Book Review: In the Company of Spirits by Carmen Calatayud

In the Company of Spirits
poems by Carmen Calatayud
Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53. 2012
$12.95.

reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Calatayud is a DC poet, and like many in the DC scene, she understandably focuses on social issues, questions of involvement and public policy. This is the poetry of witness. She slips between potent scenes of tragedy to mythic portraits of landscape and people. The collection opens with “Tale from Chiapas,” a surreal portrait of evocative images:

In this country we count the trees, then count again.
We lift the streets by mixing paint.
Nine guardians live upstairs and we sing with them.
There’s a slit in the sky and we reach through to pull down the sun.

The imagery is dreamlike. There’s an unreal feel to this place. The poem portrays haunting memories, ghosts, “At times, tricky spirits swallow our eyes./They bring bad news like the black moths./We open the coffin, smell al alma during the wind.” (lines 7-9). She concludes, “We point to the northern sky before sleep smokes our limbs./Fig trees spin into ash, and we wash our soil with milk.” (lines 13-14). There’s optimism as well as a certain sense of foreboding.

“To My Father Juan, Who Thought There Was a War To End All Wars,” is one of the more powerful poems in the collection. She opens with a scene of brutality:

The soldiers took your Tio Rafa:
dragged out of bed and shot in the street

the Franco way

the Generalissimo in my dreams
sucked away your soul
when they killed Rafael.

You and your friends played soccer
around the bodies,

death was a daily smell
and the sound of mothers who screamed
like hyenas

hung in the air.

Calatayud tries to make sense of this situation, the same way her father tried to, “All of this, this wasn’t ordained by the Holy Ghost,” (line 19). His belief system is shattered. The effects of this are far reaching, even as an adult, Calatayud describes her father “hoarding canned food in the basement” (pg. 5, lines 23). But there’s no real solace to be had, no way to protect oneself and one’s family against something like this.

So when faced with these sorts of calamities, where does one turn? In “Flames and Angels,” Calatayud turns her attentions to DC: “There is misery by the busload. Mothers scrounge/for bits of bread.” (lines 1-2). She continues, “We can’t make sense of paper, rock or scissors/or velvet political games. We lose a day each night,/tending to the problems of the world in our dreams.” (lines 3-5). This is Calatayud’s survivor’s guilt, as the child of immigrants (at one point, a relative praises Calatayud’s luck at being “white.”). Throughout this collection, she deals with questions of her liminality. She is trapped between the world of her parents and the past and her current life, where she is outside these experiences and looking back, free of them but still tethered to them. In the same way, America is in a liminal stage as the more diverse populations gain more political presence. But, even though many of the more privileged holdouts fear this change, and this fear produces dangers for some others, Calatayud is hopeful. In her title poem, she reminds: “This is the land you came from. There is no worry in this dirt./You are the harvest of our desert dance.” (lines 25-27).

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