Po­ems of iden­tity and ex­pe­ri­ence

A roundup of new verse

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

IN four re­cent books of po­etry with New Mex­ico ties, the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal min­gle freely, and iden­tity is in­sep­a­ra­ble from ex­pe­ri­ence. I am not well Haven’t been for some time now but I dis­guise the dis­ease with th­ese 180 col­ors of eye­shadow in pal­ettes paint my­self fab­u­lous for you I make the break­age beau­ti­ful Ebony Isis Booth writes th­ese lines in “Sui­cide Note from God,” a poem from her de­but col­lec­tion, Grin­ning &

Bare, pub­lished by West End Press. Booth lives in Al­bu­querque and is the founder of Burque Noir, a mul­ti­me­dia show­case for African-Amer­i­can artists in Al­bu­querque that cel­e­brates black cul­ture. “Sui­cide Note” sits roughly in the mid­dle of the book and ties to­gether sev­eral of Booth’s over­ar­ch­ing themes, which in­clude black iden­tity and vis­i­bil­ity, black wom­an­hood, and the au­thor’s own path through life.

In the po­ems, Booth moves from the East Coast to the South­west and strug­gles with her phys­i­cal health and some emo­tional fall­out. In “Sui­cide Note,” as in much of the book, the voice of the poem seems to shift from stanza to stanza. Some­times it is the poet speak­ing; some­times the poet takes on a per­sona; and some­times poet and per­sona are in­dis­tin­guish­able. “Ain’t I al­ways talkin’ em­phat­i­cally/about how black and proud I am /or was, any­way?” Booth writes. “Wasn’t it me who ru­ined/the world …”

The first sec­tion of Grin­ning looks at po­lice vi­o­lence against African Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing a teenage girl who was beaten by of­fi­cers for swim­ming in a pool in Texas. It is also a fear­less po­etic in­dict­ment of whites’ racism, com­plic­ity, and ig­no­rance of the ex­pe­ri­ence of peo­ple of color, such as in the open­ing piece, “Safety Pin.” “tell me to fo­cus my at­ten­tion on this/ tiny bea­con guid­ing your con­fu­sion/the next time you want me to ex­plain/why eye con­tact is more ef­fec­tive than /an ac­ces­sory when it comes to safety,” she writes. Writ­ing di­rectly to white read­ers about the short­com­ings of their ef­forts to be al­lies to mi­nori­ties is fresh in the sense that lately it can seem as if stri­dent po­lit­i­cal clashes on so­cial me­dia are the only plat­form for this kind of sen­ti­ment. So it is par­tic­u­larly en­liven­ing to see the dis­course taken on in art — in this case, in po­ems that are deeply en­gaged with lan­guage. This brave move con­tra­dicts cer­tain tra­di­tions in po­etry that tend to es­chew the overtly po­lit­i­cal in fa­vor of a re­served, aca­demic ap­proach to the con­cept of uni­ver­sal truth — though this is chang­ing, as pub­lish­ers and crit­ics em­brace a more di­verse round of voices. Booth seam­lessly fuses pol­i­tics with con­fes­sion and bear­ing wit­ness, let­ting rib­ald and cleans­ing fury drive her lines, when nec­es­sary, through honed craft.

The nar­ra­tive of the po­ems can be dis­jointed, the word­play so jaunty that you are com­pelled to read each one a sec­ond or a third time, glean­ing more grounded mean­ing with each pass.

FER­NANDO PÉREZ writes about the Lat­inx im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence in his de­but col­lec­tion, A Song of

Dis­man­tling, pub­lished by the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. Pérez, who grew up in Los An­ge­les and now teaches at Bellevue Col­lege in Wash­ing­ton, has a re­fined aes­thetic and a keen sense of econ­omy couched in the de­cep­tively sim­ple voice of a tra­di­tional storyteller. Many of the po­ems in­clude a food com­po­nent — such as the mak­ing of tor­tillas, pick­ing of fruits and veg­eta­bles, and gath­er­ing with fam­ily to eat birth­day cake. But Pérez veers darkly into the bru­tal­ity of the ev­ery­day, as in “The Burn­ing Gar­den”: Her hand is steady. The blade is not at fault, slic­ing. Tears un­no­ticed. An­other layer peeled. Her eyes com­par­ing the onion’s skin

to her own. A to­mato stain a cut fin­ger over the chop­ping board. In the first sec­tion, Pérez traces the ro­mance, and even­tual mi­gra­tion from Mex­ico to the United States, of a cou­ple called Dolores and Cruz. We learn that Cruz is not a good fam­ily man. Much later in the book, Pérez dives into misog­yny and vi­o­lence against chil­dren, as well as trauma and the kind of learned be­hav­ior it can cre­ate. He also touches on gen­dered ex­pec­ta­tions for how one in­ter­acts with the world. Some po­ems are more nar­ra­tively ac­ces­si­ble than oth­ers, such as “De­frost­ing Curses,” about his grand­mother, who de­vel­oped can­cer in both of her breasts. In the poem, he finds out she freezes food waste un­til garbage day so that it doesn’t stink, out of def­er­ence to the garbage men: There were no city com­post­ing ser­vices in East L.A. Her yard was all ce­ment. Frozen garbage, her gift to Tues­days. A slower de­frost. He opens the freezer door to look for noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar; she tells him in no un­cer­tain terms to close it. Her en­dear­ing sense of or­der and deco­rum does not melt af­ter her sec­ond mas­tec­tomy.

SELF-HARM, men­tal ill­ness, and gen­er­al­ized ni­hilism among teenagers and young adults are the sub­jects of Are the Chil­dren Make Be­lieve?, a chap­book by El­iz­a­beth Ja­cob­son, pub­lished by Danc­ing Girl Press. Ja­cob­son, who lives in Santa Fe, is the au­thor of Her

Knees Pulled In (Tres Chi­cas Books, 2012); her sec­ond full-length po­etry col­lec­tion, Not into the Blos­soms and Not into the Air, is forth­com­ing in 2019 from Free Verse Edi­tions/Par­lor Press. Ja­cob­son is at once ruth­less and com­pas­sion­ate in her ap­proach to po­ems that feel culled from real-life ex­changes or pos­si­bly so­cial me­dia posts. Some of them feel al­most meme­like. It is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict whether teenagers would en­joy read­ing about them­selves in this light. But those over thirty will likely ex­pe­ri­ence mean­ing­ful, if not al­to­gether pleas­ant, pangs of recog­ni­tion about their own youth­ful anger and re­bel­lion — even as the po­ems in­di­cate that the world is darker and harsher now. Ja­cob­son also paints a bleak pic­ture of par­ents who can­not con­nect to the jaded ter­ror their kids ex­pe­ri­ence. She of­ten lets loose a sort of cav­al­cade of blunt hor­rors that hap­pen when child­hood doesn’t go as planned. but with the op­po­site of Brian + Suzy Riley LOVES Corey carved all over the trunks

of her legs Th­ese lines be­gin one of sev­eral po­ems called “Sharpie.” “She wanted to get her own apart­ment/ but her par­ents said, Why bother,/you are just go­ing to kill your­self any­way,” the poem con­tin­ues. And in the short and sweet “NBD,” she writes, A young woman walks into a sleazy bar and gets

re­ally drunk on pur­pose. What do you think she does next? Duh. She picks up a drug dealer and takes him back

to her apart­ment. What do you think hap­pens now?

A CYLIN­DRI­CAL OB­JECT OF FIRE IN THE DARK (Insert Blanc Press), by long­time Santa Fe res­i­dent Holly My­ers, is a won­der­fully strange and densely packed book where per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence is threaded into lan­guage-driven po­ems that revel in words by volume, the sheer num­ber of them func­tion­ing al­most like a shield be­tween poet and reader. My­ers grav­i­tates to lists as a struc­tural form, as well as par­al­lel­ism and rep­e­ti­tion, unattributed bits of con­ver­sa­tion, and prose sec­tions. The po­ems mostly re­sist lin­ear sense, even when they ap­pear on the page as sym­met­ri­cal ideas, such as in “She/He,” in which ac­tions are as­signed to the fem­i­nine pro­noun in one col­umn and to the mas­cu­line in an­other: She opened the box. He closed the win­dow. She shat­tered the glass. He an­swered the door. She mea­sured the flour. He dropped the wrench. My­ers of­ten drops in provoca­tive phrases and frag­ments, such as, “Maybe it is not sur­face at all. Maybe it is a grad­ual hard­en­ing/through­out. A thick­en­ing,” in “[spec­u­la­tion]” or “one who cov­ets new tech­nolo­gies one who hates his father one who is al­ways a lit­tle afraid of driv­ing one who sighs with­out real­iz­ing it” in “one.” Un­for­tu­nately, the book is over­stuffed, as if My­ers in­cluded ev­ery poem she had with­out re­gard to qual­ity, and too many in­di­vid­ual po­ems are ver­i­ta­ble avalanches of un­nec­es­sary words. Read­ers with crit­i­cal eyes will be tak­ing their men­tal red pens to the pages in or­der to carve out the brilliance shin­ing from the heart of the po­ems — which is not an ex­er­cise with­out value.

Grin­ning & Bare by Ebony Isis Booth is pub­lished by West End Press. A Song of Dis­man­tling by Fer­nando Pérez is out from Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. The chap­book Are the Chil­dren Make Be­lieve? by El­iz­a­beth Ja­cob­son comes from Danc­ing Girl Press. A Cylin­dri­cal Ob­ject of Fire in the Dark by Holly My­ers is pub­lished by Insert Blanc Press.

Ebony Isis Booth

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.