I had the privilege of spending a few days with Sara Borjas at the CantoMundo retreat in the summer of 2016. She is electric—smart, funny, sassy, vulnerable—and these qualities come through immediately in her debut collection, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. The title indicates the heart will be fully exposed—a “window” that can be seen and seen through—but the mouth is another story. The image of the “cliff” suggests that the speaker’s words will present obstacles and launching points, precarious ledges and walls to slam against.
Over the course of the book, the speaker, a young Mexican-American woman in Fresno, California, questions how she arrived at this existential place and time. We watch her navigate her inheritance, culture and class, race and gender, full of as much self-loathing as self-love. The result is a triumphant, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying bildungsroman, pocha-style. (A pocho/a is an Americanized Mexican who has lost connection to the Spanish language and Mexican culture. Typically pejorative, it derives from the Spanish word “pocho”: which describes a withered flower or rotting fruit. The word has been reclaimed in some Chicano communities as a sign of pride in Mexican-American heritage.)
The collection’s long title suggests expansiveness, as do elements of the collection’s Table of Contents. First, we notice that there is no single title poem; rather, there are two: “A Heart Can Only be Broken Once, Like a Window” gives us the first part of the title, and “Mouth Like a Cliff” gives us the second. This doubling suggests there is no one container that can hold everything. We also see that there will be two guiding spirits in this collection: “Narcissus,” whose name appears in seven titles, and “Pocha,” whose name appears in three titles, but whose presence is suggested in many other poems, such as “There Are Tamales Here.” Both of these characters are tonally complex. They embody shame— Narcissus succumbs to his own ego, and a Pocha is ethnically impure—just as they embody pride—Narcissus is undeniably beautiful, and Pocha has a claim to an evolving ethnicity, to the future. In the Table of Contents, poem titles refer also to family relationships—father, mother, brother—places both real and imagined—Aztlán, Fresno, an island for raped women—and spaces that are rooted in home and community—the kitchen, the café, the wedding. They promise a collection rich with both people and places.
The opening poem, “Aztlán,” provides the principal setting for the collection. The piece gives a slice of life on a typical farm-town night, elevating and satirizing it by naming it for the mythical origin of the Aztecs. Having grown up in a rural Texas border town, the slices of life in “Aztlán” were familiar and resonant for me—a place where, as if in a surrealist painting, red barnyard doors beget red barnyard doors; “a pot of menudo / simmers inside // another pot of menudo”; and a place where like a low-budget low-rider movie, “One girl is getting / fingerbanged / on a diesel flat.” Borjas’s tone is quietly satirical, as she calls this place a “luxurious farm // of losers,” but it’s also quietly beautiful: “The mothers lie awake / on a busted trampoline // thinking.” With quick strokes, she draws a life that is both stagnant and hopeful. Borjas will proceed with both love and irony, as she suggests in her epigraph from Cherríe Moraga: “Home is the place, for better or for worse, we learn to love.”
The other setting crucial to the book is the family drama. Early on in the collection, in “I Know the Name of the Desert,” Borjas paints a picture of intergenerational trauma. The speaker’s grandmother punishes the speaker’s mother for being too dark-skinned, for resembling the grandfather they are leaving. The speaker reflects on her mother’s habitual self-medication with wine and on her own place in this lineage:
___________________________________________________I am a daughter
who walks through a desert carrying my mother’s wounds—
each open palm across her child’s face, each time a man offered her
something he did not have. I trudge a lineage of exiled desire,
She is burdened by her mother’s trauma and also wishes to save her, and the poems in this collection are taut with that tension.
Borjas investigates this tension further in the most formally inventive of the many inventive poems in this book: “We Are Too Big for This House.” Five pages long and four columns of varying font sizes wide, each page of the poem looks a bit like a floor plan with boxes of text as rooms on either side of a hallway-like caesura. Both sprawling and tightly contained, the poem defies directionality. The boxes are asymmetrical along the vertical axis, and it’s hard to know if the poem should be read horizontally, vertically, or if a reader should skip around. In the midst of this disorientation, several stories emerge: the speaker’s mother’s weight; her lap band surgery; the humiliation her mother suffered for her size; the speaker’s attempt to defend her mother against her father’s critiques; alcoholism; and the speaker’s desire to love despite everything. The individual squares of text are controlled, but because they are so crowded on the page they feel pressurized.
If you asked me what I was, I would
first say: Daughter. If you asked me
what makes a pocha like me Mexican?
I would answer loving someone until
my love hurts us.
In this piece as in others, love is the double-edged sword that just as soon kills as heals.
The turmoil in the speaker’s parents’ marriage has informed her own views on love and gender roles, and throughout the book she grapples with a desire for power while performing subservience. That romantic love will not be fulfilling is a given from the start of the book. The poem “Half-Elegy for Marriage,” in which the speaker at age seven watches her mother buying clearance jewelry for herself at Mervyn’s, ends with the lines, “Just like my mother, / I buy my own gifts. I play marriage / so I don’t have to play dead.” The unfulfilling marriage, however bad, is seemingly the lesser evil.
These lines transition directly into the poem “All These Men I Somehow Take Care Of,” which the epigraph indicates is for “regulars and friends at the Falls lounge.” Structured like a dedication or toast, this poem is a litany of various men the speaker counsels, appreciates, and supports. The “Somehow” in the title is instructive, as it suggests both “I take care of them in some way or another” and a kind of surprise at this role—“how did I wind up somehow taking care of all these men?” This female caretaking resurfaces inside the house in “Imagined Variations of Order,” in which the speaker reports, “I’ve made my coffee to every man’s / liking and still, they leave shreds / of themselves in this house.” Implicit in these lines is a broken deal: she serves the coffee and they hold themselves together—perhaps even clean up after themselves—but only she is keeping up her end. She enumerates the messes they’ve made in the home including “hot Cheetos crushed / in an unmade bed.”
I flap like a field mouse caught
_____underneath the trap: my parents,
__________the blueprint Chicanismo proposed to me.
I am their chore list.
I open the door to each room,
_____hoping the floor is swept,
__________the window is whole,
expecting to find a man
_____on his knees, adoring me
__________as I put countless cups away.
Wife, caretaker, tidier, arranger: these roles are her familial and cultural inheritance, and as much as she recognizes the lie in the formula—they do not lead to love and adoration—she takes on the roles anyway.
Perhaps the most wrenching of the poems explore gendered power expressed through sexual violence. In “I See My Rapist’s Daughter” the speaker sees not only the daughter, but herself at the time of her rape. “I can’t tell if the tenderness / with which I see his daughter, / and adore her, is a projection / of myself.” The girl’s “red Dora shirt” and socks with ruffles suggest she’s no more than six years old, and she is still filled with love for her father because he “has not yet left her / and forgotten to take her with him.” “Yet” suggests the certainty of abandonment of this girl by her father, of women by men. The poem comes to a damning close, excoriating the rapist as well as the speaker, his victim:
on a twin sized bed
my knees split
like dead crickets,
my scream devoured
by my own groveling
tongue, a man
always in me.
Her pain is devoured, ironically, by her own voice “groveling,” poised as always to do what a girl is “supposed” to do. The rape leaves a man “always in” her—a permanent scar. And while the searing, unfounded self-blame in this poem is heartbreaking, the poet executes the final lines without a note of self-pity.
As a salve, Borjas creates moments of rest in imagined spaces where life can be different. “The Island of Raped Women” is a place where women relax, read Danielle Steel novels, and tend to one another’s personal care—hair, nails, and rest—not trauma and grief. “Each morning we are grateful for our pretty nails so / pink and purple, our hair so soft and suitable, and we / drink our coffee, we drink our wonderful coffee. We / do not spill. The women here do not ever spill.” Another imagined space comes in “Ars Poetica” where the speaker crafts an ideal Fresno, and then in the following poem, “Pocha Heaven,” which is a dream of pochas being treated with dignity and respect:
In Pocha Heaven, the pochas dance. I mean they really dance because they have rhythm and their backs don’t hurt and they clap and snap because their hands aren’t all knuckle…because the men shared the labor of the house and didn’t brag about it…And since we are on it, the men don’t use the word “nag” because the women never have to ask a man to do anything twenty times or even twice because they do what they say they’re gonna do unlike on earth where men make promises and break them
The humor in these poems provides a respite from some of the pain the collection, but the humor is dark, and the respite brief, as the imaginary worlds speak volumes about the real world we inhabit.
Undergirding all the truth about pain is the triumph that comes from having a heart like a window and a mouth like a cliff. The speaker employs both in her quest toward self-determination. In “My Name Disappears from the Script,” she speaks back to her own origin story, designing “the anecdote” to the “Hebrew name” that “does not make her white.” In her plan, she determines herself—not the story of Sarah in the Bible, Abraham’s sister and wife, but rather:
______________I mix all the racket
—who I am: who I will no longer be:
no wife, no mother, no child of mine
to ever feel compelled, no woman’s
spitting image, no man’s model of love,
no one’s daughter, no one’s daughter,
no one’s daughter.
Through this incantation, she renounces the model she received from her parents and the forces that have previously “compelled her.” Similarly, in “Study of a Part-Time Pocha,” she revises the brown self who will “eat the crumbs / of the institution saying mmmm like it’s cake.” Midway through, the poem abandons being a song about accepting one’s place and becomes a power anthem.
______And the gatekeepers know that we know
what we know. I would rather spend time decentering
all this whiteness both inside and outside this mouth.
I see no reason to go on being a Christian in hell.
Let’s scare white people with our Spanglish.
She declares: “This performance // is over. I’d rather wear a T-shirt repping Fresno to class. / Teach only brown poets and not ever rationalize it.” After taking down the academy, the white poets who criticize her diction and call white aesthetics “Craft,” after quoting Dulce María Loynaz and Natalie Diaz, she closes:
This is my house. Us pochas work so hard, we disaster
our whiteness until even mestizaje disappears.
By this dazzling end, the speaker has shown her might. The stage is hers, the space is hers, and the language is hers. Through “disaster,” which, she uses here as a verb and conjures a cleansing tornado, she is fully self-determined.
Borjas takes a small town and a small family unit and explodes them into a socio-psychological study of race, class, and gender in the United States. The poems are tonally varied, formally playful, and often breathtaking. Like a conversation with a dear friend over drinks, this collection provides a full emotional tune-up and elicits more than one “hell yeah!” I left it feeling both stronger and more tender for having listened to the music of this mouth, having viewed life through the panes of this heart.