Reviewed by Nikolai Garcia
Wendy Trevino’s debut poetry collection, Cruel Fiction (Commune Editions, Sept. 11 2018), is a confrontational book. It wants to remind us that the world we inhabit—the one that praises artists like Michael Jackson and Prince—is the same world where anti-blackness prevails.
Trevino opens up her book with “128-131” [From Santa Rita 128-131], a sort of list of observations that she witnessed while being detained at Santa Rita Jail, (in northern California), with a group of over twenty women. Although the reason for arrest is never mentioned, one can infer that she was part of a mass arrest at a demonstration. The alleged crime, however, is not important because the point is to show us how people are treated in jail—in particular, women:
I met at least 3 women who were menstruating.
Bridesmaids came up 1 time.
I was 1 of at least 2 women who had seen Bridesmaids.
Kreayshawn’s ‘Gucci Gucci’ came up 1 time.
I heard 1 woman sing, ‘One big room / full of bad bitches.’
Aquaman came up 1 time.
I saw at least 5 drops of fresh blood on the floor in the hall.
I saw at least 7 spots of dried blood on the wall of a tank.
I heard the riddle ‘What is brown & sticky?’ 2 times.
A six-page, double-spaced poem is not something I usually look forward to, but Trevino makes it work. Her way of pointing out pain and injustice, and drawing it out using humor, make this piece a powerful way to open a book. In between serious images, the poet shows us women talking, singing, and discussing popular culture. It’s as if the poet is telling us pop culture happens in doses, and in between struggles.
Indeed, this book is filled with struggle. The very next piece [Poem [[Santander bank was smashed into]], a short piece about taking a break from reading and taking to the streets, features these wonderful lines: there were barricades in London/ there were riot girls drinking riot rosè/ the party melted into the riot melted into the party –If that doesn’t want to make you be part of direct action, then I don’t know what will.
In another piece from the first section, [Poem [then you’re there & you’re unpaid]], the poet seems to be commenting on people going along with the status quo: peaceful fascists & riot police work together/ the video goes viral, not so much to convince, but for history/ nothing personal, and ends the next stanza with, horoscopes call for more of the same. A sober man ponders a missile. Trevino relies less on rhyme and alliteration, and more on cold simple facts that leave the reader with images to ponder.
The second section of the book is thirty poems (all sonnets, 14 lines each), filled with musical references and important questions. In [If a woman illegally crossing], one of the many questions posed in the piece is: What if that scene in Reservoir/ Dogs where Mr. Blonde tortures a cop had/ Been choreographed to “Bidi Bidi/ Bom Bom,” instead of “Stuck in the Middle/ With You?” Besides Selena, some of the other musical artists mentioned are Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, Rage Against the Machine—and even a lesser known political punk band from Mexico, Tijuana NO!, gets a nod.
Trevino is not just name-dropping. She has a lot to say and uses popular culture to get some of her points across. Not only does it help to get into heavy topics like American consumerism, racism in Latin America, or violence at the border, but it also makes the poems more relatable to the reader and enjoyable to read. As she says in [JClo says what “rage most wants”]:
More importantly, what he says helps me
Think about this bad feeling I tend to
Get when I explain what I do in terms
Of popular culture—maybe it’s just
Culture. It’s recursive & fucking fun.
The last section of the book is made up of thirty more sonnets, all of which are composed of 14 lines, 10 syllables each. One can imagine that the poet chose not to follow any rhyme scheme so as not to limit herself as she gets into understanding our views of race and class. Trevino also doesn’t confine herself to just one poem, as most poems flow directly into the next—she lets us know there’s a lot to explore.
In [When I said race is relational], she begins to speak on power relations within ethnicities: It isn’t enough to not like/ Mexicans. Where I’m from, many of us/ Mexican-Americans resented/ The Mexicans who came to South Texas/ To shop for designer clothes. Trevino follows this up with a sonnet about Mexican teens shopping in a U.S. mall, buying expensive clothes with their parents’ credit cards; which is then followed up with a sonnet about how White people from Latin America can separate themselves from other Latinx, but still not be considered “white enough.” This sonnet leads into a poem about Afro-Latinos, which in turn leads us into the next sonnet [Our friend Becky has blocked out her memories], which tells us:
…Mexican is not a race either.
Even when Rob Wilson would get angry
& call my childhood friend Messcan
Even when he told me he liked me but
Couldn’t date Mexicans, Mexican was
Not a race—even in the 80s.
This last section of the book is put together in this way as it gets into the problems of mestizaje, nationalism, and the Multiracial Movement. And we are along on the journey, from poem to poem, delving from one intricate layer of each topic to another. But my favorite of these poems, which tie everything up, is [A border, like race, is a cruel fiction], which ends:
…We are who we are
To them, even when we don’t know who we
Are to each other & culture is a
Record of us figuring that out.
Trevino writes with the fire of a Bertolt Brecht and uses pop-culture as artfully as her contemporary, Michael Robbins. Her fresh, non-traditional approach to poetry is very much welcomed in a world that—at this very moment—needs more than just poetry.