GAYLE ROMASANTA Reviews
For the City that Nearly Broke Me by Barbara Jane Reyes
(Aztlan Libre Press, San Antonio, TX, 2012)
When my sleeping children’s soft snores become rhythmic and turn into little sighs, I know it’s the time to read a good book. Barbara Jane Reyes’ For the City that Nearly Broke Me was the book I had marked for awhile to read at this magical time—when the kids are in their own worlds—and I get to be in mine. It’s perfect timing as it turns out. For the City that Nearly Broke Me is the kind of poetry book you read late at night, so you can bring the imagery with you when you dream. I ended up thinking about the collection after I put it down and turned off my bedside lamp. I started thinking about my own “cities” that affected me—the loves, the losts, sisters, brothers, betrayal, and freedom—then I met sweet sleep and brought Reyes’ imagery with me to the morning. I thought it funny that Reyes made me think that while reading her poetry that I was alone with my own thoughts, and her poems were my own memories. She has a way of creating poems that makes you think that you’re the one writing all these words you’re reading, articulating the words for the first time, losing your innocence with the shocking discovery of truth. You don’t know the meaning yet of these words, but at the core of it, in your heart, you do.
Just like in her poem, “The Expat Speaks of Memory”:
“I bathed in its young waters, cool and crystal.
I made poems at the river’s mouth and it opened me with music.
I prayed to the serpent who slithered its path to the bay.
I heard the singing of elders who slaughtered chickens at its banks, and I’ve seen the first seedlings sprout, fed by these offerings of blood.”
I was there—it seemed to me. I lived this when I visited the Philippines after being gone from my homeland for 12 years.
The words she uses are lyrical, but at the same time dangerous. It’s threatening, this scene. It’s the same for all of her poems in this collection. You want to know more about this city. But with each truth is a harsh reality that the only way to survive is to love each place unconditionally.
It’s interesting to note I could tell a difference in Reyes’ way of writing when she switched from scenes that were unmistakeably in the Philippines to scenes in Oakland. Reyes’ poems in the Philippines (I’m assuming Manila), seem to be languid, one sentence, a scene lapping gently to the next:
(For the City that Nearly Broke Me)
“…At your banks, dengue fever swarms, thirsting.
Flowers with basura drift, toxic, silted, rank.
Into your murmuring waters, Rizal’s moon once spilled his verse, and your whims once swallowed bridges alive. Now we sing your dirge, snaking giant, you who named our father’s tongue.”
The cadence changes to one that is more in-your-face, steady, and fierce, when poems switch to West Oakland. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “West Oakland Serenade,” is strong in its rhythm. I can hear the bass, the urgency:
“I sing for Adeline Street tenement electrical fires. I sing for boarded up windows. I sing for charred roofless homes. I sing for diesel exhaust…I sing for refrigerators parked in front yards, for washing machines chillin’ on the sidewalk. I sing for tireless cars raised up on wooden blocks. I sing for salvage and sculpture.”
Again—another poem that made me believe I was there—this poem was my memory of Oakland when I lived there in my youthful 20’s. It was me in this neighborhood—I lived this. It’s exactly what I would have written. But of course I did not write it. Reyes wrote it. But it’s so brilliantly executed that it’s burned into my memory and it becomes personal. Her politics and observations are now mine.
I don’t know if that’s what Reyes had intended all along. To write and curate poems that make a reader take on the narrator’s perspective, where her writing and my reading turn into one memory of times spent in Manila and Oakland. But I do think regardless of where a reader used to live (Boston, L.A., New York, or elsewhere), Reyes’ collection will take on a personal note that makes a reader want to take a stance on love. Because at the very end of this book the reader is left with the task to answer a simple question, “Do I continue to love this place- this city that Reyes paints? Do I continue loving this place- with all of its contradictions of love, beauty, and life?” Of course one must say yes, because a reader must choose to love and have unconditional acceptance of where their roots lie—in their own “cities” that nearly broke them. And this is what I chose—love—as my children slept innocently and I was off in my own world- in my own remembered cities.
Gayle Romasanta happily writes on a small farm in northern California, surrounded by her family and rich Delta soil. She received her MFA, Writing from California College of the Arts. She co-founded CCA's graduate literary arts journal, Eleven Eleven, now in it’s 10th year. Most recently, she published her first English/Tagalog Children’s book, Beautiful Eyes (Meritage Press 2012), now part of the San Francisco Unified School District Filipino Language Program curriculum. In 2013, she will be featured in the upcoming anthology, Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling Borders in Literature and Art (University of Washington Press). Her work as a writer and artist has been featured in numerous anthologies, venues and events, such as National Public Radio, KQED, Cultural Center of the Philippines, and the Gene Siskel Center for Film. Stills from her full-length 2008 musical, Love in the Time of Breast Cancer, can currently be seen on kiosks throughout Market Street, San Francisco, as part of the 2012 San Francisco Arts Commission theater campaign. When not writing she's attempting to homestead and provide food for her family as organically as possible. For more information on her upcoming artistic and editorial work visit, www.gayleromasanta.com. For more information on her funny family and their wine label, visit www.noveroma.com.