The formally adventurous poems in Raina J. León’s third collection, sombra:(dis)locate range across terrain marked by the personal, the familial, the communal and the global, by race, culture, history and current events. The book’s title reveals much about its procedures and territories. These poems travel, fearlessly crossing borders, dislocating us in order to relocate us in a reality that manages both to honor and question boundaries. The worlds called into being on the page are poly-lingual, multigenerational, cross-cultural and also fraught with unresolved racial and post post-colonial tensions. Words and phrases from Spanish, French, Arabic and Urdu appear throughout the text, saying these poetic engagements are concerned with sound and how sound is boundless and convivial, reaching across our arbitrary aisles.
It’s exhilarating to read a poet who allows form so thoroughly to inform her work. Some poems lay claim to the full page; another, “everyw(here,)” has lines we must turn the book sideways to read; still others use curious directionals, actual lines we follow to the side of the poem’s body or to the bottom of the page where the poet or another voice comments on the content of particular poetic lines or words. This visual enhancement as well as the added voices is a way of adding texture, of translating a layered moment onto the page. The poem “Scrying: Cartography of Black deaths” uses these asides as it maps the landscape of violence and fear through which black citizens of this country move: “hold your hands up/fists open…/thin enough for a bullet to pierce” after which a line directs us to the speaker’s interior monologue, off to the side and in italics: “i am afraid to bear/a child who giggles/who likes to run/who dreams of magic/might be seen as magic.” An evocation of public and racialized terror instantly becomes private, intimate. Meaning the wounds are deep and the scarring perpetually raw, widespread.
The poem “Two pounds, night sky notes,” an elegy for the poet’s infant-nephew, incorporates musical notations which signify a kind of silence, grace-notes, the held-note of grief, a resonance beyond words, of the night sky, the music of the spheres. The words themselves are spare and move with a halting cadence: “rattle this death/silence stones/he was // regolith/basaltic spray/fountain leap! // of voltage ash/he was falling knock/still.”
Form locates the poems not only on the page but also in relationship to Western poetic tradition. Exploring received forms such as the sonnet, the ghazal, and the villanelle, this poet places herself in the tradition and pushes against it, clearing space for the voices and experiences her work seeks to lift up and for the challenges she poses to the dominant culture. The sonnet “Exotic” begins this way: “He teased my tongue, begged me to say dick/in Spanish, to tell him all the names darkness gives/to the body’s salt places.” But what seems like a sexy poem, maybe even a love poem, turns when the lover’s preoccupation with the speaker’s brown skin displaces deeper feeling: “I was transfigured to coconut shell,/inside sweet water he would suck, but never,/never my name on his lips.” Given this book’s attention to history, this poem is shadowed by the lives of black slaves exploited sexually by white slaveholders drunk with their own power and obsessed with the women’s “exoticness.”
“Comfort women” looks at the exploitation of the exotic from another angle. The poem is situated in the Bioluminescent Bay of Vieques, Puerto Rico:
trails dipped hands and pulled oars
until the tribe of kayaks packs tight in,
unable to move for so much pushing.
There’s the tender beauty of the world as it is, and there’s the crush of photo-op and bucket-list tourism in a place rendered impotent by imperialism, the denial of sovereignty. Just as Korean women were exploited as “comfort women” in imperial Japan, so too Puerto Rico is exploited as a “comfort place” where the wealthy travel to escape, to feel good. But the poem asserts, “Truth does not belong to the tongue:/Push, part, dissemble, collapse—” even as trailing hands collapse fragile fields of light in the water. This poet does not shy away from indictment and exposure, locating truth in the shadows of what we tolerate, because of course we want to see only innocence and delight in our Caribbean vacations, this “ripple-night dance” of bioluminescent organisms. Comfort women, unincorporated territory—kept for the pleasure and privilege of the few.
This poet crosses borders with ease, exposing the ongoing ravages of economic and militaristic imperialism, the violence that haunts contemporary existence. In “Ghost estate,” houses built in Ireland before the economic downturn will never be inhabited: “Who will come/when the green boom/has wilted in pockets?//Who will come back/if not the ghosts?” The ghosts of those who might have lived in the houses bordering a meadow but can no longer afford to. Through its simple, direct questioning, the poem calls the machinations of a global economic elite out of the shadows into the space it makes “on the shores,/down quaint country lanes/with a wet meadow view/of all the wild things/that rise from the sinking.” The poem manages to indict and to gesture toward a measured hopefulness.
Other poems are less free to hold their candles of hope because they direct a piercing gaze at state-sponsored violence and its aftermath. “Da da di da” is one such poem which performs its work in a beguiling way, beginning with lush language that, against expectation, describes a scene where terrible violence has recently occurred:
once sun-brown children with wild hair,
coin-eyes that glittered in buzzing luster,
fireflies in dust skies,
zephyr wind tender
scented in jasmine and honey.
these bodies wrapped in gauze,
split open just hours ago
someone’s meat to mangle
with tester bullets and bombs, the kind meant
to warn (non) citizens to run
animals in shoes…
Especially compelling is the evocation of beauty in the world, fireflies and jasmine, the “coin-eyes” of the children, paired with careless slaughter. The juxtaposition reminds us of the enormity of our ongoing losses, and it does so simply—or not-so-simply—by allowing the two realities, exquisite life and violent, untimely death to rub against each other here in the poem as they do in the world. The poem ends with a question that refers both to the title and to the white space at the end of the page: “what is the song/children sing when dreaming/listless? does it sound like this?” On the one hand we hear the humming, da da di da, and on the other we hear the silence.
Violence takes many forms and has an eery relationship with silence. The poem “Southwest Philadelphia, 1988” reveals the violence of the everyday in the life of a black child. A family goes to buy ice cream on a hot day and must “wait for tall, plastic cups,/like all the brown kids,” the white kids served first, the “counter girls” gloving their hands to serve the brown children, who don’t notice except in the ways kids do, unconsciously. Papi, who has brought the children, does notice and grumbles off to the side but has no real voice in this situation, no power to confront the way things are. But Papi can and does hold their sticky hands, giving the children the embodied memory of touch to counter the gloved hands of the servers. Touch is intimacy, locating people in relationship to each other. Intimacy as location works against the greater sense of dislocation that racism perpetuates. This poem and others in the collection suggest that while black and brown bodies are especially vulnerable precisely because they are black and brown bodies, the body is also a site of the tenderness and intimacy that heals.
Of the many visionary moments in this book, the poem “everyw(here)” speaks most fully and comprehensively of the world as it also is, a cycling and recycling, birth to death to birth. This poem’s lines cross the boundary between pages, the boundary of the usual orientation of text on the page. Images tumble one into the next without punctuation, without capitalization, evoking a “zhe gender” place, a named place that is also nameless, of blending, of movement, of perpetual becoming: “how spark/ synapse pulses in complement discord that leads to and/from accord fluid path call this place nevaeh though/it has no name.” It encompasses “the conundrum of tadpoles,” “window pane break of buzz jut,” “masterpiece hammock,” dinoflagellate swirl, “ululation,” “exhaustion of pores.” Nothing too small or large to fit, to belong, to be “boundless in dance.” This is León in love with language, with the world and its possibilities despite all evidence to the contrary, evidence to which she does not turn a blind eye or deaf ear, but which all the same does not describe the whole story.
A more inexperienced poet might have ended the book on this note, but León goes on to include the aforementioned “Scrying: Cartography of Black deaths” and “bull | machete | bullet | laurel | time,” two poems that take a hard look at issues of race and ethnicity, the deaths of black men, women and children at the hands of the police and the precarious existence of the immigrant farmworker in this country. Yet, embedded in both of these poems are pleas for and visions of what might be, after the struggle, when the violence has been overthrown by love: “my lover is human/but his hand be dove wing//my lover is human/to love I must be human/I love you, human/Alejandro we can be human/give our human to one another.” The book ends with productive friction, the space where hurt, pain, fear and violence come into contact with a hard-won vision of what’s possible. The struggle includes a poetry that reveals the truth and does so unflinchingly.