Emma Trelles and Tropicalia

Trelles, Emma. Tropicalia. South Bend: U of Notre Dame P, 2010. 56 pp.  $15 (paper).

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Reviewed by Khadijah Queen

“The beginning should eat the eyes,” opens “How to Write a Poem: Theory #62,” though Tropicalia does anything but. It gives us instead an ultrasensitive pair of eyes in addition to our own—as acutely attuned to color and texture and passion as a painter’s. Trelles writes with a sensibility part emotional and part anthropological, offering a way of seeing first the surfaces and then delving into the poems’ subjects with both heart and precision.

Tropicalia is delicious—full of “the final sweetness of lime crème brûlée and cantaloupe soup” (46) and “strawberry ice cream/straight from the tub” (19), a deliberate and vibrant mish-mash of people, places and poetry. The book addresses, questions and holds conversations with each, laced with glitter, gutter and love. Yes, love, unabashedly; a love letter to art and place, to Neruda and Lorca, to food and music, the remarkable and unremarkable sights along the interstate and activist/performer Billy Bragg. The self-aware “I” in these poems can’t help herself: “I know it’s too much, the love-ness of this poem, but I am deep in it,/waist high in a swell of vineyards and lakes/brimming with blue, blue sky” (46). For balance, there is even a “Letter to the Right,” in which she addresses political conservatives with frankness: “I hope you never read my poems [. . .] Even when I’ve smiled and said thanks, I’ve really meant shut up” (10).  But mostly, Tropicalia is a love letter to the endless things to praise if one is watchful, which certainly characterizes Trelles here. She notices everything from “a baby toad in the cherry hedge” (39) and “tricked out choppers rain[ing] chrome on Collins Ave.”(26) to “Our Lady of the Sponge Curlers / [. . .] buying toilet paper and Mahatma rice.” (31)

That unfolding love letter is the book’s strongest undercurrent—the kind of love that perceives all, the violence and difficulty alongside the joy and magnificence. And the result is simultaneously wild spectacle and keen, quiet observation. “I love the quiet” (48), Trelles writes, but in this same collection is “Country Dada Song in 4/4 Time,” with a “waterfall banjo” (21) for a chorus. That apparent contrast creates a sense of completeness, of well-rounded thought and natural humor.

Alongside that humor and within that contemplation, though, a melancholy also resides. Another significant theme in the book lies in Federico García Lorca’s duende, conceived as both theory and play—the untranslatable darkness and desire that threads itself through the human experience. In the book’s final poem, “Lorca is Green,” Trelles explores some of what that means, and in the poem’s best moments, arrives at a sort of infinitude:

Lorca is green as the sky at the hour of the crepúsculo, when the moon begins its bright ascent and the sidewalks fall to darkness. Lorca is the shadow-green of mangroves and pines, the slash of green beneath the egret’s eye. He is the green that enters in silence; he is the green that returns. (52)

The poem goes on to describe Lorca’s place in the speaker’s life and memory, a prose-form elegiac ode that is as much about the speaker and about language as Lorca himself: “Nothing is left behind. Nothing is buried” (53). Yet, too often the poem lapses into prosaic telling-rather-than-showing, beset with passive voice and information a reader could find elsewhere: “He was a diminutive man [. . .] He is buried perhaps near Granada, where hundreds of men and women were executed by gunshot in 1936 during the Civil War” (52).  That tendency to over-tell occurs elsewhere in the book as well. It is as though Trelles really wants the reader to see what she does, to know and understand the information. Perhaps these lines from “This Week,” one of the less-successful poems, explains that eagerness: “I don’t want to forget [. . .] is it like this for everyone?” (42).

But in its best moments, Tropicalia conveys how much value remembrance holds. “Gua-gua,” excerpted below, serves as an example of the way Trelles’ language can succinctly capture the complexities of memory, how memory moves through both the singular speaker and the larger population (Cuban Miami in particular, but certainly applicable elsewhere). Using the Cuban-Spanish word for bus as a point of reference she returns to again and again, deepening its meaning each time, Trelles’ sound logic mimics the rhythm of conveyance:

Gua-gua,
The clipped cry from an imperfect memory,
a wish to travel in reverse
to an island shaped like a boomerang.
You can fling it as far as 90 miles and still
feel its edge in your hands [. . .] . (11)

Even if unaware of the conflicting feelings many Cuban immigrants have for their home country, anyone can relate to the notion of a place, person or thing that keeps coming back in flesh or sense or memory, so that you still “feel its edge in your hands” despite trying to escape it or let it go, and the cyclical movement such effort implies.  Importantly, however, and one might even say crucially, Trelles does not exoticize Miami (or Oaxaca or Cuba or “Maa-drid, Spain”), but rather praises its extraordinary range of humanness with a voice as insistent and animated as “a cartoon baby’s mouth / open to a pink cave of tonsils” (11).

Further, the poems in Tropicalia document with tenderness and intelligence how people move through the varied landscape, on multiple interior/mental and exterior/physical levels—passing through, moving toward, looking away, looping back. The poems tend to be rooted or situated in the body or framed by the mundane, as in the sestina “Autorretrato Quintina”:

A mind needs a place to set its teeth, and grace
arrives in fixing the toilet, in water
smoothing the pre-dawn fears of possible
cysts, faulty seatbelts, the radio loop
of reasons I’m needed and belong nowhere.

Here is a mirror without Las Meninas [. . .]
Here is a sheet of water
rising behind the iris, here, the possible

a mottled gold. My skin is a plausible
way of counting miles, the tender nowhere
route of veins [. . .] . (33)

Conflating the physical journey implied in “Gua-gua” with a metaphorical or interior journey inspired by identity struggle, Trelles depicts self-definition as an ever-shifting work of art in conversation with the daily performance of living, eating, loving, and going where we need to and choose to.

The poem “Nocturne in Parts,” though, comes off as a combination of diary entries and observational snippets pieced together a bit randomly.  Though there are interesting images like the aforementioned baby toad and cherry hedge, the section “required reading” is among those that fall flat: “Lime and salt avocado halves./ Light votives./ Bathe. Sleep” (38). Sensory lines, but nevertheless spare in a too-ordinary way, lacking the power and surprise in the richer poems.  “Reporter’s Notebook,” too, pays only passing attention to the mundane, rendering it lusterless: “January afternoon. Cold and bright. [. . .] A fine place to picnic. Should bring Mark and hummus sandwiches” (22). The speaker asks “Is there a way to work it into the story?” (23). But for mystery’s sake, and in the name of the duende the collection pays homage to, it’s better to leave some things unsaid. “Election Abecedarian,” for example, does a much better job of delivering the connections between food and the body, the cosmic and the quotidian, describing time’s passage adroitly: “Hard to say how those four hours and 53 minutes spiraled/ around us in a silver lasso/ Inlaid with thorns” (50). The poem also successfully denies loftiness in favor of a grounding in the physical here-and-now which moves beyond journalistic jotting: “No, this is not metaphor, or a sly index of the unstoppable/ turning. We wanted to eat” (51).

Tropicalia is dance and lecture, sucker-punch and seduction: “This night with its illicit coolness/can make you believe anything” (49). With as much flamboyance and shadow as South Florida itself, these poems are no stranger than we all are beneath our carefully tended veneers—layers which Trelles urges us to unravel, see fully, and to love completely.

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Khadijah QueenKHADIJAH QUEEN holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University (Los Angeles). She is author the poetry collections Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic 2008) and the forthcoming Black Peculiar, winner of the 2010 Noemi Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in jubilat, Tuesday: An Art Project, Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing and Best American Non-required Reading among other journals and anthologies. A visual artist as well, she has performed and exhibited work in the Seattle Art Museum, Eyedrum Gallery in Atlanta and other institutions and alternative spaces.