'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.”
Adelante, 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.”