Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review of BLACK BLOSSOMS in On the Seawall

Recommended by Elaine Sexton:
Black Blossoms by Rigoberto González (Four Way Books)

The first word in Rigoberto González’s excellent collection is “strawberries,” followed by a stigmata, and in subsequent pages and poems: a red shirt, ruby heart, a red lake (as the lung of a bottle of cranberry juice), bleeding skulls, and more. It seems red is the dominant color fueling Black Blossoms, an encyclopedia of red, with gray playing second fiddle fusing a vivid succession of phantasmagorical poems with “the sutured centers of ... gray vaginas,” “gray wings/ crushed into exotic fabrics too thin for winter,” elephant trunks, and a lover, whose “skin shades to gray.” A sweep of geographies from Mexico to Madrid, New York to Seattle carry these tightly structured narratives with references as far reaching as Otto Dix and Goya to Lizzie Borden and the Brothers Grimm. Peopled mostly by the stories of women – their struggles, their voices – each poem sings and stings with the dark heart of the familial, often employing the intimate triangulations of mother/father/child as characters mature but never leave their emotional baggage far behind. Betrayal, revenge, abandonment stain like watermarks.

In “Blizzard,” a speaker of unspecified gender, in the back seat of a car, relates to the news of another couple trapped by a storm, who “survived one week on saltine crackers and body heat.” And continues:

Mine is a tube of toothpaste in my bag and a man
in town who thanks me for opening my left nipple like a rose
at the prompting of his lips. When he turns his back to me
in bed his skin shades to gray and I know about the dead
who roll their eyes up to memorize the texture of their graves.
If I should freeze to death the muted explosion of my heart
will not betray me. The science of weather will have
its own sad story to tell when I am found, ten-fingered
fetus with a full set of teeth locked to a knucklebone.

In this book, the dead refuse to stay dead. The speakers are often women, as with seven of the poems that comprise the final section of the book. We hear from a mortician’s mother-in-law, his sister, his daughter, his Goddaughter, and step into their complex inner lives. In “The Mortician’s Bride Says I’m Yours,“ a confession:

As I rub my foot with oil I also mourn the pain
slowly vanishing. It’s one more precious possession gone.
Oh the devastating truth of loss, oh mercy. I have been
parting with myself since birth ...

The 30 poems in Black Blossoms offer a sampler of magical realism, muscular syntax, and searing lament. Each voice inhabits gender, class, and historical context with an uncanny authority as the author shifts from poem to poem. Rigoberto González, who is also the author of a memoir, two novels, two bilingual children’s books, and a collection of short stories, is a wordsmith of the first order. He returns to poetry with this third collection, full of biting metaphors and memorable portraits, a singular pleasure to read.

[Published October 11, 2011. 76 pages, $15.95 paperback]
Elaine Sexton’s poems and reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Art in America, Poetry, Pleiades, Oprah Magazine and elsewhere. Her most recent collection is Causeway (New Issues, 2008).