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At the intersection of deconstructionism and post-colonialism, it is understood that language is a homeland. We all live in language, and for border-dwellers, the internal and external clash of cultures and languages becomes a very real, three-dimensional geography. In her 2008 National Poetry Series Open Competition wining collection Bird Eating Bird, Kristin Naca, writing in English, Spanish, and bits of Tagalog, gives us a new paradigm—language as a tool for re-shaping physical homelands, for inscribing geographies in layers. In “Uses for Spanish in Pittsburgh,” she asks:
[…]What difference does it make
to say, the chimney pipes peel their red skins,
or las pieles rojas, exposing tough steel underneath.
The poems of Bird Eating Bird are an extended answer to that challenge, to the charge from her father’s family Spanish means there’s another person inside you. Over and over, Naca gives us places transformed by language: Pittsburgh; Arlington, VA, when it was a poor and blue-collar city; and Interstate 80 through Nebraska, described in one of Naca’s pairings of Spanish and English poems. Naca is a language poet, but not of the Language Poetry School variety. While some of the poems are linguistic play, particularly the sequences “Tres Mujeres” and “House,” they remain grounded in the physical world rather than the abstract. In her work, the spaces where language isn’t clear are mysteries but not barriers, invitations to connection. In “Language Poetry / Grandma’s English,” Naca explores her love for a grandmother whose words are “consonants blurred/from her mouth a flat tire.” Knowing that, as a child, she could never understand what her Grandma and Dad fought about, she captures the beauty even in this disrupted tongue:
[…] Grandma gives up.
A martyr she says, Go on, it it. Her tongue
forcing sparks from our household English.
Beauty when she grabs her chest and sighs,
I gahng go up dos stairs, Charlie. My art, my art!
Naca’s work is sensual, solid, and physically detailed in astounding, surprising ways. “Ode to Glass” is a four page description of a Pepsi bottle, made so real I could feel it in my hands as I read, reminding me of something I knew but would never have thought to include, the:
ring carved from
the bottles being
packed too close
keep dry and
soft as silk, even as
the glass beads, and
you start to trace
the droplets back […]
Ultimately, this is a poem about her memory of being a seven year old drinking soda in the store next to her Uncle Ulpe’s house in Manilla, and in the way that the most specific poem is the most universal, it pushed me into my own seven year old self, drinking Mt. Dew from the nickel coke machine in my grandfather’s filling station in rural Illinois. In “Glove,” this same embrace of minutely accurate detail becomes sexual as Naca describes a woman lover slowly peeling off leather gloves:
So, the glove,
now, looks like
skin unraveled from
the spokes of
her fingers, or
a bat’s wing
as it catches
wind and launches
from the bone’s
While both of these are short-line poems written in direct syntax, Naca’s range as a poet is very evident in Bird Eating Bird. Her poems flow from long lines whose sound and image are equally enveloping—“The path along the lake lit up with the pitch of purple stars”—to a prose-poem form in “Baptism,” to linguistic play in “Tres Mujeres,” to the hybrid sequence “House.” And sometimes there is language for the sheer joy of language, as here in “Revenant Gladness:”
Its eloquence forced upon us the way the air frequents the prongs of
a feather, to underscore as frugal, unspeakable knowledge—how I ask
(hardly knowing you),
Darling, when you name an unbearable truth, what do you find yourself
Naca’s few poems in Spanish are also striking. Poet and translator Yesenia Montilla says of these poems, “Naca is doing something that’s so hard—establishing an individual voice in both Spanish and English. She isn’t just translating, but is writing originally in both languages.” In an interview with Susie DeFord at BOMBLOG, Naca, who grew up hearing but not speaking Spanish, says of these poems “Spanish was an experiment for me. I’m not a great speaker. […] In writing the poems, I wanted to build emotional connections to the words, [an] emotional attachment to vocabulary.” This is such an interesting risk to take as a writer, to let language itself be a site of learning, not only a tool for exploring.
And finally – yes, Kristin Naca is a lesbian poet, in a new-generation way. Her sexuality is evident, public, but is not a point of contention, not a source of dramatic stress, not a need for explanation. In a poetry collection that explores such difficult terrain – race, language, nationality, class – sexuality is, delightfully, simply a given. As readers, we get to settle into this place with her, with all the richness and none of the justification once needed:
Before there was a need for me to talk, for me to even ask,
there was the smoking afterwards of your hands.
I ate when you said I was hungry.
I drank because you held a glass to my lips.
I slept because you lay down beside me.
I dreamt because you were gorgeous and I was dreamy, you said.
I cried because there was ache, and because of you
on the phone there is so much more of the gorgeous ache.
BIRD EATING BIRD
By Kristin Naca
Paperback, $13.99, 93pp