Poems of identity and experience
A roundup of new verse
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