Wednesday, August 23, 2006



PUTI / WHITE by Patria Rivera
(Frontenac House, Calgary, Alberta, 2005)

stringing moments of grace

. . . We urge
the poet to teach us to interpret dreams, cure sickness,
fall into trances, say what we believe – how not to break
the breath that makes us paint, carve stone and wood.
When life forces you into a corner, the river torrent will surge
like ink blacking out the tabloid warfare. We wake to
fleeting rain wetting the shaded tipica deep in the ravine.
- Dream Trilogy, 1

To encounter poetry is to be captivated by it. There is no other way. Gravitate one must, on first read; like being in love at first sight. One experiences a hesitant encounter with someone’s uncanny turn of phrases articulating one’s own unspoken life. To be understood is primal; it is a need that sustains the human soul. This is the poet’s calling without their ever knowing the power of their words.

Patria Rivera’s poems create landscapes. Emotional landscapes with painted titles such as “13 blossoms in a Minnesota museum,” “Women descended from birds,” “1000 Cranes,” “The geography outside,” “Dogteeth," among others. She is the winner of several awards and commendations and is on the rise among Frontenac House’s coterie of promising Canadian poets.

Rivera’s landscapes darken when her voice recedes into a stoical broadcast delivery that detonates yesterday’s headlines into shards and the flutter of human debris ("Suspicious cargo"). In response to a Boston Review article, “What’s wrong with Missile defense: An Interview with Ted Postol by Joshua Cohen,” she writes

They weep over what once was, linger.

Imagine first tenderness in everything,
how difficult the well of tears,
how impossible to think
it exists.
. . .
how enthralled they were with the omnipotence
of technology: the tumbling decoys,
the brightness and fluctuations in brightness
of balloon-covered warheads
tumbling end-over-end.
               They’ve seen those lights
               once –
alpha, beta, gamma – pikadon
of thunder brighter than a thousand suns,
pure, blinding,
searing the back of a seven-fingered

In her recollection, she finds it
               how they’d forgotten
they had once been concerned with the
and the marvelous,
that the world around them spun
on a drop of water,
how they had once been vulnerable.
(How they understood)

In a gentler but no less devastating poem, Rivera introduces us to a day in the life of a town, where villagers wait in line to use their new artesian well that was

. . .
brought in by the Reparations Bill.
               Potable water for this small dried-up hamlet.
. . .
               This water would be good enough
to go with morning, noon and evening meals.
                              Water worth the wait
for barrio folks lining up from sun-up to sundown.
. . .
By late noon, the sun had hidden behind a cloud.
The line up, too, seemed to thin
               as an old woman with a bucket
took her turn at the spout. She barely noticed
               her loose, long hair catch the spokes
                              of the waterwheel, pry the secret out
               of her scalp.
(Old woman at the well)

In Puti / White, her first published collection of poems, Rivera fulfills her “curiosity for the obvious, what’s behind objects, what’s behind desires.” ("Full Particulars"). Are these only for her private reminisces of her siblings, her mother, her aunts -- then why are we as intrigued when we find them on the page? Follow her many aunts whose retinue of names serendipitously ring out a poetic cadence:

Maria. Petra. Nicasia. Pascuala. Maxima. Aurelia. Ursula.

Aves: the surname of the dead.

Seven sisters, the seven stars of the skies,
all descended from birds. . . .
(Women Descended from birds)

There is the enigmatic unnamed brother who woke up from a long sleep; and a sister who “had a hard time telling [her] left foot from her right” and who slept in stairwells “even after falling many times.” ("1945") Is this the same or another sibling— this “sister home for the weekend”?

When she came home she did not say a word
               for a very long time.
. . .

Now when she jerks her hand to reach out to us,
her scarred knuckles coil, grey as her argument, marked
                              where cigarette butts
had tattooed targets on a mesh of veins.
               Under her skirt, they stuck a live cord,
ran current enough to light the bulb in her cell,
               the blurred plot of her coded life,
her questioners getting edgier with each turn.
(sister home for the weekend)

Rivera strings life’s moments, editing them into cinematic frames. She ushers the reader back into a portal of the past: childhood, twilight and the termination of play. She leads us into her particular moment, a similar disturbing loss that we blocked from our consciousness.

Dusk, and coming home,
we shook off the mud from our toes,
the dust of play from our legs.
Inside the house people talked
in low voices. Mother was back
from the hospital, bringing
you home, Naomi, in a shoebox.

               You were so small I
could barely
see your toes. Your fingers curled,
your lips blue and unmoving.
I waited for you to smile,
but you kept your eyes closed, even as
they lined
Father’s shoebox with Mother’s old lace.

They said you had to wait
for another bed of pinewood
because it was too late in the night.

I guess I must have fallen asleep.
When I woke up you were gone,
and Mother’s old lace
was back on the altar with a lit candle.
(Naomi in a Shoebox)

Resilience either masks a child’s bewilderment or children are better at accepting life and disappearance. Such an experience hides in the folds, dormant. Neither a trauma, nor an angst. Just a shock to the system, absorbed and transformed by a poet into a moment of grace. This is Rivera’s gift, this ability to reach into a remembered time with utmost ease and clarity — delineating pain, divining life.


Remé Grefalda lives in Arlington, Virginia. She is the editor of Our Own Voice, literary ezine for Filipinos in the Diaspora.


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