Shannon K. Winston
Mule & Pear
by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2011. 97 pages. $15.00.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, photographer, and painter who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of two collections, Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books) and The Requited Distance (Sheep Meadow Press). In her third collection, Mule & Pear, she pays homage to African American literary history and to women writers, especially Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and “Every Outlaw Woman.” Issues of race, sexuality, identity, and hauntings fill these poems, which center on intertextual allusions to Morrison’s Sula, Celie from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. Mule & Pear is situated at the intersections of fiction and history. Its poems are about finding literary voices that speak to us and connect us to the past. In “Dear Celie,” the speaker begins: “One day I found you / lying facedown / in a bride stain of indigo” (22). The poem repeats this desire to “find Celie” but always in different ways: “One day Celie / I want to find you / singing” (23) or “I want to find you / speaking / your amethyst life” (ibid).
In the preface, Griffiths echoes this desire to animate fictional characters in her poetry, and to explore different possibilities through their voices: “my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body. . . . It is in the powers of such characters, however real and/or fictionalized that I have understood much about literature. And living” (np). Characters in this collection speak to readers about pain, brutality, and strength to narrate trauma, and even find fleeting beauty in the most difficult moments. Again, in “Celie’s Notes: Dear God,” Celie describes “the sores that run / through [her] soul” (29) and her body “where joy / waits tapping its bloodied toes / in this body where hard work / in this body where pain / drifts like feathers” (30).
Griffiths’ poems create a rich emotional arc, often revealing joy and pain as deeply interconnected in the lives of her speakers. In “Blues for Sweet Thing,” the speaker unites the beauty of the natural world with poverty: “I ended up / being / honeysuckle threading / a ghetto fence” (84–85). Yet, just a few lines later, the speaker moves from the literal barrier of the “ghetto fence” into the more abstract, culturally inscribed feelings of failure: “How did I end up / being the ghost of every / nothing?” (85). This so-called “ghost of every / nothing” joins the ghostly voices in this collection that speak of the pain of slavery, racial injustice, and ethical responsibility. In “Requiem,” the speaker states: “Name your grief / for the memory of ancestors. / See if you can wash their blood / from your government / uniforms” (89).
Mule & Pear also draws its strength and momentum from the way it moves between different registers: between presence and absence (“My heart / under wool, flesh & buttons. Heart, I must be / occupied with absence”) (28), and between the personal and historical. In “Passing the Window,” the window figures the personal, historical, and psychological effects of discrimination. The poem begins with a “Whites Only” sign in the storefront: “Black curtains over the windows. / Remember voiceless Whites Only signs in the window” (35). Here, the invocations of “black curtains” and “Whites Only” are deliberately contrasted to highlight American polarization around issues of race. In the poem’s evolution, the window becomes inscribed within the speaker’s body and self, as she writes:
. . . The window
in my heart will need its glass replaced. Shattered
with blood, pride, race. . . .
On the other side I exist. A suspect scale
upon the sill of the window.
Too dark outside. Too light within. Or flip it
like a coin from a falling window. (ibid)
The window, in its broken form, maps onto the speaker’s body and is ultimately linked by association with the falling coin. In this way, as elsewhere in Mule & Pear, Griffiths uses physical objects like windows, mirrors, or flowers to address the pain, discrimination, and suffering that writers of color and their characters face in the world. She does so with an understated yet fierce lyricism. While readers will get the most out of Mule & Pear if they are familiar with Griffiths’ many intertextual references, those who are not can appreciate the collection’s wide stylistic range, haunting images, and powerful characters. This work is also a celebration of the strength that literature provides in linking us to each other and to collective pasts.
—Shannon K. Winston
University of Michigan
By Rigoberto González
Four Way Books, 2011. 76 pages. $15.95.
As the clichéd adage goes, one should never judge a book by its cover. Yet, it’s hard not to be immediately intrigued by the cover of Rigoberto González’s Black Blossoms, on which a mysterious black glove reaches upward, pulling a string of red and white flowers. The image of strings is an apt one for this collection, which sews a delicate balance between life and death, self and other, remembering and forgetting, in places where, “bodies spasm at the last chance / for sensation.” Corporeality, disintegration, and atrophy are some of this collection’s central themes, but González always engages them with poetic deftness. Each of the four sections—“Mundo de Mujeres,” “Frida’s Wound,” “Floridiez,” and “The Mortician Poems”—confront the frailty of human existence, asking: “What does a creature do / in the tar pits of its own extinction / but lift its tusks to the heavens to pierce its own wail?” (8).
While wails and lonely cries reverberate in these pages, so do tenacious desires to inscribe the raw beauty of such moments. The titular image of black blossoms captures both decaying flowers and González’s own “blossoming” images that build upon one another. In “Dead Woman’s Jewelry at an Estate Sale,”
. . . Mrs. Dummond takes comfort
in knowing that death appreciates the flashy cloth
and ornate metals down in México. When her skull bleeds
through her scalp, south is where she too will want to go. (17–18)
From the Weinmar to Mexico to New York City, Black Blossoms traverses many geographies, cultures, and time periods. González’s collection focuses especially on women’s bodies and voices, from Anita Berber, the woman who was painted by Otto Dix, to mother figures and wives. In “Floritrés,” the speaker asks: “Is she [your mother] among the living or the dead? Is hers the mouth / housing the silver eel of a tongue?” And later, “They forgive their mothers for the mocking / skulls beneath their faces. They will wander the earth with placentas / instead of hearts” (35).
These poems expose readers to bodily failings—to illness and dementia. The female personas come alive with their strengths and weaknesses so that, above all, readers understand them as profoundly human. González uses a rich vocabulary—mythic, religious, and mundane—to utter a wide range of voices that simultaneously call forth and eschew disillusionment and death. In “Weeping Icons,” the speaker speaks about his mother: “What a burden to carry / her loneliness until my own demise. Motherless, I have lived detached from the world / long enough” (13).
While González speaks of burdens—loss, frustrated loves, and violence—every page of Black Blossoms is a pleasure (sometimes an eerie one) to read. The different worlds he evokes are rich in imagination. The collection is filled with a dark, magical playfulness and theatrics; the voices speak from stages and from circus tents. The poems engage strong visual images and become performances in their own right. Actresses, trapeze artists, and even old women on the brink of death flaunt their irreverence and their love of ostentation. In “The Beauty of Guanajunto,” the speaker describes a night of failed love that “flickers like a reel of film especially now in my own / bedroom, with my husband neglecting to touch me again” (24). Or, in “The Unsung Story of the Invisible Woman,” a distant father will “watch his daughters grow like ink blots inside / the annual snapshots taken in bad light” (11).
Black Blossoms is unforgiving in its pursuit of that which unsettles and disturbs. González’s poems constantly surprise and estrange in productive and heart-breaking ways. From a moth’s prayers against glass to the “pain pain painful / wheel steering, world stropping, breath-stop” (48), these poems are sure to leave readers breathless.
—Shannon K. Winston
University of Michigan