How Fire Is a Story, Waiting
by Melinda Palacio
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna
Melinda Palacio’s first full-length volume of poetry was birthed with modest fanfare but with hopes full and robust. Less than a year later, the book has earned three prominent awards and has taken Palacio on book tours across the nation. This acclaim is richly-deserved and bodes well for a relative newcomer—but indisputably a rising star—in the national literary arena.
Palacio, a native Californian and part-time resident of New Orleans, has written two other books, each well-received: Folsom Lockdown (2010), poetry that won the Kulupi Press Sense of Place Chapbook Contest in 2009; and Ocotillo Dreams (2011), Palacio’s debut novel and winner of two prestigious national/ international awards.
Palacio puts Midas and his golden touch to shame.
In How Fire Is a Story, Waiting, Palacio skillfully weaves 65 poems through the four sections of her book—Fire, Air, Water, and Earth—with a humanity and sensitivity that we all recognize and cherish but cannot always plumb within ourselves. She speaks of themes closest to our collective heart, universal, timeless topics that we accept as part of living: family, culture, loss, reminiscence, nature, and resilience of the human spirit.
These themes envelop her poetry with immediacy and relevance. Her audience is the everyday community of readers navigating daily life, the people with whom we interact, people who filled Palacio’s life and who similarly fill ours. In an authentic, sympathetic voice, she speaks to all of us and, in a largely autobiographical manner, shares her life story begotten through metaphorical fires.
Folsom Lockdown: Family Challenges
Her award-winning poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, is integrated almost in its entirety into How Fire Is a Story. In Folsom, Palacio, with some “poetic license,” as she has said, recounted her father’s domestic abuse, his unreliability as a parent to her and his other children, and his penchant for conning and manipulating. He ended up imprisoned in Folsom for domestic assault and attempted murder with a gun. Palacio’s relationship with her father had been almost nonexistent throughout her life…until she and her sister visited him in 2009 in prison. Of this visit, which inspired Folsom, Palacio has written: “We had a wonderful exchange with our father. As he regaled us with stories, all walls and barriers fell away” (Author’s Note, Folsom Prison Lockdown, p. 31). Palacio also writes: “[We] made our trip to Folsom in January. A month later, I sat down and could not stop writing. A quick lightning downpour of poems turned into this chapbook” (p. 31).
These poems, interwoven now throughout How Fire Is a Story, depict a father who is smooth, handsome, seductive, an exotic Panamanian with multiple families. She describes him as “the charismatic lunatic, my father,/ the criminal with the psycho gene and tangled gypsy beard!” In the poem, “Dancing with Zorro’s Ghost,” one of the more powerful ones in her book, Palacio paints a picture of a conflicted man, a Hispanic version of Jekyll and Hyde. Her father, Antonio, “fights windmills in the night./ …Tony slipped a piece of metal/ into his sock to protect his coffee-bean colored skin.” In the next stanza, Palacio describes Tony thus: “With his enemy tucked away for the purple night, my father wrote poetry./…. [Tony was] nestled like the Man in the Iron Mask, dreaming of sunshine” (p. 22).
Palacio’s ability to simultaneously recognize her father’s malice and hurtfulness, and his vulnerability and humanity, undulates like a powerful wave through the Folsom sections of her book. Palacio recounts her lack of connectedness to her father when she was a child: her disbelief that he will visit her, her rejection of toys he brings when he manages to show up, and his vicious beatings of her mother. Yet she leaves the door open for finding redemption in him, as when she says in “Astro Turf Hero”: “On the day of [my mother’s] funeral,/I’m surprised to learn there were nice people/who loved my father,/who called him friend” (p. 20, Folsom). In “Sin Verguenza Swagger” (“Shameless Swagger”), Palacio describes the uninhibited sassiness of Panamanians she encounters randomly and says: “It took a trip to Panama to understand my father’s sin verguenza swagger” (p. 48). Palacio allows her own humanity and compassion to override Antonio’s countless lapses in his. She rises above his violence and fallibility to reach a place of understanding and eventual acceptance of her father.
The Folsom poems also include vignettes of her other family members, of the beauties and tantrums of Mother Nature, and of Palacio’s reminiscences of pleasant and painful childhood experiences. As part of How Fire Is a Story, the Folsom poems are scattered throughout the volume, interwoven with different emphases and throughout the four subsection headings. But they still carry the emotional impact they did in the original chapbook.
Three Key Poems
Three poems in particular serve as linchpins in Palacios’ book, capturing pivotal aspects of her life experiences, identity, and evolution as a poet and human being. Powerful in the telling and in the eliciting, the poems form a framework within which her other poems blossom and give us other looks into her life and observations.
The first is “El South-Central Cucuy” (“The South-Central Boogeyman,” p. 18). Recounted in the persona of a young girl growing up in the ‘hood, the poem starkly paints the elements of a disadvantaged environment: a jaded uncle assuring the girl that she won’t “have a life”; all-too-familiar sounds of gunfire and police helicopters; fear for one’s life as bullets rip through walls and barely miss people who should be safe within their homes; the threat of war and bombs; and a child’s perennial fear of the boogeyman, the Cucuy, the unknown, the embodiment of evil that is already a reality all around. Appearing as it does near the book’s beginning, “El South-Central Cucuy” is a child’s narrative, from a child’s viewpoint: a story of the beginning of things. Palacio ends the poem thus: “You can’t see the Cucuy who lurks in the hallways, under the bed and in the closet./The boogeyman with devil’s feet waits to touch your hair in the dark,/in a crowded house on Albany Street in South-Central L.A.” To a child growing up in the ‘hood, fear of the unknown can be a deal-breaker in the battle for survival and success. Such it could have been for Palacio; such it was for people she knew early on, as she recounts: “Bullets spared me, but took the young lives of three on our street.”
The second poem is “Panamanian Percentage” (p. 56), a rhythmic accounting of her father’s ethnic heritage. Tony had ancestral roots in Panama, Jamaica, Colombia, East India, England, and Africa. Palacio details some of the physical attributes she inherited from her father: “I own his crooked smile, a slight curl/of the upper lip.” Palacio’s sister inherited Tony’s height and his “ballsy stride, the stretch of confidence/our father used when he thought/he’d never get caught.” Palacio muses: “Impossible to tell where I begin/or end, where our/Panamanian percentage meets.” She clearly cherishes her mother’s Mexican Indian heritage, “the half made whole by my mother’s feet,/my feet. Feet furious enough to power a car,/squat Indian feet showing off red toes/in an even row….” Dichotomies seem to dominate Palacio’s life, as they do her poems, and the ethnic mixtures she celebrates and accepts in this poem ultimately define her as an individual and a poet.
The third linchpin poem, “Iron Cross Suite” (p.99), is heart-breakingly poignant. The sub-title—“For Blanca Estela Palacio, December 5, 1949-June 4, 1994”—underscores the untimeliness of Palacio’s mother’s death. Blanca’s “passion cross” roughly symbolizes that of Christ’s “passion cross,” which depicts his suffering and death in the Catholic ritual, the Stations of the Cross. The poem describes an iron cross apparently owned by Blanca, with a dove, fleur de lis, lightning bolts, a scale, moon, rooster, and sun paralleling Stations of the Cross. The poet describes each station in turn, recounting a moment, a memory, an event connecting her to her mother in the past or the aching present. The mother’s refrain in the poem, “Do this in memory of me,” tethers Blanca’s passion cross to Christ’s suffering and assures us that Blanca also suffered in her life. As Christ was betrayed shortly before his death, so also was Blanca betrayed by her beloved priest, who failed to go to her deathbed when summoned.
Possibly the most intellectual poem in Palacio’s book, “Iron Cross Suite” is never heavy-handed in its analogy to Christ’s passion. Palacio carefully selects reminiscences and images of her mother to lightly, lovingly reveal Blanca’s strength and faith, and the poet’s own devotion to her. In the final stanzas of this poem, Palacio writes: “She [Blanca] is divine./Three years pass before I can step foot in a church or cathedral” (p. 102). Yet this grief is immediately followed by the revelation that her mother’s final words, scribbled on a piece of paper in a speeding ambulance, were, “The ambulance guy is cute….The driver is good, too,” followed by a smiley face. This dichotomy of pathos and wry humor characterize not only this poem, but the character of Blanca herself and the relationship she forged with her daughter.
In summary, Palacio’s book brims with warriors and survivors: immigrants, poor people, abused women, marginalized children, lonely old maids, exhausted laborers, convicts, and variations of the above. The world is “the ‘hood” for many, possibly throughout their lives, with boogeymen real and imagined stealing comfort and security. But her book also includes resilient souls who squeeze hope and comfort from hardship. Palacio’s book appropriately is bookended with the Cucuy near the beginning, and the mother whose spunk and love of life prevailed over the tragedy of her early death at the end: fear and insecurity on one hand, and affirmation on the other. Sandwiched in between these linchpin poems is the one celebrating mixture and embracing of polyglot cultures that define Palacio and the world she navigates.
A Rising Literary Star
Melinda Palacio is that rare multi-genre author who has excelled in everything she has done. In addition to the Kulupi Prize bestowed upon Folsom Lockdown, her second poetry book, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting has won the following 2013 awards: Milt Kessler Award Finalist, Patterson Poetry Prize Finalist, and International Latino Book Award/Best Poetry Book in English. Her debut novel, Ocotillo Dreams, which started out as a historical account of immigration but metamorphosed to a more accessible work of fiction when Arizona began instituting its draconian immigration laws, received the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature, and the 2012 International Latino Book Award/ Mariposa Award for Best First Book.
Palacio’s facility with the written word is not all natural talent. She received a degree in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley and earned a Master’s degree in the same discipline from UC Santa Cruz. She has studied her craft diligently, both as a 2007 PEN USA Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow, and as an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Palacio wrote articles for local magazines and newspapers in Arizona and California earlier in her career. So she has been steeped in writing—the informal, conversational writing of lifestyle articles she penned as a freelance journalist, and the more demanding literary creations that have brought her much recognition. She laid a firm foundation through formal study and leverages that expertise into a growing reputation as an outstanding author.
Palacio is hip, uninhibited, and frank. California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera described her writing in How Fire Is a Story, Waiting as “jazzy and Pachukona…[with] Bop and ‘swagger’…and wild, unexpected turns” (Cover blurb). Yes, all true. But Palacio can also be little-girl traditional, as she is in “Porch Days” (p. 16): “I’m six, and I sit on the porch Indian style./My best friend Aurora makes the number four with her legs./We sit and listen to the slapping sound our thighs make against red concrete.” And Palacio can also be little-girl scared, as in “Ramona Street” (p. 17): “Hug your rabbit with the ear singed by a light bulb./Cradle her. Ignore the burnt smell and loose button eye./The eye on your mother’s swollen face is worse.” And Palacio can whisper a growing girl’s fears with timidity: “1. You have always been lonely, but never alone….Don’t sink into that dark place from which there is no return. Romance the devil,/until your cries are a distant memory and/you’re ready for church and candy” (“Notes to Self,” p. 31).
So Melinda Palacio’s mixture of contradictions and life experiences spanning almost coast to coast have given an undeniable authenticity and recognition to her writings. We devour her work because we see ourselves in it. We believe her insights because we know she’s been burned by the fire she awaits, the fire that kindles her stories. And, like moths perennially attracted to flame, we gravitate toward the fire Palacio creates for us.
Review copyrighted 2013 by Dr. Thelma Reyna.
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009), which has won four national awards. Her third book, a poetry chapbook titled Hearts in Common, will be issued in June 2013. It was a semi-finalist in a national poetry competition. Her other books include Breath & Bone (2011), another award-winning poetry chapbook; and the forthcoming Life & Other Important Things (Spring 2013), a collection of mini-essays and sociopolitical commentary excerpted from her published writings of the past 30+ years. Dr. Reyna has served as an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and at California Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.