Saint Julian Press, Inc.
REVIEWED BY Jennifer Morales
FUEGO, Leslie Contreras Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, is, as its title (“fire” in Spanish) suggests, a sprawling and hungry force. The poems, like the flames of a well-fed fire, arc widely, touching many topics. Schwartz, a mother of young children, writes about the limits and wonders of the pregnant body, about the fruits of labor — whether it be a tomato from the garden, a baby, or a poem — and about the struggles of children to assimilate to the confining world of adults. Several of the poems are ekphrastic responses to the photography of Amy Blakemore, who uses cheap equipment and highly refined developing techniques to make portraits that are rich in palette but often hazy in form. Others celebrate the daring and lonely feats of legendary endurance swimmer Lynne Cox.
It was this latter set of poems that tipped me off to Contreras Schwartz’s theme of boundaries —of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, of unreachable shores, about the thick margin between being a writer and being a mother. “The Swim to Antarctica,” portrays Cox in her struggle to force herself to swim through 22-degree waters: “… her own voice breaking through to say what she/always/wanted to say to the body/you are owned, not owner …” In “Long-Distance Swimming,” the poet considers the teenaged Cox’s advance toward the unknowable land of adulthood: “… a lighthouse/rising to meet her on some continent,/some mainland she doesn’t have a name for yet.”
Contreras Schwartz’s poems alternately attempt to acknowledge and obliterate these boundaries, giving FUEGO a tug-of-war rhythm — fierce resistance followed by rest for the next hard pull. This struggle/rest rhythm feels apt for a book that includes many pregnancy and childbirth poems, mimicking as it does the pattern of labor contractions.
Even with all this back-and-forth, the threat of engulfing stillness is always present. One can sense a fear of inertia — a swimmer suddenly swallowed by the sea, a writer who loses the thread of a poem. In “The Falcon,” the life of a bird of prey is hemmed in by injuries, and the bird, in its flightlessness, has become a useful educational display for schoolchildren. Many poems deal with the stillness of the mother-body, while on bed rest or on the operating table during a c-section, or while endlessly breastfeeding a newborn.
The poet pushes back against that stillness in the title poem, “Fuego,” insisting that “This is not/a woman, sitting in a room/writing. It is a woman/whose hair has grown/wild fire, melting every/frozen moment in her house.” Later, in “Gardening,” one of my favorite poems in the book, she welcomes it: “… We all/need retreat, to rest, to feel/sometimes that it will come to us/by itself, a heavy plate that/says this is all yours.”
Contreras Schwartz celebrates the small triumphs of children against the strictures of adulthood. “My Daughter Sees Clouds” is one of the most powerful poems in the book, speaking of a child’s growing agency in the world as she gives names to the forms she sees in the sky. This self-granted authority to label the clouds is in high contrast to the rest of her day, a day governed by others: “… Everybody’s hands/pull and push her/into seats and halls, into lines and restrooms,/down to sleep and wakefulness. …”
She also quietly revels in women’s power to bring forth life while simultaneously bucking narrow world views that say that a woman’s value lies in her reproductive capacity. In “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby,” a found poem, she cleverly satirizes critiques of “Women who wish to run./Free-” levied by the plaintiffs in the infamous birth control coverage case.
Although the language in FUEGO is occasionally burdened with some unproductive repetition (e.g., many things in these poems“bloom” or are “tiny” or “deep”), there are moments of true transcendence. As a fellow mother/poet, I’m grateful for Contreras Schwartz’s passionate exploration of those opposing hemispheres of identity.
FUEGO is Contreras Schwartz’s debut. I hope more of her creative flame is going to burst out of the writer’s room soon.
Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. She is the author of Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 Book of the Year selection. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Glass Poetry Journal’s special edition, Pulsamos: LGBTQ Poets Respond to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Kenning Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Stoneboat, and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the Driftless Writing Center in rural Wisconsin.