- Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners: Poems by Gwendolyn Zepeda
An esteemed writer mainly of fiction, Gwendolyn Zepeda has also earned her title as the first poet laureate of Houston in her debut book of poetry, Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners. Her direct, precise language breathes life into verse and prose [End Page 134] poems at once hardnosed and deeply affecting as she navigates the crosscurrents of her consciousness as a mixed-race single mother working in an office to support her children. Although we should bear in mind the ways that imprisonment metaphors can obfuscate the realities of actual incarceration, Zepeda artfully recounts the figurative, and markedly gendered, forms of confinement that she has experienced. Numbering among her “fellow prisoners” are officemates who barely find reprieve within the walls of an elevator or a bathroom stall; expectant mothers in the maternity ward; and even the stars of Girls Gone Wild, who appear to attempt an escape from degradation by pressing their exposed breasts against the television screen. Zepeda’s work exemplifies the capacity of poetry to examine the conflicts that come with being female, mixed-race, and lower-middle-class in repressive, masculine (and often white) social structures. Enthusiasts of lyric poetry should find much to enjoy in this collection, and even readers who do not prefer poetry can appreciate feeling dispirited yet invigorated by Zepeda’s candor and dexterity.
Mixed-race, and identifying as such, Zepeda’s poems peer through the lens of a sort of double-consciousness. “The Mexican in Me / The White in Me” demarcates a dual self along the lines of ethnicity, yet the key with this poem is that its two halves refuse to be separated. Listing out the various ramifications of being biracial, physiological and sociological, Zepeda attaches ethnicity to the implications of white privilege. She knows the white in her “Makes the cops listen to my side of the story” and “Makes you trust me at garage sales” (5). Zepeda’s anaphora, namely the repetition of the verb “makes,” conveys the coerciveness of the baggage that comes with cultural markers. Whether it is “being superstitious” on her Mexican side or “lov[ing] elves and dwarves” on her white side, racial distinctions become all the more coercive when pivoted against one another. “It makes you accuse me of using this half to get by,” she writes in both halves. Zepeda’s work diverges from the xicanisma politic of a writer like Ana Castillo, who discusses the precarious experiences of Mexican-American women marked with visible Amerindian traits. Nonetheless, Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners seems to converse with what Castillo calls “countrylessness” by depicting the impact of minimal representation of Chicana women in the middle-class workforce. “I Ruined My Work Shirt with Jack in the Box Taco Sauce” rightly asks, “How are we living if / our nutrients corrode us” because that which marks the speaker’s non-white ethnic identity, the “one dot of brown” spilled on her shirt and thus on her person, “makes a difference in how we’re perceived” (14). Zepeda compellingly registers her perception and perceptibility—the different ways she sees Houston and is seen in it.
Zepeda’s speaker often finds herself in cells constructed by a patriarchal social [End Page 135] order. The opening section, “Raised Catholic,” describes the constraints tightened by the theological underpinnings of her upbringing. Vigilant of doctrinal explications of women’s place, Zepeda explores what the logic of Catholicism and of male supremacy broadly has compelled her to feel, think, and do. The speaker in “A Locust A Hundred Feet Up” sees the title character “watching me through his / monster eye” (3). The male bug surveils from above as the speaker’s dread turns the grasshopper into a proxy of the Lord, “sent by God to teach me a lesson.” The panopticism of the Almighty’s pest-angel is empowered by a set of fears it generates and was already present in the speaker. In the remarkable “Prayer to a Man,” the speaker investigates the divine authority of...