Jamie Moore reviews Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, poems by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Sundress Publications | 2016 | ISBN: 1939675421 | 118 pages
In Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo examines the themes of home and place in ways that reveal the personal while connecting to the communities around her. Bermejo uses a variety of poetic styles to appeal to the reader, including narrative, lyricism, and ekphrasis. We are introduced to the mythology of Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles, as well as the harsh reality for immigrants crossing through the Arizona desert.
Bermejo likewise pulls a thread between the themes of family, food, and place to create the formation of identity. She describes home and memory as part of the physical body. She keeps the reader close to the experience of her narrators through concise yet accessible language, while also mixing English and Spanish throughout the poems.
In “The Story of the Stolen Metate,” for example, the narrator recalls the loss of a family heirloom, while providing a panoramic view of her family and neighborhood:
I wonder if my father’s shoulders felt their weight lifted when the burglar picked the
items from the yard
Maybe remembering hurts dusty shoulders, maybe they miss the weight of home too
There is a heaviness around physical place; a sense of weariness that has settled into the bones of the adults around the speaker.
In the ekphrastic poems, the poet asks the reader to do the work of referring to specific art pieces. As a fellow writer, I am fascinated by these inspirations and the stories she is able to pull from them. It is a kind of magic to build a conversation between works of art and literature, and it speaks to the larger themes of interconnectedness and awareness that I believe is the book’s true goal. But there were moments I was unsure whether I needed to engage in the work of studying this art, and at what point of the reading process I should do this. While reading, I wondered if I was missing a context that the visual could provide, and found these poems to lead to an interactive experience, device in hand, looking at the visual as an accompaniment to the words.
This process is at the reader’s discretion, as the poems themselves do tell a story that demonstrates careful study of place and revelations of family. “Ladder to the Moon,” for instance, is inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s painting of the same name. O’Keefe’s painting is a simple, striking image of a yellow ladder against a pale blue background. At the top of the ladder is a glowing half-moon. The colors are bright, and the ladder and moon are both set to the right of the image. Bermejo’s poem is structured like O’Keefe’s ladder: leaning up and to the right across the page.
“At Ghost Ranch, O’Keefe’s/ sprite spirit rises” provides the same sense of upward movement as the half-moon in the painting. “I want her to invite me up,” to the poem continues, in direct conversation with O’Keefe, and expressing a creative frustration as the speaker realizes they must build their own way.
Later, Bermejo uses her personal experience volunteering with the organization No More Deaths to bear witness to the reality and suffering of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Later still, all poems start with the question, “Did you know,” detailing the harshness of both the physical place and the experience of that place. It’s clear that Bermejo wants to put the reader in the same disorienting position as the poem’s speaker, to turn the mirror on our ignorance and to make us feel the migrant’s struggles, the migrant’s pain:
One gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. To stay
hydrated a person should drink 1-2 gallons a day.
Migrants carry a single oil-black gallon…
Here now I access the memory of thirst, the weight of water…
The book concludes with narrative poems in the voice of these migrants. There is a strong sense of determination and hope. There is desperation and sacrifice: “I promise to never stop dreaming” (from “Letter from Home”) and “I promise you are not invisible, nor discarded / people traveling when the land is dark” (from “Our Lady of the Water Gallons”).
Bermejo’s writing is at its best when building physical connections to land and questioning how and where many migrants have to make home (or carry objects of it) as they move through the world. What makes these poems so resonant is the layer of emotional context present, exemplified in the poem “Letter From the Desert”: “No regrets.”
After all the hardship and sacrifice, a declaration of strength. Structured as a letter to a daughter from her mother, it becomes a prayer and a promise. The poem ends, “just love,” bringing us back to the emotional center of the book.
Posada is necessary reading, showing how home is inextricable from identity, both in its physical form and the emotionally driven memory we build. The poems are ablaze with hope and fear and hurt and wonder, and we can’t help but fully open our hearts.
Header photo by 12019, courtesy Pixabay.