Loretta Collins Klobah’s The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman,
a book review by Faizah Tabasamu (Rochelle Ward)
On a pedestal, in the eye of this hurricane of multilingual poetry—“a vibrant blend of English, Spanish, and Patois”--written by Loretta Collins Klobah, womanhood sheds her skin of “concrete and steel.” Sometimes this skin is personal or societal loss, the loss of a lover or husband who left, or the loss of a young child, whose dead body was burrowed through by a motherless bullet. In the poem, “El Velorio, The Wake (1893),” it is a harkening to the Puerto Rican national painting of the same name that had prophesied the “halo of flies” above the sleeping child. Also embedded in this skin, is a fisherman, brutalized by a police officer, who wrestled him to the ground like a fish baited and bleeding from the mouth.
The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, an OCM Bocas Prize-winner in the poetry category, is Klobah’s white bud offering, dripping wet from the painful seasons of the soul and the perpetual injustices we are tempted to look away from, like Juanito, a singing street person with AIDS and festering foot sore in “La Madonna Urbana.” He reaches over into another poem, “By the Waters of St. Lucia”; his legacy and foot sores, “bloody legions that boil into small volcanic mountains,” are fixed in the poet’s mind.
Klobah draws our senses back, quietly beckoning with the soft rhythmic weaving of languages, lolling us to look again until the deeds are done, until we have received the harsh truths about Caribbean urbanization, the harsh truths about the histories we live daily—Maurice Bishop and all the Krik? Krak! moments and massacres that cause us to write our bitterness on paper, plant it in a melon and throw it into the sea so that we can remember without the retching sorrow. Her pieces are bit-sized and beautiful and sometimes violent: the “… rag-doll woman catapulted from her hammock into god’s lungs!” becomes the stylishly spread corpse in Klobah’s “Novena a La Reina María Lionza” second night prayer. And “Canute Caliste” recounts a brutal story of students shot and killed, a story Klobah recounts:
“From the high fortress wall, tumble five bodies, their appendages flailing like starfish legs, turning like pinwheels. Small black figures—children of the revo—fly backwards into the rocks below or the sea. Sea foam gleams like new jewels, frothy dreams uttered the hoarse voice of the sea” (29).
In her collection of twenty-nine poems, Klobah captures some of the places women seek sanctuary from the leering public eye and men who’ve left and crumpled their hearts. Her poetry reveals the rooms they find, the walls they build or the way they use their bodies or female friendships to bask in a tranquility that is impossible to maintain. It is in a painting, in the unshared conversation between “Two Women Chatting by the Sea (1856).” It is the place to slap their children, the refuge in a Chicago public bathroom, where “the growl rising like acid vomit in dry throats” can be released (58).
It is in the sustaining bonds of female friendship, in the London flat, where ill-fitted clothing is the first of many exchanges. It is in Jamaica, where her eighty-year-old landlady soothes her “man-worries” with milky soursop tea. “Matron” rules her home with a “no men” policy, a serene fortress her estranged son infiltrates when he passes a bag of tears to her through the iron gate. It is at “The First Day of Hurricane Season,” peace, simplicity, and aloneness that find their way into other poems like “Bosque San Patricio” and “Night Wash.”
Like a displayed Christ who feels like coming down and forgetting, wanting to be un-caged and wanting to rail about injustices in love letters to the next generation, the poet is alone and content in the kitchen, her mind rollicking with sensual, feel-good memories of a man whose left traces of his stance behind her. His hands once clasp her shirt about her. He isn’t there anymore, just the tree, the serpent and her, alone in the urban rainforest, walking her daughter through it, wishing they were away from it.
She is also like the tree on her block: “Heat clogging the veins of its dry, cracking heart, my flamboyant tree survives, solitary on a street named Los Flamboyanes for the once vibrant red satin-lined boulevard of torch trees and fallen blossoms” (17).
Klobah examines the solitary life through other women: Sister Carol and the nuns residing by the St. Lucian seaside, and even sixty-nine year old Yesmarie, whose dead and decimated body, half-bitten tongue and the “cocaine-packed condom” filled the poet with a longing for peace and an Adamless garden of plantain shoots and small animals when she herself is aged. For Yesmarie, she constructs a pleasant eulogy of childhood memories to tuck around the news of her cruel death in “Snort This.”
These poems hold hands, dancing around reoccurring themes, fingers interlaced tightly. For example, her daughter dreams of becoming one of the mermaids, who Canute Caliste says no longer “Lifted their heads to peep at him—bobbing like a handful of yellow sea roses on the surfs” (28).
Despite the unnaturally wild display of the sea with its mountain-mimicking waves in “After Hurricane Lenny, Carriacou,” despite the “maracas of gunshots,” “orisha of whirlwinds” and kicking the “rosary of fallen flamed blossoms” in the air, the dispossessed, like Juanito, sees the magic of the barrio, where “…sometimes Our Lady’s hair also moves, tossing like in a Clairol commercial” (15).
Klobah is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico. With the weight of Puerto Rico on her tilted hips, she starts her collection with a praying woman offering up her “wilted white bud” and ends it as a praying poet, speaking more to her daughter about a hope and future filled with more trees than the one El Cristo de Buen Viaje carried. She hopes for a place “above the flood plains, where after our terrible storms, only roosters cry” (85).
The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman
by Loretta Collins Klobah
Peepal Tree Press
Paperback, Poetry, pp 102.
Faizah Tabasamu (Rochelle Ward), is a leading St. Martin poet; high school teacher; and blogger. Her poetry appears in the anthology Where I See The Sun – Contemporary Poetry in St. Martin.)