Flowers, Song & Dynamite: A Review of Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass

By Elias Serna PhD 

The first time I heard Matt Sedillo, he was the poet shouting in the street. Literally. And the streets have always been the terrain of poetry as well as polemics. When Rudy Acuña stated that “polemics are the engine of revolutions” he was referring to Corky Gonzalez’ epic “I am Joaquin.” It was what a generation needed. A historical consciousness, which the poets delivered before the historians completed their manuscripts. In my own scholarship, I have described movement speech as pleito rhetoric, speech that confronts power through multi-lingualism and academic English, evoking the street fight. Today, Sedillo, much like Corky Gonzales did with “I am Joaquin,” summons a historical consciousness, evokes the revolutionary pleito, stokes the fires next time.

The setting for Sedillo’s poems are rebellions past and present. Numerous uprisings throughout history are set off after a child is murdered or abused by ruling forces (Noche triste, the Tongva/Chumash revolts, Black Lives Matter). It must be the last straw for a people, the last condition they are willing to tolerate, the last shred of dignity taken. The child representing their future, the people’s hopes and potential. After Jesse Romero was chased through Boyle Heights on August 9, 2016 and shot dead after disposing of a gun, his corpse was unceremoniously turned on its stomach, limp hands handcuffed behind his back by officers. A street protest followed and ended on the spot his body lay. The speakers were visibly anguished, distraught. Then Matt Sedillo took the mic. He too was enraged but composed, words weaponized and aimed, the poet shouting in the streets. He read a poem combining “Here is a Nation” and “Kingdom of Cages” and it was fiercely electric. 

In his inaugural book of poems, Mowing Leaves of Grass (FlowerSong Books 2019), Sedillo assembles an invigorating collection of poems providing an Ethnic Studies curriculum via scalding ideological and ironic wordplay. His opening poem “Pilgrim” offers both biographical data and a no-nonsense (or anti-nonsense) biting analysis of current racial politics. Like Alurista and the early Chicano Movement poets, Sedillo expertly weaves literary and pop culture allusions with the cadence of radical Chican@ Studies curriculum to produce literary dynamite. He contrasts those who “were born to summer homes, and palatial groves… where the Red Fern Grows” to a Xican@ self, “Always Running, down the Devil’s Highway, through Occupied America, on the way back to the House on Mango Street, and all those other books You didn’t want us to read.” He points out how “some were born to the common core, whose faces graced the pages of doctrines to discover,” leaving others out and reminding readers how the nation’s foundation relied on the colonial ideology of white supremacy. 

When Sedillo writes, “The Melting Pot was never meant for the hands that clean it,” you get the sense that few have the courage to say this truth, or the audacity to write like this. His fierce irony, literary allusion and rhythmic alliteration become that much more pointed when he viscerally connects harsh historical truths to our present, accusing schools in particular: “Cause you don’t teach it, Could write a book, But you won’t read it… This is about you, and 1492, And the Treaty of Guadalupe, California missions, And Arizona schools, And these racists, That try to erase us… From Popol Vuh, To Yo Soy Joaquin, To the Indian that lives in me, From Mexico 68, To the missing 43, They tried to bury us, They didn’t know we were seeds.” The allusions pour down, line by line, a rain of the terror upon an indigenous Chicano history. The image of burying of revolutionary seeds, first published during Nicaraguan revolts in Ernesto Cardenal’s “Epitaph for the Tomb of Adolfo Báez Bone” in 1954, has been appropriated in recent struggles by Tucson Raza/Ethnic  Studies organizers, to Mexicans protesting the Ayotzinapa massacre, to Black Lives Matter protesters. But like Central American poet-priest Cardenal, Sedillo articulates a leitmotif that signals uplift and regeneration. Sedillo ends his poems in balletic form, a cutting irony: “We didn’t cross the borders, The borders crossed us, Who you calling an immigrant, Pilgrim.” The rhetorical question, full of pleito, is enforced in the echoes of a radical Xican@ arts tradition, alluding to Aztlan Underground’s hit song and Yolanda Lopez’ iconic movement posters.

Imaginative poems like “The Devil” personify and illustrate clear sources of misery and inhumanity like war and consumerist traditions, while calling into question the enabling problem of apathy, misinformation and irresolution in every one of us. “Defend the Eastside” spotlights familiar places and conjures spiritual moments in the barrios east of downtown L.A., bastions of Chicano culture and resistance. As the title suggests, the poem makes a declaration to rise up to protect these sacred spaces. A few poems like “Pedagogy of the Oppressor,” a critique of the Thanksgiving mythology, are succinct and blunt, although rich in disturbing imagery.

It was rewarding to see “Kingdom of Cages” and “Here is a Nation” in print. As a witness to the spoken poem, I appreciate its still life form in front of me. As a student of literature, I rejoice in the close reading. “Here is a Nation” is a critique of contemporary state-sanctioned killings of Black and Brown youth in the context of a national tradition of racist violence against liberation movements. Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen recently wrote an op-ed in a similar fashion about anti-Asian violence as not new, but part of a shameful national tradition of racist violence against non-whites. But Sedillo’s economy of words (most of the lines in this poem are one, two or three words) pack more elocutionary force than police batons. Condemning the moral crisis of today, he writes:

They are killing our kids

While half the nation 

Applauds

In the homeland’s defense

Because they think 

They think

That a white woman’s purse

Has more value 

Than a black or brown boy’s life 

Sedillo possesses an art of drawing conclusions that are spatial, visual and revealing. “Here is a nation/ That eats its young/ This is not a democracy/ This is not a republic/ This is an open-air prison/ An industrial scale plantation.” His juxtaposition of modes of patriotic tradition with scenes of violence produces an ironic onomatopoeia: “Peculiar institution/ Institutionalized racism/ Declaration/ To Plantation/ Anthem/ To Slave Ship/ The bicentennial/ And back/ To the slave whip.” While the presentation of evidence is blunt, its arrangement resonate visually and stunningly: “To Arizona’s/ Blood red/ Coyote trails/ Traffic/ In brown flesh/ Brick by brick/ Grave by grave/ Inch by inch/ slave by slave/ Here is a nation/ There are its chains.” The last two pages of the poem set two lists of martyrs side by side: revolutionary martyrs over time and more current innocent children murdered by police. Except one: Brisenia Flores. 

In 2009, the nine-year old girl, daughter of two Mexican workers in Arizona, was murdered alongside her father by a nativist vigilante group who invaded the family’s home and shot her at point blank range as she pleaded for her life. The murder of the innocent third grader illustrated the depraved status of racist vigilantes as well as state-sanctioned violence provoked by anti-Mexican rhetoric, immigration policies and education laws. Sedillo’s roll call of martyrs is a reminder that the murders of Tecumseh and John Brown centuries ago, of Malcolm X and Ruben Salazar 50+ years ago, and of unarmed children today are still “applauded by half the nation.” It is also, as the poem concludes, “a call to arms.” 

The shorter “Kingdom of Cages” opens by marching out a cast of police characters in a country (U.S.) with the highest incarceration rate in the world, condemning the internalized (in)justice system, “the thin blue line on an all white jury.” The social movement for culturally relevant curriculum points out importantly that education outcomes hinge on the class being meaningful to the present, to books reflecting student lives. Sedillo’s poetry abounds in this quality. The evocative repetition of “As they shoot us as we run” reminds us that for white colonizers, real estate developers or gentrifying neighbors, people of color have too frequently served as “their open frontiers, the neighborhood threat,” a justification of racist colonizing and violent policing of space.  

It also summons the memory of that raw emotional day at the wake of 14 year old Jesse Romero, as the crowd formed around the youth’s shrine off of Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. The tragedy repeated this year when Adam Toledo was killed in similar fashion by Chicago police. We need Matt Sedillo’s poetry like the 1960’s needed “I am Joaquin.” Sedillo’s rhythmic anthems stand alongside Ana Castillo’s “In My Country,” and Abelardo’s “Stupid America” – unapologetic, poetic and brave. If our current racial crisis is a house on fire, is Matt Sedillo the water, or a strong wind? The deeper answers to our social ills won’t likely be debated effectively in city halls. And before the social scientists write their analytical manuscripts, the vision of a better tomorrow may be first observed in the enraged elegies to murdered children, in the voices of the poets like Sedillo, shouting in the streets. 


Elias Serna is a parent, artist & educator, formerly an assistant professor of English at the University of Redlands. He is a co-founder of Raza Studies Now, the Xican@ Pop-Up Book movement, and is currently helping coordinate Xican@ Quincentennial Moratorium events. He holds an MFA from UCLA Film School and a doctorate in English from UC Riverside. As a MEChA co-chair at UC Berkeley, he organized Ethnic Studies activism and helped negotiate the American Cultures requirement. He is a co-founder of teatro group Chicano Secret Service which has toured nationally and performed at the HBO Comedy Festival and in the tv pilot “Pochonovela” (PBS). In 2013, his archive titled “Chican@ Movement Banned Books,” won 1st place in the Library of Congress’ National Book Collection contest. He is a board member of the Pico Youth and Family Center.

Ramona and Rumi: Love in the Time of Oligarchy by Edward Vidaurre

Reviewed By: Nikolai Garcia

Edward Vidaurre’s latest chapbook, Ramona and rumi: Love in the Time of Oligarchy (& Unedited Necessary Poems), Hercules Publishing, 2018, is a bit oddly constructed, but full of love language.

The Prologue poem introduces us to rumi and Ramona, Both/ running scared/ crashing into each other. The first half of the book is all about them, and in 24 poems we witness their amusing daily interactions, their uncontrollable lust for each other, and their eventual break-up. (Love—this intense—just cannot last, it seems).

The book is filled with great lines like: I fell in love with your ancestors [“The Talk”]; rumi throws the moon back/ & one by one kicks the stars into the night [“Meeting At Night”]; her virgin bloom, sap-filled/ mouth, letting out a/ souvenir of promises/ of sure agony [“Equinox”]. But, what really makes this collection stand-out is the magical surrealism world that Vidaurre has built for these love poems. Take, for instance, “Early Morning”:


He plants squash for his foes

she picks up a rock to stare at her reflection

rumi raises owls, feeds them plantains

they bring him cantos in exchange

Ramona, plants the songs next to a rosemary garden

in a month, teething children will sing the harvest


These playful scenes can be found throughout the first half of the book. They help give the characters life, makes their love seem more real, and make the poems more enjoyable to the reader.

The second half of the book is different, but just as creative. It consists of erotic poems inspired by heavy metal music. The poems are “darker,” which some might consider to be the right amount of kink, while other more sensitive souls might need a trigger warning. Take for instance, my favorite poem from this half of the book, “Kiss”:

I want to kiss you in the middle of a nightmare

when you bleed, when you bleed in my mouth

I want to kiss your mouth while I massage your rug burns

when you carve my name into your thighs

I want to kiss you in dark places, no light, just voices around us

when you feel a knife to your neck

I want to kiss you at a funeral as they lower the casket

when flowers whisper “I love you”

Vidaurre has a gift of taking the erotic to write lines that create great visual images in the mind, like in this ending stanza from “Mouthsong”: I think of your tongue/ how it traces the island around your lips/ destroying yesterday’s promises. That last line is amazing in the way that it tells us so much in just three words.

My only complaints about this chapbook is that there were no page numbers and one of the illustrations in the book partially omits some lines from a poem—but these are no faults of the poet.

Our contemporary poetry world currently highlights confessional poetry and political poetry, (rightly and righteously so in the latter’s case) but it is always good to relax and revel in a good collection of love poems. With his latest chapbook, Vidaurre gives us a collection worthy of being on a bookshelf right next to love poetry books by Nikki Giovanni or Pablo Neruda.


Edward Vidaurre is the 2018-2019 McAllen,Texas Poet Laureate and author of five collections of poetry including: I Took My Barrio on A Road Trip, Chicano Blood Transfusion, and Ramona & Rumi: Love in the Time of Oligarchy & Unedited Necessary Poems. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and writes from the front lines of the Mexican-American borderlands of El Valle in South Tejas.


RAMONA AND RUMI: LOVE IN THE TIME OF OLIGARCHY is available for purchase on Edward Vidaurre’s website.

Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino

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.


CRUEL FICTION is available for purchase at Commune Editions and AK Press

Revelations by Ruben Quesada

Reviewed by Dryland Staff

Ruben Quesada’s chapbook, REVELATIONS, is a collection where poems about angels, Christ, and crucified gods mix with poems about heroin, erections and dead birds; the holy and the unholy.

Poems are grouped together by titles of his translations of works by Luis Cernuda, a Spanish poet who was exiled from his home country in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and one of the first openly gay poets of the 20th century.

Except for the opening piece (“Angels In The Sun”), all the author’s poems are titled by way of roman numerals. Poems I through IX are all prose pieces; psalms that offer a window into a soul that has witnessed and experienced much pain and sadness.

What impacted me most from these prose poems were the endings. Some, just a few words, but each more melancholic than the last. For example, a haze of zinnias hushed in the rain, and later, body turned to ash, and, nothing more was said.

Cernudas’s poems share the themes of nature; the changing seasons; and life and death. Here, some lines from “Desire,” my favorite of the translated pieces: from the yellow poplar/ a leaf like a broken star/ spins toward the earth. And this stanza from, “Fall Feeling,” another translation, and the final poem in the chapbook:

Upon the old ruins it rains,

The autumn still green,

Odorless, dreams blossom,

And the body gives in.

Quesada carefully chose which poems to include with his own, and the four translated poems complement his own language well. For instance, compare the previous cited lines with these from poem, “X,” sunsets were plum colored lights kissing snow/ covered rooftops joy was a love letter, and this first stanza from poem, “XIV”:

Beneath sunsets like wildfire

an alchemy of traffic in orange

and red on the 405 in Los Angeles

Both poets know the importance of color to set the mood, and both are masters at describing everyday natural occurrences in nature and life that make the reader want to stay in that moment.

At only 38 pages, this chapbook is a bible tract, but not the kind handed out by Christian zealots trying to save you from the eternal flames of hell. This is a religious text for all who can feel September quietly transform from summer into autumn, and for those who believe in the beauty of words.


REVELATIONS is available for purchase at Sibling Rivalry Press

Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge

Reviewed By Amanda Hildebrand

Poet, activist, educator, and spoken word/rap artist Chinaka Hodge has gifted us with her first book, Dated Emcees (City Lights Publishers, 2016), and shows us how hip-hop’s biggest names are history’s most tragic lovers, cheaters, victors, and martyrs, spitting and singing side-by-side with us in this terrible love game. Hodge takes us through her dating history of ex-emcees and emcee-exes a poem at a time, one for each lover and lesson, bouncing between the boundaries of literature, verse, and memoir.

Dated Emcees is a book of love poems, all things considered. If you feel lost in lovesickness, Chinaka Hodge knows where you’ve been. These are the everywoman’s love poems; poems for the infatuated woman, the dumped woman, the other woman. Hodge lets us into her personal memories of heartbreak that may feel all too familiar, and the reader pictures themselves alongside her in those lonesome gray days, counting quarters for the laundry and waiting for a call back.

Her stories are centered around women’s issues, speaking particularly to black female readers, as she challenges misogyny, violence, and colorism that permeate a popular culture centered on light, white, and straight-haired beauty.

Hodge’s confessional anecdotes are spaced between pieces about, inspired by, and dedicated to legends of hip-hop of now and days past. Haikus for Biggie and couplets for 2Pac; an internal monologue from the mind of “Mr. Carter” on the day of Blue Ivy’s wedding; an interview between Drake and Pac that night in Vegas, the two glaringly different artists reciting together in those last moments: oh my god/ oh my god/ if i die/ i’m a legend. Even though there are pop culture references buried in almost every stanza, you don’t necessarily need to be well-versed in hip-hop or its surrounding culture to understand Hodge’s message; but, as Hodge alludes to, there’s a difference between understanding and knowing. She writes to us as if we know, and we either keep up or we don’t.

Hodge is perhaps most well-known as a spoken word poet, especially for her past appearances on the HBO show Def Poetry Jam. You can hear that influence in Dated Emcees as the poems rush to sound in your head, kicking and jerking, pumping through your chest, begging to be read aloud:

i date lushes faded like grandpas
who crawl sixteen bars and get twisted
they run tabs more than they spit
swallow fake beautifuls
hen and mott’s apple
juiced stuck slurs stirs
one finger skyward
blurred
(from title track)

Hodge writes of past loves as if they were songs, their memory reverberating and echoing forever through her story, their words tattoos in Sharpie on the binds of history books, where the people will see them. Her subjects are saints enshrined in the timeless art of hip-hop.

Hodge reminds us of the comfort and healing that can be found in remembering pain as growth.

Female emcees are strangely missing from the armada of hip-hop figures filling the pages, despite the influence women in hip-hop have had on Hodge and her work. Perhaps she simply has never dated a female emcee; perhaps she wanted to focus specifically on masculinity in the hip-hop community. Her stories are centered around women’s issues, speaking particularly to black female readers, as she challenges misogyny, violence, and colorism that permeate a popular culture centered on light, white, and straight-haired beauty.

sth
pft
sith
pft
ha
they
aint
never
going
to make
no princess
tiana your
color.
(from “light privilege or Lili speaks”)

The poems are tied together by the overarching idea that the past, and our ghosts from it, have direct influence on where and how we go in the future. If we watch ourselves make the same mistakes, forsake our histories, refuse to amend damaged pasts – then we’re resigned to the same heartbreak, over and over again. Hodge reminds us of the comfort and healing that can be found in remembering pain as growth.

Chinaka Hodge will break your heart, she’ll make you angry, she’ll make you guilty; but mostly, she’ll tell you the truth. Her confessions of heartbreak in Dated Emcees will speak to those who have loved, lost, and re-found themselves in the small places between the punchlines.


Dated Emcees is available through City Lights Booksellers & Publishers

Bruja by Wendy Ortiz

Reviewed by Amanda Hildebrand

Following Excavation: A Memoir and Hollywood Notebook, Wendy C. Ortiz’s third experiment in memoir, Bruja, (Civil Coping Mechanisms, Los Angeles, 2016) is a similar manifestation of Ortiz’s self-evaluative journeys through the magic and mystery of inner consciousness. When presented with this dumping-ground of a one-time blog project, in which she recorded detailed accounts of her own dreams over months, composed of “threads” of themes and narratives instead of a followable structure, Ortiz and publisher Michael J. Seidlinger termed the book’s genre as “dreamoir.” In Bruja, Ortiz reminds us of the peculiar ways dreams present themselves: as symbols, as images, as reflections, as reminders themselves, each wrapped in an unconscious narrative that makes all dreams seem not only familiar, but connected. Ortiz lets her dreams speak their own surreal, uncertain truths, revealing inner worlds of memory and witchcraft that bound beyond their dream-forms.

Bruja implies autonomy of body and spirit. Through the excavation of what her deepest imagination is capable of, Ortiz is connecting with the bruja within herself, the witch who can read signs, interpret symbols, feel what those before her have felt. She’s calling to something deep: the collective woman, the universe’s sleeping magic — in order to discover something within herself, or perhaps discover a new self altogether.

For all the right reasons, Bruja is impossible to put down. It’s the spell of stepping into dreamland; and even though this is Wendy’s dreamland, we’ve been here before. Ortiz captures that “knowing” feeling required to enter and navigate dreams without exposition or confusion by also throwing us right in. She only presents simple images, and how they made her dream-self feel. Not quite poetry, prose, magic realism, memoir or dream journal — and definitely not fiction — Ortiz relies on our collective dream experiences to ground her formatless collection of images. Despite the chaos, it flows, because of Ortiz’s incomplex but chimeric language, and economic choices in details. The only plot points are the names of months every few pages, without dates or years, furthering the feeling of uncertainty of our place in time and space. Uncertainty is rampant in Ortiz’s dreamland, and her dateless, title-less dream entries are her first lesson in the trickster natures of our subconscious.

Our dreams can’t trick us until the “rules” of dreamland are established. Ortiz often uses “I knew” or “I understood” in her dream descriptions, calling to “that feeling” of “knowing” what’s happening in a dream the moment you’re submerged, no matter how strange or surreal. Before we even read Bruja we are aware of that feeling, but framed by Ortiz’s (a stranger’s) dreams, its role in creating collective dream narratives and meaning from those narratives becomes even more important – “that feeling” bridges our dream experience together. Another rule of dreamland: realism is impossible, but imagery stolen from real-life is essential to help establish “that feeling:” favorite faces, places we’ve been – maybe just a little bit different, but still familiar. Ortiz dreams of her old town of “Olympia-that-is-not-Olympia;” her mother – but not, because she is faceless; and somehow familiar strangers, introduced to once but now dragged back to the front of her mind. Things are off, but by the next day, the memory is forever altered in the subconscious by this new lens. Dreams create a reality within themselves, show us what-ifs, sourced from own our minds and memories that seemed so concrete before.

Because Ortiz presents dreams the way they present themselves, we’re left alone to make out their meanings. Often in Bruja, Ortiz’s dreams appear as bare-bone images with no hint at plot or story, focusing on the sensory experience of dreaming.

“My hair was being braided. The stranger doing it pulled my hair back from my scalp with a brush.
As they braided I could feel their hands moving in the motion of braiding.”

Ortiz doesn’t have to explain to us how she can “feel” this dream-stranger’s dream-hands in her dream-hair, because most of us have experienced this exact sensation of “feeling” — touching, tasting, smelling — while dreaming. Even while suspended in unconsciousness, our imaginations project physical sensations through our bodies; dreams have evolved past messages from beyond, and into conjurings. Dreams are charms, cursing us with feelings that rack our bodies without a conscious mind to register them. It’s a very mystical thought, evoking an image of bodies tortured by passions of religious fervor while their minds fight for sense; but the spell has already taken over, and we’re lost in senseless dreamland.

Ortiz’s personal connection to magic, mysticism, and brujería is emphasized throughout her body of work, and directly pointed to by the title of this collection; but explicit magic, wands and charms and leaky cauldrons, is missing from Bruja’s pages. We do find, repeatedly, imagery of blood, pregnancy, wombs, and water, amongst other symbolic evocations of magic, specifically brujería.

“I was caught in a flood.
I delivered the baby by C-section and carried the infant in my arms. I walked up to a gas station. There were bloodstains on the concrete garage floor…
I’ve just had a baby and I’m not afraid of anything, I thought.”

Bruja implies autonomy of body and spirit. Through the excavation of what her deepest imagination is capable of, Ortiz is connecting with the bruja within herself, the witch who can read signs, interpret symbols, feel what those before her have felt. She’s calling to something deep: the collective woman, the universe’s sleeping magic — in order to discover something within herself, or perhaps discover a new self altogether.

Ortiz’s dreams, like a lot of dreams, conjure disaster: floods, puberty, abortion, violence, abandonment. Our fears and anxieties are mirrored in surrealist dreamland, at times unrecognizable, at others copied almost beat-for-beat from “real life.” Dreams can recreate embarrassing mistakes that already happened, or terrifying possibilities for the future; they can poison us against doing things we’ve never even tried, or spoil our opinions of loved ones; because nothing is off-limits. Our dreams are parts of our narratives we are removed from, leaving more opportunity for spiraling out of control.

When a dream reaches into our cubbies of subconsciousness and yanks out a memory of a long-lost face or a home we’ll never return to, it re-stirs that memory within us and re-minds us, mind body and spirit, of a something that’s no longer here, but forever present in “that feeling.” Dreamoirist Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja shows us that a dream is a re-awakening of all of our selves, our experiences, our sensations; a magical revisitation from the past, and all its ghosts with unfinished business.


Bruja is available through Civil Coping Mechanisms

Mortal Trash: Poems by Kim Addonizio

Reviewed By Amanda Hildebrand

Mortal Trash (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) is a collection of handfuls: odes to old friends and family members, instructional poems about what poetry isn’t, simple pleads for answers. There’s a eulogy at the end, as if we’ve just died. We all follow Addonizio to heaven: “I saw God/ in a cumulus cloud./ Angels gathered on my library card.” And the big-kid concept of death is now so simple: a face in the clouds, a small square of plastic in your pocket.

And as soon as we stick our toes in, Addonizio won’t give us a moment of relief. There are no page numbers in the table of contents; each cryptic title is listed next to the digits 000. Nothing nothing nothing, again and again – and we’re lost with her in quasi-structured mayhem. A couple sections of poems with no uniform format and no collective motivation are followed by a section of fourteen maybe-randomly-numbered sonnets, a smack of structure in the middle of the collection. Mortal Trash is a collection of handfuls: odes to old friends and family members, instructional poems about what poetry isn’t, simple pleads for answers. There’s a eulogy at the end, as if we’ve just died. We all follow Addonizio to heaven: “I saw God/ in a cumulus cloud./ Angels gathered on my library card.” And the big-kid concept of death is now so simple: a face in the clouds, a small square of plastic in your pocket.

Addonizio’s style is ephemeral, but relatable as hell; it’s absurd, confessional, vulnerable, even silly. She presents abstract situations and concepts as ordinary objects and happenings, forcing our noses to the dirt to see the beauty there. Addonizio gives us structured poetic forms with mismatched, abstract content – a spaghetti dinner served on fine china but with no forks or knives to easily gobble it up; we’re left messy. Her settings are fantastic, in places where you hear “ominous sounds in the woods” from “[m]aybe/ wild animals, maybe lesser demons – / strewing the garbage, thieving chickens/ and itty dogs, clawing at the siding doors”; a place where “[s]omething flowers/ in the air above the bed but no one/ can say what”  (from “Stray Sparks”). This place is like a dirty fairytale, littered by mundane objects that Addonizio continuously points out: a box of matches, stove burners, a hospital chair. The fantastic decomposes, surreal, then belligerent, leaving nothing but ugly, material waste for us to stare at. The world is dissolving before our eyes, and our trash is unignorable.

“The fantastic decomposes, surreal, then belligerent, leaving nothing but ugly, material waste for us to stare at. The world is dissolving before our eyes, and our trash is unignorable.”

There has to be logic behind this mess. Addonizio is obviously a well-read fan of Anglo classics; canon literary references pop in and out of her poems just when we thought all we knew was lost. Her poem “Out in the Tranquil Bay” directly quotes Arnold’s famous opening line of “Dover Beach,” then slides straight from the tranquility of “The sea is calm tonight” into pointed, scattered declaratives that jostle us with accusation: “You are an infidel.” “This elixir tastes weird.” “You are on fire./ Put yourself out.” The economy of her words shows a methodology behind each seemingly dropped-from-ten-stories-above poem. Her use of references ground us, tap into our subconsciousness whether we like it or not, and force us to pay attention. She’s poking us in the chest with the most recognizable minutia of our everyday lives so we see the dirty beauty in our collective messes, and, particularly in “The Sonnets,” her personal griefs.

Each poem in the section titled “The Sonnets” is numbered. Skimming through, they look like sonnets; their length, line breaks, and use of couplets loosely mirror the Elizabethan formatting. At face value, this section seems more structured than the others, and the call to Shakespeare immediately eases us into a familiar place – but we’re only comfortable for a second. The question is: are Mortal Trash’s sonnets supposed to “line up” with Shakespeare’s? In the Addonizio way – kinda.

Sonnet 130
my mister’s eyes are something all right
Mr. Johnson how do you do
his scleras oh they’re mighty white
float like a dead man sting like a wound
Captain Crow flew off up some tree
calls me names when Mr. walks with me
burnt roses at the florist stand greening
we went back in the dark singing

One of Shakespeare’s most quoted, memorized, and labored-over sonnets, Sonnet 130 is dedicated to a lover whose appearance is nondivine and repulsive, and still draws the narrator into a violent fit of fourteen-lined passion. You can see what draws Addonizio to this sonnet, and Shakespeare’s general out-with-the-old-in-with-the-nasty spirit. Addonizio’s Sonnet 130 calls to the original’s famous first line with a dry joke that mixes irreverence with the familiar to make us uneasy. Her sonnet feels shameful, with mystical Miltonesque characters called Captain Crow embodying concepts like judgment, creepy singsongy rhymes, and a general feeling of eerie off-ness, like a nightmare you had as a kid you still remember. It’s an uncomfortable ride through a distorted reality where sonnets are dirty, and not even Shakespeare is safe.

Sonnet 116 is elegantly begun by the Bard with the show-stopping riddle: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” Don’t spend too long racking those undergrad Shakespeare lectures in the back of your head, Addonizio wants to make it easy for you:

let me not to the pediment of two minds
admit marriage; love alter[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[=[====[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[]
Love is not love
stain remover will take that out
(from Sonnet 116)

In this sonnet and others in the section, txt speak and sporadic punctuation tantrums have swallowed strict rhyming patterns and measured iambs. It’s as if Addonizio dropped her forehead on her keyboard for a second to collect herself. We’ve boiled down to our gritty truths. Even Shakespeare seemed to believe in small hopeful ideas like love, but Addonizio has wiped the thought away, has blotted out that stain so we can see the ugly reality hiding between the lines. Her sonnets are at their cores about love, death, shame; they’re angry, and mournful; they’re almost guilty. She uses this traditionalist, structured space as a landfill to dump everything out – every bitter, ugly, ridiculous, embarrassing feeling that makes us squirm to read.

Addonizio’s musical background easily carries over to her poetry. It’s like we’re following an erratic drummer; the poem’s sounds are manipulated through strategic disjointed formatting and are aligned to an inconsistent beat. Thoughts and images stop staccato and harsh, or pour into each other over line breaks. They wax and wane, stop to breathe, and pick up again. Sometimes they wiggle around with nowhere to go at all. The secret to tying unconventional rhythms with the themes of Addonizio’s world of mess lies in her economic but impactful language, balanced on well-placed turns and bursts of simple imagery, all captured in the first poem of the collection:


This is me as a slowly-tearing-itself apart cloud
and marveling
at a fire palely and flamily
emerging from a bowl, wavering
up through stones of cobalt glass. The air
wavers back. This is me in love
with the beauty of blue glass in flames, this is me on drugs
prescribed by my doctor
as I try once more
to sneak into nights closely guarded city,
my hollow horse read

(from “Scrapbook”)

Everything has a message. Addonizio hints at hers, whatever it is, in “Sleep Stage”: “Dreams,/ what are they, anyway: collage art,/ trash bins, intergalactic interfaces,/ maybe random missile file/ from oppressed realities.” She wants our faces against our mirrors, she wants us dancing down in the mud with her. She wants us to see the meaningful in the simple, and wonder if something really loses its beauty after it’s been thrown away.


Mortal Trash is available through W. W. Norton & Company