Dirt and Honey
By Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Green Writer’s Press, 2018
128 pages, $14.95
Review by Tara Ballard

When I first opened Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s collection Dirt and Honey, out now from Green Writer’s Press, I confess I was hesitant of the title, a near-parallel to the Biblical phrase “milk and honey,” because of its religion-specific allusions to a preordained land and the promises of God. However, Vasquez Gilliland has given the phrase a weight of its own, instead drawing upon the fertility of women over land, of flesh over soil. She has cultivated a body of work that is entirely her own; and, in so doing, created a garden of verse that will undoubtedly flourish.

She begins the collection with a quote from activist and health advocate Katsi Cook: “Women are the first environment,” rooting the reader in the tone for every poem that follows. The included poems are organized into sections: Clay, Pollen, Honey, and Dirt, with a prologue and an epilogue, reminiscent of a novel. Through the poet’s organization, the reader is symbolically returned to our origins and relationship with the Earth, often forgotten in the busyness of our modern lives.

The speaker of these poems is a daughter, a lover, a wife, a mother, and a scribe, reflecting on women’s bodies and the challenges women face because of them. She explores the process of pregnancy and birth as one that feels exceptional and sacred. Vasquez Gilliland depicts this in many poems, one of which is titled “In the Beginning”:

In the beginning was the darkness,
and what else could it be but a womb,
not starlit oceans nor charcoal granite nor anything that could be created.
And out poured all the world,

and what else could it be but a womb:
a river of breath and legs and reeds, fingers, snow, lips.

Here, building from the collection’s epigraph, the reader is shown the genesis of all; the woman’s body is recognized for its power and everything that makes the female biology incredible, concluding with a unifying image and a confirmation: “and a whole universe poured forth from me: / how is this not a miracle”.

Through her use of imagery, Vasquez Gilliland’s poems both ground her readers in the real and lift them heavenward. She weds the tangible and intangible, the concrete and the imaginary. This is evident in poems like “From Another World:”

the curtains with a finger, see how blue
it is, that sky, like paintings of deep
sea, reminds you of unpolished lapis,
but deeper, like a blue-layered forest
with a touch of sea-green fog, so slight
you can barely smell the salt. Makes
you think of that one time you read
alien spacecrafts disguise themselves
in dark mist so we’d be looking right
at them, these not human and not gods,
or maybe both, but mistake them
for a perfect rain cloud…

Here, she stimulates through vivid innovation, weaving together the actual with the fantastic. I am reminded of the worlds created by both Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; similar to their creative work, each poem of Vasquez Gilliland’s serves as a canvas, full of color and depth. Her stanzas are a braid of daily life and the magical.

Vasquez Gilliland is indeed a storyteller, and creates a new mythology in which women are honored and given an authority not typically recognized, such as in “Exiles of the Wild Moon,” which explains natural phenomena, through tales of Amazon-like moonwomen:

Exiled from home, the moonwomen wandered and settled into
honey and gold lands, carrying with them their altars of bone, char
and wood. The moonwomen stole the secrets of metal and spent
years alchemizing armor, shields, bows, arrows. Some echo must’ve
flown back to warn them, some river mirror scry pointing the way…

The collection presents a lineage of women who have faced adversity and overcome, women who have traveled to the United States from other nations in hope of a better life or women who, over the centuries, have experienced violence because of their sex: “The body is your temple, they claim, / unless you are a woman. Then the body / is clay with breasts and holes.” This confirmation of common experience, is exemplified in the prose poem “Constellation,” where Vasquez Gilliland reclaims what has often been silenced:

Cup spiced moonlight in your palms and smooth it over this body,
where it aches, where it has bled and mourned and jumped and fled.
The light will dissolve the pieces of eggshells still stuck to the palms of
your feet. The light will settle into the turned leaves of your veins. The
light will breathe into your wounds until they glow. Until you are full of
gold shimmer stars. Until you are a constellation of womanness —

“Constellation,” as in many of Vasquez Gilliland’s poems, passes courage and healing down to multifold generations. Her work encourages, edifies, and confirms.

As the collection continues its tapestry, I am reminded of the indelible link between the present and ancient times, with the tales that have guided and preserved cultures for millennia. When I read pieces like “Las Medusas” or—one that continually strikes me—“The Fish People Created Rivers,” I am given the opportunity to revisit the significance of repetition to guide one’s memory and the folklore depicting how our world came to be. Vasquez Gilliland tells creation stories to the reader as if she recognizes a contemporary hunger, and need, for truth-seeking; as if our days filled now with newsfeeds, updates, and tweets, have turned our insides empty, and there is a search for what is real.

Vasquez Gilliland’s work is more important now than ever, as our nation marches for women and survivors of sexual abuse, marches for immigrants searching for a better life, and marches for equality. In Vasquez Gilliland’s poems, there is validation and reassurance. They tell stories of the unheard and marginalized, demonstrating a beauty and a pain that I know I have benefited from hearing. Dirt and Honey is the marriage of body and earth, a song-like promise of love and perseverance. Dirt and Honey is an important poetry collection, and I am sure I will find myself reading and meditating again on the message Vasquez Gilliland bravely shares.