Valences of Identity Dialectics

With several poems previously published in Muzzle and drawing on her slam performances that have been nationally acclaimed since 2015, Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s debut book of poems, Peluda, will be familiar to those who have followed the rising wave of young American poets of colour over the past few years. This includes Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Ocean Vuong and others, some featured here in dedications and blurbs. For readers who have not come across Lozada-Oliva’s work before, the book offers an introduction to the themes of identity (raced, gendered, classed), embodiment and relationships. These are given a political gloss that emerges from an American liberalism that is, nevertheless, conscious of wider leftist traditions. Lozada-Oliva states in the “Acknowledgements” that “value is a capitalist concept, but you are valued, You are necessary, & you are glorious” (46). And yet, despite this gesture towards an anti-capitalist position, Peluda voices the paradoxes of living in a particular economic, political and cultural system that is inescapably hegemonic. This is the dialectic of its identity liberalism.

Central to that is the way that one’s self is understood and read by society. Lozada-Oliva speaks back to the powerful, which reaches its apotheosis in white, patriarchal, bourgeois, misogynistic, ableist subjectivity. And although we only get glimpses of the spectral forces she negates, we do get a firm sense that this is poetry of resistance. It is a type of negation that says no to prejudice, no to discrimination, no to judgement. And it does so without mapping in complete terms what a coalition of solidarity might be, preferring to focus on the particularity of its own condition. This is work that is resolutely after the Internationale, emphasising instead how one is a part of a wider struggle. In that way, it is post-structural.

Who then is the speaker of Peluda? We can assume that it is the poet herself, the poet who says ‘i am latina’ (8) and means exactly that. And so we know that this is poetry of direct address. This is poetry that means what it says, telling people what is happening and how it feels to “be me”. The emotional register Peluda inhabits is often one of subtle rage, or indignant defiance, articulating a selfhood that has been waxed, shaved, moisturised. Indeed, it is the recurrent motif of the book to speak of the subject’s relationship to hair, including her own eyebrows, bikini line, arm hair, moustache. Lozada-Oliva speaks the life of hair and its networks, from her mother to her sister to people on the bus, from beauty treatments to getting caught in the drain. Peluda after all means “hairy” in Spanish. And the literal hairs on the body become a metaphor and entry point for Lozada-Oliva’s identity as a whole, which is clearly demonstrated by the poem “What If My Last Name Got a Bikini Wax, Too” (19).

The book is often about a sisterhood that sings, has pleasure, and suffers, which Lozada-Oliva articulates explicitly when writing:

we don’t want to be the destinies our bodies
carved out for us with knives passed down
by generations of fathers & fathers (26)

It is also about a young woman finding herself and her people, chronicling events that have happened with, to, for, at, besides, near her. The poem where this finds its most complete expression is “Self-Portrait With Historical Moments”, a wry, knowing, candid insight into the author herself.

And this is where we reach the paradox that matters – in so firmly writing about herself, Lozada-Oliva strains to reach beyond, through, after the particularity of her own condition, leaving open the possibility that the poetry is self-indulgent by not indulging the self enough. That is where it is a type of liberalism, a focus on the ‘I’ that cannot see beyond its world, which is supported by a constant emotional register coupled with repetitious form. This is a collection with precious little variation, which is no bad thing if one happens to like consistency and the tone that Lozada-Oliva works within. It does not strike one as experimental then but operating through the medium of ‘voice’. There are some gestures towards stylistic changes from line breaks being represented with slashes (15) to complete capitalisations (28, 39) to multiple question marks (17-18) and there is a very funny break in tone with a one line throwaway in “I’m So Ready” (39). Yet, on the whole, this poetry is formally and tonally dependable, being accessible, direct, and saying what it really feels. If it this is the quotidian it is interesting rather than quixotically profound.

Lozada-Oliva’s Peluda is a charged, personal, stirring account of growing up now. A bildungsroman of sorts, it tells the story of a woman growing into herself concerned with hair, beauty, the body, sisterhood, mother-daughter relations, all in a complex and dynamic world that is conscious of its feminist and Latina roots.

 

Melissa Lozada-Oliva. Peluda. Minneapolis: Button Poetry, 2017.

Robert Wood is the author of two books and recently completed a residency at Columbia University. Find out more at: www.robertdwood.net

 

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