “nectar” and “girl” used together, create their seedy context by forcing the reader to experience the nauseous feeling these young girls feel towards such men when they try to bed them. Guardado reframes the conversation.
Throughout Endeavor it’s the attention Guardado pays to her ideas and the importance she infuses her poems with that makes the collection innovative. In Part II, for example, the poem “In the Medi-Cal Food Stamps Waiting Area” opens with a powerful image that helps to state the issue of invisibility she’s exploring, bluntly.
“We are all invisible here
as we face bullet proof glass
as thick as concrete.”
In this L.A. memory, one of several in the collection, even in a city that is half Latino/a, Guardado and everyone else there, has already had their witnessing done for them. Even though these are people of color who need financial assistance, the use of the words “thick” and “concrete” illustrates the magnitude to which the government and society dehumanizes them and refuses to see them in any other way.
By exploring topics such as invisibility or the ways in which she grieves, Guardado is expressing feelings and experiences that are vitally important in shaping who she is and to the discourse surrounding people of color that Lorde said, “were not meant to survive.” Guardado does an excellent job in drawing the reader into her words and world, for them to hear the importance of why she experiences her witnessing in such oppressive and harmful ways, precisely through her unshakable rightness to her feelings.
In the poem “Scars” from Part V, Guardado is putting her ideas and feelings into tangible action.
“[S]o today I want to release
everything into words to use what I have left
to set myself free…
I renew myself/with the tenderness of words
I’ve claimed my own.”
Here is where I first noticed Endeavor coming full circle, where I thought the framing of the poems in five parts works so well. In “Scars,” Guardado explains why she writes poetry and by extension, the poem explains what she does in the entire collection. For that reason I would have preferred “Scars” to have been the final poem in the collection, rather than “Hope” whose tone and subject—the future, enduring—are more general and less personal that the rest of the collection, with the word choices to match. However, this is a relatively minor quibble in an otherwise powerful and necessary debut collection.
As Audre Lorde reminds us, “there are no new ideas…only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean.” In Endeavor, Cynthia Guardado has expressed her ideas—her witnessing—in this light, completely.