Poetry for Southern California
Book by Laurie Soriano
Lummox Press (www.lummoxpress.com)
Laurie Soriano’s Catalina impresses right away. She writes mostly narrative poems, primarily concerned with family, straightforward but powerful. Her language is descriptive and evocative. The emotions are upfront, but are contained in the details of the poems, rather than stated flatly.
She writes about the events of normal life—birth and death, marriage and break-ups, growing up and growing old. She locates the deep, universal emotions in these events. In her hands they are not mundane, but are filled with importance. She describes what we have all experienced, but could not articulate.
The second reading is even more impressive. Soriano is a master of metaphor. I don’t just mean the line by line use of metaphor to add depth to her descriptions. More often she builds entire poems upon a single metaphor, or the interaction of metaphors. Sometimes the full meaning of the metaphor is not revealed until the final lines; in other poems it expands beyond its simple meaning.
The poem “Early Birds” starts out describing elderly parents as birds: “They are hollow-boned, take their clawed hands/ and guide them gently to the car, rolling the little suitcase/ so light it must be filled with feathers.” She sustains this through the poem, providing a very moving portrait of aging. But in the end she expands the metaphor. “It is getting to be time now./ .../ in the weeks that follow// keep your eye out for a sparrow hopping/ and twittering a bit too close, a lark/ that seems to be smiling...” In this way she turns a descriptive metaphor into a meaningful one, and creates of poem of hope among grief.
She can also turn an example of something into a metaphor for the larger concept. “My Boy” uses her son’s focus on a baseball game to illuminate the inevitable growing distance between mother and son: “Your face softens as/ you touch my fingers through the dugout fence,/ but soon you turn with an absent smile/ and sit and squint, studying the field.”
Her metaphors always feel natural, never forced. At times they may appear too obvious, but there is a thin line between the obvious metaphor and the perfect one. Take “The Way There,” in which a drive up a steep, curving mountain road becomes a metaphor for the journey of life. Another poet could write a clichéd take on this, but not Soriano. The poem starts with Soriano advising her daughter to close her eyes rather than look “at the drop to the Valledichiana below,/ curve after curve, the shoulder/ of the road mere millimeters...” She recalls how she used to close her eyes and hold her breath when “we’d/ cross the giant bridges over the Hudson/ going to New Jersey in the VW bus...” But then she recalls a different memory: “Once your father and I closed our eyes/ and held our breath, and there/ you were.” Suddenly the poem is about how all life, even the creation of life, is a risk, but a worthwhile one, for “[n]ow we’ve arrived/ .../ look at the world we can see from up here.”
Of course, not every poem is built on a metaphor, or even incorporates one, but they all show the same control and awareness of language. Throughout she finds the perfect detail, the perfect image, the perfect incident to illustrate her larger meanings. In this way she is able to describe the ordinary events of life in a way which makes them extraordinary, makes the resonant.
—G. Murray Thomas
Chapbook by The Taco Shop Poets
Tinta Vox Books (www.tintavox.com)
The Taco Shop Poets are a key part of the history of SoCal poetry. A collective of Latino poets in San Diego, they represented a crossroads of culture, not only between the the Latino and Anglo cultures of SoCal, but between the academic and performance cultures of poetry. They performed throughout San Diego and beyond through much of the 1990’s. Although they are no longer active as a group, Sugar Skull Suenos collects recent work from four of the key members, and demonstrates that they are still exploring the same rich territory.
The four poets represented here—Adrian Arancibia, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, Tomas Riley and Miguel-Angel Soria—write in very different styles. They could even be said to belong to four different schools of poetry. Yet they all share one similarity in approach; they all utilize bilingual poetry to explore the intersection of cultures.
The first poem in the book, Adrian Arancibia’s “extranar”, deals, appropriately enough, with a problem of translation, in this case of the title word. I say appropriately, because the difficulties of moving from one language to another are representative of the problems of moving from one culture to another. Arancibia has chosen a potent word; a basic translation would be “to miss,” but the word also contains variations on “stranger” and “to estrange.” Arancibia incorporates all of these into a poem about missing one’s homeland:
this is for the mothers
who will raise children
too far away from their families.
extranar is too difficult
a word to translate.
His other poems are similar meditations on finding the right word, the right way to express what needs to be said, with whatever language might be available.
Alberto Guzman-Lopez also explores the possibilities of language, but in a much different manner. He writes language poetry, focusing on the sounds of the words. In his case, two languages open up that many more possibilities. His poem “Para Poetas Pulqueros” (“For the Poets of the Mezcal”) is composed entirely of “p” words. The first two lines read “Pulcro pulque Poe prendio Plath perception Pellicer pulpo porque Parkay Puebla/ Pittsburgh partake Pabst putrid pollster private Pinsky pa pe pi po pu Pimms” Obviously two languages give him that much more material to work with.
Tomas Riley writes more straightforward narrative poems. He writes primarily in English, but maintains a street diction and a smattering of Spanish to fit his poems in the same borderland as the others.
Finally, Miguel-Angel Soria writes concrete poetry, playing with the placement of the words on the page. He, too (no surprise), finds more to play with in two languages than one:
A direct translation would be “ugly atheist I believe I see an open sky’ but that completely ignores the line breaks, many of which happen within single words (“fe/o ate/o /yo cre/o”). Another layer is added when you know that “o” is Spanish for “or.”
Sugar Skull Suenos starts out with the problems of moving from one language to another, and ends up celebrating the possibilities of exactly that. I don’t want to ascribe meaning and messages that the poets may not have intended, but, to me, the book makes the argument that the same holds true of cultures in general—that the interaction of two cultures only increases the possibilities for interesting results. That two cultures are better than one.
— G. Murray Thomas