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Recommendation: Birthmark, Jon Pineda

I was first interested in this book because Pineda is discussed as being an Asian American author who deals with mixed-race issues and father-son relationships. A number of people in our class, myself included, have taken Asian American Literature but with a focus on women authors.  I’m really interested in feminist issues, but I’m looking for ways to broaden what I read, so I thought this might work as a good transition for me.

What I really appreciated was Pineda’s treatment of human relationships.  He really explores the connection between lovers, between enemies, between parent and child, between strangers, between rescueer and rescuee, between reader and poet, and others.  Sometimes he removes himself from a relationship that seems biographical and writes about himself and someone else in the third person, and sometimes he’s in it with them.  That technique is one of the ways he plays with interpretation.  Some of his poems explore the level of significance in accurate memory, accurate historical accounts, accurate communication, etc.  I’d like to mention that I’m not yet sure what I think he does with gender, especially in terms of patriarchy and patriotism.  I think there’s probably a lot to say about that, but as I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone a bit, I’m going to discuss other things in his writing.

“Willoughby Spit” is the first poem I came to that really peaked my interest.  A third person narrator tells of a man whose car loses power and slows to a halt in the middle of a tunnel, naturally incurring the wrath of drivers around him.  Being caught in an intermediary place amplifies the tension that builds until the person just wants to shoot forward and leave the past behind.  The tone of the poem shifts a lot, e.g. from the exhaustion that causes the car to stop working, the the stress of being the focus of all this negative attention, and especially the uncertainty about what lies ahead, when one will move there, but slight hope that comes with it.  The poem seems to function at least in part to convey the complexity of being a combination of cultures, especially when Pineda invokes boats on water, the substance that adjoins two continents, which presumably the central character in the poem can’t even see:

. . . When the wrecker arrives, traffic backed up
past Willoughby Spit where, in this early morning, the thin boats tied

to the docks hint at some freedom for those stalled on the bridge.
The silhouette of the fleet across the bay starts to move,

maybe en route to somewhere faraway, where life is
inconvenienced by more than this. . . (7-12)

I also really like that he explores ways of remembering and rewriting history, especially when tragedy makes that necessary for humans to move on. In “A Few Word on Rome, or The Neighbor Who Never Waves,” the speaker tells a story and then asks,

. . . Who cares
if it never happened? This story of madness never hurt

anyone, not even Shelley, who would have loved
what they have done to him. . . (5-8)

The rest of the poem reimagines the story in different ways. That kind of writing always captivates me– it’s like turning a gem over in your hand and witnessing all the different forms it takes depending on how the light hits it. Pineda has another poem, “In the Romance of Grief,” which ends with another point about what I think Pineda does: “Perhaps this world survives its losses / through its forgetting” (16-17). I’m really attracted to the power he places in humans to change what has happened, is happening, and will happen to them.

Another funny thing about him is that I don’t really think his use of sound is what’s most interesting about his poetry, but the attention he pays to his figures draws me into the language. Also, he seems to do very thoughtful things with form, and I could sit and think about that forever. I think these things Pineda does to reconsider stories/history render his poetry itself a longer lasting subject for the reader to consider. And that skill with which he resonates his work throughout my memory convinces me that he is a poet worth reading.


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