I have met Conchitina Cruz, have glimpsed her name inside many books, on walls, know of her poetry through friends who swear by her work. Dark Hours is her first collection of poetry, and until very recently, I steered clear of it. I have read two poems of hers prior this book — and I’d been chilled by those two poems. Conchitina Cruz is good — really really really good — and I was afraid of being struck dumb by that goodness. I was afraid that I’d say, “Ah, fuck it, I’ll leave all the writing to her.”
A few weeks ago, trolling the bookstore, I realized that I wasn’t writing much anyway — why not cement this catastrophe with a helping of Chingbee? [Like rewarding myself for abject idleness.] And so I grabbed a copy, and read almost as soon as I settled. I open this slim collection to a random page, and this is what welcomed me:
Inside the story is a garden with a pear tree, the view of a house with a staircase and mahogany desks. Inside the house is a woman with her back against the windows, her body bent over her child inside a crib, her body leaning against a table as she fixes the fruit in a bowl.
From the back of the room, somebody mentions foreshadowing, somebody makes distinctions between image and symbol. The board is filled with words.
Inside the story is a dinner part the woman hosts, the idle talk of guests, the moment her husband leans toward the body of another woman. She watches her husband and his small gesture, the drawing room unable to contain her sudden knowledge. Inside the story, the woman turns away from the climax, turns to the windows and the pear tree outside, the symbol of her life, the tree in full bloom, the tree caught in shadows.
We talk about the tragedy of false notions, the link between discovery and despair, the joy of understatement. When there is a knock on the door, a request to take a minute of our time, I say sure. We are inside the story, and to the students outside, I say, sure, come on in.
What they pass around is a can, a sheet of paper, a request for loose change and volunteers to dig for bodies. A few miles away, the residents of a dumpsite are dead, their bodies buried in an avalanche of trash. Inside the story, the woman cries, what will happen to me now?
On the first day, the dying tried to raise their voices above the weight of their own tin roofs. The digging was slow, the voices stopped. Inside the story, the woman fixes fruit in a bowl — apples, oranges, and grapes. She arranges and rearranges fruit, draping the grapes on the rim, balancing the oranges on apples.
The relatives need bodies for a proper burial. The can grows heavy. The students pause carefully upon the sheet, and the others say think about it, we have a booth on the third floor, you don’t have to sign up now. Inside the story there is a woman, a house, a man, a pear tree. Inside the story is a house, a bowl full of fruit. Some students are braver than others. They write their names down.
The woman leans the sadness of her body against the window, tries to look beyond the pear tree. Inside the story, she sees nothing but darkness. She is ungrateful for the luxury of despair.
How to define goodness? How to define this feeling of rightness? I have to call on Barthes yet again: That’s it for me! I’ve always taken my “judgment” of poetry with a grain of salt: to me, the experience, the response, this judgment, it is always visceral [else, as if I knew better].
That is: do they trigger something in me?, am I nodding?, am I made breathless and speechless?, do they verbalize something inside me that I never realized needed to be defined?, will I murmur the words to myself in moments quiet and loud? And, on another level: did I wish I wrote this way?, did the poet accomplish — in an image, a line, a verse — what I spend pages and pages on?
I don’t know if this approach points to a self-deprecation: do I not know the “right” methods? Or perhaps I am unaware that, given that the poems I like best approximate a definition of the ineffable [yet always conceding that ineffability], it would be doubly futile for me to talk about it.
And so, if I am not silent, I simply nod. Or, in this case, that nod’s elaboration. Ah, goodness, I have issues. Poetry issues. But these are good poems, they are. These are That’s it for me! poems.