This is What Happened In Our Other Life.
Achy Obejas. A Midsummer Night's Press. Body Language 01. New York, New York. 2007.
Let's just start with the fact that before Achy Obejas had published this first book of poetry she was already a Pulitzer Prize and Lambda Literary Award winning author for her fiction and journalism.
Achy Obejas and her splendid book of poems, This is What Happened In Our Other Life, are all about memory. Memory is often framed by promise.
Obejas' poetry comes from a Latina sensibility and a lesbian perspective. These are two important facts to consider before you forget about them because neither of those are why these fine poems ended up here. This is What Happened In Our Other Life belongs on Today's book of poetry so that we can celebrate Obejas' steel hardened tenderness. These poems will appeal to your senses.
Dancing in Paradise
You lean against me
as we dance, the soft huddle
of our heads together,
our breaths clean steam in the blue
smoke, rapid, exhausted.
We mix margaritas, because
I like the name, a
woman you love. You're older.
I'm willing, drunk, unbuttoned.
You lead, peeling layer after
wet layer, a heap
of sweaters, shirts and precious
metals. Your breast is
slick with sweat, hands agile,
eels in glass waters.
When you scoop me up, I twist
in your lap, a think
needle thrust through my tongue. Later,
you give me a reading list,
blank journals, your mother's
recipes. You take
what you need, knowing there's no
autonomy of the
senses, those five carnivores
in their own essential
food chain. What survives is memory,
twin jewels, the blade of
a pelvic bone. Instinctively,
we keep our eyes open,
ears keen, for marine smells,
salt, the plexus of light,
Clearly Obejas isn't afraid of the carnal, she blows right past that until she hits visceral. "We will love the wrong people" intones Obejas and she is completely right, we have all faltered in love because our judgment gets lost in the braille of flesh. Obejas won't stop there and tells us "I've learned to read my lovers scars," and then bids us the same learned wisdom.
Today book of poetry thinks Obejas wants us to saviour the discovery, journey and mystery as we find them, folded softly into the skin of the one we desire. This is What Happened In Our Other Life is a meditation on desire and the destiny desire dances with. Obejas wants to surrender to love if only she could find the right vehicle for the journey.
The Habits of The Blind
I am staring at a grey, pink and purple sky,
worrying about the imprint of our first embrace
(that awkward tangle of limbs)
the first time we were skin on skin.
What will sustain us later,
when we know everything,
if not this innocence?
I worry too much, and not enough.
I long ago surrendered:
The world breaks us all,
throws us up against the wall,
splits our hearts with a vengeance.
There is no right person.
We will love the wrong people.
What I've done is this: embraced chaos--
studied the habits of the blind,
their sixth sense, and Braille.
This way, I've learned to read my lovers' scars,
to appreciate the force or cunning
behind each cut,
the meanings of each tender pattern,
the beauty and depth.
Pain is the risk and the measure
not just of how far we're willing to go,
but of how much we're willing to feel
later, alone in the dark.
Aces. Obejas has a deck of cards filled with aces. Today's book of poetry likes the way Obejas gets to it. Achy Obejas can burn.
This is What Happened In Our Other Life ends with a poem, an untranslated poem, in Spanish, "Historia De Amor," which Today's book of poetry has translated. My apologies to all concerned. Our translator-in-residence, Otis, is currently residing in Belgium after only recently returning from Sicily. It appears Today's book of poetry has been paying our staff far too much. So I had to go it alone. We are sure Otis would have cracked Obejas' Spanish with considerably more finesse, nuance and style -- but we did it anyway.
The poem and translation appear below. Today's book of poetry does apologize in advance for the lack of proper Spanish punctuation/accents. Our keyboard refuses to give up any secrets, nothing but broken English escapes regardless of how often Milo, our head tech, fidgets with it.
The important thing is that Today's book of poetry tackled "Historia De Amor" because we suspect it may be Obejas' codex. It is possible that the poem sums up This is What Happened In Our Other Life quite succinctly. Obejas gets it all said without much fuss but with so much beauty, isn't that what poetry should be?
Historica De Amor
Ella no existia
cuando la otra se fue.
Despues, no se entero de su regreso.
Se vieron de casualidad.
Una cruzaba la calle,
la otra esperaba un carro.
Se imaginaron un beso
(mas bien un roce de labios,
la mano en el vientre).
cada una por su camino.
Una miro hacia atras.
La otra no.
History of Love
She does not exist
when her other is gone.
I don't know if she'll return.
It was all by chance.
One crossed the street,
the other was waiting for a car.
They imagined a kiss
(rather a touch of the lips
hand on belly).
each one on its way.
One looks back.
The other doesn't.
(Today's book of poetry apologizes again to Achy Obejas for this translation)
Achy Obejas and Today's book of poetry are the same age but I didn't realize that until after I'd read This is What Happened In Our Other Life a couple of times. Today's book of poetry was convinced we were reading a wise younger woman's book of poetry. It's not trick, but it is certainly worth noting. Achy Obejas is apparently timeless.
ABOUT THE AUTHORAchy Obejas (Havana, 1956) is the author of three novels, Ruins (Akashic, 2009), Days of Awe (Ballantine) and Memory Mambo (Cleis), the latter two both winners of the Lambda Literary Award, as well as the short story collection We Came all the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This? (Cleis). She is also editor and translator of the anthology Havana Noir (Akashic).
Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Conditions, The Antigosh Review, Helcion Nine, Phoebe, Revista Chicano-Rique, and The Beloit Poetry Journal, and she received an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 1986.
An accomplished journalist, she worked at the Chicago Tribune for over a decade, and has also written for the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Playboy, Ms., The Nation, The Advocate, Windy City Times, High Performance, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Nerve.com, Latina, and Out, among others.
Among her many honors, she has received a Pulitzer for a Tribune team investigation, the Studs Terkel Journalism Prize, and several Peter Lisagor journalism honors, as well as residencies at Yaddo, Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Arts.
She has served as Springer Writer-in-Residence at the University of Chicago and the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i, and is currently the Sor Juana Visiting Writer at DePaul University in Chicago.
Achy Obejas at Radar Reading Series
Video: San Francisco Public Library
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