Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Fire is a Story, Waiting, Melinda Palacio (Los Angeles, Ca: Tia Chucha Press, 2012)

How Fire is a Story, Waiting, Melinda Palacio (Los Angeles, Ca: Tia Chucha Press, 2012), 107 pages, paper. ISBN: 978-1-882688-44-9. 14.95

Review by Joanne DeSimone Reynolds

Nothing less than the four elements and a fierce love of home guides Melinda Palacio’s first collection of poems, “How Fire is a Story, Waiting.” And by home I do not mean only the barrio of her upbringing in California or the Mexico of her ancestry or the cities of the south and the west she now calls home, but the bare fleshy hands of her grandmother at the stove. Because, after reading the first, and title poem, a reader fairly feels the generative power of those hands. Here is the first stanza of the poem from the section titled “Fire:”

My grandmother caught the flame in her thick hands.
Curled fingers made nimble by kaleidoscope embers.
Fire burns hot and cold if you know where to touch it, she said.

Who wouldn’t want a grandmother like this one “with her deep, cinnamon stick voice . . .// Her body, heavy with worry for two families and three lifetimes . . . tuck[ing] Mariachi dreams under her girdle. Lullabies escap[ing] on mornings / warmed by her song falling into gas burners turned on high.” A few pages later in the poem “Abuela’s Higuera” the woman’s strength, both literal and of her character, is witnessed as the poet lets her do the storytelling: “I remember the time your father was trying to kill my / daughter with a brick. Beneath the shade of my fig / tree, he beat her. Your abuelo told me to stay out of it. But if / it weren’t for me, the good-for-nothing would’ve killed / mija with a brick. On my way out the kitchen door I / grabbed my rolling pin.” Talk about cool under fire.
Such a ferocious mother-love. The woman’s center holds and her story becomes inspiration.

And as she comes of age, the narrator will call upon this inspiration to help make sense of the troubled world around her. In the affecting poem, “El South-Central Cucuy” she states: “My uncle said I wouldn’t have a life. Sorry, la little Minnie, he snarked, / Dah, ha, ha, he laughed. / If the Cucuy doesn’t get you, the Bomb will.” “Cucuy” is a kind of boogeyman, the fear of which is weighed against the fear of nuclear annihilation. But, it is a more immediate fear that preoccupies the narrator. For her, walking to school or sitting on the stoop can be deadly. The poem continues with this description of her neighborhood: “. . . a battle field with its random bullets, / helicopter searches for who knows whose father, brother, son, / enemies of the state, the police call them. / . . . Welcome to my barrio.” She has few protectors; her father, we soon find out, is in prison. On the rare occasions when she sees him, usually in prison, she wonders: “How do I talk to the charismatic lunatic, my father, the criminal with the psycho gene and tangled gypsy beard?” from the poem “Dancing with Zorro’s Ghost.” And, it would not be unreasonable for a reader to ask: How does a girl walk through that barred gate? And why should she have to? In answer, the narrator offers a list poem titled “Things to Carry.” Here is a sampling: “Twenty one dollar bills for vending machines . . . A sealed package of tissues . . . Photo tokens for a family portrait in prison . . . Your ID locks you in and sets you free . . . you force a smile . . . but the last thing you want is another prison visit.”

Fortunately, the narrator carries within her the light of her grandmother’s flame which frees her to explore a more playful tone. Here is the concise lyric “disconcerted crow” from the second section titled “Air.” One can feel the crow’s frustration in the deft handling of the first stanza:

if only his bird suit fit, he
grumbles and caws, drives
away his dove friends, he
pecks at uneven bristles, he
flaps and folds starched wings.
familiar feathers hang all wrong
like borrowed funeral clothes

Playfulness, too, in this excerpt from “New Orleans Native Son” found in the book’s third section, “Water.” Note how another imposing literary insect is brought to mind:

. . .The
lone rat rustling in
the banana tree won’t
bother me. Crows wait
for my sweet slumber, dive-
bomb the neighbor’s yard.
There is one creature
I can’t ignore.
His primordial wings
spread colossal and proud.
He looks bigger poolside
as feelers twitch, sense a party.

The Mexican-American experience is no less essential to our collective national history than other immigrant experiences. Many of us define ourselves with one or more hyphens. And with immigration a hot political topic, Palacio’s narrative is timely. A survey of a few of the first lines of the poems is indicative of the easy mix of our cultures as well as of its tribulations:

My sister dances salsa at Stephens’s Steakhouse

His heart thumps Panama, where’s he’s from

Swim with your clothes held high above the water

Her name’s irrelevant if all you see is color

Dip your feet into False River

Joann wants a job, but not that one

There is longing in these poems, as well. And hard-earned, if sometimes quirky, wisdom. In the poem titled “Laughter” there is a palpable yearning: “ I long to be cradled by cloud, sus / pended and sheltered. I listen to the words of the Grand- / mother Spirit. My elder says look beneath your skin and / you’ll see the loneliness in your veins . . . I laugh harder / because the wild woman is my mother.” And from “Water Mark:” “A river runs beneath my house / white foam, greenblue mud, a Eureka stream of gold. / Water so urgent, rushing like a stampede, catching / tomorrow’s California claim jumpers // Wild west talk of black bears and banana bread. / Don’t leave your doggy biscuits in the car. // The river rattles innocence and much to my surprise my heart aches / for the child I once was, before broken levees and the / floodgates of hell descending upon my town.”

Palacio’s poems are marked with nothing if not dignity. “Iron Cross Suite” which is the final poem of the collection from the section titled “Earth” is written with tenderness, but also with an unusual and endearing wit. A long form elegy, it recalls the heartbreaking desperation to obtain last rites for a mother; and it is interwoven with elements of the Catholic Mass and the last of the mother’s advice. In such a moment of terror, urgency is the operative word, and the desire of the mother to say something meaningful to her daughter resonates with touching grace: “Bless this house with passion. // In memory of me, / Don’t go out with your hair wet. // You have my blessing to live your life, grow up. // . . .Do you still give equal weight to chocolate and boys? // Talk to me. I hear you, though my life on earth is over. // I live between orange clouds and the moon. // . . . See my orange cloud when you most need me. // . . . Do this in memory of me.”

In all, “How Fire is a Story, Waiting” is both a broad narrative and a compelling personal journey. There are many poems here to admire. “The Blue House,” about Frida Kahlo, “Wooden Crosses,” about the markers in a cemetery where the grandmother’s children have been buried, and “Mesilla Sunset,” with its beautiful evocations of the shape-shifter: “The turquoise sky so vast, you’ll never see the same cloud twice. / Was it the coconut cloud, twisted like a bear? // Or was it you, shape-shifting, becoming a cicada, / buzzing in praise of Saturday’s pink twilight . . .” Topping 100 pages, the collection might have been tightened up a bit. But the poems, organized into four thematic sections, each separated by graphics that use a large appealing smoke-like font, are easily read and returned to as one might for nourishment to a stack of Grandmother’s tortilla

1 comment:

  1. Yes, comment. Yes. Beautiful review. One that breaks open the deep heart-set poems and gives us the goodies. And we return for another bite - again and again.