Friday, October 14, 2011

Catalina by Laurie Soriano

Catalina by Laurie Soriano

Review byLawrence Kessenich

The impression I come away with after reading Laurie Soriano’s powerful first book of poetry, Catalina, is that she is a brilliant portraitist. She is like a skilled painter or photographer, who first sees the world with absolute clarity and then selects the details that will make it come alive for us. What she chooses to see most often are people and animals (though the animals are often with people or representing them), as a quick perusal of her poem titles reveals: Tim Roach, Parents, Sister, Turtles, Dogs, My Birds, Florence, Charlie’s Widow, Blessed Woman, Dogs II, Cat, Parrot, Fireflies.

But Soriano also has a discerning eye for the settings in which she and the people and animals she observes live. Take, for example, the first two stanzas of “Swimming Pool with Child,” where she moves from pool to child effortlessly:

A painting of blue and light—
white circles dappling the wall of the pool,
the sun tossing coins on the water’s surface,
the water’s aqua giggling at the bolder sky,

and a child swims the length of it, not yet four,
sturdy legs fluttering like that’s all God made them for,
eyes wide behind goggles. As she swims to me,
her mouth stretches back in a certain grin…

The words are well-chosen and none are wasted. The picture is as sharp and clear as the light of summer in that pool. We are there, in the water with the narrator and the child.

Other poems focus more on the person being portrayed, such as in “Sister”:

My little sister’s body carved itself out
this year, her legs got thin and shy,
like mine, her face took on the planes
and angles of our type of beauty, her hair
became a gleaming boast of abundance.

Or in “My Boy”:

The crack of the bat, and your torquing body
made it, and somehow nine years ago
my body made yours. Your cheeks
are streaked with manly pink,

and those blue eyes, which can glint
with the magic I’ve sprinkled in, those blue eyes
are dull steel, all about nothing
but finding the ball with the bat…

Soriano often deftly uses animal imagery when writing of herself or other people. Take for example the portrait of an aged couple in “Early Birds”:

They are hollow-boned, take their clawed hands
and guide them gently to the car…
Her hair is a puff of white, his a scattering of dry grass.
They bicker still, chirp/cheep in harmony…

Tired from the flight, they totter off to bed…

Bird imagery is again used effectively in “My Birds”:

I am knocked awake the final time;
the morning breathes through the blinds.
Birds are chuckling and singing
in the neighbor’s tree. I lie
still and listen, exhorting the timid
birds in me to call back
to the birds outside. Sing
the sunlight darlings. But my birds
are broken, their wings protrude bones.

As these poems demonstrate, Soriano’s detail doesn’t just convey physical characteristics; it’s loaded with emotional content, too. The reader gets both a vivid physical picture and the subtext of feelings. In a poem such as “Red Wine,” the powerful experience behind the imagery is even more apparent, as in “Bloody liquid, he make me fill his glass / to brimming…” or “…He fills / our glasses like love, daddy never loved me / like wine, and we start thinning our blood with this red stuff…” or “The next night he fills some glasses / so they dome with surface tension.”

“Red Wine” also brings us to the pain that permeates many of Soriano’s poems. This is a woman who has paid her dues, and who, like all great artists, uses her art to transform her suffering into something of beauty—terrible beauty in some cases, but beauty nonetheless. She sees life with a clear eye, and by conveying her own truth in an honest, powerful way, she transcends her pain and helps us transcend our own. This is a poet to watch.

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