Here is a review of Maria’s new collection. This review, which appears in this month’s issue of El Sol, was written by Cathleen C. Robinson. (Ms. Robinson is a member of the Spanish Advisory Committee of the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA.) Click here to download the full issue (16 page PDF).
You might say that María Arroyo pens poems to preach against domestic violence in her bilingual collection called Gathering Words: Recogiendo Palabras.
You would be wrong.
She is not preaching.
María Luisa Arroyo, a transplanted Puerto Rican who grew up in the North End of Springfield, is an artist blessed with the talent of finding exactly the right words and the right cadence to show what she sees and what she feels.
She shares that vision with us in her word pictures and word music. Her readers and her listeners can draw their own conclusions after experiencing the truths her poetic vision imparts.
This, her first published collection, is divided into four parts: “Raíces de silencio,” “What children see and hear,” “Invisible Women,” and “Gathering words/recogiendo palabras.” The theme of the first three parts focuses on the family tangled in the debasing values of machismo; the fourth addresses more universal themes while continuing to bring to life the experiences of ordinary human beings.
Arroyo’s poems show that machismo takes its victims on all sides. It demands a perverse stoicism that brutalizes feelings, glorifies physical force, subjugates women and children, and victimizes men, telling them that just because they were born male the world must pay them homage and when it doesn’t, it’s okay to soak their frustration in alcohol and express their rage
in explosive violence against the very ones they profess to love. Such a man loses his dignity and his humanity.
The brutality is made even more brutal by the ironic beauty of the poet’s words. The word snapshots show children who “fake sleep/and hold their pee out of fear,” whose papi will “slap our backs bumpy” for “coloring outside the lines” or because a child “spills her milk/ or uses too much toilet paper, or wets the bed.”
The wives and mothers “huddle and press their noses/against the screen door, sighing.” The women are to stay in the background and keep quiet: “Silence in English, too,/ the language mi marido says/ I am too stupid to learn.” They must endure “the beatings during his borracheras.” Their lives are a process of loss: “an eggshell is tougher than my self-esteem.” Their only goal? “que me dejes vivir en paz/ negro/déjame vivir” because they have been told that “all that shit about school, about getting your own place, about getting ahead/ will do you no good.”
Such men declare their role and their right: “bebemos, cantamos, comemos, celebramos.”
The violence produces an achingly painful solitude: “Their eyes—his, a glazed gaze skyward/ hers, a bitter glare as if to wither/ the source of their misery–/never meet.”
Poverty and hunger often accompany machismo. A mother cries out, “Let me carve small chunks of flesh/ from my belly, from my thighs/ and stew them in this pot/ so that my children may feast on more than air.”
And yet the mothers and the children fear what would happen if they left their brutal homes and sought sanctuary elsewhere: “Fear,/ as I stand on the steps/ of this battered women’s shelter,/ you make me want to bolt back/ to a violent known.”
Poignant and beautiful are Arroyo’s words in “why you became boy-wolf” as she recalls childhood: “remember/ how we ran up the hill/ to pet the backs of bees/ bouncing on faces of flowers/..how we rubbed our fingers on petals/ powdery yellow…” Her words capture the “heat wave in Holyoke, 1991”: “the air sweats the stench/ of tar and dirty diapers.” Her poetry paints pictures such as this one: “a child who raises hers arms/ to cast spells on shadows.”
The book is truly bilingual. Sometimes it is bilingual in the sense that one poem is in English followed by its translation into Spanish. But even here, the translations are not literal. Each poem works its magic separately drawing from the cultural images and rhythms each language suggests. Consider the poems “mother earth” and “La tierra madre”: The English version is sixteen lines long; the Spanish twenty-two. In the Spanish version, the verse “the layered flesh/ of her breasts and body trembling” becomes: “la carne de sus senos/ y su cuerpo tiembla como flan.” Nevertheless, the theme and tones of the poem have the same impact.
Often, a poem is bilingual in the sense that its words slip seamlessly between Spanish and English as in “Raíces de silencio:” “Las bofetadas/ that welded my face/ like angry bee stings/ taught me how to swallow/ my words like pebbles/ y nunca poner una cara/ always wear a stoic mask.”
Or a poem might be bilingual because it suggests the broken speech of one whose native language is Spanish but who communicates in the world of English.
Arroyo was educated at Colby, Tufts and Harvard and regularly conducts readings and workshops in poetry writing for every age group. She was a 2004 Massachusetts Cultural Council grant winner in poetry.
Note: Poet and writing workshop facilitator Maria Luisa Arroyo will give a bilingual poetry reading at Forbes Library in Northampton, this coming Wednesday, Jan. 6, at 7pm.
Review by Cathleen C. Robinson, retired teacher of Spanish and Latin American history who now dedicates her life to writing.