Immigrant, Poems by Marcela Sulak. Aspinwall, PA: Black Lawrence Press, 2010.
Though she’s translated three previous collections into English, and published a wonderfully titled chapbook – Of All the Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best – this is Sulak’s first full-length collection of her own work. Sulak’s language is rich, evocative. In the first section, The Mouths of the Speechless, she describes city streets as a woman’s wet thighs, eating fruit is a sensual delight reminiscent of tasting a lover’s flesh. “Avocado” describes a wonderful discovery:
Wound tight insider the avocado
we once found a perfect copy
of the tree in miniature,
pale, translucent leaves unfurling,
coiled strings of roots…
The image is so compelling. But what to do with such a miracle? “We didn’t have/the heart to toss it out, crowned/with coffee grounds and newspaper.” Sulak says. Notice her line breaks, which strengthen the pathos of the poem by hinting at a turbulent undercurrent in the narrator’s home. Finally, the plant is given to the landlady who
…said she’s plant it
among the rocks and jagged shade
against the southern slope for strength
since silky avocado flesh
thrives under adverse conditions.
Sulak explores fruit imagery in several poems: a date as an ancient woman “fashioned from/the clay remaining after Adam’s spine and hair”; Brussels Sprouts as an immigrant who, “Like any immigrant,/…put down roots before it could repent”, cabbage as an overly chaste woman; she traces the histories of civilizations through their food, which ties to their beliefs. It’s a fascinating motif, and she handles it elegantly.
The second section, Immigration Quotas, moves past sensual pleasures to explore issues of immigration. The title poem of this section deals with the liminality of immigrant life, not just fears of deportation, but the fact of being an outsider, which can be revealed through something as simple as misused slang. And she manages this without resorting to emotional blackmail.
In “Barbed Wire,” Sulak describes a cattle pasture, but she could easily be talking about two countries: “Stretching a barbed wire fence across the middle of the field/make the grass greener on both sides.” Her descriptions of farming life are surprisingly evocative.
I did a little Google stalking and found out Sulak grew up on a rice farm in Texas, which explains why her farming imagery is so powerful. I’m intrigued to read more of her work. How often does that happen…