Review | Birthmark,
by Jon Pineda
We frequently encounter first collections of poetry that are memory driven, which draw primarily from autobiographical experiences. The trap that sometimes accompanies this approach is that the poems might be closed off, will be too internal or personal to have any appeal to the reader. Further, there is the chance that the author's desire to recall the past, combined with a commitment to truth or accuracy, might result in a book that is bland—more of a personal historical account than a work of art.
Despite the personal content of Jon Pineda's first collection—a book heavy with autobiography—very little is expressed as straightforward reportage, a pitfall we might associate with the material. Nothing here is even presented as Confessional verse—stories told as testament or as therapy; the material is handled in ways that only enlarge the art of poetry-making. This is no small task, given that the poem's subjects range from the estrangement of a father, through a variety of meditations on ethnicity and identity, to the tragic early death of a sister. The poems in the book are all "about" the past, are memory driven, but Pineda knows that to remember is also to invent, and these poems never lack in imagination and daring. In fact, the problematic act of remembering is often the focus of these meditations. The author is too restless in his craft and exploration to let these incidents simply become narratives told for their own sake.
The most striking poems in Birthmark are the longer, loosely grouped sketches that take on the complexities of memory, even as they try to piece together a whole picture, a coherent story. The best example of this approach is "Between Rounds." The first section of this eight-page poem recalls the narrator and his father attending boxing matches together, a father-son outing from childhood. As the poem progresses, it makes room for other embattled experiences—the adult intimacy between two lovers, an assembly-line job worked one summer, memories of speaking Christmas wishes into a tape recorder that will be mailed to an absent father. The way these disparate fragments connect is mesmerizing, each memory or scene gets its own page, occupies its own space, warping further into the unconscious, until Pineda pulls us back, at the end, to those fights with which he began. Here we are witness to the poet working to find a new, personal language for his experience, a flowing form that will allow for the expression of the interrelated flotsam and jetsam of a complex life.
In "Translation," a father tells a story of childhood in a war-torn Philippines; bullet holes in the walls of his house are spaces to store "the memory of my sister." At the end of the poem the father is empowered by the ability, in memory, to freeze the bullets in mid-air. Pineda's relentless probing of the acts of remembering and conjuring is further complicated: Do we remember truthfully or do we change things according to hindsight or desires? The book wants to know what types of narratives we create for ourselves, and whether such story-making is even a good thing.
What further deepens these explorations of memory is that the thing being remembered is often an absence or loss itself: a heritage the author can never fully embrace, a sister who has passed on, a father who wasn't there. This isn't mere memory-driven poetry, but a more complex way to plumb the self and identity that's created by the events—and non-events—of our lives.
Pineda's imaginative skills and obsessions with the unattainable are best evinced by the title poem, which appears halfway through the book. One may wince at the idea of "birthmark" in a collection whose primary concern is with the speaker's mixed heritage—mestizo, as the poems name it. It might seem too obvious a pun, "marked from birth," but this poem surprises us with its imagery, perspective, and imagination. The birthmark here is found on a lover's thigh, and the person discovering finds it a "place he has never been, filled with hillsides of rice & fish." He wants to touch this place on the body, but "something about it all is untouchable, like love. . . ." The poem is about the prevalence of mysteries in our lives, and how these enigmas somehow complete us: "this place that seems so foreign, so much a part of him that for a moment, he cannot help it, he feels whole." A dark mark on a lover's thigh, forever impenetrable, becomes a metaphor for the ungraspable identity, the struggle for memory, and the inevitable losses that characterize the book.
Personal history and landscape are rendered with an undeniable weight in poem after poem. The poet mythologizes his life, returns to the past obsessively, but appears to do so only out of obligation to the events: they must be resurrected and studied because they are too large to be ignored, too serious to be left out of poetry. Rooms and actions recounted in "In the Romance of Grief" become sacred in retrospect:
In the final poem of Birthmark we are privy to a character who "spends too much time remembering." The poet ends the book, admonishing, "Forget it all & come back to your life."
Pineda is never obvious, cloying or clichéd, and the intensely felt personal material never overshadows the artist's attention to effects of sound, rhythm, and the nuances of line in this remarkable poetry. His book is a brave and beautiful one. Confronting his personal past with exquisite forms and lines, he shows us that art can help us survive, and master, the chaos of experience.