Finishing Line Press 2006 - $14.00
New poets probably worry far too much about developing a distinctive ‘voice’, when part of the joy of writing is that it allows you to slip into any number of personas, styles and tones.
Celia Lisset Alvarez, though, extracts maximum character and flavour from her Cuban American background, and the result is memorable, touching and always highly readable. ‘Flavour’ is the right word, too, because while family, roots and motherhood are the threads running through this well-paced collection, it’s often the highly sensual, occasionally synaesthetic imagery that really grabs you. You taste, smell and feel the Caribbean and Florida. Beach roads, markets, Sunday church services— they’re all there, recognisable and never sentimentalised:
…we searched the sky for signs of storms,
held our faces up as we pinned and trembled,
trying to feel the wind,
and what was good in it.
(‘What Was Good’)
It’s this richness that allows the poet to disguise significance rather than signpost it. The dense childhood memories of ‘Don’t’, for example, hide little touches like “I told you not to bring any dolls, nothing / you would be sad to lose…” that hint at the tensions and conflicts present in her past. Similarly, she conceals little outpourings of emotion in two funny but moving poems about Lois Lane.
Most of the time, Alvarez flits between a loose, supple formalism and a reined-in free verse, in which the odd experimental touch, such as gaps in the text taking the place of punctuation, are used sparingly and well to evoke the halting workings of memory. I only struggled when she went too far in either direction – ‘Pantoum For My Father’, for instance, didn’t seem to play to her strengths.
It’s not cheap for a chapbook (although admittedly, it’s beautifully produced), but there’s an awful lot to get your teeth into. Sometimes, that search for ‘voice’ is well worth it.
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