Grace Shuyi Liew
Las Cruces, New Mexico: Noemi Press, 2015. 62 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
With an opening title like “In Order to See A Truth In Darkness,” and a first line that continues, “Listen for its edge,” The Reveal begins by prompting for a closing in, an attuning, a huddling around a hushed fire as it crackles. Published as part of Noemi Press’s Akrilica Series, a venture that showcases innovative Latino writing, The Reveal is Garcia Roberts’s first book of original poetry (Garcia Roberts has previously translated a book of poems). The poems here are expansive and capacious, often interrupted only during moments of encountering fissures and divides.
The opening poem continues:
Listen for its edge.
The border always —silhouetted, glancing—
Divines the real from
The divide between “the real” and “the form,” an echo of Plato’s ideal forms, ricochets throughout the book as the poems knock up against horizons, edges, borders, seams, and reflections that glance back askance, if at all. In another poem, the speaker continues to split open the space of unbelonging and alienation, calling attention to a center of gaping absence:
And there are two worlds, both foreign to me.
This one, this other,
that I am somewhere in, between.
And inevitably the border sharpens as I age
pulls me to its blade,
so that my kind have no choice
but to divide
Again, the speaker’s drive inward in order to rend her self apart is relentless. Garcia Roberts’s lines are at times long and epigrammatic (“Identity is not built out of memory”; “True, there are days sparkling with the unwritten”), often followed by swift breaks and drops, culminating toward an effect of chipping or breaking off, the way a sudden loss snaps a particular feeling into clarity. Embedded in the abruptness, too, is a sense of violence. Other times, the line breaks work as appositives, each drop and spacing strikingly transforming its previous line’s image:
If infection must lie with the contaminated,
if a fire must burn within the contours of the flammable,
then I am the stain
and the stain
is a wound of cut air.
Such moments of swiftness very efficiently punctuate the collection, alternating with the poems that delay and lengthen time—in a way, The Reveal is a collection that exemplifies how poetry can deploy time. Many of the poems are concerned with time’s passing, stalling, regressing, pausing, and, most of all, time is continually morphing the ways the speaker experiences the world. While time is an anchor for inquiry, Garcia Roberts doesn’t settle at easy nostalgias or fixed truths of the past. She makes use of time’s instability, as a wrench to pry open spaces that might at first seem fixed and predetermined (how we think of the past as already happened, for instance).
Much like the way we access a memory, i.e., reaching backward into a space of momentary and general fuzziness, until (if we’re lucky) the fuzziness lifts to reveal more precise images—many of Garcia Roberts’s lines open up those spaces of momentary haziness in order to dwell within them. The poet pays attention to that liminal moment after a memory is reached for, but before it is attained:
I remember you and the flame of your hair opens a face.
A lake lit between the night,
its living features plowed beneath
to grow a newer, darker adaptation.
As a result, reading The Reveal was also a somatic experience for me, with an effect of inexpertly gliding on ice—I felt a bit unsure of where I might end up next, yet I had already forgotten where I had begun. The feelings of dissociation and estrangement were palpable, and it was easy to become immersed in the book, buoyed by the book’s sense of lengthened time and fragmentary lines. Time is all-consuming, mutating, disorienting, and yet, at its heart, a sense of immutability weathers over the speaker:
We don’t change.
We just attempt
as time eats everything away from us.
This resistance is not delivered as an edict as much as it signals a sense of futility and resignation. The “we” cling to one another as time hacks away everything else. This intense feeling of grief, mirrored in another poem, hacks further inward at the speaker, so that even the “we” is cleaved apart, estranged, no longer a stabilized unit:
In the future, a child will grow our features over,
And like snow breathing
in the black pane of the water,
we will be two incarnations
we will no longer recognize each other.
Garcia Roberts divides her book into three sections, each of which opens with an epigram. Section I’s epigram is a quote by Osip Mandelstam: “O how I wish that I / unnoticed and untraced / could fly after the light / where the I is quite lost.” It signals a beginning of an interrogation into how one’s sense of self—“the I”—can be taken apart and put back together (albeit differently) again. Mandelstam’s legacy as a modernist who reflected heavily on an individual’s sense of self, juxtaposed against the backdrop of state and social apparatuses, can be traced in Garcia Roberts’s lines, which often evoke multiple, fragmentary consciousnesses, as though the speaker is constantly reconstructing herself at the risk of slipping away:
when between my skins I am blind,
blind and shot with shine,
The way snow capturing reflected light
glows radioactive in the night.
In line with Garcia Roberts’s play on borders and opposites, another thing worth noting is the poems’ long, story-like titles that burst with a sense of immediacy, many of which sound like mini poems in their own rights:
“People Once Believed That Swallows Did Not Migrate But Flew Beneath The Waters and That in Certain Months A Sailor Could Cast Into The Ocean and Pull Up Nets of Flapping Birds”
“Once When Light Returned After a Blackout, I Found My Face Pressed into a Wall Asking for Help”
“Why is it the Taste of Your Face Against My Window Loosens the Heart Like Some Fat Sleeping Larva Dreaming of Flying?”
Some of the titles carry specific, sustained images, and are so plainly immersive that I found myself returning to them in moments where the poems’ relentless abstraction might ebb in tension. And yet, perhaps this is Garcia Roberts’s blithest emphasis on form mirroring content—the stark divide in the voices of the poems and their titles signifies the border that haunts the speaker. There is a great sense of indomitability to the division, the way two parallel lines may never cross. The titles’ urgency catalyzes the alarm and tragedy doled out in the poems through abstractions. Garcia Roberts, in giving voice to a speaker whose identity is liminal (“And there are two worlds, / both foreign to me”), whose sense of self expands into the far reaches of time (“And inevitably the border sharpens / as I age”), whose identity gains precision through the embodiment of abstract feelings (“when love / shivers inside of me / like something tiny / and made of glass,”), has crafted a speaker who, rather than becoming embattled by the relentless multiplication of self, emerges as a believer of small, competing truths.