'America are you listening'

Gabriela Portillo Alvarado

Gabriela Portillo Alvarado reviews three poetry titles on immigration, trauma, racism, and America.

The Book of Dirt
, Nicole Santalucia (NYQ Books, 2020)

The Book of Dirt is a guttural, expositional collection of poems rooted in central Pennsylvania, with jarring wordplay, intricate metaphor, and vivid, sometimes-fantastical imagery: “the apples have triggers, / the avocados, bullets, / the extra, large barrel-bananas / are discounted on Tuesday / when you buy two bunches.” The volume deals with sexism and homophobia, Santalucia’s work teaching literacy in prisons, her marriage and sexuality, alcoholism/addiction, surviving sexual violence, and death — in fact, the collection as a whole seems to be on the edge of life and death: “my body slams into dirt. I taste all of the queer / blood drenched in the land. My head throbs.” Woven among her poems are flakes of light, often qualified with dark: “This hope is a little bloody, / a little tart — make sure to coat it in salt.”

, Jessica Guzman (Switchback Books, 2020)

Jessica Guzman’s Adelante, centered in Florida and Cuba, includes themes of racism, sexism, bilingualism, and her father’s cancer in often-fast-paced poems. This work is packed with elegant allusions and succinct vernacular, as in “The Marabu Makes it to America After All,” dire, tender, and urgent at once: “After all his hands / swelled with each machete swing, / … the artisan / makes it to America after all.” The collection has sudden, meaning-packed images: “the memory of a car screeching / too late to miss a cat. How a cough persists / after the cold. How vultures swallow bone.” Guzman shows her mastery of wordplay and internal rhymes — “Orange slit / I split. Orange slice I bite hard, hold / the sour under my tongue.” — as well as potent imagery and metaphor: “Attendant cloud // wrings her halo, the islands welled: / veladoras & macaroni packs unveiled / behind a toppled wall.”

Every Day We Get More Illegal
, Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights Publishers, 2020)

Every Day is a hard-hitting, witnessing collection about trauma, living as an immigrant in the US, the US-Mexico border wall, ICE detention centers, and physical familial separations. Some of the poems are a sort of dialogue, while many are in stream of consciousness: “there are men lying face down forever and women / dragging under the fences and children still running with / torn faces all the way to Tucson.” Herrera writes about the everyday struggles, sometimes tragic and horrific, of crossing the border: “those are not screams you hear across this cage / it is a symphony — the border guard says”; living as one of America’s marginalized: “used to think I was not American enuf / now it is the other way around”; and growing up in an immigrant family: “this is not a poor-boy story / this is a pioneer story / this is your story / America are you listening.”