No Ordinary Love: “Estoy Tristeza” by Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz, Reviewed

"Estoy Tristeza" cover

You know this already when you encounter the title (the cover an elegant, minimal design by Patrick Delorey; evocative of modernist flourishes found in municipal buildings throughout Latin America and the Caribbean); Estoy Tristeza’s grammar is both disjointed and highly conscious, it takes the verb ser, which signals impermanence, in place of the prescribed sentir or tener, which would have the subject possess tristeza rather than be it. This grammatically estranged reconstruction amplifies the phrase, compels the reader to consider the ways that sadness courses through us. The poet’s first gesture asserts a stability in her unmooring; a grace in her own winding path, and this is how we begin, in a state.

There is an incorruptible delicacy in Izquierdo Ugaz’s language, like the recurring space of the airplane, the language is aloft and reluctant to land. And yet there are multiple touchdowns, as unexpected as the moment when wheels meet the asphalt, that arrest the reader’s heart. 

I’ve read, heard, and re-encountered these poems throughout the years; at No Dear’s Poets who love poets, I had the privilege of introducing Izquierdo Ugaz, whose Milagro moved me to tears that evening. I first heard the poet read Self portrait @ 20 while participating in an impromptu poetry reading at the University of Miami radio station, hosted by my younger sister. One of the first things we talked about, upon meeting, was the strange science of fax machines. Did you know, she said, that the sound of a fax is all the words traveling through the air? 

Reading Estoy Tristeza is, in its way, a trip through the blue-grey air, the poet divines suspension, in Every Half A Second:

I call you to say that I am flying over an immense lake that lays beside your city. You tell me that you are there, sitting by the edge of its skirt. I walk hurriedly to the cockpit and I urge the pilot to stop, to linger in this spot just for a while. He chuckles as every person leans towards their window. And that’s when I see you. There you are, in your grey jacket by the blue water.

The dedication on the third page reads: Para mi padre/ Pirulo/ y hermano mayor/ Ricardito/ que en paz descansen. The poems approach the world from above and from within; from the humming airplane as well as from the rattling bus, and it is a world palpably missing a nuanced father, who is at the same time omnipresent, passing water over surfaces, cleansing them for us. Entendemos que padre y hermano ya no están con ella, pero a la vez escuchamos como sus voces siguen hablándole a la poeta: en el supermercado, en el avión, sobre los paisajes, y al fin en el hospital, tras una conversación difícil pero a la vez necesaria. De una manera inefable, el libro conmemora al padre y al hermano, sin totalmente aterrizar en despedidas. Y es esto, en particular — este estado de querer echar pa tras el cassette, de querer al menos darle PAUSE — que nos llega al alma. It pierces the heart. Como las hermanitas en The Color Purple, acariciándose y llorando mientras las separan los adultos, hay algo sumamente humano y paradójico en estos poemas. Pues sabemos que tendremos que llegar, es la lógica de la vida y de viajar. Aun así, nos agarramos del cielo, donde vive la incertidumbre que nos da la esperanza de poder esperar un rato más: “I could stay here forever on a plane that will never land” (Miami Swan Song).

The transition from landscape to landscape is managed masterfully in this collection, Izquierdo Ugaz depicts the strange, new and familiar West Flagler as a kaleidoscope of colorful and personally significant commercial and public spaces. Important things happen and imbue the spaces with lasting meaning. There is no such thing, in Izquierdo Ugaz’s poetic terrain, as an insignificant detail. While we seldom attribute literary depth to the dollar store, and while we habitually write off the possibility for character in retail spaces or even a sun-drenched highway in the middle of the Miami suburbs, the poet proves us wrong over and over. We want to see the big and the small as well and as simultaneously as the poet, and her words pull us in while also summoning us to look up from the page and scan the world for what we now realize we have missed. 

As I read the poems at the very center of the collection, I thought of Ashbery’s prismatic delight in The Instruction Manual, when he says “And nearby is the little white booth where women in green serve you green and yellow fruit./The couples are parading; everyone is in a holiday mood” and of Vallejo’s grief in Los Heraldos Negros, when he says “Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… Yo no sé./Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos,/la resaca de todo lo sufrido/se empozara en el alma… Yo no sé.” What distinguishes Izquierdo Ugaz is that she is charismatic in her tentative self-knowledge, and she invites us into her grief, to examine reflections and cracks in the windows with her, to watch the bird making track marks in the snow, to hold the side of the bus as it lumbers down the road, to hold hands with women in the street– she serves scenes that she was a part of and not merely observing from a window in the sky. 

Demonstrated by the minimal and potent titles, (Window Seat, I Think Maybe I Was Born On A Bus, Driving Through Mountains, “Here” Means Where Your People Are Buried) the collection addresses spaces both physical and psychic. When loss passes through your world, the meaning of space reaches subjective heights. The poet’s walls shake from routine tremors, Fujimori haunts the mineral-laden landscape, the gasoline and candy and mountains are rife with memory and promise intermingled. Still, the child brought up between nations learns to survive with uncertainty, and in Driving Through Mountains one can hear this via traces of Vallejo’s frozen, plaintive and filial voice:

Right before bedtime and while tucking the children in, the fathers told the children a joke. It went something like this: ‘There was once a penguin that always asked his mother the same question and one day he asked the question again. He said, Mother, are you sure I am a penguin? and his mother replied, Why of course you are a penguin, silly. And in surprise the penguin whispered, Then why is it mother that I am so cold?’

The title poem, Estoy Tristeza, as well as Chota and Don’t Make The Same Mistakes As I, perform a similar magic that floats from reverence to wholeness. The poet is told she has lost the spirit of her country, and rushes to bury her face in its earth, in an attempt to put back what a life of migration has evidently stolen.  This is heartbreaking to read, as an immigrant who is unable to return to her own home, and for so many it is an important contemporary text.

Que dolor no poder volver, como quisiera huir a mi niñez. O quedarme en el avión, dormidita, esperando llegar a los estados unidos, o al país viejo, o al pueblo que se puede ver desde de las montañas Andinas. Quisiera estar con mis primos, jugando detrás del pick up truck de mi tio. Izquierdo Ugaz’s poems procure these yearnings from the transient heart, they manage to elicit both despair and joy. With tenderness and vision, Estoy Tristeza removes the burden of loneliness from having to, at times, walk alone. 


Estoy Tristeza
by Izquierdo Ugaz
No, Dear Magazine and Small Anchor Press; 36 p.

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