The Saints of Streets by Luisa Igloria

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Yours in Words: An Epistolary Review of Luisa A Igloria’s The Saints of Streets.

6:34 AM

Dear Luisa,

I have just finished your latest book The Saints of Streets, and find I can’t close the book and let it sit on my desk so it and I could sit in silence for a while, making sense of what we’d just shared. I find myself thumbing back through the pages asking questions like, “is ‘Thinking in Sepia’ the lyric?” or is “’Thinking in Sepia’ the narrative?” and “How do I name these poems?” and “How do I tell you what these poems have done to me? Should I?” Give me a minute to collect myself so I can respond with the respect this book deserves. I will write shortly.

Christian Anton Gerard

6:44 AM

Dear Luisa,

I hope this letter finds you before you’ve finished the last because it occurs to me The Saints of Streets deserves to be discussed now in this intense present because of your poems’ intensely present language. It occurs to me an idea’s circulating saying a book of poems should be sat with, which is why I wanted to leave your book on my desk for a time before writing you, as if spending time away from the book would somehow mean I’d be more able to respond in the cogent ruminative, the retrospective, but that is the poet’s work, your work, which you have done for more than thirty years, breathing in the past’s husk-dust and sowing it as seed on pages at once blank, then grown tall with language’s stalks, so tall that language becomes a place where I can, at the same time, pick its fruit while walking the rows, take some bites (some of which slide down my throat, some of which drip to my shirt, stains my chin and hands), and be fine with the fact I did not mark my point of entry, but there is enough here in these pages to sustain me until I walk out somewhere like you in the end of “Meditation on a Seam,” which if you remember, begins

Nights were salted with the pock-
and-punch-punch-punch of sewing
needles on cloth, the crease and rustle
of pattern and paper outlining arms
and bodices of other women who’d wear
the clothes these sisters made…

and then is somehow able to find itself in an end suggesting the past’s use in the present:

…They’ve taught me
how all things in time will turn and pleat
and how one length of cloth might gather all things in
or flutter free. In the dark, because of them I find
lost prayers in the tiny edging around buttonholes
in store-bought shirts. Because of them
I never sweep the gathered dust and tears
of days, outdoors into the rain.

How this poem carries with it the dust on its author’s hands, the past’s ash suggesting that memory is never dead unless we let it be dead, and I’m so thankful you won’t let any past be dead (yours or otherwise).

With gratitude for the life in these poems,
Christian Anton Gerard

2:38 PM

Dear Luisa,

I can’t read these poems and not think of Adrienne Rich writing, “whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, censored in collections of letters, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language––this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable” (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 199). I can’t help but read “Meditation on a Seam” and not find Ars Poetica written large across the page because the narrative here, as in so many of these poems, creates its own lyric energy, a focus asking me to see in the narrative something else held up for inspection. That “something else” is the poet investigating making’s nature so she can “flutter free” in the dark and unbury the “lost prayers in the tiny edging around buttonholes / in store-bought shirts.” There is, indeed, something lost in the trendy poem, the seamless poem that evades the personal, the poem that seals itself tight against the world and reader. Your poems will have none of that, which I champion.

Here in “Meditation on a Seam,” and in poems such as “Legacy” I sense the poems come first, that your lived past allows you to question both past and present so your lived experience spools both in and out, leading to larger questions and statements, the kind of response our poetic predecessors would argue are the most fit for poetry. In “Legacy,” for instance, you begin in question,

What had he saved, at the close
of his life, that he might have left

as a bequest? We found out only
after his death: despite his long

career in law, how scrupulous, how
fraught with superstition the lengths

he went to avoid the writing of a will,
or such grave considerations at the end…

which allows the poem to indicate a familial experience with, perhaps, the father’s death (as I read it because the book has already introduced the father as a major figure and your language is consistent in speaking of him). Yet, the poem works past the narrative trigger into the lyric figurative as it proceeds,

…Somehow I can’t remember more

than the questions that now come
out of that time. The crowd upon

the present, which today seems
cloudless and untrammeled, clear

blue shot through with loose coins
of sunshine though winter’s breath

suspends its shadow from every branch…

In this instance the “I” is in three places at once: In the triggering narrative past, in the present working through the memory, and in the figurative “cloudless, and untrammeled, clear // blue shot through with loose coins / of sunshine…” Thus, I am in three places at once as well. The poem has asked me to go with it into complex world of the personal couplet, and your use of the line (more on that later) makes this journey all the more rewarding, when, the poem turns its final gaze to “the clock in the hallway,” which like the father initially introduced has “hidden levers,” that “scroll the hands / across the ivory face.” The face, here, becomes the mirror image of, yes, the dead father, but even more-so of the poem’s lyric engagement with time as “Its music / is also a counting-out, a measuring / of the remaining distances between / the ache of all that wants so much / to be fulfilled, to be disturbed.”

I spend so much time with this piece, because it’s emblematic of so many of the poems contained within this book, as it achieves a perfect balance between the lyric and the narrative so your language can do more than tell a story, or ask questions, but also sing, and chant, and pray, and whisper, all at the same time. In this poem, as in the book at-large, language becomes an oxygen bubble I can enter and breathe with you, breaking through the shell so often containing language (even poems as we know them) as formal documents.

Christian Anton Gerard

12:20 PM

Dear Luisa,

Yesterday my wife was telling me that when she went to put our ten-month-old down for a nap he sneezed and blew the kind of snot from his nose that stays connected on the inside. The kind of booger that just hangs there, half sticking to the upper lip, but oily enough to slip back in with a heavy inhale. She said she picked it off and wiped it on her pants without thinking, how weird it was because she’d never done that before, nor would she for anyone else. Instinct, she called it, as she has called so many other instances during his young life.

I opened The Saints of Streets and read her “Flesh Lyric.” I hadn’t been able to get that poem out of my head, but during my wife’s story it occurred to me that poems come into our life when they do (the way we describe people) for a reason. When my wife heard,

In the absence of a nasal respirator or any of its newfangled
incarnations (some going by the names Mouche Bebé
or Nosefrida), I have clamped my mouth over my children’s noses
and quickly sucked, as they sputtered on baby meals
that happened to go down (or up) the wrong way: puréed peas,
slurried rice and broth–even snot, when the effort
to decongest meant pinched blue faces, flailing arms and legs.
It’s not as repulsive as it sounds. Besides, it all happens
so fast you don’t have time to wonder if this qualifies as
potential biohazard…

she was nodding along in agreement. This was not news to her, but it was connection, and community, validation, and reassurance. And it’s not exactly that it was news to me, either, but it kind of was, the kind of news poetry can bring, the way to explain an instinct I have seen in my wife, but couldn’t explain. When I read to her the poem’s closing lines,

…But, in extremis, what’s a little salt
and tissue? Holy books sing of the mouth anointing
the blind eye, of flesh begetting flesh. Myth tells of beings
that emerge, slippery as eels from the orifices of the gods[,]

I looked up and saw her as a different kind of god or goddess, and I reveled in your poem’s ability to celebrate woman and mother in this way. There was my wife, and our life in your poem, and there was your poem in our life because it arrived when it did. Thank you.

From the awe that poems can inspire,
Christian Anton Gerard

5:46 AM

Luisa IgloriaDear Luisa,

As I read The Saints of Streets I can’t help but think of Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, Brigit Pegeen Kelley and Kelli Russell Agodon working to elucidate the woman, James Wright (“When I stand upright in the wind, / My bones turn to dark emeralds.”), Ed Hirsch and Mark Halliday working through their roles as sons.

As I read The Saints of Streets I hear that music I used to think only Mina Loy could make, and I hear the giddiness in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s letter to Witter Bynner when she tells him the hundred dollars she received from Poetry magazine will go toward new shoes.

As I read The Saints of Streets I also hear Pope, and Shelley, and Sir Philip Sidney whispering that poetry should teach by delighting; I hear Eliot reminding us of the past’s present-ness, and Wallace Stevens’ moves between the figure and ground (that man with the blue guitar who knew “Poetry is the subject of the poem, / From this the poem issues and / To this returns…” and that “Its true appearances there, sun’s green / Cloud’s red, earth feeling, sky that thinks. // From these it takes. Perhaps it gives / In the universal intercourse.”

7:18 AM

Dear Luisa,

I realize my letters have often addressed only a few specific poems from The Saints of Streets, but I hope you’ll believe that I find these poems emblematic of the kind of writing and attention to craft that occurs throughout the collection as a whole.

I hope you’ll know that I haven’t wanted to singly address your Filipino heritage, the village where you lived or your move to Manila, your move to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue and complete your Ph.D., your motherhood, your daughterhood, your current or previous marriage because The Saints of Streets doesn’t allow these experiences to be internalized individually. Instead, the recurring themes I’ve mentioned above work as Wallace Stevens describes poetry in The Necessary Angel, where he writes, “the subject matter of poetry is not a collection of static objects extended in space, but the life that is lived in the scene it encompasses…”

Yet, I hope you will also know that as reader I am grateful for the conglomerate of perspectives and experiences present in the triggering memories creating so many of these poems, and I am, perhaps, even more grateful that you have taken what could be made into poetry by letting these poems be hand-made. In these days of mechanization and hurry, hurry, hurry, you have, as Brenda Hillman writes in Cracks in the Oracle Bones, “[made] some sense of things as if you were your own diviner of signs, as if the cracks in the oracle bone were details brought from this world into this world.”

From a place of reverence,
Christian Anton Gerard

8:03 AM

Dear Luisa,

I want to thank you for this book comprised of poems aware of themselves as part of the larger world, and aware of themselves as part of the conversation taking place between poets across centuries and continents. Thank you for a poetry that is at once accessible, yet deeply complex and challenging, for poems that spring to life because of their layers, their multiplicity. As a reader and writer of poems, you have given me a book that teaches (and will continue to teach me) me how to balance the lyric and narrative in a way that refuses the label lyric-narrative, but draws clear lines between each and threads them together so, as you write, “one length of cloth might gather all things in.”

Yours in words,
Christian Anton Gerard

Christian Anton Gerard is the author of Holdfast (C&R Press, 2017) and Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella (WordTech, 2014). His work appears widely in national and international magazines. Gerard has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard holds a BA from Miami University (OH), an MFA from Old Dominion University, and a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he’s an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. More from this author →