Monday, August 18, 2014

Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners—Gwendolyn Zepeda

I am ashamed to admit that this book has been waiting nine months for me to review it. I feel as if I should apologize to it directly—not to the author or publisher, but to the book. It has been patient.

Gwendolyn Zepeda, poet laureate of Houston, has a complicated relationship with her job. Many of her poems are poems of the air-conditioned cubicle, the reception desk and the morning commute. What makes them interesting is the simmering discontent just below the surface, the uncomfortable gender politics, the quiet desperation. Though it may not be the high tragedy of Tristan and Isolde, Zepeda adds great poignancy to the grinding, dispiriting nine-to-five.

“A Man Needs a Woman” gets this theme started. After detailing all of the things a man “needs” in a woman (a list that grows more unequal and demeaning line-by-line), it concludes, “and if you can type fast, that’s even better.” We realize this list wasn’t for a lover, but for a secretary (and Zepeda took the job).

Zepeda has more than this one side to her, though. She discusses her position straddling two cultures—Mexican and white American—in many of her poems.  That duality informs some poems, but others capture the duality of being a worker and a mother, or of a mother and a lover. The poem “Self-Acceptance”, in which Zepeda accepts that she is more Hera than Aphrodite, not only contrasts those two archetypes, but also the images of classical mythology with “throw pillows that smell like the shoes of little boys.”

The poem “These People” is fascinating because of its ambiguity. The poem gives examples of parents and grandparents neglecting or abusing their kids with the excuse of toughening them up, then ends:

The lady on the news says there’s a teacher who won an award. She’s a teacher at your daughter’s school. She seeks to undo all the lessons you teach her.

Who is the “you” in this case? Hypothesis 1: “you” is a neglectful, abusive parent. Fortunately for your daughter, there are caring people in her life that work to “undo” the “toughening up” that you have subjected her to. Hypothesis 2 (slightly more ominous): this teacher is yet another of those who toughen children. She is there, in ironic contrast to her award, to toughen up your daughter, just as the people previously mentioned in the poem would do. And you can’t stop her.

The balance of this collection lies in observations on daily life, but from time to time bold truths stand out. My favorite poem of the book is “Hush Now”, which begins, “You called it ‘unspeakable horror’, the things this girl went through,” alluding to a rape. Zepeda asserts, “You won’t be able to speak when you hear” the story of this girl, but “that doesn’t make it unspeakable.” Her conclusion: “It’s just not spoken by you. It’s not your tale to tell.” Those ending lines resonate with me, and are a good example of Zepeda’s strongest talent—condensing a single moment or thought in to a simple yet well-crafted line.