Holly Bowers is the online editor for the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares her staff pick from the Summer 2019 issue.
Reading a poem is like staring at the surface of a pond. It might look still at first, but if you gaze at it for a few minutes you start to notice all the life teeming within it—insects buzzing across the surface, frogs and fish leaving ripples where they poke their heads above water, turtles sunning themselves on a log.
I learned how to close-read poems using the sonnets of William Shakespeare. I was astonished at how many layers of meaning he packed into those fourteen lines, and ever since have found immense pleasure in digging into a poem’s text. In “Sonnet for My Cousin Xiomara, Who Tried to Teach Me How to Dance Salsa,” Alejandro Pérez reminded me of that delight.
Pérez marries form and content in a beautiful way in this poem. The speaker is trying to dance salsa, but struggles with moving their hips:
Technically, I know exactly
what to do. It’s simple. Right foot forward
then back, left foot back, then forward.
It all goes wrong when I try to bring the hips
The basic instructions for salsa are there on the page, and reading them, I’m tempted to move my own feet, right then left. The commas and line breaks create the rhythm of the dance. Like the speaker says, the technique is right there, and it sounds so simple.
The same could be said of writing a sonnet. Technically, we know what to do—fourteen lines, often following a set rhyming structure that ends in a rhyming couplet. But just like dancing salsa, there’s so much more that goes into a sonnet. Pérez really plays with that, embracing the form to help carry the poem’s content. Because the sonnet form is fourteen lines, there’s already a sense of restriction on the poem. The restriction of the form complements the restriction of the speaker’s hips.
Pérez eschews the typical A-B-A-B rhyme scheme of a sonnet, but instead gives us two distinct voices. The speaker’s lines are short and choppy, with frequent commas and enjambments: I say okay, but still my hips feel stiff, / they don’t budge. The speaker’s speech is as stiff as their hips. Xiomara’s lines, in contrast, are long and lyrical. She has mastered the dance, and it shows in the way she speaks:
Sentilo Sentiolo she cries, tells me to pretend
my hips are birds trying to escape from
the cage of my body, she tells me to pretend
my hips are words I’ve been holding onto
for too long that need to be set free.
This is the longest sentence in the poem. It flows continuously and gracefully, with the fluid movements of a dancer. It’s feeling versus thinking, understanding versus technical know-how. The contrast between the two speakers emphasizes the difference in their ability to dance salsa.
The sense of restriction that the speaker feels returns again and again throughout the poem. Beyond the sonnet form and the speaker’s stiff hips, Pérez gives us the imagery of a bird trying to escape a cage and words that need to be set free. Everything contributes to this sense of being held back, of not being able to access the freedom to “just feel the music.”
That play with restriction throughout the poem ultimately pulls us up short at a stunning, uncomfortable end:
I say okay, but still my hips feel stiff,
they don’t budge, like tenants who
refuse to be evicted from their home.
Unlike the speaker’s hips, the birds, and the words, the tenants refuse to go. Suddenly, the poem is not about dancing anymore. We’re left with questions about tenants’ rights and social justice.
It’s quite a ways to travel in just fourteen lines, and Pérez accomplishes it beautifully.
Want to read more from our Summer 2019 issue? Purchase your copy.