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‘I wander lush-lazy to and fro’: Five Newish Poetry Collections
Aesthetically these five books run the gamut, but together they represent the current landscape of Latina poetry in the last year or so, although what Latina represents is contested. In her collection of essays, Massacre of the Dreamers, Ana Castillo writes:
I cannot say I am a citizen of the world as Virginia Woolf, speaking as an Anglo woman born to economic means, declared herself; nor can I make the same claim to U.S. citizenship as Adrienne Rich does despite her universal feeling for humanity. As a mestizo born to the lower strata, I am treated at best as a second-class citizen, at worst, a non-entity. I am commonly perceived as a foreigner everywhere I go, including in the United States and in Mexico.” (21)
There is nothing explicit about Latino subjectivities in these poems except that they’re Latino subjectivities. Contemporary identity politics would tell us that we’re all good in that department, that race and ethnicity are invisible, but as a reader, I find emergences and signals in these work that remind me I’m a legible voice.
The Lust of Unsentimental Waters by Rosa Alcalá
Alcalá is one of my favorite contemporary poets. The Lust of Unsentimental Waters, published in September of 2012 by Shearsman Press, includes poems that starkly describe the conditions and histories that lend themselves to disparate labor conditions in the U.S. Alcalá writes in music and movement; fragments of many dictions, familiar and foreign, occupy this book. In the poem “The Translator’s Blues, she writes, “…nobody/here/but us/history.” Alcalá, who has translated work by Cecilia Vicuña and Lila Zemborain, also writes from the perspective of an intermediary who connects a private family world to the outside world. What does the artist do with that background? In the case of this second collection, Alcalá deepens her inquiry into the circumstances that come to inform the worker’s “station.” In some cases the worker is a father, (“My father’s name/lifts/the hammer/bucket/brick…” and in other cases, the worker is the speaker herself interrogating the terms of her own cultural production.
The Lust of Unsentimental Waters is a playful and rigorous book that attempts to uncover the evolving and sometimes Oz-like machinations of late capitalism. In the poem “Class,” she writes, “It’s not work/just because/you can get it.” At every juncture, a new gauntlet, another set of complexities present themselves as the speaker attempts at assimilation or ascension. At every juncture, she is wry and brilliant in her attempt to uncover where hierarchies are born.
Say That by Felecia Caton Garcia
Recently I’ve become really excited about poets like Lety Hernandez and Felecia Caton Garcia who bring a range of new dictions and syntaxes to contemporary poetry, and I’m particularly stunned at the language in Say That: it’s gorgeous. She writes, for example, “Forgive me, sister, secret keeper, winged sting,” a line that reads like a spell. Many of the poems in this collection read that way. Although the speaker is a bit weary with the world, she is still devoted to evoking it up with great tenderness.
The poems tell the story of a woman reckoning with love and devotion’s disappointments. “Because I love you,” she writes, “I have given up on the idea of love.” This push-pull is one of the book’s primary forces. I was most haunted by the poem “Lost Children,” a poem about the dream a mother has of losing her children. “Don’t worry,” she writes. “This is the worst nightmare/of all.” This collection contains many dreams—and like Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day, Days as Night—the dreams are the soul’s exposition.
A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero
Guerrero’s debut collection is winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and a work of lyric virtuosity. Her poems keenly describe the vulnerabilities of the brown female body, particularly the eros of the mother: a contested site to be sure. A group of poems located throughout the collection are called “One Man’s Name: A Colonization of the Poetic,” and serve to reify the book’s politics. “There are the men who line up ships,” (5) she writes as one of the first indictments, but the book is written as a revolt. The poems throw it back. In one poem, the speaker’s mother devours an imaginary lover. In the poem “The Alchemy of Mothering,” she hangs her babies “like shanks of meat.” (59)
A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying also describes the legacy of storytelling that represents the core of Guerrero’s poetics. In the poem “”Pinedale, CA,” she writes “Open your jaws./Let the eye of your tongue see what we have done here” reminding us that history cannot be completely disavowed.
Seven by Sheryl Luna
This long-awaited second collection, Seven, is a raw and vulnerable collection about sin, failure, and redemption in seven sections. The book’s speaker is reclaiming her self and her body from a history of abuse, and the book faithfully depicts the dramatic evolution from silence to rage to conciliation. In many of her poems, Luna deploys Old Testament tropes with a Plathian economy. In the poem “The Memory,” for example, she writes, My father shape-shifted to an animal,/but the brutal act pressed down/past my awareness, like breath and death.” (26) The language of mythos serves to heighten the symbolic effect of violence.
At the same time, this speaker acknowledges her spiritual and geographical origin, and uses that for a type of evolution that dips in and out of traditional spirituality. At the same time, because of its affinity with mythology, the book is filled with stallions, squirrels and birds. In an interview, Luna states, “Animals I suppose mirror what we ourselves are—animals. We too are at the mercy of death, suffering and life. We too are driven by instinct, the need to flee or freeze or fight when faced with trauma.”
Beneath the Halo by Celeste Mendoza
Beneath the Halo is shaped by an endearing and powerful voice—a book that touches on the cycles of poverty and abuse requires it—and Mendoza’s stubborn optimism asserts the book’s fundamental connection to redemption and to the cycles of love that work (like marriage and God) that counter the darkness of some of the narratives. The book pays particular homage to women, which makes the book a powerful feminist text. Although her mother “didn’t know who Stanton, Steinem or/Tenayuca were…” she still said “No to tradition…” The poems celebrate the resilience and power of her elders.
A sharp and honest takes on family lore, faith, and Tejano culture, the book’s best moments are the prose poems, dense with story and place. In the poem “Eden’s peach tree,” a neighbor smuggles in a tree from Mexico to the United States: “in this country/everything takes root and grows: a peach tree, a/rusted trailer, the children’s hair, the lines on her/face—even the dirt flowers.” The bleak is paired with the sublime in this dynamic new book.