Be it the compact prose of Bernard Cooper and EB White, the lyrical fragments of Guy Davenport and Italo Calvino, or the short stories of Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore, the short form is often like that solemn member of the family who, when she speaks, garners great attention for her self-restraint, brevity and, perhaps, wisdom.
Poets who turn to prose often gravitate to this petit-four style of writing--small, dense literary bits minimally decorated, individually packaged. Readers may savor one piece at a time, or ravish the whole book in one sitting.
Demetria Martínez is one such poet. In her fourth book, Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana, Martínez doesn't publish another book of poems or a novel, but instead collects 54 short essays in 160 pages for Volume 4 of the Chicana and Chicano Visions of the Américas Series. Martínez's essays are often culled from her previous contributions to the National Catholic Reporter, World Literature Today, The Progressive, The Arizona Republic and Sojourners Magazine.
As Martínez advises budding novelists in the essay, "Pointers," "When in doubt, go to a store with a fine collection of fiction and browse for hours. Find the slenderest volumes and rest assured: Telling the truth does not always require many words." Martínez takes her advice by rendering a dense, politically charged read that focuses on Columnas Privadas, Columnas Culturas, Columnas Catolicas, Columnas Fronteras and Columnas en Tiempos de Guerra.
Citing influences as diverse as George Orwell, Eduardo Galeano and Joni Mitchell, Martínez meditates on the power and exclusivity of language in "Critical Mass," discusses the names we give ourselves versus the names others call us in "Invocation" and "Birth Day," and explores the artificiality and brutality of borders in "Betrayals."
Her title essay "Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana" is excellent. The essay chronicles the shame the narrator initially feels at not being able to speak Spanish and turns her fumbling into a thing of beauty: "We are ashamed, for something precious shattered under our watch. And we are determined. We want our children to achieve a fluency we still struggle for."
Martínez's fluency in exploring hot-button topics such as religion, health care, abortion, immigration policy and racism in a meaningful and fresh way is best demonstrated by her essay "Field of Greens." What begins as a typical journey around a grocery store ends as a razor-sharp, poignant look at the people who frequent gourmet, organic grocery stores in contrast to neighborhood mom-and-pops. In search of kale, Martínez investigates immortality and the socioeconomics of groceries as she laments the limitations of dietary supplements: "The difference between the people who shop at Wild Oats in the northeast heights and those who shop at La Familia in the south valley is that the latter know they're going to die anyway." There's a bittersweet wisdom inherent in Martínez's writing that makes such reflections surprising and exciting. Martínez interrogates the everyday with wit, yes, but also with a sincere desire to understand why people make the choices they do.
While the short form highlights Martínez's humor and playful associative leaps, the form occasionally trivializes the heft and importance of the topics she covers. For instance, in a "Call to Arms," Martínez discusses the danger she feels when she tries to find enough arms to carry groceries, Mace, a mini flashlight, a fake cell phone and keys. What starts as a promising look at what many women fear in the short, dark walk from their cars to their front doors, quickly dissolves into a trite, concluding bon mot: "Evolution short-changed us again: We have no eyes in the backs of our heads." In her defense, Martínez sets the reader up for this ending, but the clichéd conclusion inadvertently makes light of domestic violence. While the reporter in me wants to fault the limitations and space of newsprint, the writer in me knows that some of Martínez's conclusions are drawn too quickly and are too pat, too cute to add something new to ongoing conversations.
But Norman Mailer, Sandra Cisneros and Clarissa Pinkola Estés would most likely disagree with such criticism. All three endorse Martínez on the back of her book. I understand why: Martínez writes for real audiences and not just the literati about issues that are important and need to be addressed and discussed, again and again. As she writes in "When in Doubt," "You write because you are so human." Martínez's humanity is her saving grace--it's what makes me very sure that she is one of those members of the literary family whose brevity is in fact a source of wisdom and insight.