October 7th, 2009

  • pylduck

Kristin Naca's Bird Eating Bird

This past weekend I read through Kristin Naca's newly published book of poems Bird Eating Bird (HarperPerennial 2009).

I met Kristin last fall--she teaches at the college down the street from me. I had found out about her through news media about how poet Yusef Komunyakaa had chosen her collection as one of the winners of the National Poetry Series in 2008. The series looks for new poets to be published by participating presses, and each year five winners get their books published after being chosen by established poets from open competition. This great honor is definitely deserved in Naca's poetry. Her lyrics are strongly enmeshed in explorations of English and Spanish language, gesturing often to her mixed-heritage background (Asian and Latino).

The opening poem, "Speaking English Is Like," begins with the words:
Brown and beige and blonde tiles set in panels of tile across the bathroom floor.

Wakes curled into the pavement by traffic, the asphalt a slow, gray tide.

A loose floorboard hiding the gouges chunked out of the floor.
This series of images function as similes for the act or practice of speaking English. The images are elliptical, though, forcing us to consider what it means for them to be likened to speaking English and what quality might be attributed to that practice. The second example is suggestive of a contradiction or tension with hardened pavement given the possibility of tidal movement in being likened to waves and wakes left in water. This image suggests that speaking English may be difficult or stilted, perhaps something that always yearns to be something that is not.

Another poem near the end of the collection is a companion piece titled "Speaking Spanish Is Like." It is organized similarly with a series of images that come at the idea of speaking Spanish from an angle, never quite pinning down what it is like but suggestively creating visual and auditory associations:
A bird in a tree sings to a parrot in a cage, next door.

As the needle skids it plays the grooves carved in the record vinyl.

In front of the butcher shop a man, the name of a woman tattooed on his chest.
The collection also includes a number of poems that incorporate Spanish words into the mainly English-language poem. Most of the Spanish words and phrases are translated in the margins or in the poem itself. There are a few poems in Spanish completely that are followed by English translations.

One poem I find especially fascinating with the exploration of English in collision with another language is "Language Poetry / Grandma's English." The poem begins with the stanza:
Dos / doze / those / toes shuffles through the head
when Grandma speaks, consonants blurred
from her mouth a flat tire. Unable to make out
each word I try reading lips, What / that / cat woman,
but end up lost. Her lips relaxed, bursts of sound
fretting through them. You muddy her, Grandma barks
at my father. You muddy her, she drives you grazy.
The opening sequence of words trundles through similar sounds, muffled attempts at grasping for the correct word while exhibiting a confusion of different languages.

I am planning on teaching this book next semester in the first-year poetry/drama class and will definitely be thinking about the poems more!
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