|February 1, 2021
Welcome to Issue #50 of
Sticks & Stones,
Erica Goss's monthly newsletter
dedicated to poetry, reading and literature.
IN THIS ISSUE:
- REVIEW: Now in Color by Jacqueline Balderrama
- THE READING LIFE: Maya Angelou's Autobiographies
- RANDOM POEM FROM THE BOOKSHELF: "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden
- QUOTE: James Baldwin from Life Magazine
- VIDEO: Erica reads a selection of poems for The Brown Critique
- SUBMISSIONS FOR BOOK REVIEWS ARE CLOSED
- SUBSCRIBER NEWS
Welcome to the second issue of 2021, the fiftieth issue of Sticks & Stones! My mission with this newsletter is to help spread the word about poetry and art. That's it, plain and simple. I hope you enjoy the newsletter, and if you do, please share it with your friends.
At the blog: I realize that I'm a SAP (Seasonally Affected Poet).
Bundles! I'm selling limited supplies of three of my print books: Night Court, Vibrant Words, and Stone / empty chair as a set. The $45 price tag includes tax & shipping. I only have twenty bundles, so if you're interested please order soon! I'm happy to personalize the books for you or as a gift for someone else--just reply to this email with your request. You can order your bundle here.
Don't forget to download your copy of "Erica Goss's Guide to Writing Poetry Book Reviews," available only to subscribers of Sticks & Stones. It's an 8-page ebook in which I describe my method for reviewing books of poetry, which I call The Exploratory Review, and a list of twenty-seven journals that accept poetry reviews. Download it here. Please let me know what you think of it and if it encouraged you to write a review.
Sticks & Stones appears on the first Monday of every month.
REVIEW #51: Now in Color by Jacqueline Balderrama
Perugia Press, 2020
From the anguish of children held in border camps to movies whose Latino stars blur their identities, Jacqueline Balderrama’s Now in Color explores the ever-shifting landscapes of migration, identity, and perception. Working with language and family history, these poems trace the author’s heritage through stories of survival and the relentless pressure to assimilate.
A series of Spanish words; i.e., “esperanza” (hope), “rueda” (wheel), “hablar” (to speak), delineates the book’s sections. A short poem accompanies each word, as in “salvaje” (wild, feral):
In grief, we cannot explain the body’s
tenderness, its heaviness.
Without tears, the dog nurses
an old shoe for weeks.
In the Notes section of the book, Balderrama provides the background for the Spanish definition poems. “I address my feelings about being a non-Spanish-speaking Latina,” she writes, “in an effort to acknowledge those who do not fit identity categories neatly and who, in turn, help diversify what it means to be Latinx.” And indeed, the book shows is different aspects of that identity, in particular the plight of migrants and the effects of American policy towards people of Mexican descent.
In “Water, 2014,” one of the three poems in “salvaje,” plastic jugs of water, placed by humanitarians and intended for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border desert have been destroyed:
They had found the blue-capped water by a creosote bush—
promised colored caps of full gallons, azul for water, rojo for juice—
But someone had uprooted them and stabbed the plastic.
And in “Zero, 2018,” Balderrama writes of
the scattered photos,
the children’s cries, that hot summer within
the border’s belly—
The “zero” of the poem’s title stands for the US’s “zero tolerance” policy, which in 2018 resulted in thousands of family separations and children as young as infants held in cages.
During recent years, a record number of children arrived at the border alone, as in “Crossings Unaccompanied.” The opening stanza describes the consequences of family separation:
…you’ve swung from the arms of your abuela
into the hills, into the desert, into the river, into the town
of house lights, none of which are yours.
“The Other Side of Giving” shows us those left behind: the wives and mothers who depend on the money their men will presumably send home. “Handsewn life-sized dolls / stand where husbands and sons used to be,” reminders that “money is on its way. There will be enough soon, enough.” And yet, the women “kneel / before the land, its seeds blowing away,” as if the seeds were their last rays of hope.
Several poems deal with the representation of Latinos in film, especially 1940s screen idol Rita Hayworth. In “Study of Self-Portrait” Balderrama writes, “We hope we’re all pretty underneath / all American sweethearts…Rewind to Margarita Carmen Cansino // Imagine editing yourself.” Hayworth was the embodiment of self-editing, with a stage name, famous red hair (dyed), and, even after changing herself to please the Hollywood ideal of womanhood, “they’ll still place you in B movies.” (Margarita Carmen Cansino was Hayworth’s real name.)
“My Rita Hayworth” details Hayworth’s hair colors—“Black to Auburn to Strawberry Blond / to Red to Platinum” as well as the fact that her image was “plastered on the atomic bomb / for its first testing / in the Western Pacific:”
The papers say she is
They mean sex-bomb.
We drop her from the clouds
over white sand atolls.
The middle section of Now in Color, “Alternate Ways to Paint,” is composed of short poems based on twenty of Picasso’s paintings and drawings made between the years of 1890-1955. As Balderrama writes in the Notes section, she’s “drawn associations to my family mythology” between the poems and Picasso’s work.
The poems, each titled after an artwork, tell the story of a man’s life in chronological fragments. In “6. Family of Jugglers,” he realizes that “work is a circus of criminals and manila folders;” in “9. Harlequin Leaning,” “you think about quitting again.” And, from “18. Cat Eating a Bird:”
The pets sometimes show you where they’re from,
how they could survive without you.
Now in Color navigates the terrain of story and language to find the connections that define us. Truth is never simple; family history defies easy explanations. As Balderrama writes in the title poem, “we learn to listen in different ways.”
Jacqueline Balderrama lives and teaches in Salt Lake City, where she is a doctoral candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Utah. She is the author of the chapbook Nectar and Small (Finishing Line Press, 2019) and a poetry editor for Iron City Magazine and Quarterly West. Balderrama has been involved in the Letras Latinas literary initiative, the ASU Prison Education Program, and the Wasatch Writers in the Schools.
Now in Color is available from Perugia Press.
THE READING LIFE
Maya Angelou’s Autobiographies
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.- Maya Angelou
I was fourteen and sitting on a lumpy couch at the alternative school I attended in the rural area outside Sebastopol, California when I discovered I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d accidentally sat on the book, tucked between the pillows of the couch. I pulled it out, opened it and fell immediately under its spell. These lines on page six have never left my brain: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”
Reading the book, I discovered that my family had some things in common with Angelou’s: she grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, about 100 miles southwest of Little Rock, where my father was born. At the age of three, she and her slightly older brother traveled across the country from California to Arkansas. My father made that trip in reverse at the age of five, riding the Greyhound bus from Little Rock to Los Angeles with his young mother, my grandmother Isabel, in search of her husband. My grandfather's letters from LA, where he’d gone in search of work, had stopped coming. In another odd coincidence, Angelou moved to Sonoma in 1973, the same year my family arrived in Santa Rosa, about twenty miles away. An enthusiastic chef, she bought her home in Sonoma for its large kitchen, which accommodated her collection of 100 cookbooks.
After I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I found Angelou’s next autobiographical book, Gather Together in My Name, which she’d published in 1974. The scene from the second book that’s seared into my memory is the one where teen-aged Maya (then known as “Rita”) returns to Arkansas with her baby son, mouths off to some white women in a department store, and is beaten by her grandmother. I think I cried when I read it. At the time, due to my parents’ separation, I hadn’t seen my own grandmother in years. Oma, as we called her, never lost her Southern accent in spite of having lived in Los Angeles since that fateful trip from Little Rock. I missed the cigarette-and-coffee smell of her house, her fried apple pies, and her warm, ever-forgiving presence. Much later it occurred to me that Oma had grown up in the same segregated South as Angelou and her grandmother, only from the other side of the tracks, as Angelou put it.
I read all of Angelou’s books, including her collections of poems, but the ones that stayed with me most were those first two volumes. Angelou’s accounts of her childhood, including a childhood rape, mutism, teen pregnancy, prostitution, and eventual success as an artist and writer, filled me with terror and hope. If she could survive all that and thrive, so could I. Her writing was both clear and poetic; even as a young reader, I caught the alliteration in “rust / razor / threaten / throat.”
I saw Angelou give a reading in 1981. She still lived in Sonoma then, although she would move to North Carolina later that year. Her son Guy, the baby she’d had as a teen, introduced her. Her mother Vivian was in the audience. Angelou held us spellbound while she read poems and prose, talked about her life, and shared her gift of storytelling. Watching her speak, I remembered the paperback I’d found in the couch at my school seven years earlier. It was almost as if someone had put it there for me to find.