Three Poetry Chapbooks You Must Read
This month, I review three poetry chapbooks from three different women’s voices that are important, that you should read. Here’s why:
On Not Screaming by Eloisa Amezcua (Horse Less Press, 2016) addresses communication: miscommunications, misunderstandings, choosing to not talk, obeying another’s order not to talk, texting and not texting, not knowing what to say or how to say something. The title poem’s speaker says, “I don’t know / how to scream” (lines 20-21), and readers learn that this silence is what the speaker learns young is equated with love, “to silence yourself / is to let the other in” (lines 48-49). Why? Many reasons.
Sometimes people don’t say what they mean, as in “Texting My Father Outside Floyd’s 99,” with the speaker, newly single, replying to her father’s texting to let her know if she needs anything: “Thanks, I say, but I mean I’m sorry / I’m not married yet” (lines 3-4). The speaker’s not saying what she means is conflated with something the father said in the past she wasn’t sure was literal or a metaphor. The speaker then chooses not to text her father what she really means; instead, she stare into a barbershop, watching a man’s haircut for the first time: “I don’t learn much, only the buzzing / three electric razors can make at once” (lines 11-12). This image compounds the many ways communication can fail that this poem, this chapbook, illustrates.
Texting, despite its ubiquity, can lead to uncertainty or misinterpretation, yet it’s a form of communication the speaker of these poems refers to frequently, especially in titles. Perhaps one of the most powerful poems is “I Text You at 10 AM,” with opening lines that continue the title’s sentence: “to tell you the man at the coffeeshop called me / Pocahontas again. You say, You don’t even drink coffee.” (lines 1-3). The non-reply that is in fact the only reply the speaker receives turns the poem in a direction the opening lines, which point out a repeated micro-aggression directed at the speaker, do not anticipate: the poem becomes about the speaker’s relationship with you, subtly indicating perhaps one major harm of micro-aggressions, how normalized they have become, how those they are directed at maybe because of non-reactions from whom they confide them lead to a trying to pretend they never happened. The poem ends: I say, I changed // the curtains, and you say, Nice. I order a coffee / watch the cream swirl before settling” (lines 12-14). The speaker chooses, once again (again and again), not to scream.
“I’m Sunlight” by Christine Shan Shan Hou (The Song Cave, 2016) addresses, one of many themes, desire: waiting for desire, performing desire, the limits of desire, desire for the unknown/known, curbing one’s desire, the pitfalls of getting what one desires, desire for that which lies outside of popular expectation. In “Today,” the speaker says:
What is under your wallpaper?
A private beach?
An almond croissant?
You belong in the most secret part of you
Everything else is reckless—dreamless, plastic and nostalgic. (lines 12-16)
These lines indicate, in their way, that whatever you want most, be it a food treat or dream vacation, this underground you is the real you. She says, “My sex is swaying and staggering / It’s hard to live in another person’s context / Let along a recluse in a pastry shell” (lines 36-38). In other words, if you choose to live alone in that croissant when really you want to be that dream vacation, something about you checks out, goes unstable.
The title poem helps stabilize the chapbook, which often vacillates quickly and effectively between exclamation and speculation—reaction and fantasy. The speaker, hearing a kitchen timer, opens an oven door, and this causes an earthquake in China. This chapbook exists in such a world where such reactions are not only possible but realities one must move past, must weigh the pros and cons of, in order to survive:
…It endangers the lives
of school children but sets the zoo animals free. I imagine their
small voices and then weep for the children quickly and efficiently.
My inner creature does not stumble. (lines 29-32)
In “Chinese Thrills Makes for Tough Love,” the speaker knows what she wants:
All I need are radio
voices, soft and sweet. Do you want me to hold you or
let you be free? Sleep
will gather not its name. (lines 5-8)
Yet not what the lover wants. The unspoken here is asked to be spoken. One can’t guess another’s desire, especially in a world like in, “All My Dead Ancestors Must Be Catered as to Avoid Angry Ghosts,” where “A game show contestant spins a glimmering wheel / emblazoned with numbers/ and I am terrified!” (lines 25-27).
Xenos by Joanna Valente (Agape Editions, 2016) begins with exhaustion, with a learned cynicism that pervades the poems in the book. The chapbook is also about motherhood, bloodlines, names, mortality, and the effect patriarchy has on these. The poems’ speaker is a woman born in Greece, separated from her family due to death or distance, who’s now old enough to have her own grown daughter: “she is the only person / to have come / from my / body” (lines 30-33), the speaker writes in “Changing Names,” where she tells of the few lasting, positive, and secure relationships in the speaker’s life—that with her daughter, and that with her husband.
She writes of his death in the final poem, “Feed the Heart Your Lungs,” how no one was with him when he died in unexpectedly, how “I was on the way, expecting / to be called darling. Now / I play the waiting game” (lines 7-9). The husband’s death, though not detailed until later in the chapbook, haunts the speaker’s narration throughout, as do the values the men in her life, the permanent ones or those just passing through, hold and hold her to.
In the penultimate poem, the speaker tells of a man who “comes up // to me, says I wouldn’t keep you / waiting. He has always kept me waiting” (10-12), illustrating cynicism towards unwanted advances. Anyone who thinks men dropping pick-up lines are saying what a woman might wish to hear doesn’t understand how a moment like this can bring someone like the speaker back to that which she has worked so long to accept in order to move on, how returning to those moments without her consent foregrounds her inability to move on.