Situated midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, about an hour’s drive from the geographical center of California, the inland city of Fresno and the wide expanse of the San Joaquin Valley around it have nurtured a number of influential poets, such as Gary Soto and Brian Turner, plus two former poets laureate: Philip Levine left Detroit via Iowa for the West Coast, and Juan Felipe Herrera grew up among the valley’s agricultural rotations. And although not all of these poets were born there, something about the city’s proximity to rich farmlands and rugged mountains, the cultural centrality of California, and the never-ending yet ever-changing patterns of migration through this fruitful corridor is evidently alluring to wordsmiths. In Fresno, “poets rest between crop rows welting the earth’s / still dust like corduroy,” according to Sara Borjas, a self-described Chicana, pocha, and Fresno poet.
To fully appreciate Borjas’s muscular, multivalent debut book, it’s important to note that Fresno itself underwent significant demographic change in the past thirty years. From 1990 to 2010, the population swung from 30 percent Hispanic or Latino to 47 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Taken together with a corresponding increase in the number of Hispanic or Latino folks who also identify as White for survey purposes, a picture emerges of a city—and a people—in transition. Borjas confronts this dual (and dueling) identity in poems that wrestle with personal and familial trauma, confront stereotypes and cultural expectations, and struggle against an escape velocity threatening to jettison the scaffolding: “Never forget // where you come from, my father told me as a little girl, scared / I might pull the ladder up behind me.”
This is perhaps the most salient feature of Borjas’s breakout collection, the way her speakers reckon with these competing drives, the twin impulses to honor the best but shrug off the worst of one’s upbringing, to sneer at dominant cultures while admitting a degree of inevitable assimilation. An instructive figure in this reckoning is the “pocha,” a term for which Borjas provides an escalating series of definitions in the margins of “We Are Too Big for This House”:
The term can be used disparagingly, but Borjas has reclaimed it in her brief online bios, and also through numerous representations of the notion in her poems, together with its associations of Mexican and Americanness. In “Pocha Café,” the speaker imagines a restaurant where every item on the menu hints at its Mexican origins, but then emerges drenched in mainstream trappings: “Enjoy a quesadilla with American cheese!” A wry irony is at work, one that doesn’t sneer at sincerity. Rather, Borjas uses a detached self-awareness to validate the conflicting feelings many young Mexican-Americans may experience with regard to traditional cultural milestones:
Let’s be resentful about how
we didn’t have a quinceanera and forget
that we never wanted one until we were sophomores
in state college when we took a Chicano Studies class
and gave ourselves a Nahuatl name and joined MEChA.
This lament is both immediately sincere and made ironic by hindsight: when denied, family celebrations that frequently go taken for granted become lost opportunities to connect with oneself and one’s culture. Not until a requisite course in one’s own history, symbolic renaming, and engagement with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (a political action group founded by poet Alurista) does the speaker begin to reconnect with these roots. Interestingly, the speaker assumes a college education is in the cards for patrons of the Pocha Café, and she doesn’t (explicitly) question why the fiesta de quince was denied in the first place. Was it because the family couldn’t afford it? Because the teen felt embarrassed? Because the family itself had grown distanced from tradition? Borjas lets these and other questions hang in the greasy air around readers’ heads, but not without serving up a final symbol to chew on: “the pig’s foot that grosses out half of us // and makes the other half feel Mexican for once.” Such is the spirit of the Pocha Café: a playful, simultaneous excess and scarcity of cultural signifiers.
Another tangible facet of Borjas’s book is a fascinating conflation of landscape and characters, most of whom share the same genetic code, but who sometimes could not seem more distant. The speaker describes family members as if admiring a vista (“my grandfather’s big teeth, // wide canyon mouth, cheeks like hot, empty plains”), and it’s occasionally unclear what delimits the generations: “A desert begins in my mother’s / throat and ends in mine.” These metaphors are emblematic of Fresno, that expanding city surrounded by manicured and untamed nature alike, and the relationship between the speaker and her sibling brings their hometown to the fore.
“Imagining My Brother’s Return” anticipates a soldier arriving home from overseas, his sister eager to welcome him back. “Singularity” completes the family circuit:
We cannot know the remarkable velocity at which we pull
each other, tear at individuation, until the distance
between us curves and no one
It is almost like killing each other.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Over the phone after a fight with my father,
my mother crying, says, I don’t want
to die like this.
The speaker’s family is so closely knit as to be riotously entangled, and “We Are Too Big for This House”—one of the book’s powerhouse poems—functions as a kind of cipher for the whole collection by combining family narrative, aesthetic abstractions, and intense authenticity. Borjas also employs a unique paratextual structure that warrants extended attention because it provides a blueprint for the book’s concerns.
“We Are Too Big for This House” spans several pages and includes three interweaving threads. The primary strand comprises short blocks of prose that narrate bursts of memory (“After the surgery, my mother lost one hundred fifty pounds in a single year”) and ruminate on their implications (“Her body has always limited her”). These recollections open with the gastric bypass performed on the speaker’s mother, but quickly range into other lines and lineages, tracing pain and trauma through both sides of the family—“I asked my dad why he never talks about his father’s alcoholism”—and ultimately landing on some disquieting comparisons: “My mother and I have the same shape, same hips, waist, cheeks, hands,” and “For years, I have blacked out drinking.” In their deceptively simple form, these moments illustrate the intensity of familial conflict as well as feelings of internal contradiction: “I wish my poems could save us from our parents’ childhoods.”
Borjas interrupts this primary text by inserting quotes from Sandhini Poddar, an art historian who explicates Anish Kapoor’s artwork Memory. Kapoor’s sculpture consists of an enormous steel tank, worn orange with age, which swells against the entirety of its gallery space, its interior viewable from a window in an adjacent room. Viewing the whole thing at once is impossible, and, as Poddar notes, people are forced to take a step back and in fact exit the original room in search of a better angle. “Circulation is almost a strategy,” Poddar says, pointing at Kapoor’s art but also illuminating the way Borjas has carved space between and beside stanzas to add, to layer, and to supplement.
Surrounding both streams of text, Borjas includes abundant marginalia—tiny sentences and stanzas that serve as annotations. These notes offer occasional clarity, as when they describe exactly what gastric bypass surgery entails, but more often they complicate the poem’s established relationships, plumbing still-dark emotional depths (“Once, I heard my dad call my mother fat whale in a home video”) and questioning the speaker’s complicity (“Once, in a poetry workshop, my professor said, You are disgusted by your mother”). A rare brand of bravery is needed to air these admissions, but to structure them into such a complexly layered poem is a hallmark of an exacting craftsperson.
It’s also clear that Borjas’s Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff is wildly attuned to the literary space it enters: poets Natalie Diaz and Marcello Castillo Hernandez make appearances in different poems, a line by Eduardo Corral provides a title, and another poem takes after José Olivares. Like Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón, J. Michael Martinez’s Museum of the Americas, and Ángel García’s excellent Teeth Never Sleep, Borjas’s debut book embodies an emerging voice in Latinx poetry. But Borjas is also undeterred by monolithic canons of Latinx literature. In “Ars Poetica,” the speaker takes Andrés Montoya to task, refusing to praise a poet who confesses: “I can hear the brown and black whores / calling my name.” To see hierarchs of the old guard called out is refreshing, but such a gesture is in keeping with the book’s exacting treatment of so many things often mistaken for stable: identity, ethnicity, language.
Excerpt from “We Are Too Big for This House” by Sara Borjas. Reprinted from Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff, copyright © 2019 Sara Borjas, by permission of Noemi Press.