We lead complex, beautiful, many-dimensioned relationships with the Caribbean islands we inhabit. They require different masks, evolving responses to unpredictable seasons: whether we luxuriate in the heated thrust of Carnival, or mourn our murderous headlines, we people of these islands contain multitudes. This is one of the many gracefully-articulated messages woven into the fabric of Loretta Collins Klobah's poems. At their forefront gleams the titular persona, the 12-foot neon woman, a resistance heroine, a glorious Madonna for the 21st century. She resonates with passion as much as she snarls in discontent, this unabashed Puertorriqueña, and in so doing she provides both anchor and platform for Klobah's wondrously sung pieces. Indeed, it is singing that comes first to mind as one allows this collection to simmer in the blood, registering the finely-wrought heat of its movements, the attention paid to dance and the rhythms many claim as indigenous to our shared shorelines. In the poem The BBC Does Bomba, barrio children set themselves free to the persistent, encouraging tattoos pounded out on Modesto Cepeda's barrel-drum, becoming receptacles of kinetic splendour.
"Girls raise the ruffled circle-skirt to salute the drum, flick wrists con fuerza until the butterfly skirts snap por la derecha, por la izquierda, the flower-print cotton faldas swinging like machetes over the harvest."
Wrapped up in the flowing undulations of dances like these, the poet reminds us, are examinations that pierce, conducted by both foreign and local eyes. The question of perceptions, of how Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean sees itself, how we are seen by others, runs through several of the poems, keenly felt in pieces such as Googling the Caribbean Suburbs. Here, the narrator conducts a search that zooms in on satellite images of her home from space, the rows of houses making up, in impersonal relief, the neighbourhood whose inhabitants she knows intimately, having shared her life in close communion with their own. "Google Earth makes us out as small, blurred spaces," the penultimate line of the poem reports, closing with, "That's how we look, from out there." Embedded in this discussion of how we see ourselves are uncompromising, angry refrains against the criminal violence exploding through Puerto Rican and all Caribbean streets. Klobah's voice rings out against the censorship of police brutality, gang warfare, injustices against children. These poems do the opposite of presenting a unified touristic front: they impel in language that abjures the severity of academia for the warmth of the pueblo, for the anxious concerns of living, working, struggling Caribbean people.
"We have created a new world where the indiscriminate gun is always at our backs," laments the narrator in El Velorio, The Wake (1893), a poem that paints in vivid and excruciating detail the preparations for the funeral of a child killed by a stray bullet. Unforgettable images of sorrow in the wake of destruction accompany many of these examinations, in the shape of a halo of flies around a child's head; of corpses that "lie in little beds of straw in the war zones"; of five young bodies tumbling off a fortress wall, "their surprised appendages flailing like starfish legs, turning like pinwheels." If we run the risk of becoming inured to daily senselessness, then Klobah's poems pull us back from the brink of ennui, reminding us what fiery solace can live in raised arms of protest. There is a balance here of old worlds meeting new, of the slavery barracks colliding with street art, of our ancestors melding into the patterns of fierce pop and rap songs.
The 12-foot woman herself, she who can claim many names in daylight or in darkness, holds this cultural syncretism proudly in the cradle of her belly. In the lushly-titled The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman on Top of María's Exotik Pleasure Palace Speaks of Papayas, Hurricanes, and Wakes, she sways in her hard-won confidence. She has wrestled her autonomy from the clutches of slave owners and abusive lovers, from history's cruelties and a nation's difficult congress with itself. She channels "Oya, orisha of whirlwinds and cemeteries", making no apologies for her pain, no reparations for her sweet, Boricua music, intent on "writing my son and daughter all my love songs," a woman warrior we both need and recognise triumphantly.
The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman
Loretta Collins Klobah
Peepal Tree Press, 2011