Gunmetal Blues


by Jessica Sequeira

As Though the Wound Had Heard,
by Mara Pastor, translated by María José Giménez,
Cardboard House Press, 44 pp.

As a poetic symbol, the scar might seem to be hopelessly banal and overwrought, the preferred motif of the lovestruck adolescent. In the work of Puerto Rican poet Mara Pastor, however, the scar is not just a symbol for romantic pain. It becomes something mythical that goes beyond the individual, something not necessarily sad. A scar can be chatty and funny; it can deliver sassy retorts and counterclaims; it can be a historian, correcting or skewing contemporary interpretations. A scar can be personal, or it can be a mark in common. The English title of the chapbook delights in the wordplay and unexpected variety of the scar. As though the wound had heard, we read — yes, “heard”, rather than “hurt” or “healed”.

An intelligent mix of humor and social commentary, this bilingual selection of twelve poems transforms stereotypes into language games, in order to question the relationship between names and realities. Pastor draws on her natural and urban surroundings to convert what seem rigid facts into eternal riddles and “waterproof questions”. On the title page, several skewed vertical lines cut through a horizontal, a wound mended by dancing stitches. The wound continues to live; it moves, responds, talks back. As Pastor’s poetry goes out to meet its surroundings, taking on everything from natural elements to social issues, these surroundings playfully question such attempts to make sense of them. Wound and context both deliver ludic ripostes.

The first poem, “Numeric Flora”, begins from a statistical fact: fewer women named Rosa are being born now than at previous moments in history. “One hundred and seventy-three out of every thousand women / in Alabama were named Rosa / in nineteen fifty-five,” Pastor begins. The name Rosa used to be not just popular but significant, from the presence of Rosa Parks to the many foreign Rosas who crossed the border. Over time, the name lost popularity — idem the names Rosana, Rosario and Rosemary. According to the webpage BabyCenter, “expert info for pregnancy & parenting”, the most popular names for girls this year to date are Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella and Sophia.

“There are residues of the Big Bang in roses, / residues of radiation, there are fewer bees / on the planet pollinating them, there are fewer Rosas.” Does this decrease in Rosas represent something? And what does Pastor mean by “there are fewer bees on the planet”? Is this an environmental in addition to social critique, or is this no critique at all but simply a nod to change? The slight absurdist element — attention given to both shifts in name popularity (artificial constructs) and animal presences (real beings) — repeats throughout the book. The relationship between attributed and substantial qualities, the name of a thing and its essence, is questioned again and again, in a form that disorients. For while a woman who would be named Rosa may now be called something else, the bee has truly become less common statistically. Or is the link more complex? Maybe the name of a thing does somehow help define its essence; maybe a woman named Rosa really is different in substance from the identical woman Ava. In this case, a “fewer Rosas” phenomenon would have more mysterious consequences than a mere shift in designation.

The importance of names continues into the next poem, “Falling Bird”. Luck arrives suddenly like a mistake, as do death and beauty. These crumble and collapse with breathtaking suddenness. “Broken things have happened / as though luck were a mistake / that falls on top of your head. / I’m not speaking of accidents.” What is the difference between a “mistake that falls on top of your head” and an “accident”? Once again, while this might appear a minor quibbling over terms, something lurks at the base of such insistence on naming. An accident is unexpected and unintentional, but a mistake is expected and intentional. “I have a dying grandmother / and I’m not referring to that either, / but I get in the shower / and imagine the funeral poem / I’ve been writing to her forever, / as long as I’ve known that beauty dies / and that as it dies it crumbles / like the mistake of a falling bird.” The bird has fallen for a reason; some explanation or presence has made it fall as it has. The event is unfortunate, but not unexpected; preparations have been in the making for a long time.

“Travel Note” takes the form of a brief letter from the author to her brother, asking him to be less of an engineer and instead speak of love, or a resulting wound. “Tell me about some love, / arrive with a scar / that erases all the planes / of your habitual engineering.” Engineering is a construction of the expected, an arrangement of definite lines and arcs. A scar, on the other hand, is something that for Pastor can wiggle, talk, wreak havoc. Often it is the product of an “accident” (as opposed to “mistake”) and results from the unexpected. This does not have to be an entirely bad thing, however, as a wound can also connect people such as the writer and her sibling.

“Rust” takes as its premise the rearview mirrors of cars at the author’s family home. The windows are patched with silicon, and retain the fragmented glass. In the poet’s mind, these shards reflect distorted images from the current neighborhood, but also images from the past and possibilities for the future. “Broken rearview mirrors, / mobility rusted by salt, / the sea everywhere, fractal reflection in a downpour, / possibility of Yunque, seabird, yagrumo, / of flamboyán like the blood of the road,” she writes. Instead of looking at reality and trying to understand it directly, it’s necessary to reconsider the past, think of the future, and again examine the temporary names assigned to things. “Because the past of this island can only be seen / in the fragments of a patched-up rearview mirror: / rusted memories / that are closer than they appear.”

“Reserve Tin” begins with an epigraph from the Puerto Rican poet Vanessa Droz, before proceeding to the author’s own experiences. Pastor says she has a scar on her thumb from when she cut herself with a “reserve tin”, and that this has recently begun to turn red again. “I’ve tried to ignore it / but every time the wound / recedes in time / and seems to have occurred more recently.” The past constantly intrudes into the present. Pastor’s friend María looks for her own scar,

in case the time had come
to recognize the common wound
in our shells,
in case we’d said in unison
something that took us back in time
as though the wound had heard
and cracked from remaining silent,
as though scars had
uttered the war cry: wake up,
scars of the world, hurt.

War cry! No quiet and festering symbol of individual pain, this scar.

“Hombre” is a peculiar poem, based on a kind of social critique. Fearmongering has led the common citizen to avoid eating strawberries sold by the freeway, because of the tapeworms they may contain. Pastor’s poem pokes some fun at these strawberry naysayers, before dissolving into absurdity. “Nation, don’t eat strawberries / on the freeway, because of the tapeworms. / Strawberries, don’t be suburb. / Atlántico, don’t be island. / Father, don’t be güero.” And so forth. The second part of the prohibitions do not seem to sync with the first; names do not match reality. Once again the name of a thing and its supposed essence, its predicate, its stereotype, do not line up. One gets the sense that many of the author’s ideas and poems emerge from community-focused articles in the newspaper, the kind shared on social media; out of this fascinating grit, Pastor generates pearls.

“The Chinese Have Arrived” starts from a similar basis of poking fun at naysayers, those who in the spirit of protectionism complain of the immigrants running the commercial shops of Ponce, the city where Pastor currently lives in Puerto Rico. “The Chinese have arrived, they have bulletproofed / the ice cream shops, fed sesame seeds / to the lions and bought up the ghosts,” the poet writes. The Chinese represent change, the new, the inexplicable: all that is mysterious and exotic. In Pastor’s hands, this turns to parody. “The fruit vendor opens his eyes and says, with spiritualist surprise, / I have seen them, necks tattooed with silence, / and a bag of rice that lets grains drop / until they reach the harbor of the sunken galleons.”

In “Real Title”, Pastor writes that “the respectable English doctor / almost owner of a hospital / said these words to me / as a donation to the stark details / about my person: / marriage of foreign man and Mexican woman, lasts. / Marriage of foreign woman and Mexican man, does not.” He cites her own failed relationship, amongst other more famous examples. “Real” here refers to the doctor’s “royal” title, not “real” as in “real life”. Here a small moment of humiliation and dubious advice is chronicled for the enlightenment of History.

“The Busts of Martí” refers to José Martí, key figure in the Cuban War of Independence and hero throughout Latin America. Or rather, this title refers to all statues of Martí in the city. What do these busts of the great writer and activist now represent? Are they no more than talking heads, empty of content? In Pastor’s poem these busts begin to chatter and shout with increasing stridency; everyone thinks he or she can give advice, that he or she is an intellectual. In this semi-apocalypse, voice struggle to make themselves heard over one another; they cancel one another out and produce no real change. “Every Martí made it impossible to hear the rest, and they all became a harmless roar, molten lead, tree ash.” The metaphor is clear.

“Fireworks” starts from words in a red notebook, which like a scar can recall past moments, such as looking at the Ajusco volcano with a loved one. “We forget it and it arrives in the future to remind us / of a journey we’ve been forgetting.” Words renew sensual and physical memory, and return abstract phrases to their origins in the concrete.

“Liquidation” rests on a pun that possibly doesn’t come through entirely in direct English translation. (“Liquidación” in Spanish can also mean “severance pay”.) “Lately I accept / that love is / to accompany you as a cautious amateur,” writes Pastor. “I don’t tend to optimize love,” she adds elsewhere, before noting the small details of a relationship as closely as an accountant might, from a bicycle ride with gel gloves and ultra-lightweight helmets, to the presence of “pelicans with wings like stretched clouds”. To “optimize”, or improve efficacy, is a word usually employed in business and finance, in some context linked to money. Indeed, the poem ends on a sobering note of real life, arguing that these forms of loving mentioned could possibly keep developing, “even if we don’t get paid next month”.

“He Brought Me Flowers”, with epigraphs from Zaira Pacheco and Ismael Rivera, is a poem composed of eleven smaller poems. “Not all paradises are lost / some have an expiration date,” reads the Pacheco quote. Then comes Rivera: “Roses anyway”. The poems describe moments of bliss by a waterfall, next to a nest, in a hammock, moments that continue to exist outside of time, somehow. Pastor talks about them with freshness, without sentimentalism. The sky fills with gunmetal blues; several kinds of southern birds fly through the air (charrancito, querequequé, chorlito, aura tiñosa, royal yaboa); Spanish thyme is stuck in a bottle of tequila. “Going uphill, / there they were: three cows against a blue background, / chewing on happiness.” And: “It is a great day. / Life seems to say to us / it is time to relaunch with a new / radar system.”

Whether or not the radar system remains operational, it is refreshing to read Pastor’s good-humored and intelligent poems, which never feel sorry for themselves or descend into strident politics. The most interesting writing, it seems to me, does not take on love or politics in a direct manner, but instead creates the new space needed for these themes to wiggle in indirectly — the product of an anarchic and pure joy in words. Supple and ingeniously rhythmic, the poems of Pastor are barriles de bomba the color of gunmetal blue, constantly twirling and retorquing the clichés of poetry and the everyday.