Making Absence Present: Save the Bathwater by Marina Carreira

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It is early Sunday afternoon in California, and I have just finished speaking to my mother and my grandmother in Portugal, across an eight-hour time difference. We say goodbye as a refrain, saying the words multiple times, in English and in Portuguese. Every phone call with them has ended in this way. Only now, in my late twenties, do I think about how immigration makes us crave goodbyes that repeat themselves, as if to prevent anyone from having the last word in either language.

I notice this same resistance in Marina Carreira’s debut full-length collection of poetry, Save the Bathwater, its title poem a testament to holding on to what others might carelessly throw away. As Carreira writes in that poem, “In America, people don’t bathe / in each other’s leftover water.” The collection as a whole resists the American commodification of that which we once used into that which we discard.

Notably, the entire book is without periods, calling to mind Walt Whitman’s famous missing period in the ending line, “I stop somewhere, waiting for you,” in Song of Myself. While what was probably a serendipitous error for Whitman, in Carreira’s work it is a deliberate and masterful decision. We, as immigrants and the children of them, cherish a lack of endings, even as we experience in our own lives many endings, leaving homes we once lived in or people we once loved—both kinds of losses which recur throughout this dazzling book.

Saudade is at the heart of Save the Bathwater. Saudade is a nearly untranslatable word I heard best translated at a performance of fados, Portuguese folk music that centers on saudade. The announcer defined saudade as absence made present. Carreira’s poems do the work of making absence present. The poem “Avó’s Pigeons” begins the collection by introducing us to the idea of “home” as the “open hand” of the grandmother reached to “[e]ven in the dark.” This sets off our journey with a compass: family is the return towards home, even in darkness, even in the presence of absence.

The next poem in Save the Bathwater is “547 Market Street,” in which we see the physical deconstruction of a once-familiar landscape. After describing “the old yellow house” of childhood, the poem employs its first abrupt line break, physically creating space on the page between the past home and the now-reconstructed home: “A different house now, Avó, / since you moved back to Portugal, since they tore down / the Dairy Queen to put up a bank, more condos.” Carreira’s poems live in the Ironbound, a small working-class neighborhood located within her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The families there are no strangers to the urban (de)constructions that are steadily pushing them out of the neighborhood they have long lived in. The tearing down of “the Dairy Queen” in order to make space for “a bank, more condos” shows how easily the specific geographies of our childhoods are uprooted in the name of easy-to-sell homogeneity that some call urban renewal, others gentrification. Whichever term is used, we lose what we once knew of the city of our childhoods. In an urban landscape that is ever shifting into “more condos,” we need to find other ways to create lasting home, home that can create presence in absence.

Thus, Carreira returns to her grandmother’s hands in “Fado for Avó’s Hands,” a love song for the ways in which these hands created home for her through their decades of tasks:

worked olive groves
bottle-fed six brothers

and held my shaky hand
walking home from school [. . .]

her caterpillar fingers sewed
torn nylon knee-highs [. . .]

On simmering afternoons
her hands turning the unread pages

of old books was a cicada’s song
sweeping through the veranda

These hands, which we have already seen as a home in the dark now, contain a full history in this tender and tough poem: we see their work in groves and raising children, and also in holding the “shaky hand” of the poet who would later write this work. Those final two couplets mesmerize, with the “simmering afternoons” calling to mind the simmering of the “canja,” or chicken soup, we see elsewhere in the collection. To simmer is slow and gradual work, echoed in “the unread pages of old books,” the silent reading of which becomes this new poem. In that last line, we reencounter the domestic work of these hands, “sweeping through the veranda,” but the line before them qualifies this “sweeping” as “cicada’s song.” Indeed, that is the work of Carreira’s hands as poet: to translate the uncelebrated work of her grandmother’s hands into thoughtful songs, like the fados that inform her work.

Portuguese fadista Amália Rodrigues, who Carreira later cites in “A Girl’s Fado,” nearly committed suicide at a young age, but was saved by a neighbor who forced her to swallow olive oil to spit up the poison. That azeite, olive oil, would play such an important role in the life of one of Portugal’s greatest artists is unsurprising: to grow up Portuguese is to grow up surrounded by the stuff. Its presence in Carreira’s collection does not disappoint. In one poem, the olive oil speaks to the grandmother about her granddaughter’s desire to “bring me home with her” from Portugal: the phrase “[t]hick, and extra virgin, I remind her of your girlhood” brings a delightful and necessary chuckle in an otherwise serious poem of loss. The azeite in the granddaughter’s kitchen brings back “the moments before the back of your hands / were torn stockings, before your teeth came out for air.” The granddaughter’s need to return to this lost time is so great that she does not heed her grandmother’s warning to not travel with it: “The glass might break.” The stakes are set, and we recognize in this warning the fragility of what the granddaughter is attempting to hold on to.

Yet, in immigrant fashion, the granddaughter “risks it anyway, wraps me in your old gray sweater.” We do what we can to hold onto home, no matter the risk of breaking, even as the azeite reminds us that “No matter how many trinkets / she brings back, she can only bring you back in spirit / into her cold, sterile kitchen.” These lines gut me every time I read them; in showing me that familiar image of the Portuguese olive oil in the American kitchen, “between Canola and Crisco / oils that ruin the flavors of sardines and broas,” I see Carreira and I see myself, at once domestic and foreign within American culture, at once belonging and out of place, and both of us risking what we can to hold onto the grandmothers whom “we will never know,” certainly not in the way we long for.

Saudade is often translated as longing, and as with most translations, what gets left out matters. While saudade is a poetic term, many people don’t realize that it is also an everyday, even mundane, part of language in Portuguese: to say, “I miss you,” we say, “I have saudades of you.” Carreira’s triumph in this collection is not only how eloquently she represents saudade, but also how well she situates the word within ordinary happenings of daily life. She refuses to do what would be easiest—that is, to be precious about the term—and, thus, avoids the mawkishness that a lesser writer would be apt to fall into.

In her poem, “Saudade,” we see a masterful example of this: “You left me and the old yellow house / twenty years ago. Still, you flood my memory / until every cell is a third-story apartment… .” This poem makes absence present by showing us the whole story of what is missing and what is missed:

_______________________At dusk, you are
the hard roll of an R from a woman
down the street, damning her husband to hell

I am that girl in jelly sandals, humming Madonna,
watching her doll fall out the window, crying
for her grandfather to fly down and fetch it

Anyone who has grown up in the Ironbound will recognize the “hard rolls of an R” and the cursing yells in the street: it is part of the fabric of a neighborhood that we love and that is inevitably changing into more sellable parts, which necessarily involves the demolition of homes like the “yellow house” of Carreira’s memories. We love Newark’s Ironbound not for any conventional beauty, but for its gritty authenticity. The saudade of this poem is for a place that may be disappearing, much like the “doll fall[ing] out the window” and the “grandfather” who is no longer there to save it, “to fly down and fetch it.” This poem, and Save the Bathwater in its entirety, is a testament to what immigrants save and hope to keep in the face of what upper-class, and otherwise established, white Americans might so recklessly throw away, including whole communities replaced by luxury condos and families displaced by rising rents.

This holding on to what might otherwise be discarded receives full attention in “Luso-American Ephemera in Avó’s Armoire,” in which a family’s whole history is told through things that have no easily monetized value. The poem begins with a “Page from a passport / stamped one-way: 1973, USA,” so that the speaker immediately situates us within the language of journey and no return, which is the journey of immigrants. Perhaps it is this “one-way” passage that makes us cling all the harder to objects that can tell our stories, even a “NJ Transit ticket stub,” because it tells of where we are from and thus, who we are. Later in the poem, the armoire saves the “old coins / the color of a lizard’s tongue,” likely escudos (Portuguese currency no longer in use following the switch to the Euro in 1999). These coins have no monetary worth, but like the “baby / tooth charm, dangling off a broken bracelet,” their value is in the history they reveal.

Beyond this, “Luso-American Ephemera” functions as an ars poetica for Carreira’s work as a whole: it rediscovers and re-presents histories that otherwise could have been buried. The poems in this collection function like the “[f]uneral prayer card” mentioned later in “Luso-American Ephemera”; they do the work of saudade by keeping stories that are so easily lost tangibly present.

Carreira divides this poem into two distinct columns: on the left, the object and on the right, a detail adding to its description or explaining its purpose. I think what works so well in this separation of columns is how the blank space alerts us to a pause in understanding its meaning: we see the object and only after that pause, represented in white space on the page, do we recognize its value. How easy to otherwise throw objects away if we do not pause to understand their worth. The one break in the white space comes purposefully with the “Gold medal of Santo António: / restorer of lost objects, never brought back // Anything / worth saving.” I love the cheeky irony of this poem’s end, the aside to a reader who might not understand what it means to save such objects in an armoire, while the whole poem itself celebrates items that otherwise could have been lost. In this way, it does work of Lisbon-born Saint Anthony: this poem is itself a “restorer of lost objects” and a reminder of why we keep them.

The “Thimble and thread / from Avô’s first American sewing kit” in “Luso-American Ephemera in Avó’s Armoire” returns in the final poem of the collection, “Thread,” which like many other poems in the collection, resists closure. Here, we see a sewing lesson between grandfather and child. Sewing is the way we use thin strings to hold things together, nearly invisibly. The art of holding things— memories, people, places, times— together is made visible throughout Carreira’s poems in this collection, and thus, it feels all the more powerful to place this sewing lesson at its end. We see the speaker’s (and, we assume, the poet’s) fear that she cannot replicate her grandfather’s “tender way of teaching” in which he left “no hole unseamed / no button unfastened / no heart unmended.” She wonders if she is capable of doing the same:

On afternoons when a few buds struggle
to blossom on a sickly branch against
gray-brown sky, I fear the things in life
a needle can’t repair

This fear is tangible throughout the collection. I think it is the work of Carreira’s poems to repair what has been broken through time or negligence or distance, to preserve the “thread” of heritage and home in the face of what might unravel it. These poems, in refusing endings, do the work of seaming, and while continuing this work is as fragile as that of “a few buds [struggling] / to blossom on a sickly branch,” the poet ultimately finds hope within the work.

Speaking to immigrants across diasporas, Carreira writes, “We are rooted everywhere / Love makes everything supple.” The poem ends with the ongoing work that the speaker has learned, the thread of lineage through lessons from her grandfather: as she “remember[s] his hands,” the speaker then is “holding my shirts up to the light—.” This is one gorgeous moment in a book of many such moments, but this image of the poet standing in light looking at the work her hands have done because of her grandfather’s teaching is a splendid microcosm of the text as a whole. It is also a moment of revelation, this looking at the shirts in light, and it reveals “never, ever / a loose end”—a masterful last phrase in a poem, and a collection, that resists any definite closure.

When I first heard Carreira read at the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival in our shared hometown of Newark, I witnessed something I had never seen before: another Portuguese-American woman reading poetry. She captured in her reading and in this debut what it is like to grow up in the Ironbound and the many contradictions of being at once of and apart from this country, of struggling within an American identity that is defined by its otherness. While the book therefore holds personal significance to me, I think that more importantly, it illuminates an under-explored narrative within the myriad immigrant experiences in this country. It challenges the ready assumptions of those who have not called Newark home, of those who do not know what it is like to have your adolescence peppered with azeite e chouriças e caracois, to grow up both American and not. It challenges the assumption of what it means to save the bathwater.

Carla Sofia Ferreira is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and a high school English teacher from Newark, New Jersey. Her poems live in Cotton Xenomorph, Poets Resist – Glass Poetry, Crab Fat Magazine, and amberflora, among other rad zines. Her debut chapbook, Ironbound Fados, is out with Ghost City Press in late May 2019. When not reading or grading papers, she is probably teaching her cat Moonshadow how to fetch. More from this author →