Literary Criticism

Reading Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton’s Cry Wolf

Like Bernard Malamud's Roy Hobbs ("The Natural") who can wield the physics of baseball with consummate skill, in fact making it look second nature, Newton, as poet, effortlessly repeats this triumph of language in poem after poem. Yet, Newton's game is of a more serious kind, leading readers into the labyrinth of human emotions and then letting them see the Minotaur.

Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton’s biography is published on the web as follows:

Spanish-born Cristina (Navazo-Eguía) Newton first published two full-length collections, La Frontera and Rutas de Largo Recorrido, in her native language, with work also included in five anthologies. She now lives in Britain, where she is learning her second poetic language. Some of her English poems have appeared in journals and found a place on the shortlists and long lists of Strokestown, Bridport and Aesthetica. In recent times, she organized the Battered Moon Poetry Competition linked to the Swindon Literature Festival. She is involved in adult education, community radio, flamenco singing and raising her three very lively children.

When confronted with Newton’s curriculum vitae, one is moved to ask: Why is this woman not doing more, like being Britain’s Goodwill Ambassador to the U.N.? I mean, we have Angelina Jolie representing the U.S., and she only acts and directs. But Newton is a gifted poet, an activist and that rarity of rarities, like Vladimir Nabokov, a successful author in her native language (Spanish) who now has repeated the feat in English, her adopted language. Like Jolie, Newton has a pack of kids and a husband, and is every bit as beautiful, not that poetry readers consider that sort of thing. She personally supports the cause of poetry at the Battered Moons Poetry Competition. Oh, yeah — she also sings and dances in performance. It is only a matter of time before Newton becomes one of the enduring faces of English poetry. Her first book, Cry Wolf (Templar Poetry 2012), is a big step in that direction.

In 2011, Newton won the Poetry London competition with her poem, “Edison Peña Runs the Six Miles,” which is not only a poem of great feeling, but also one of great sophistication and skill. It is a brilliantly realized poem about the psychology of despair and hope, with subtexts that bridge the basic human drives of hunger and sex, religious myth and existential realities.

The poem places miner Edison Peña at the bottom of a collapsed mine, riveted between delirium and his nightmarish reality. No deus ex machina intercedes on his behalf, unlike the Jonah to whom he is compared: “When he wakes up, he is still a lump in the gut of a whale/ that won’t cough up.” Here, the quality of mercy does not drop like gentle rain from heaven, for the mine is located in one of the driest places in the world. Instead, Edison is fodder for life’s most intractable reality, and many organic images are carefully sown into the poem’s substrata to underscore this point. He is described as a “lump” and “knot” in this driest and least merciful of worlds that “swallows hard.” The mine has “puckered tunnels” and a “mouth,” and is characterized as “the throat of the world” with a “dumb tum.” For his own part, Edison “dreams/ he’s eating a fistfull of sand,” an obvious play on “sandwich” that is further realized in the phrase, “then a closeup of himself/ forever finishing that bedrock and rocksalt bite” (which also refers to his work in the mine). On his forced diet of a “spoonful of tinned fish and a sip of bad milk every other day,” his “body is eating itself.” Here, unlike the food that he would eat, “Time stews slowly” and “has nowhere to go in a tumour of rock,” and so it ironically “drills holes in a man” who is a miner by trade.

Juxtaposed against these images of despair are those of hope within the “running scene” of his dream. There he sees himself “guzzling from the tap over the kitchen sink,” slaking his thirst in the locus of domesticity, whose principal icon is his wife, depicted with “washed hair” (unlike Edison’s, of course), with her warm humor reflected in the line “reminding him there are glasses/ and fondness.” In this way, Edison’s imagination and man’s ingenuity is opposed to insentient nature, the “doltish pit” and “dumb tum” of the mine. When Edison’s “run” tracks the six-mile distance from “the mouth of the mine to the mouth of his woman/ waiting at the door,” it is a feat of the imagination (a “running scene” in which, like a movie, there is a “close up”), but rendered as reality. Yet even this must end “with his face to the wall,” and thus the poem unites with the heritage of modernist poetry that confronts our inevitable end in death. “Rock” was the symbol that Wallace Stevens regularly employed as a figuration of man’s mortality, from which life’s impenetrable questions arise, so it is fitting that Newton uses it similarly here. By dreaming, Edison, like everyone, holds the existential reality of death at bay. [I am reminded of the Damien Hirst exhibit I saw at the Tate Modern in London this past summer, particularly his work, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Above all others, artists are acutely aware of our mortality and use it as a vital component of artistic creation, but more so to help us face death.]

Not just a few poems in Cry Wolf, many of which are placed in the first part of the volume so they can’t be missed, demonstrate Newton’s activism and political concerns. “Kissing” expresses the repression of political freedom through the metaphor of repressed sexual freedom; “Ivanhoe Prospections” draws attention to the Burmese military’s part in enforcing cruel labor conditions upon the workers at the Ivanhoe Copper Mine; and “Welcome to Eritrea” personalizes the sufferings of political prisoners incarcerated in shipping containers in the desert environs of Eritrea.

In “Kissing” Newton channels the profane John Donne by employing a sexual relationship in an extended metaphor that serves as a gateway to a larger picture of the world. Her dedication to Aung San Suu Kyi and the epigraph from the Song of Songs prepares us for the sexual, religious and political themes that we are about to encounter in the poem. With Donne-like wit and wordplay, the poem’s thematic counterpoint is set forth on the world stage, where the poem’s protagonist imagines herself as a serial kisser defying local laws and letting the storyline play out like a prison movie complete with escape sequence. The overt conceits, based upon the lover’s resistance to sexual repression, are so exquisitely conceived that they may disarm the casual reader and conceal the hidden thread that lies beneath the poem: the trail of oil money that supports the repression of political freedoms, particularly women’s freedom. We know from the news that the offence against these freedoms is most pronounced in the Middle Eastern Islamic world, thus the tie-in to oil. Accordingly, the reference to “forced labour on the SCOR railway line through Mon State/and the gas pipes for Total Oil” follows from Burma to “Kiss me in public in Dubai, under jet-trees of nafta oil” to “liberated France.” Total Oil is the French-owned oil giant, the second largest supplier of oil next to the U.S.’s own Gulf Oil. While France is the international face of sexual freedom, the irony is that Total Oil refrains from using its monetary influence to foster those freedoms in the poor countries from which it siphons oil, consequently abetting the suppression of the people’s rights by the government and the local military. Thus, the narrative resistance to sexual repression becomes a more potent political statement.

The other, more obvious irony is that religion is usually employed to repress women’s rights and sexual freedom, most dramatically in the Islamic countries of the Middle East (e.g., with burkhas, stoning, arranged marriages, absence of family care, educational voids, etc.), and that the Bible’s Song of Songs, which glorifies sexuality, is an undeniable part of the heritage of the Jews. [Newton is of mixed heritage, part Jewish, if we take the genealogical history recited in “Quiet Time” to be true.] Therefore, the two religions, born of the same patrimonial source, Abraham, turn out to be opposing forces in the poem, reflecting their current antagonism in the real world. The easy gliding surface of this river, then, has powerful currents underneath, as in many of Newton’s poems.

In “Welcome to Eritrea,” “Drop Dead, Bakhti,” “Blackboards” and “Everyone Who Meets Me, Meets Me on the Road,” Newton demonstrates her amazing ability to create deeply imagined poems from information derived from other sources, like journalistic news and the cinema. These ekphrastic pieces are masterworks by a first class empath. In this way, she resembles a method actor who can become completely absorbed in an original artistic work not of her own creation and then transform it into an original work of art (poetry) that exists in a dimension that is separate and apart from the original work. She brings these considerable talents to shine a light upon the plight of the oppressed, ennobling the resulting poetic work.

As many poets, she derives inspiration from her familial relationships, yet her art is always in full bloom with sentiments that are as complex as they are often conflicted. This is where she exceeds the range of the customary poetic paens and steps into the realm of a great poet. Two poems are explicitly addressed to her father, which together make out the ambivalence of her relationship: “My Father as a Child Collecting Butt Ends,” a tribute to her father’s industry in the face of extreme poverty, and “Interim,” an elegy to a still-living father who has been dead to his daughter for a long time. But “Interim” has nothing of the stiff-necked or strident jeremiad of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Instead, reinventing passive-aggressive, Newton takes her father apart gently piece by piece, a feat we witness in silent awe, both for the skill with which it is accomplished and for the control of withheld emotion. Imagining the time when she learns of her father’s death, she knows any grief will be merely contrived:

I have to brace myself for the inability to run in time
to the clumsy dress rehearsal of departure,
when we rescue wasted time and love’s kissed back to life
from under the rattle of last breath.
I’ll be useless in my exile from your warm leftovers;
they’ll be too feeble in their slender leniency
of soft fruit after picking, of fish fished.
Before the prescribed deadline of bad news,
I organise my mental homages to you:
you teaching me to wash my hands professionally;
you letting go of the bike; letting go of me
at the deep end of the pool, proving that necessity
was forced be the mother of invention. You running ahead
of my dog-bitten self, incapable of facing it.

She ends the poem, reaching a measure of rapprochement with her own sorrow and anger:

With this absurd mileage between you
– from whom I came -, and me – who came from you-,
how would I reach the derelict palace of you
in time for pressing any gentleness into your rigor mortis.
How does one live an orphan
and outlive the child we’ve been?

Newton is one of the most “natural” poets writing today. Like Bernard Malamud’s Roy Hobbs (“The Natural”) who can wield the physics of baseball with consummate skill, in fact making it look second nature, Newton, as poet, effortlessly repeats this triumph of language in poem after poem. Yet, Newton’s game is of a more serious kind, leading readers into the labyrinth of human emotions and then letting them see the Minotaur.

Even the pastoral settings of the three “Arboglyphs” have the lyric beauty and complexity of Stevens. In “Arboglyphs III” she writes

What a beautiful place to grow old
without my beloved. A republic of trees
this independent state of grazing,
the daily milking of the stars.
* * *
All but this dog that stays to my heel,
sleeps on my thigh, laps the milk from hand.
And the ewes, and the lambs. we go down
and they follow me, and I follow their hunger.
Who follows mine? . . . .

Her poems about children are among the most moving. “Chen Jie’s Sleight,” ostensibly about a “stolen child,” is simply an amazing poem. Its narrative presence (apparently the father) shifts like the ghost it seems to have become as a result of the loss of Chen Jie. But there is a mystery here, for the baby was born “in hiding,” doubtlessly because of the Chinese government’s population control which restricts couples to one child in urban areas and two children in rural areas. Therefore, Newton’s narrator, addressing himself to the tacit mother (who appears to have died in childbirth), gives us the vision of the “stolen” child’s in

the hubbub of each possible city,
the hand of each possible stranger
holding Chen Jie’s hand in a throng, telling him
you sold him, carefully shoving him
into an ever shrinking black hole.

The “sleight” is the deception of the birth, the loss of the child, and the trumped-up sale. The narrator, however, may be untrustworthy, and that may be a further “sleight” the reader has to wrestle with. The poem mesmerizes even as it deceives.

On the other hand, “Daughter” (quoted in full here) has no ulterior design except to show how vulnerable a parent is in the presence of his/her own child:

One becomes a menial chess piece
locked at an impasse outside school
in waiting for the daughter – a quince bloom
merging the heirloom charms
of continents and histories –
released with the hubbub clutches of home time.

I am pointed at, granted the honour,
and she runs into me, into my square of expectation
bringing her day away from us,
inches taller than we left her, tired of good manners
and timetables. Mine now is this thrill
of wren song, this high voltage danger

I need to carry safe and see through
past the playground, the traffic,
the time I live in.

Angelina Jolie, move over. I highly recommend Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton’s Cry Wolf.

You can purchase Cry Wolf at Templar’s website. I have also provided links to The Battered Moons Poetry Competition and Newton’s blog

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