blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016

spacer There Should Be Flowers (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016)

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s second book, There Should Be Flowers, is a collection of poems uninterrupted by section breaks. What results is a cascade of powerful articulation, a raw and continuous lyric experience that leaves the reader feeling gutted. Espinoza’s poems—finely-wrought, unpretentious in their elegance, and consistently striking—center on her speaker’s experience as a trans woman in a world that insists on the erasure of trans voices. Espinoza’s poems implicate the reader, as any successful collection does, by inviting her into the speaker’s innermost reality. We feel, acutely and viscerally, the speaker’s struggle to navigate a world that rejects her, as in “Wrapped in My Body I Dream”:

Wrapped in my body I dream
of being something else

outside of time, space, energy,
love, death, gender, capitalism,

etc. Who could lift such a weight?”

But the collection also goes beyond empathy: it points to its own construction as a potentially futile attempt to enact change. In “Poem (Let Us Live),” Espinoza writes, “How long can I keep tricking you / into thinking what I’m doing / is poetry / and not me begging you / to let us live?” It immerses us in language, but it also demands that we as readers remember what’s truly at stake.

In There Should Be Flowers, much like in her first collection, i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House, 2014), Espinoza evokes the concurrent forces of beauty and suffering that often accompany the simple fact of being alive—particularly as a trans individual in a contemporary context. The collection wakes us up to our own bodies, no matter how we identify, and to the constructs that influence the ways we relate to our bodies. In “I’m in a Love/Hate Relationship with Having a Body,” she writes:

I’m in a relationship with having a body
and it’s complicated.

I’m in a long distance relationship
with having a body.

I try to imagine existing
in a body that makes sense.

What if my body becomes a cloud,
I’m always thinking.

Through Espinoza’s skillful use of repetition and whimsy, There Should Be Flowers reminds us that society—through words, through the gaze, through stereotyping and categorizing—creates (and erases) bodies. We collectively determine whether they are real or not, whether they are beautiful or not, and what they deserve. For Espinoza’s speaker, there is nothing to do but to speak back against this categorization, and thereby to survive. In “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops,” she writes, “The same violence swallows itself and produces bodies / and names for bodies // I name my body girl of my dreams / I name my body proximity / I name my body full of hope despite everything / I name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet.” Espinoza’s speaker arms herself against the violence of heteronormative language by naming her own body, by speaking her existence into a structure that seeks to keep her out.

The collection achieves intimacy with the reader without granting absolution. The poems penetrate the boundaries we typically erect between what is considered “normal” and “other,” suggesting, through their very efficacy, that poetry is the ultimate medium for queering the norm, for breathing into the spaces between, for speaking into a world that seeks to silence. Through image and sound, the poems invite us not merely to witness but to feel the tension that seems to define the relationship between the speaker, her body, and the outside world: “11 am. Time to wake up. // Muscles sore, jaw clenched, warm light // scattering dreams of violence across // the bedroom. I’ve chosen a self // too large for this body,” she writes in “Comfort.”

Espinoza also has a great gift for controlling the line—for direct, unencumbered, profound utterances lineated so as to land with both maximum impact and grace, as in the following excerpt from “Nature”:

I’m older than you realize. I’ve been
around for so long, you don’t even
know. I’ve been lapping up rain
water since forever ago. Since you first
heard me coming, I’d been alive
a million years before that  . . .

And yet, we are never lulled to sleep by the poems’ music. These poems are not merely beautiful; intimacy and empathy are not their only manifestations. Espinoza eschews abstraction by choosing unsparing clarity every time. In “Poem (Let Us Live),” she writes expressly, “I’m tired of abstraction. / No one says what they mean / and people die from it.” Instead, Espinoza gives us poems that sock us in the gut, that drop readers into a purgatorial space we might not have otherwise encountered. In “It Was Supposed to Rain,” she writes, “It was supposed to rain today / I was supposed to be born a girl / There were supposed to be people / who loved you / for the simple fact that you exist.”

There Should Be Flowers insists upon keeping the reader off-balance. Just as we are asked to consider our own role in the discrimination Espinoza’s speaker faces on a daily basis, we are also asked to consider our relationship to language. By asking us to engage these questions without ever straying into didacticism, the collection achieves something quite radical. Just when we begin to get carried away in a poem’s music, Espinoza’s speaker in “Meaningness” alters our course with this take on language: “I no longer believe in words. // I believe in their power / but not their truth . . .” Just when we begin to think this book exists for us alone, or for the simple pleasure of poetry, we’re reminded, in “Wind Poem #1,” of the urgency behind its construction:

All of this labor is like some kind of prayer
to prove I deserve to exist in these spaces
to prove I deserve to exist in space
to prove I deserve to exist . . .

There Should Be Flowers has the ingredients required for enacting real change in the world: empathy (as achieved through affective language) and discomfort. The collection evokes feelings of both grief and gratitude for the honesty of Espinoza’s voice—for its eloquent and legitimate demand that we all begin to look critically at ourselves, to scrutinize what we take for granted.  end

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is the author of the poetry collections There Should Be Flowers (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), and I’m Alive / It Hurts / I Love It (Boost House, 2014). Her poems have appeared in The Feminist Wire, PEN America, The Offing, and elsewhere. She won a 2017 Pushcart Prize for her poem “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops.”

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