by José Angel Araguz
I…continued dreaming, of owning a space
where all my poems would live & recline when tired, a pink box…
I wonder, will I call it Jessie or Yesenia? I need it, else I’ll have to continue
carrying my poems around like a baby on a sling, in the absence of a pink box.
From The Pink Box’s opening poem, Yesenia Montilla establishes herself as a poet for whom language is not only how we communicate but how we live. Throughout this collection, the reader is presented with a voice consistently aware of the stakes of a given situation, aware that for every dream there is a struggle. Whether it is a painful memory as insistent as the sound of a subway train buckling along on its track, or a moment of celebration via ghazal, ode, or haiku, Montilla keeps the reader close to the action of life. When the speaker of a later poem states, “I want to live in service of one action today, poetry,” they are declaring the heart of Montilla’s vision.
An example of what this vision is generous enough to offer is evident in the poem “Dendrology.” Here, the speaker recalls being shamed for her hair:
…my aunt announced
I’d never be loved by a white man
con ese pelo malo.
This judgment, however, is immediately challenged:
I loved my hair,
the way it frizzed around the edges
of my face & stood there like a woman
waiting to be asked to dance a slow bolero…
In recalling this moment of shaming, Montilla guides the reader through the process not of defiance but of consideration. Through these lines, the reader experiences a specific moment, one of new knowledge, and the instinct to hold that knowledge up to what one already knows. It is a nuanced form of defiance and of living enacted here. At the level of sheer understanding, the speaker’s narrative is moved to an image that evokes the physical hair via metaphorical movement. In this moment of intuited action, both speaker and reader wait to see what unfolds.
A similar moment of action via language occurs in the poem “Ode to a Dominican Breakfast.” As the speaker moves through a challenge against other traditional breakfast fare, the speaker and poem take an unexpected turn:
The other day I wore a white dress
with a wide skirt & red sash
I danced a merengue barefoot on my stoop, I kissed the
Dominican flag, once for each time I remembered a Taino word
yucca, batata, tanama, ocama, yautia, cacique, juracan,
every bite on the plate, every morsel like a bachata tune
This scene moves the poem from a mere contrasting of one cuisine against all others into the realm of celebration within language. Through the combined actions of dancing, kissing, and remembering, the speaker makes clear that what is at stake in this ode is not just what feeds the body. The gratitude and presence of each Taino word – words, like all words, to be spoken, mouthed – gives the poem a heartbeat’s persistence.
In “My Father’s 50th Birthday,” another kind of ode-like action takes place:
We forgot two years of jail visits.
Polaroids with white walls.
We forgot crack & shame.
We carried you out of the club,
you threw up on us with abandon.
Carried you like a dead body into
the narrow building…
shoes & lifted you onto the bed
to not wake your tired mother.
As we left we heard you cry out
Mami & at that moment you
were five & we were fifty.
We felt our childhood scratch
the back of our necks to let us know
it was finally gone for good.
In this poem, the celebration of the father’s birthday becomes a meeting and blurring of memories. The development of emotional tension leading to the images of the father being carried out are powerful and transformational; in a way, the father becomes a symbol himself of all the familial memories, struggles, and disappointments that the children carry between them. When the speaker feels “childhood scratch,” the physical nature of memory is emphasized.
Moments of such emphasis abound throughout The Pink Box. Montilla again and again makes available her stories and insights in poems that live up to the struggles experienced and overcome to get them to us. Her determination “to live in service of one action…poetry” is inspiring. That one should not surrender to despair, to hardship, to celebration, to anything but the language to evoke the journey, the surviving, is an admirable mission. It is a mission that Montilla, as evident in the poem “Iktsuarpok,” seems committed to:
the shaman said be ready
& I bought a new dress black a million ravens huddled
he said love affair
& I opened wide a calendar lunar phase & all
he said fire
& it was a million hummingbirds with their human faces dancing
he said madness
& here I sit waiting for the honey taste of it to drown me good
Buy it from Aquarius Press/Willow Books: $17.95
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.