There are a lot of containers in Beth Alvarado’s latest collection of essays, Anxious Attachments. From the closet in her mother-in-law’s house where the author, as a new mother, retires to cry, to the titular city in “A Town Ringed by Missiles,” Alvarado shows us boxes as though she were inviting us into the darkroom to watch the images bloom. Even the body is a box—an incubator of babies, repository of industrial chemicals, a reliquary of memory—at times closed and unknowable, at other times splayed open for any gamer or OB-GYN nurse to see.
I quit doing drugs, but I didn’t look like anybody’s mother.
Nor do the contrasting birth stories of her two children in the title essay, “Anxious Attachments,” resemble the stuff of rose-colored maternal myth. When the doctor at her daughter’s birth attempts without explanation to insert a wired electrode into her vagina as she’s strapped into the stirrups, Alvarado gave her a swift kick in the chest that knocked her almost all the way back to the wall. Rather than reactive, the violence reads as a thoughtful, if exasperated, response to not being listened to, to repeatedly being shut out of her own experience. Throughout the collection, Alvarado strives to listen, and deeply, to herself particularly as she navigates motherhood, marriage, extended family, teaching, and her creative imperative. She writes,
It is interesting to me now, nearly forty years later, that almost all of the scars on my body run along the base of my neck, thin white lines, and that one of my lessons in life, it seems to me, is to learn to connect the mind and body, to allow myself to feel. Perhaps that is true for anyone who has ever been an addict.
“Water in the Desert” starts here:
On the way home from the doctor, after the initial diagnosis, Fernando had asked me if I was OK. I wasn’t. I wanted him to stay home with me, but instead he dropped me off at the house, where I tried to grade papers while he went back to work. Later, as we were falling asleep. He said that all that afternoon, when a customer would say, ‘Thank you,’ or ‘Have a nice day,’ he’d think, ‘I have cancer.’
As a girl, I learned from my mother, who has lost her first husband in the Korean War, to encyst sorrow and bury it deep within, so this is not an essay about grief. It is an essay about water.
When their children are young, Beth and Fernando move from a “small, square house” (whose original mortgage agreement, before the author sabotages it, states that only white people can live there) to a home on the north side of Tucson, prone to flooding and also hospitable to peach trees and a thriving vegetable garden.
In the middle of the night we could hear the trains and, maybe because we had small children, I would wake up worrying about derailments and toxic spills. I was not religious, but I had an apocalyptic imagination. I grew a garden in the backyard because I wanted to be able to feed my family when civilization ended.
The epigraph to “Water in the Desert” from Craig Childs’ The Secret knowledge of Water, says, “It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen.” The water that cannot be seen below Tucson contained catastrophic levels of TCE, or trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used by the aviation industry locally from 1952 until the ‘80’s. It had made the tap water in Fernando’s childhood home effervesce. Decades later, when he is diagnosed with cancer, the exposure to TCE is not considered relevant to his condition, only his hepatitis C, despite rampant reports of cancer among Tucson residents in the affected area. Alvarado writes,
But you can’t document that which you refuse to see. Or, as they say in Spanish: No hay nadie tan sordo que él que no escucha. There is no one so deaf as he who will not listen.
Seamlessly woven into the horrors of chemical exposure, and indeed, throughout the light and dark of the rest of the collection, is Alvarado’s exceptional lyricism, expressed in her own words or deftly mined from an expansive intellectual Rolodex of literature. In “Water in the Desert,” we read from The Song of Songs, …one of the few books of the Bible that might have been written by a woman:
My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, / to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. / I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.
In Anxious Attachments, we hear both the cacophony of the large Mexican American family Alvarado marries into, and the sacred silences of the marriage itself. The book is dedicated to Fernando, and he is everywhere present. Fernando maybe most perfectly illustrates the push and pull of attachment and separation, intimacy and encroachment, and the concept and realities of containment and freedom when he returns home early on in their marriage and turns on the radio, turns on the television, and tries to take a nap in an attempt to reproduce the bizarre serenity of the noisy household. And, too, there’s quiet, as husband and wife trade plenty of hushed pillow talk, even after his death.
In other essays, memory swaps space with reportage and theory to corral to cogency current events including gun violence and borderland child incarceration, or else expose their inability to be so artfully contained. With deep intelligence, a full heart, and prose that alternately beckons like your one truthful best friend and devastates like the monsoons that sweep her beloved Tucson, Arizona, Alvarado’s Anxious Attachments opens the door to illuminate layer upon layer of gorgeous shifting landscape, interior and otherwise.