Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
by Erika Ayón
76 poems/100 pages/$15.00
Publisher: World Stage Press
To Purchase: World Stage Press
In a world full of anxieties, violence and discord, poetry, as Robert Frost has put it, is a momentary stay against confusion. To write a poem or to read and enjoy a poem is to discover a little portion of life that is whole and meaningful. I do not know if Ms. Ayón is familiar with the above-noted quote by Frost. However, her debut collection most certainly reveals that she understands its wisdom. With gentle pathos she employs the vehicle of poetry to make her Mexican-American immigrant experience whole and meaningful.
Were I to settle on a single controlling theme for Orange Lady, that theme would be love. The collection, broadly speaking, spotlights three primary areas: family, the poet’s Mexican heritage and her South-Central LA neighborhood. Her poems invite you in, as if to say, Come, walk with me; let me show you around, this is where I live.
Ayón’s style is conversational-narrative, (The reviewer’s characterization). Her poems are liberally sprinkled with metaphors, similes and pregnant verbs which make her characters and settings come alive with vivid imagery. The opening poem, An Honest Living, showcases this tendency:
“Orange Lady! Orange Lady!” My face burns like a Red Hots
Candy. Gustavo points, bursts into his car-screeching laugh,
screams across the yard. It’s recess, I am in the middle of a
hopscotch game. Apa’s words float in my mind, stop me from
crying, from saying it isn’t true. It is an honest living, nothing
to be ashamed of. Stealing is shameful. Before I can answer, the
bell rings. Gustavo runs to get in line. As I walk to the line, my
best friend, Jessica, approaches me. “Why did he say that?”
As An Honest Living develops, the poet sets a tone that will pervade the entire collection: basic principles of love and honesty guide Erika and her family as they live in a world that values outward signs of success over internal signs of character.
Section I, the first of five divisions, introduces the poet and her family as they arrive and get settled in South-Central LA. Poems with titles such as The Ride There, Loading, Unloading, and We Are Not Alone, among others, acquaint and educate those of us who know nothing of transitioning from one country to another.
The poet’s core value of love for her native Mexico is beautifully explicated in the poem, In Another Country, from Mexico for her Daughter: Mexico is the speaker in this seven-part poem which is a poignant lament at the loss of yet another native daughter:
From Part IV
As they cross my border, she hears
me whisper their names, weep for
them to stay. The coyotes signal to
them to crouch behind a wood fence,
to be silent. The moon draws its gaze
away, shields them from men in
uniform who search with flashlights,
with drawn weapons. She sees her
mother’s shadow being taken away.
As the poem draws to a gentle close, we feel a mother’s heartbreak at having to unfold from her arms her much-loved child:
From Part VII
When they land, she shakes
the last memories of me, turns
to face the city in front of her,
hugged by freeways, surrounded
by stars that shine day and night.
In the distance, I sigh, release
her forever from my embrace.
Finally, we consider Ms. Ayón’s love of her South-Central LA neighborhood. Love, does not mean that the poet likes or approves of everything that happens. It goes without saying that poets and poetry best serve their craft by placing poetry at the service of truth.
In poems such as How Sadness Spreads, the poet identifies with the suffering of friends whose son is killed by a car. Lamentations, for Uncle Martin, is about a dear family member who can’t keep a job and is plagued by mental illness.
Peanuts, is a brilliant metaphor depicting the disappointment of Erika’s father (Apa) as he reflects upon the chasm between expectations and reality:
You have a different way of eating them.
You sit alone at the kitchen table,
partially crack them in your mouth,
spit out the bits of shell and skin,
collect the shells in front of you. The shells
of your shattered American Dreams.
Did the residue from the peanuts remind
you of the home you left behind?
A place where the roads you walked on
were not concrete but more like crushed
peanut shells, the dust collecting
at the bottom of your tiny feet.
As I note above Orange Lady is about Ms. Ayón’s commitment to love. Though she and her family share a mix of experiences, love continues to shine brightly. In a telling poem near the end of the book family, Mexico and neighborhood come together:
Making a Fire
...after Gary Soto’s “Oranges” Poem
I was in ninth grade when I read your poem.
The poem burned through my heart.
When I held it in my hands, blisters formed.
Now when I sit down to write, open my
notebook, touch my pen to paper. Flashes
of ink turn to flames. Poems engulf the page.
I am making my own fire with my hands.
The cold turns to warmth. December
becomes summer from the light emanating
from the pages. It doesn’t matter it’s pain,
sadness, anger, happiness. It all creates light
when it burns. I hunch over the fire, put my
pens together for the chance to see the flicker.
These are the embers that spark a blaze.
Should it come to pass that Ms. Ayón should say to me,
"Come, walk with me; let me show you around, this is where I live."
My answer would be, Yes, I would be honored.