A Home Ascribed to this World

A Review of Roberto Harrison’s Yaviza

Roberto Harrison’s newest full-length collection Yaviza (Atelos 2017) is a redolent, recurrent, and substantial mythopoetic exploration of the repercussions and continued intergenerational effects of violent colonial legacies of trauma on hemispheric histories, cultures, and languages. Yaviza  performs different poetic models.  At time the poems are droning, sprawling and relentless in a Stein-derived “continuous present,” while others are delicately light, lyrical, and meditatively concentrated.  Peppered also with Harrison’s abstract line drawings, the collection mediates historical, spiritual and philosophical concepts where the poet and the poem, the visionary and the vision, fuse.

A Milwaukee-based Panamanian American poet, Harrison is the author of several books, including Counter Daemons (Litmus, 2006), Os (subpress, 2006), bicycle (Noemi, 2015), culebra (Green Lantern, 2016) and Bridge of the World (Litmus, 2017). Yaviza takes its name from a region in southern Panama where the northern half of the Pan-American Highway ends in the Darién Gap, a large 60 mile stretch of undeveloped mountainous rainforest and swampland where road construction is virtually impossible. This liminal space between two Americas, still free from Western infrastructure and natural domination, becomes “the end of the West” (157), the pre-Columbian, pre-European site of the incantatory present. The Yaviza town and its association with the Pan-American Highway linking the Americas from Alaska to Argentina becomes the extended metaphor of the collection, as showcased in the exploratory and explanatory essay poem “tecumseh republic,” where a reimagined world of myth, animism, and sovereignty blends with a theoretical push toward an indigenous utopia centered in Panamá.

every earth
every turn
every time

spiral together, slow paced and warm.

Panamá is the only entry
and the only exit
of the Tecumseh Republic.

Panamá to and from the more northern turtle. The threshold is there (157)

Indigenous peoples, histories, cosmologies, epistemologies, and ontologies surface continually throughout the collection as an eternal recurrence uniting the material life of things: the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the forests, and natural world with the symbolist dream world of the oracle to enact “the endless disorder of origin in all directions” (102) that is the Panamanian consciousness saturating the poems. Mabila, the small fortress town which became the site of Chief Tuskaloosa’s resistance to Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, is “a psychic origin” (104) or nodal point into which and out of which the operational network of vivid and visionary consciousness collects and attracts, to transform the Mississippian mound-building culture and its heritage of languages, Chickasaw and Choctaw, into a space destabilized from “the West’s insane preoccupation with the binary and with conflict” (102), as brilliantly shown in the unnamed sequence after the red, yellow, and black pen drawing “ocean sea ocean”:

there is only a simple line
to this heart

as she welcomes
the bold rescue
of Tuscaloosa


500 years
of Mobilian Fire (31)

Mabila then becomes the site of an intentionally dislodged indigenous futurism where the reimagining of historical time is divorced from the colonial metropole and rooted firmly in the Americas. This is a collection bound, tethered and, ultimately celebratory in the natural world, so that “the land is an exorcist” (18) erasing the Western conception of time as linear history to be replaced with an indigenous reclamation of simultaneous space-time where past, present, and future fold into each other undoing or attempting to undo the historical and intergenerational trauma suffered by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as in the start of “disordered body”:

suddenly desperately awake
we dissolve the thorns

and quake off the music
from the webs
of our disease — a symbol. some provide the chaotic
allure of your mind’s unwoven reeds
forms related to the absolute end (95)

Roberto Harrison’s new collection continues his mythopoetic oeuvre into increasingly theoretical spaces, casting fresh light and interpretive possibilities on his previous work. Yaviza charts a spiritual heritage sadly covered up by the continued effects of colonialism. At once vast, minimal, and meditative, the poems are also keyed into the mathematics of computer programing, Yaviza offers a third way through the binaries of the complex and minimalist, the large and small, the continual and the infrequent. In this third way Yaviza discovers dreamlike delight.


Samuel Gilpin is a poet originally from Portland, OR, living in Las Vegas, NV, as a Black Mountain Institute Ph.D. Fellow in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A Prism Review Poetry Contest winner, he is currently serving as the Poetry Editor of Witness Magazine and Book Review Editor of Interim. A Cleveland State University First Book Award finalist, his work has appeared in various journals and magazines, most recently in Sonora ReviewOmniverse, and Colorado Review.