Monday, November 30, 2015

Calle Florista: A Review by Caroline LeBlanc

Calle Florista

by Connie Voisine

University of Chicago Press, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-226029532-9 

Toward the middle of “The Self after Modernism,” the last poem in Calle Florista, Voisine writes:  “I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write.”  And Calle Florista is a book of responsible poems, thirty-three of them about life in borders places, class, migration/immigration, and intellectually flavored existential questions.  Most are lyrical, free verse poems with irregular lines, stanza size, and few rhymes.  Throughout the poems, the “I” and the “not-I,” the “I as other,” the “other as I” dance in and out of the foreground, often not quite located in an easily defined point of reference. The reader must be willing to shift focus, consciousness and footing, often within the same poem.  In “The Self after Modernism,” Voisine goes on to muse: “Maybe there’s some hope for this poem/if I open the door to the random, the fragmented,/the flimsy scraps that more genuinely//compose the day, the mind, the night, the dream.(60-62)”  

The first, and title, poem, translated “Florist Street,” is a bittersweet description of an apparently misnamed street that had few "cultured" flowers and only a recent “ ’Florista’ started last year.”  Or was the street named for some ancient place of beauty, long lost by the time the speaker arrived?  In any case, the street described was “more/ a bunch of rocks lined up in a particular way,” and cluttered with cats, their kittens, pecan trees, and “weeds of the nightshade family,/unwatered except on irrigations days/ when the whole neighborhood stood up to its knees in water.” The narrrative’s main character is Tio who was “kind of kingly/sitting in his minivan,” his status shored up by his “one fat Shar-Pei,” while Tio waited for the pecans to drop.  Meanwhile, a boy hit the speaker’s “car with a stick,” while his sister “stood in the plastic swimming pool.”  Tio’s “worrying about the occasional helicopter/battering by/ and the dog and the cats, who were not cat’s at all maybe” suggests a more sinister flavor to the destruction and the listless waiting. The images conjure up scenes from Breaking Bad.

Meanwhile, the speaker spent her days “…in that little house, writing about/our street, which changed every day//subtly and in complicated ways”—culling  something she sees in the street’s untended, disorderly, yet fecund existence, a deeper meaning often unseen by the mainstream American  eye. Finally, the last four lines surprise and catapult the reader into the heart of a poem: an absent other the speaker longed for—a child, a lover, an undeveloped part of self, or a reader who “didn’t exist” for the speaker at the time of the narrative events.  The reader is left wondering:  was this other totally  nonexistent anywhere in this world, or simply absent from the speaker’s life at the time of the poem’s events?     

                But for you it was most different—
                you were the one who didn’t exist,
                except as someone
                who did not live on Calle Florista. (4)

These last four lines catch the reader,  easily absorbed in a poem that is apparently “only” describing a dawdling border town,  They bring one back to the first three lines of the poem.

                Don’t you remember
                our little house on Calle Florista,
                the calle with lots of flowers? (3)

Just who is being addressed? On first reading, these lines seem to be a rhetorical invitation to a generic “you,” not pointing to a particular person listening to the simple reminiscence that follows.   And the poem would be only a dark, somewhat cryptic, yet superficial reminiscence, but for the connection between the first three and the last four lines, which lift it to another level of reflection for both speaker and reader.   The lines suggest a desire to open a window of understanding—however broad or specific the audience—into the life experience of not only the speaker, but also the other characters in what was once the speaker’s neighborhood.

Several poems indict the colonizers’ mentality.  One of these, “New World,” weaves elements of the French as New World colonizers, and their English rivals. Britain eventually displaced France making the French, in turn, colonial subjects of the British North American Empire.  The poem reflects on the wonder, hope, and optimism, as well as hubris, greed, and exploitation of Europeans. In the New World, all things, represented by pronghorn antelopes, and high-plains grasses, “bound to the edge of the compound, the edge of town, the edge of, the edge of—.“  The coup d'├ętat is gold: “Let’s have nothing/but gold—it’s so pleasing.” 

The irony of this line can better be understood if we consider something Voisine said in her 2010 online interview about “Sorry I Don’t Like You,” a poem not in this collection. Voisine spoke about “the book I am working on now, where the autobiographical aspect is nearly gone—where the ideas, images, metaphors take the stage and the speaker’s identity is what I call the “Citizen I.”  Her closing comment: "That is what the speaker sees in herself—naive choices based on a silly American optimism.  The French in me should know better.” (

In the mid 18th century, when English might prevailed on the American continent, the French in America, bartered away by France, felt the sting of being a conquered people. They suffered greatly in English Canada and across the border in WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) dominated United States.  I believe this French heritage sensitizes Voisine’s “Citizen I” voice to the life experience of the dispossessed, as evidenced in “New World” and other poems in this collection.

The first stanza’s wonder over the bounty of the American continent, falls into the speakers tearful  response to a waltz.  Sentimental loneliness for the old country or foreboding about the cruelties of colonization?  The next two stanzas suggest the reason for the tears is both/and rather than either/or.
I knew a lot, once.
Wasn’t Naturalism about to happen?
And really, the French and the English,
why should they quit—a battle here, one there,
and their navies refulgent?....
Once I knew
that pastries could have a thousand leaves.
The bishop wore a fabulous hat,
and forks and knives
were polished monthly to meditate
in their velvet boxes.     

Here the sky represents nothing
but blue, and we go along
inventing new ways of dying:
by the cutting off of hands,
of hair, death by one dirty blanket, and
death by walking.
Death by six pine nuts, by bloody
sunset, by obscure mirage.

A number of other poems concern the challenge of simply going on day after day. Below is a selection of lines from these poems.  They demonstrate Voisine’s lyrical voice, her metaphorical and poetic sensibilities. 

“As Well As You Can”:    What about the lumpen sadness of all shoes?
                                           And all day that gravel of socket and bone,
                                           that heel like an adze? (5)

“Say Uncle”:                       rain. How would you find vigil
                                            and beautiful mouth, those two

                                            last seen by the side of the highway? (13-14)
“Midnight in the House:                 I had a lot of ideas,
                                                          but they became unlinear or not especially
                                                          productive or forward-
                                                          looking—too many frying pans,

                                                          smoky celings, sticky red aprons,
                                                          the sink that bosses, Throw the bones out!
                                                          and a painting of Jesus that ignores. (28)

“This World and That One:          Sometimes you defy it,
                                                       I am not that, watching a stranger
                                                       cry like a dog when she thinks she is alone
       at the kitchen window…(30)

“Summertime”:                      nothing.  Did we think
                                                this could be life? This
                                                thick arctic of heat? This tundra
                                                of struggle?  Even dogs
                                                know it’s best
                                                to pretend they are dead.

                                                By afternoon we don’t
                                                believe in anything:…  (22)

“After the First Road”    AFTER THE FIRST ROAD
                                        the next is a habit.  It makes hope the way
                                        morning unsullies those still
                                        drowned in their beds, the way a wren

                                        of a word then another gives itself to a sentence. (31)

“Two Years in That City”                         ...Freud in his dark suit,
                                                or was it Kafka, kept whispering
                                                        melancholia wasn’t the sadness
                                                        of a lost lover, or a city, or a life, but
                                                when you realized you mourned
                                                the glittering, ravenous void of desire itself. (34)

Still other poems, always timely at the US/Mexican border, concern the dangers, loss, worry, bitterness, and loneliness of immigrating across borders where climate, people and authorities can be harsh. “The Internal State of Texas,” “We are Crossing Soon,” “What Is True Is You’re Not Here,” “In the Shade” are a few. 

“You Will Come to Me Across the Desert,” while located in the American Southwest, evokes the human suffering of all the displaced people in our world. The first person voice sounds like the scolding of a loving mother fearful for the welfare of her child (adolescent/adult?) who has wandered away from the familiar/familial in search of another life.

    I went looking for you,
    here of all places.

    I said when I get a hold of you,
    you better watch out.
    You’ll never eat sugar
    as long as I live and breathe.”

Variations of common motherly humor, hope, bargaining, concerns, defenses, pleas and threats continue for 20 lines until the speaker collapses into her anguish:

                I said if I died now, I would die full of regret.
                I wish this knowledge did not make me weep.
                I said I have found everybody
                else—where are you?
                Don’t step there! The cacti are dangerous.
                Trust me, you could die….

Four more lines, and we read the ultimate maternal bargaining promise: “I said you will not be in trouble if/you come home now.”  The poem’s next and last line oozes magical thinking rooted in maternal despair:  “I said olly olly in free (24-25).”

Jungian thought informs us that we each have within us a multitude of potential selves: some dormant and largely invisible, particularly to ourselves; some more obvious, especially to others. We each have our own inner victim, inner colonizer, inner migrant/refugee, inner terrorist, inner philosopher, inner philanthropist, etc. Circumstances in the outer world evoke, cultivate or suppress aspects of the outer and inner self. These circumstances can all but overwhelm our ability to actualize our assets, understand or overcome our limitations. Often we project aspects of ourselves onto others, preferring to see in them things we are uncomfortable acknowledging in ourselves. Such projections easily drag us into harsh judgement about, or idealization of, others.  Or they can enable us to feel varying degrees of empathy for those with different life circumstances, hopefully without assuming that we can know what only the other can tell us about his or her life. True understanding and respect for the life experience of those different from us is hard earned.  In her own way, Voisine addresses this in the interview accompanying this review:

Since leaving home, having changed not only my location, but my culture and class, I am constantly aware of the places where I don’t belong by any kind of birthright— in spite of all the points of connection. How to write about a colonized space, one that doesn’t belong to you in any historical way—that became my poetic question once I moved to New Mexico.  

Calle Florista is, in my opinion, an excellent response to the poetic quest Voisine set for herself.  

To conclude, let me expand on the line  from "The Self After Modernism" that opened this this review.

I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write,
            which I can imagine with ultrasound clarity,

            something fierce and kicking in the darkness.
            Watch the poem swing its little arms, open its mouth

            to a vast, fetal silence (60-62).

On many levels, the poems in Calle Florista have much to teach us as human beings and as poets who explore the “fetal silence” of our imaginations, our lives and communities.

Caroline LeBlanc’s essays and prize winning poetry have been published in the US and abroad. In 2011 she received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. Oiseau Press published her chapbook, Smokey Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle in 2010. From 2013-2015 she served as the American Military Family Museum’s Writer in Residence. She hosts a regular writing salon for women veterans. Her art has won prizes in numerous group shows. She is a founding member of the Albuquerque Apronistas Collective of women artists.

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