REVIEW: Undocumentaries by Rosa Alcalá

undocumentaries

by Jose Angel Araguz

…what I write isn’t memoir or autobiography; it’s sometimes messy and discursive and collaged—call it lyric, experimental, what have you—but I’m not ashamed to say that I “draw” (I’m thinking of both a graphic mark and a blood-draw) quite a bit from autobiography, that identity is central to my work

(Alcala, PSA)*

…a graphic mark and a blood-draw –

Within the idea of the artist’s mark, there is the implication of creation, of continuing to work at something fresh. The graphic mark also carries ideas of control and exploration. The blood-draw, on the other hand, brings in a world of double meaning. Because it is blood, it is intimate, it is physical and fluid and life. Blood is also family, where one comes from. Yet, the blood-draw also brings to mind the hospital. The blood-draw within this context is also life: blood is drawn for the sake of others, in this case not family in the strict sense, but the family of blood types, the tribes of positive and negative and neutral. Between these two ideas of drawing, the world of Undocumentaries can be said to unfold.

In the poem “In the Waiting Room,for example, the reader follows the meditation of the speaker as she, “sit[s] for hours looking at open-mouthed babies” (Alcala 75). The meditation moves from the immediate scene to the political implications, both of being a young woman having to “submit/to the whole silly production” as well as the knowledge that:

…within
the cluster of beings the technician
examines for future antagonisms
against the state, it will never find one
worthy of being knighted, no perfect
English gentleman.

The poem takes on another layer at this point, moves from ideas of womanhood to ideas of race. The tension in these ideas lies in both the lightheartedly cynical phrasing of “silly production” on one end, and the calling of the doctor as “technician” and children as “future antagonisms.” These choices in diction set up a speaker able to make the distance of language allow for an intimacy in feeling. The poem continues:

English gentleman. This my mother knew
despite all the fanfare about Charles and Diana’s
wedding: princes and kings marry their own:
keep washing the dishes (except she said it
in Spanish).

The rumination on race becomes one on motherhood, specifically the speaker’s mother. Race remains prominent, however, in the content of what exactly her mother “knew.” Her mother knew of segregation as much as daydreaming: knew about class as much as glamor. Family here is presented as where one draws their knowledge of the world from.

Furthermore, family becomes what is learned as well as relearned:

…As early as possible,
we learn to flirt with the guy who sells or makes
bed springs, those things beneath us
that cushion our sleep. Someone who never
discusses what he does, and works overtime
to bring the rest of his family
over.

The unspoken comes into play here in the potential “Someone who never/discusses what he does,” and echoes much of what the book is about: the “undocumentary” as what is left unsaid or unshown.

This exploration of the tension between said/unsaid and shown/unshown is continued in “Confessional Poem,where the image of a clothesline is taken on for its narrative potential. Alcala jumps right into the clothesline as metaphor for the poetic line with the first lines:

The girl next door had something to teach me
about what to air: On the line
somebody’s business gets told
then recounted; it’s best to thread a tale
for the neighbors, an orchestration
of sorts…
(21)

What is immediately striking about these lines is their confidence, their almost swagger, which
challenges the conventional notions of gossip the clothesline carries. These lines, in their tone and knowing, bring to mind the work of Sylvia Plath – a connection furthered by the choice of title “Confessional Poem.” At other points in the book, Alcala shows an awareness of writing within a poetic tradition (“A girl like me falls in love/with Yeats/and never recovers” from the poem “Undocumentary” is but one example), but nowhere else does the writing both indicate and challenge a specific tradition as it does here. The comparison to Plath is in terms of tone as well as the awareness each poet shows at working at a craft that is as much manipulation as a magic born of honesty.

…You wouldn’t know it
from the delicates I roll
into the yard. It’s all the same peek-a-boo lace
and stunted imagination. Of course,
all of this is scanty truth

Within the context of a poem called “Confessional Poem,” words like “delicates,” “peek-a-boo lace” and “scanty” are charged with multiple layers of meaning. One marvels at the wordplay at first for the skill on the poet’s part, and later for what it says of the speaker of these words, the self-deprecating air the words hang in. In drawing out the metaphor of the clothesline, Alcala presents a speaker aware of the insidious nature of narrative, how it has both the potential for showing as well as concealing. No story is the whole story. For a poem with the word “Confessional” in the title, very little is confessed. In fact, the idea that something personal can come through in a poem is challenged. Yet, in developing ideas of ways that narratives can be created and manipulated, the speaker of this poem gives an almost truer confession: the confession of a magician drawing back the curtain, the confession of a poet who knows how much control they have over language and how little control they have over life.

The poems final note drives this point home:

…Who hangs anything out to dry
when invention has halved the work?

This “halving” implies what is left unsaid in the act of documenting. The poems of Undocumentaries, at their most powerful, draw out – graphically, viscerally – the unsaid.

*(opening quote taken from “Latino/a Poetry Now: 3 Poets discuss their art (Rosa Alcala, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay).” Melendez, Maria. Poetry Society of America, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013).

Undocumentaries is available from Shearsman Books.

José Angel Araguz, author of the chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves, is a CantoMundo fellow. Winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize, he has had poems recently in Blue Mesa Review, Pilgrimage, and NANO Fiction as well as in the anthology Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: * Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries | The Friday Influence
  2. Pingback: Rah! Rah! Roundup | WEIRD SISTER

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