Brilliant and startling, Noriega’s poems deliver ‘kiss-the-canvas, one-two punch’

BOOK REVIEW
name-me-noriega
By ELIZABETH IANNACI

Kim Noriega’s debut collection, Name Me, is unflinching in its honesty and breathtaking in its straightforward approach. These 11 poems are written with such startling lack of guile, one could almost miss Noriega’s brilliance in crafting them.

The book is a journey that takes the reader from womb to rebirth, and the title suggests that it’s been gestating for some time. The first 10 poems examine the seminal relationships of the speaker, presenting them so skillfully that they become archetypical. “If You Took a Kirlian Photograph of Your Womb” addresses the speaker’s mother. ” Heaven, 1963″ is a description of her father from a favorite photo taken at a more innocent time. This segues perfectly into the next piece, “The Sky, My Father,” an anaphora:

My father, my Kick-the-Can-Prince …

… my two-tone Rustoleum—
silver and black—Pinto,
painted with a brush,

… my Happy Days
in the black naugahyde recliner…

… my patron saint
of holey clothes, my leisure suit

Noriega’s choice of detail allows the piece to serve as a time capsule cataloguing an era, as well as her memory of the man.

“Postcard to My Sister from the Rue de Turenne, Paris, 2006” is a prose piece:

It’s gray again and I feel I could do anything today; gray takes the edge off, softens the world,
makes me feel invisible, invincible, on the bench beneath a canopy of old poplar, eating pain au
chocolat, shooing sooty pigeons from my feet.

With an economy of words, Noriega takes the reader to a Paris street, and a brief reminiscence of the times two sisters shared in their youth. It’s lovely. So I was surprised that, at the end, the writing made me catch my breath:

A young woman has just ridden by
on a bicycle, long brown hair, silk scarf, pedals tucked in the arches of black stilettos—
oh Dawn, for a moment I thought it was you.

Many of the poems have multiple parts, like “What I Remember,” which is an unvarnished account of a teenager’s encounter with the devastation of love:

and what does a young girl know of love?

What does anyone know of the open palm
her small world rests upon?

The hand poised
to turn that world upside-down,
and shake it,

to see the snow fall like stars.

Its ending knocks the reader onto the ropes. This occurs throughout the slim volume—suddenly, Noriega delivers a powerful, kiss-the-canvas, one-two punch. Occasionally, she just slips in a reference to some calamitous event and moves on, as in “The Betrayal of Stardust,” a clever pun of a title:

I was sixteen—still half wild myself—when my parents let me buy her with the money
I’d inherited when my grandfather killed himself.

Each intensely personal piece seems to exude a will of its own, daring the reader onward. Noriega demonstrates an expert facility in the layout of these poems; most have a lot of white space on the page, allowing the reader time to absorb the impact and breathe rather than becoming overwhelmed.

There’s a wonderful progression from one piece to the next: love for an infant daughter sullied by fears of and for her husband in “The Light of Day;” emotional terror made tangible by a 25 caliber pistol in “In the Presence of God, or Something;” and physical abuse in the stunning six-part “Viola d’Amore,” which contains the epigraph: “A fretless instrument with six or seven strings and a second set of / ‘sympathetic strings’ that are not played but are made to vibrate by the first set.” It begins:

1. Domestic Violins

I did that on purpose—
gave this section a cheeky title—
to get your attention.

And get our attention she does:

Your equilibrium’s failing,
you fall, often
run into things
with your face.

There are beautifully provocative line breaks throughout. Though the language is typical of Noriega’s direct, unembroidered style, it has fluidity akin to music. Again, there’s that gut-punch. Part six astonishes in its clarity and its in-your-face truth. I’d quote from it but you need to read it. Everyone needs to read it. As a woman, I need it to be read.

This brings the reader to the title poem, “Name Me,” a persona piece that begins with an epigraph from Convicted Survivor: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill by Elizabeth Ann Dermody Leonard. Told from the point-of-view of a woman convicted of murdering her abusive husband, it’s an anaphora that leaves no horrible stone unturned:

Name me the woman you love

to get up against the wall
and fuck with your .38…

Name me the mother of children
who will never be safe.

Laid out in tight little stanza chunks, it jack-hammers its two-and-a-half pages into the depths of the speaker’s psyche and the solar plexus of the reader.

“Ascension Suite” is an almost magical and deeply moving poem. It’s the final piece in the collection and bears a dedication for Ernie. Noriega spreads the poem across the page like a picnic and takes us to “I. Austrian Meadow” where there are … “dangerous flowers / gone wild / in the gypsy-moonlight” and

II. The Black Forest

Comes the girl
who abandoned the trees
for the ax man.

Comes the blaze
to burn them
all
to ash…

And she
is no easy phoenix …

Ascension Suite ends with these lines:

All these years,

it was you,
who asked the trees to call me.

It was you, beloved
who taught the trees

my name.

The speaker may be no easy phoenix, but phoenix she is—the poem ends in joy, promise and a restoration of spirit. It should be no surprise that Name Me ends with those two words, as this is a scrupulously crafted work.

Noriega’s fearless writing conveys a longing forged from pain and betrayal, her own and that of those she cares for, yet never loses sight of what she has, nor of her hope for what is yet to be.

Elizabeth Iannaci is a widely published and anthologized Los Angeles-based poet. She earned a master of fine arts in poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and was a finalist for the 2009 New Letters Literary Award.


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