Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Death of a Mexican and other poems by Manuel Paul Lopez

Death of a Mexican and other poems
By Manuel Paul Lopez
winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize 2006 Bear Star Press

Reviewed by Anne Brudevold


Poet Manuel Paul Lopez’s first chapbook, consisting of a short preamble, a half dozen poems in different lengths and narrative voices, and a glossary of Spanish words, is truly engaging. In a varying poetic tone of different narrative voices, the poet shows shows us what coping with two cultures at once is like, from various person’s experiences. In the first one, “Mi Cantita,” is the speaker’s bi-lingual family and culture, prejudice cuts both ways. This poet’s lively metaphors and ability to put us in his place is so simple and natural that I was just taken in – welcomed to the poet’s world where he can speak no language, so his grandmother/nana used to massage his “sluggish tongue.” Without preaching, without taking sides, without self-pity---and with a great deal of humor, brilliant combination of Spanish and English, lively metaphors, and unpretentious use of language, we are there, in a world at once painful and funny, where:

“Spanish trembles beneath my Nine Inch Nails tour shirt/like a beaten mutt,/a crackhead in church.” The poet says: “I was just miming Mexican.” Being darker than other Mexicans, he gets beat up by both Mexicans and Americans as he grows up, and teased by his family and community. “Angel’s mom was funny about my lengua’s white man’s disability/ When she answered the door, she’d say, ‘Buenos dias.’ And I’d say ‘Hola,’/but no more, already taken too far out of myself. But her eyebrows would become/ two magnets attempting to yank out the planetas, estrellas, and saltelites from my mouth from my/mouth so she could contact the great shy sol that for some reason slept too comfortably/ within the arctic of my gut/as I stood shivering pale and naked as a white plastic cafeteria spoon….And with the silence she’d laugh, taking me in with the warmth of her tone,/like the Our Lady of Guadalupe church bell/bringing everyone home on Sundays.”

It’s difficult to critique these poems – why not just quote them all? A common theme is the inability to speak either language: “I knew Spanish words, but they were all different colored marbles/in the jar of my mouth/and I couldn’t pick out the right color.”

In the end, he embraces them both, ardently. With exuberant language, the poet speaks in the voices of characters of his family. In “Death of a Mexican” the poet speaks of his desire to be at once like and unlike his poet cousin, who “made a habit of chewing on paper, because he said that it would feed/ him Lorca, Rulfo, Hamsun, but times when he drank a little to much of his wine, he’d cry/like a drama queen, while chewing on Danielle Steele.” In “Mundo Meets the World,” a retarded cousin is in love with Denise Levertov. In Go, Nijinskym Go” an uncle plays over-indulgent parent to his little girl, even as he tries to express his own failure of poetic, mimetic, and dance experience. “There is a hole in my living room” depicts the glasses of grief left around a symbolic grave, a hole in the poet’s living room. Emotions are expressed in real objects, in real experience, in trances away from reality. It’s not the fluid, poetic unknowing transition, as in, say Mistral’s fiction, between fiction and reality; it’s the poet’s ironic knowledge, even as he expresses each character’s emotion sincerely, that something is out of kilter, and that there is something rich and wonderful about it.

At the end, that something is the richness of language itself. In the last lines of Generationes, Saint Peter says, “Not to question./Because you need to think about this,” he’ll say, pointing at his tongue.”

Generously invoking fear, anger, disgust, lust, loss of self-control and love with eloquent disregard, this small book, “Death of a Mexican” by Manuel Paul Lopez is a jewel.

--Anne Brudevold is the founder of the Eden Waters Press of Allston, Mass.

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