Reviewed by Alina Stefanescu
Noemi Press 95 pp.
The title of each numbered section of this review is directly excerpted from Borjas’ list poem, the first of two “Ars Poetica,” found in this collection. The entire poem is replicated in the section titles of this review.
1. step over each camellia’s head flattened on the sidewalk
Sara Borjas keeps every difficult promise she makes in this wrenching poetry collection. She begins with an epigraph from Audre Lorde that calls for examining “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us,” an assurance that the range and depth of the gaze will be unflinching.
2. listen to Al Green’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”
This intense, personal gaze includes a close look at the Xicanx family, particularly the mother (who is often symbolized in her favorite flower, the camellia), and the role of the daughter as carrier for the mother’s past. In “I Know the Name of the Desert,” the poet introduces this first person narrator as her mother’s daughter:
a woman who wonders what she did wrong. I am a daughter
who walks through a desert carrying my mother’s wounds–
each open palm across her child’s face, each time a man offered her
something he did not have. I trudge a lineage of exiled desire,
thirsty. I love my mother by drinking her cheap wine with her.
I bend down in the sand, lap my own sinking steps.
3. go to the window, pink petals nestled in your hands
The tension in the poet’s relationship with her father, or with the role of patriarch, emerges in “My Father Imagines Winning the Lotto,” which reads like a portrait, a rue torched with tenderness. The father is he who “watches The Weather Channel Daily so he can speak” about events in the world. The father is he who glimpses “an all-inclusive universe” whenever he “imagines imagining a vacation.” The poet is she who sees the divisions in the colonized dream. How do daughters speak to patriarchs in the context of power and whiteness? What role does respect play as a form of tenderness in an America that continuously, systematically, disrespects the Xicanx father? The poet knows “we will never be white,” and those dolphin vacations are not addressed to them.
4. whisper your mother’s name—each syllable like falling lace
In “We Are Too Big For This House,” Borjas creates the form to serve as a vessel for the poem’s interrogation. It is a six-page diptych filled with annotations in the margins. The title, itself, clarifies why the annotations are needed. The poet names herself “Daughter,” again, this sense in which she is defined by what she inherits:
If you asked me what I was, I would
first say: Daughter. If you asked me
what makes a pocha like me Mexican?
I would answer: loving someone until
my love hurts us.
5. you sweep the kitchen so your mother can be more than mother
The poet’s anger at her mother reminds me of my own anger at my immigrant mother who worked full-time and yet still cooked dinner from scratch every night for my expectant father, and how Mom excused it by saying men were helpless, or cooking was a tradition. There was so much packed into that word—tradition—that felt like a burden it would be wrong to refuse. I resented the excuses my mom made for a toxic masculinity that hid behind nurture regimes and this idea of male helplessness. In this sense, reading Borjas, particularly sections like this, home feels like a harbor in which the poet wishes the poem “could save us from/our parents’ childhoods”:
I’m mad at my mother for feeling
broken. I don’t want to be complicit in
this violence against her, against my
younger sister who sees it all.
6. each missing syllable is scattered subtext
The relationship between naming and spoken language is a form of familial intimacy, a marker of belonging. But language can also be a form of exclusion in first-generation communities. In “Mexican Bingo,” the narrator’s family won’t allow her to play unless she calls the cards in Spanish. And so she does, naming each family member, and finding herself trapped in the names she has been given, a name that does not translate:
We say our own names for the people on the cards. La chalupa is the hoe in the boat; el negro is my cousin’s Oaxacan boyfriend, Sleepy, el sodado is my brother in Iraq, el borracho is my Tio Gilbert splayed on the couch, el corazon is my sister, the only reason my father does not leave; and el Diablo, my mother says that’s me. No matter how many chances I get to correct, no matter how much my tia glares, I cannot call the cards by their rightful name if I don’t have one.
7. I can think of younger days when living for my life
It is in the relentless questioning of socialization and complicity that Audre Lorde’s influence is most evident. The poet reveals how, in colonized communities, the risk of speaking against gender hierarchies and violence is absolute in that it threatens placing us outside the family or the family culture. Without family, the Xicana is nothing. In “Half-Elegy for Marriage:”
Now, my mother’s
bargaining voice follows me
like a parable, and I cannot keep
those hands from sealing
my heart. Nothing opens it.
8. stop calling your mother camellias
Something in the heart broke when reading “Apologies For the Camellias I Could Not Write About,” precisely because this book depicts the mother with such love, and the poet’s inability to poem her mother’s favorite flowers reveals a deep ache. I think we want to burn down our mothers’ house and rescue them from it. I think it is difficult to rescue the mother who loves the house more than she loves being relieved of it.
9. say Criselda
Moving back and forth between the poems and the things they ask of each other, this effort to say the mother’s name, to change the habit of m/othering her, doesn’t diminish her plenitude within the text as a beloved person. We hear her voice return, again and again, a seam. The heart is open and clear like a window, the heart is fragile as glass, and the “Mouth Like A Cliff”:
A desert begins in my mother’s
throat and ends in mine.
A choppy wind spins a story
out of sighs. I sanctify longing
for its own sake like the words
we repeated before sleep—
10. a daughter must find her mother’s first house
What is the mother’s first house? Who was the mother before she became the wife? Borjas probes this in “Mouth Like A Cliff,” where the prayers, the “Our Fathers,” are given as incantation. It’s not clear if the prayers are recited out of belief or tradition, but the fondled beads serve as carriers for the way in which tradition soothes us. It is possible to make a home that feels safe inside violence and lies when the outside world is more threatening. It is daunting for the daughter to see this, to know this, and yet to find the need to kneel inside her:
I need ceremony. To kneel.
I have begged so many men.
I regard it as method, style,
decide the weight of me
will be an issue that threatens
every daughter’s world. I spread
my makings out on the long
yard of time like a metaphysical
11. open the window
The second section of the book begins and ends with persona poems, a sort of modified Narcissus in which the poet addresses (and dresses) herself in dead myth. I love how the male myth is subverted in the poet’s hands, in the poet’s efforts to uncover her selfhood. In “Narcissus Inspects Her Breasts,” the poet alters her gaze to that of a self-admiring god:
I lift my T-shirt; drift my hands over strange brown arcs,
a child playing in sand, or how someone
who adores me might perform wanting.
12. she chose you over herself
The word pocha comes up frequently in these poems. It is used as an insult to describe a mexican who has lost or forgotten their heritage. It plays into the deep fear of rejection by one’s community. “Pocha Café” situates us in the middle of an ongoing tension, an argument between the self and its social frontiers. Its anger is not hidden or muted. This occurs again in “Study of a Part-Time Pocha.” In these angers, the poet pushes against the mother’s daughter.
13. raised a rare girl
“Singularity,” a poem about the brother who serves in the Air Force, is titled after the center of a black hole, a space we cannot entirely fathom outside abstraction. The black hole is used as a metaphor, a vehicle to approach knowing, belonging, and their relation to intimacy:
We cannot know the remarkable velocity at which we pull
each other, tear at individuation, until the distance
between us curves and no one
14. let me live again
There is rape. There is an island of raped women. And there is “I See My Rapist’s Daughter,” recognizing her credulity with a mixture of fury and resentment. Again, Borjas’ gaze includes tenderness, mercy; in one of the most difficult spaces, there is this need to look closer—there is the unflinchingness:
She smiles for her father, my rapist,
my prime number in sex,
man who has not yet left her
and forgotten to take her with him.
15. vision is a principle
The feeling of being a traitor to one’s culture, the complex sense of impurity involved in mixing with English or whiteness, seems unresolved and open. The ways of knowing ourselves and others—the internal and external experience of the Xicana and colonization—are widened by these poems. I was reminded of a recent interview with Natalie Diaz where she says, “I am learning and relearning how to make America a part of my personal mythology, which feels more possible than truth.”
16. imagination a form
I think “Self-Portrait As Snakes” is incredible in its accounting, and so I want to share the blade of it:
the surface of a deed. My mother
did the same for her mothers,
swept the kitchen over and over
until each corner was serene as ice,
I perform expectations. Still,
no kiss is smooth. A girl
can get lost in duty or marriage—
those crystal, beheaded ghosts.
My parents’ house is not balanced
on the edge of a valley, clean
as a diamond, if I hold the story
like I do women. Accountable.
17. it doesn’t matter that no one ever taught you
The poet feels unappreciated, misunderstood, unschooled in navigating the tension between identity, community, and patriarchy. In “The Poet Considers The Phrase Smile Now Cry Later,” she imagines being dead, being disowned or unknown even in that final rest. She imagines her family saying:
“Sara expected / too much from us. She was never happy. / She gave us words we didn’t ask for.”
18. her head can flower against your hands
In the “Ars Poetica,” Borjas holds out hope of making her mother the flower in the poems. This is different from giving her mother the flower she wants. This is the unfinished revolution in poeming our mothers. Because love remains the most difficult thing to untangle and lay flat, it is love that one cannot iron. I loved this book immensely. I have nothing to compare it to outside that love. And this is, perhaps, its greatest compliment.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She serves as co-director of PEN Birmingham. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Prize and was published in May 2018. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for Pidgeonholes, president of Alabama State Poetry Society, Co-Founder of 100,000 Poets for Change Birmingham, and proud board member of Magic City Poetry Festival. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize and the 2019 Frank McCourt Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can’t believe or feel she deserves any of this.