Cape Verdean Blues by Shauna Barbosa
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018; 81 pp.
Reviewed by Chloe Martinez
Here are a few things I found in Shauna Barbosa’s jumpy, internet-inflected, tragic-romantic debut collection, Cape Verdean Blues:
Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
riding an elevator alone
The island nation that gives this collection its title does hover through these poems, sometimes as history, sometimes as identity, sometimes as landscape. The central concerns here, however, are love and loss, selfhood in a fragmented present, and anguished questioning about the future. Case in point: the twelve prose poems, dispersed through the book, that take the familiar language of the magazine horoscope—instructive, encouraging, intimate—and darken it:
This week will be like the week your mother disappeared, and your now dead uncle taught you multiplayer solitaire. Bet the money you saved in high school that you will hear the chains falling. Break every chain, the gospel. Commit to thinking in terms outside of your bones. They move. Then they don’t.
The premise of a horoscope is that the stars can guide us in making choices in the coming month, helping us know what to expect and thus giving us some small sense of control. In place of that language of self-help, Barbosa gives us ominous predictions and insists on strength and clarity in the face of pain: “Your one good uncle will die as you dance on top of a table. If you look directly into the sun, document the day anger (your mother) took your hand and did a crazy thing—held it.” (“Strology Gemini”).
Obsessive love/sex, the omnipresent smartphone, and the mystery of family are three of Barbosa’s great themes here, and they often overlap. These poems thus enact multiplicity and simultaneity in a way that feels very true to life:
When I moaned high,
hissed, Deeper, what I meant
was, say what you remember
of your mother giving you up.
I have gossip for you
if you have gossip for me.
When I text goodnight,
I mean tell me again
the me in this bar is
worth losing sleep over.
—“How’s It Goin’ Down”
Barbosa brilliantly reveals the emotional weight of our digital lives, the way we brag, stalk, mourn and caress each other via our devices. Just a few more examples: “Your beard / requires a search engine / of its own.” (“There’s Something So Deeply Gratifying about Welcoming Your Mother into Your Home…”); “Into the camera you go, / your thrown self / in front of Mona Lisa” (“You Will, Indeed, Always Be the Same Person after Vacation”); “…we’re all online thinking // Who the fuck can throw a better looking / baby shower than me?” (“Taking Over for the ’99 and the 2000”).
But these poems are not mired in digital minutiae; instead, Barbosa looks at the small stuff in order to understand the big picture. Reading this book, I wonder if good poems have been horoscopes all along. Don’t they tell us what time it is, on a cosmic scale? Don’t they offer us suggestions, best practices for survival? And don’t they insist, over and over, that change is inevitable, that suffering is part of the deal?
Aries, here is what you need to know: organisms of the sea cannot be repulsed by chipped toenail polish. Put your feet in. Walk in shallow oceans with suede sandals. Make skeleton picking your brave new hobby like gathering what’s left of things fallen while you bathe. In bed with yourself, terror shall leave no part unkissed.
Chloe Martinez's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Waxwing, The Normal School, The Collagist, PANK, and The Common. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a semifinalist for the 2018 Perugia Prize and a reader for The Adroit. She is the Program Coordinator for the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at Claremont McKenna College, as well as Lecturer in Religious Studies. See more at www.chloeAVmartinez.com.