I miss the days of wandering through the bookshop and thumbing through the pages of a book the way music-lovers, I’m certain, miss the days of wandering through the music store and sampling tunes. Both of these places of song are disappearing. But I’m fortunate in another way. As a book critic, I know that most of the recently-released titles will arrive—surprise visitors and uninvited guests alike—to my cramped little studio in Queens. I confess that it’s always a treat for me to throw myself onto the couch to get acquainted with a book. I consider the artistry of the cover, the performance of the title, the spine with its miniature marquee, the found poem in the table of contents, the sentimentality of the dedication, the gratitude of the acknowledgments page, and the slight vanity of the author bio/photo. Without fail, it’s the same experience with every book. But then there are the poems themselves and that’s when the dynamic shifts: bland or uninteresting or weak work will get tossed into the hefty donation bin; work that impresses or intrigues me will keep me company for the rest of the evening, and possibly earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.
When I was approached with the possibility of featuring two poets for West Branch Wired, I said yes with confidence because I had a small but talented pool to choose from. And I chose Xochiquetzal Candelaria and Jacqueline Jones LaMon because I wanted to spend more time with their work. Already I had reviewed Candelaria’s debut collection Empire and I had just finished formulating interview questions for LaMon about her second book of poems Last Seen. What a gift, I said to myself, to have an excuse to ask for more from a poet living on the west coast and one on the east.
Candelaria’s sensibilities are rooted in the strength of femininity—the women in her poems are explorers, usually of the imagination, cultivating history, memory and storytelling in all its complex forms (from dream to random thought) in order to negotiate the spaces that are meant to confine them: their bodies, their gendered roles, their homes. These women don’t reject their female worlds, they expand the possibilities of what a woman can do or think or imagine within them. In her book Empire the role model for such a presence was “la soldadera,” the female soldier who fought alongside the men during the Mexican Revolution. If such fierceness could be exercised 100 years ago, then what can be expected of the woman today? Candelaria continues to answer—or rather—to ask that question as she gives shape to the creative powers of female beauty, desire, wonder, and empathy with the four poems included in this edition.
LaMon’s work is startling. In her book Last Seen she explored a terrible social ill: girls and women who vanish without a trace. These unfinished stories might tempt an amateur writer to complete them, but not a graceful poet like LaMon—she considers the devastating absences, the empty spaces, that these lives leave behind. To let a story come to an end is to excuse us from responsibility, and to disguise a silence as closure or conclusion is to erase human emotion. LaMon is also a skilled writer of the series, which is illustrated in the four “Empty Except for One” poems in this edition of West Branch Wired. And her eye continues to be drawn to the places and people that the rest of us don’t want to see or pretend not to, in this case, the downtrodden riders of a city subway. As a reader, I do not feel reprimanded by having been shown by LaMon what stood right before me, I feel enlightened.
It was such a pleasure to communicate with these two fine poets over email and through these new poems. Indeed I feel it validates my initial response to their work, their books lovingly read and shelved in my personal library. It’s exciting to observe the critical next steps after one project comes to fruition and I’ll be patient as Candelaria and LaMon write and build toward their next collections. And I also encourage West Branch Wired readers to seek out Empire and Last Seen. Thank you and happy reading!