By Michelle Otero, University of New Mexico Press, 80 pages, $18.95
Albuquerque is praised for her terrain, languages, music, and food in Michelle Otero’s debut collection, Bosque, in which she also celebrates books, artists, and family. For those who grew up listening to Al Hurricane, for instance, “Breaking Ground” is set against a background of New Mexico music automatically conjured by the mind, where others will hear Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman” behind the same poem. Otero is in her poems as a storyteller of, witness to, and participant in history and culture. Repeated sounds and syntax give many of the poems the quality of chants or prayers, as if she’s invoking ancestors. “The Color Brown” is a gesture drawing of her identity as a New Mexican, a simple list of words and phrases that includes “coyote fence,” “January yucca frond,” “Estancia pintos,” “arroyo sand,” “dust,” “Taos church,” “mother’s hands,” and “me.”
Bosque will inspire pride, as well as self-reflection likely to send readers born and raised in the state down memory lane. “You learned to crawl among Mother roots/Learned Mother tongues,” she writes in “To Grow a Child in New Mexico.”
You fed on stories and flour tortillas, suckled
Caldo from grandmother’s fingertips
You were raised by many mothers
By atole in a tin cup
By the light of a south-facing wall
THE DEFINITION OF EMPTY (2021) By Bill O’Neill, University of New Mexico Press, 66 pages, $18.95
New Mexico State Senator Bill O’Neill uses his professional life as fodder for his writing. His work as a youth advocate drives his second collection of poems, with most of the pages devoted to meetings and hearings with teenagers in the criminal justice system. Though the kids often express remorse, they usually lack insight into their own behavior. O’Neill wants nothing more than to get each of them the help they need, but he’s a realist. He can’t fix anything, not really, and he knows it.
His eyes brighten slightly, from the part of him/that is not sedated,” he writes in “Castillo.”
At this point I want to believe that in any sad story there
is an unvisited life that can take hold in its full glowing
form & that Castillo speaks for all of us. It is always
like this, the same equation for these boys of
the reform school, as they appear before
us in this formal room with its strange carpeted walls.
O’Neill is deft at quick characterization through dialogue and physical description, and he easily backs in and out of a narrative to observe and offer moments of perspective. There’s something hopeful about transforming a career’s worth of these difficult meetings into poetry. O’Neill shows us that even the most dedicated of public servants can fall into drudgery and burnout, but each child deserves his full attention.
DUENDE de BURQUE: ALBUQUERQUE POEMS and MUSINGS (2021)
By Manuel Gonzalez, University of New Mexico Press, 63 pages, $18.95
Manuel Gonzalez comes from a performance poetry background. While every poem in his third collection is better read aloud, some demand it. If it runs down the center of the page, reading it out loud — and paying special attention to line breaks — will recreate the sense of hearing it at a poetry slam. In “Heart Beat,” Gonzalez’s devotional language becomes a whirl of energy.
and for the first time I can actually see
It’s like remembering forever
Before and after
We are all bastards of humanity
And all divine children of infinity
Many of the poems in Duende de Burque are odes and homages to Albuquerque and New Mexico, and many of them rhyme, with the driving, irregular beats of hip-hop. Gonzalez writes of religion and spiritual seeking as he entertains and impresses within the carnival of poetry competition. And then he ushers us into a hushed hall, where he uses all the same skills for a moment of grace — as in “Empress of Eternity,” a three-part ekphrastic poem inspired by “Compass & Key,” a painting by Las Vegas, New Mexico, artist Carlos Quinto Kemm.
Earth mother, cloaked in awareness,
The truth behind the veil
As the holy angel of death
Prostrates himself before
Her diamond studded shoes
LIST and STORY (2020)
By Hilda Raz, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 78 pages, $18
Hilda Raz’s 14th book finds the famed writer, educator, and editor in a misanthropic state of mind. In the second poem, “The Spa of the Three Widows,” the speaker’s friends’ husbands are dead. She doesn’t want to be like them, tacky in their widowhood, while her husband is “alive and vigorous.” In the midst of this multipage meditation on the fear of aging, the women take a trip to the beach, and Raz offers these objectively gorgeous lines:
In the distance one widow is dancing. The sun
has come out and makes of this vista a dazzle
but we can see her flirting with the waves.
Maybe he is there under the surface.
But the speaker of the poems in List and Story conveys a mounting disdain for the people in her life or perhaps toward the readers she seeks to address. She is sick of existing but not ready to die. She expresses her sadness by lashing out with negativity and, sometimes, shocking condescension, especially toward other women. The anger that thrums through these poems might be the justified, smothered howl of a woman of a certain age. Unfortunately, the rage often seems misdirected, and the poems are littered with random snippets of dialogue that don’t further meaning or push language. The frustrating result is like a series of urgent messages transmitted through a poorly tuned radio.
TIME SIGNATURES (2021)
By John W. Bing, Kelsay Books, 74 pages, $16
John W. Bing’s debut collection is an ambitious assortment of observations about life, land, history, and social issues that travels the globe from Afghanistan to New Mexico. Bing experiments with free verse and Walt Whitman-esque drop lines, persona poems, and ekphrastic poems about works of art. He also gives us several complicated forms, among the most compelling of which is “Afghan Pantoum.” In a pantoum, the lines of rhyming quatrains adhere to specific syllable counts, and the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza.
Back and forth swung the chandelier
as I ate in the restaurant, alone.
A quiet waiter at my side said
Not to worry, sir, the quake will soon be done.
As I ate in the restaurant, alone,
thinking of home, thinking of the cold.
Not to worry, it will soon be done
And things will settle down, I’ll be home.
While some of Bing’s stylistic approaches are interesting, and he can be clever with a musical or provocative turn of phrase, Time Signatures skates along the surface, describing things from the outside. This lack of attempted insight into his subject matter makes many poems feel unfinished. This is most glaring when he approaches topics to which he is already an outsider, like feminism and slavery. But his willingness to try on so many different poetic guises is laudable. — Jennifer Levin