Review of Debris Poems & Memoir (with Elizabeth Marino as our Guide)

By Kamaria Muntu

Was there a singular event or acknowledgement that made you say, ‘yeah, I’m a damn good poet’?

Elizabeth Marino (EM):  The one-two punch of being awarded a CAAP grant by the city to study at the first Las Dos Brujas Writers Workshops was that kind of recognition. I worked with the poet laureate of California, Juan Felipe Herrera. Each acceptance is exciting, but this was a special validation. Walking underneath a million stars on the New Mexico ranch was one of those

“How the hell did I get here from there?”

moments.

“Between Two Islands” by Soraida Martinez

Likening this chapbook to a marvellous mosaic might be the most apt way to describe the visuals, the mental reconstructions derived from the metaphorical mapping created in the collection Debris Poems & Memoir (Special Limited Edition published in 2011 under Puddin’head Press). The scattered fragments, wreckage and restoration pieced together like a quilted tapestry, double-stitched with identity, romance, violence, family and ultimately life makes for a compelling and altogether fascinating poetic memoir.

Debris Poems & Memoir by Elizabeth Marino

This collection of 32 poems was first published by Moon Journal Press in 2005 – and the subsequent editions speak to the timelessness of the verse. A unique feature of Elizabeth’s writing is her skillful pacing, the way she is able to move us along with her to varying geographies, empirically and in the déjà vu of a landscape that is at once relatable, yet wrought with an enviable exoticism. In East of Ashland for MA, she meticulously etches an otherwise pedestrian locality:

There, just east of Ashland
with its potholes, busted Budweiser bottles,
rusted stop signs, and Augie’s two-pump gas station.
I lead the caravan of bicycles
down towards the docks of the Calumet-
Saginaw Canal. We stopped, mapped out
other journeys for ourselves.

In mercurial phases, we find ourselves following the metamorphosis of a woman in delicately selected description, sharpened by biting, tactile reality.

EM:”Shall I wear my big gold hoops today?” I try to shut out outside expectations, though I always listen for dinnertime. Once, a high school guidance counsellor tried to explain that I could not register for both chemistry and German 4. Girls usually didn’t take a third year of science anyway, she explained. She was African American. Her white, male supervisor rushed over and politely helped me to register. The Promised Land as per colour questions surely would be college, a North Shore women’s college. I was asked to join the Black Student Union, and generally was made aware that as a Scholarship Girl, I should know my place…

In high school, I pursued both writing and drama, and continued.  I still hold a SAG-AFTRA (performer’s union) card. Training as an actor has helped open out my readings and performances, and it helps to communicate the word to listeners.  Maybe there is an awareness of making physical the images.

Her actual engagement with life is literal without being didactic. Her undertones/coats are picturesque. With her verse, Elizabeth synthesises  racial and economic oppression, as well as cultural identity, while simultaneously evoking a universal  language of codification through mood.  The outcome takes centre point in her tales, not exactly a point A to B – but a road-map to becoming. And we find both a tangible and intangible Chicago illumining the rungs of each poem. This is a well rooted collection, anchored in an intimate deconstruction of existence – delineated through the lens of a multifaceted and multi-layered identity. Modern poetry’s over-reliance on readily mimicked form in opposition to essence/substance – as well as exercises in cleverness and departures from the political as experienced by the total humanity, has been of great contention in the literary community, most particularly as this discourse relates to poets of colour. Yet, poets like Marino emerge un-jaded, unfettered, refraining from shallow scripts of human evolvement (hence, why the memoir style is critical to note). Marino’s verse commands complex rootedness, as well as a core transparency, even if that expression is abstract or representative. From the first poem to the last, we are continually surprised by the refreshing absence of falseness. Marino plays with ways of building reality candidly, utilising different syllabic techniques and even visual manifestations on the page; as present in the poem Wildlife Refuge:

In Wildlife Refuge, both the visual and syllabic metaphor conjures a dropping, a flying out and away. In the craftily cadenced falling away, there is a sense of landing in the line “searching for yours” – a visually lyrical drop or bottom. In some form or other, we can all identify with this eloquent descent.

EM: There’s a dance by Alvin Ailey, originally choreographed for the great Judith Jamison, called “Wade in the Water.” Simple lighting, costumed, the lyric of an old Negro spiritual. Again and again, the idea of hope and transformation washes over the stage.

Judith Jamison. Photo: Jack Mitchell

Sometimes I read a poet to help work out a technique issue, or to better approach an idea. I’ve had my poetic hook-ups over the years. But I come back to Julia de Burgos, Martin Espada, Adrienne Rich, and the T.S. Eliot of the “Prufrock and Other Observations” poems.

The meshing of travel and identity transport us from one poem to the next, as we struggle to find place and grounding just as the poet does. The journey is fascinating, locating us of course in Marino’s native Chicago, but also in climes as distant from her metropolis as Amsterdam  and the UK . Not often do we get the opportunity to hear this global perspective from a Latina woman tendered through a poetic lens. Her voice is a window opening onto another view.

EM: Chicago is still a very segregated, black/white city. I was never really identified as a Spanish speaking Mexican, as were some of our neighbours and classmates. I went to a high school in the largest district in the State of Illinois. I would walk down those halls, taking in all of the incredible faces, as if I were a lost third cousin.

Before going to study in the UK, someone told me that there you will be asked the “where are you from?” question, but is more about family and heritage rather than colour and class. But at the elite university, the questions were just more elegantly phrased. Instead of mixed looks, people asked if I were Canadian, a British national, an Algerian from the south of France. Did I come on a scholarship? (This was the year before the UK had to accept students from both genders). It was a distinction hard to describe.

At 20, coming back from study in the UK, my mother asked for my adoption file and talked with the original social worker. Finding the truth of the Puerto Rican heritage – things just fell away and made so much sense. We are a mestizo people, and I am of my people, I was also raised in a white ethnic working class family. Both are part of my origins.

In first grade, getting off the bus a neighbour girl chased me home, yelling “Nigger, nigger! My momma said you’re just a little nigger.” Once home, my mother did not address the racist slur; she just said that the mother was jealous of my grades. My father insisted that my hair not be braided in long pigtails, as they made me look like a ‘pickanniny’.

In Moving Skylines Marino writes:

The horizon keeps coming and falling back –
the shapes of places that serve grits
and cream gravy on white Styrofoam,
hills brushed with pale lavender flowers

Two Latina Girls in New York

Scottish heather,
a peacock challenging traffic
from a fork in the road.
                   You kept commenting on my famous Chinese
                  (‘Two billion feet can’t be wrong’) slippers:
                  “Those must be pretty stylish down in Chicago.
                  I just started seeing ‘em up in Milwaukee.”

In Rue De Huchette, March 1976:

From my hotel room above the Algerian restaurant, I walk down
the narrow steps and out onto the side street. It is more a
cleavage in heaped medieval stones than a street lined with green
plate glass and pensions. Dawn breaks. From some shadow an old
man is touched by a fresh shaft of daylight and begins to sweep
the cobblestones with his bundled twig broom.

In brilliant sync with the best of modern poets, Elizabeth engages different forms, different ways in which to interpret reality, adroitly and fluently. This mosaic, the debris of human breadth is presented in all the creativity poetry allows, with both radiance and finely chiselled imagery. Her nuanced ability to manipulate varying poetic forms manifesting varieties of mood and identity echoes her mestizo heritage, as she is able to create individual poems with different DNA, different arrangements, tracking metre and emotion.

EM: I am drawn to the lyric, with its musical tools: repetition, rhythm, rhyme, stresses. I studied classical piano and some folk guitar as a teenager.

Senior year of high school, four of us went to London. (Long story.) I wrote up our adventures for my column in the community newspaper. I remember the many ways English was spoken, and how my own English didn’t seem to apply; the colourful doors, discovering resourcefulness as our youth hostel reservation was cancelled after we arrived on Easter Saturday.

Powerfully and often painfully resonant is her unflinching look at family life. The urgency of her phrasing and ever present skill at pace, give rise to heart-thumping narratives. Tumultuous family themes of which most poets would find difficulty in summoning aesthetic value are handled with deftness. We read of unspeakable violence, of Catholic emergency rooms and brown fluids scraped from vaginal canals. Marino can paint a picture of stark and vivid horror in just 12 lines through unblinking honesty and discreet experimentation with sapid literary tools like anthropomorphism. In The Days Of Bobby’s Passing, childhood is fatally broken, spirituality rendered ironically, and violent humanity starkly accessed.

‘Reflexion’ by Carmen Messon

A sound like God exploding goes off next to my feet. Gary is in a
heap, his head like a saint’s, in a round stain as red as his favorite cap,
the sailor cap with earflaps and a chinstrap. I run screaming upstairs
— “Mommy! Mommy! Something’s happened to Gary” — running
back downstairs with Momma. She cries out for him, for me —
“Don’t go! Don’t go!”
“I gotta get help! I gotta get help!” I keep on running, across the backyard
and alley to the door of my mother’s best friend, Katy.
“Call the police,” she tells her daughter. “Stay here,” were her very
last words to me, and I did.
I look through a bedroom window with Janice, over to the small
bench below our back porch. My mother is cradling my little brother,
rocking him, her cheek smeared with blood. “Why is Mommy
bleeding? Did she kiss Gary?” No answer.

A number of years ago, I was involved in a CD project called “Elements of Life, Love and Action,” conceived by Mars Caulton. What does it take to have a life of activism, especially how do we nurture ourselves and endure over the long haul? The gathering of women musicians and poets tried to approach this theme. We came back to that idea of Rosa Parks, which change happens suddenly, after years of work. There is a moment that captures the popular imagination that makes change able to happen. But usually that also involves steady work beforehand.

Debris is stunning in its naturalness – in the way it conveys elements of sheer horror and nomadic joy, the everyday and the superlative. In the way it travels, like the sound of water rushing through pipes. In the way it bursts sometimes and sings. This is an unashamedly truthful canvas and a uniquely talented compilation. Comparisons can only comfortably be made in terms of burnished precision, emotional register … the poems of Sexton, Rich, Lorde and Nin come to mind.

Marino whose love poetry signifies heterosexual romance, does not shy from subtly erotic fire-work in poems like Body Language :

 

Paris in the Rain

EM:Beginnings are hard and new. No matter what you think you know there is always a new page. I am
older than either Plath or de Burgos – I don’t have a need to splay my heart all over the page for a lover. That kind of passion is titillating to read and tiring to live.

[Over the years my work has transformed in the way] there is no longer the possibility of children, so there is no longer that other kind of creation.

The freshness of Elizabeth’s international take, the undeniable woman sensibility, her interchange of form, rhythm, dance, her poignant depths – make this collection a perennial, a lesson book in poetic memoir genre.

EM: With travel, you step out of your box, your ways of seeing and doing. You are American in a very different sense, and may be asked to defend your politics and history. Because of adoption and family violence, I had four homes in my first six years, and five grade schools. So “included” has taken a lifetime to absorb.

There are some defining moments of celebration here, but what largely remains from reading Debris is a proper oxymoron – the ethereal poignancy of existence most severe, beautifully evinced through art’s filter. This small book deserves a very large space on every literature shelf.

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