Save the Bathwater by Marina Carreira. Get Fresh Books. $20.00
Every year, the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, brings together poets from a variety of backgrounds to share their work as it was originally intended to be shared—out loud, in front of an audience. Dodge would be remarkable if only for this. But it is notable, as well, for honoring the artistic legacy of its host city—home of Amiri Baraka, among other great writers—by offering a stage and a microphone to some of its most exciting young authors. Prominent among these presentations was a panel by a talented assembly of local writers called Brick City Voices, presented by Newark-based poet Marina Carreira. As a founder of the laudable Newark reading series Brick City Speaks, she was sharing her work in that city, as well as celebrating the publication of her debut full-length collection.
Carreira’s Save the Bathwater, released this spring by Get Fresh Books, is a compelling and melancholy innervision from a tremendously promising poet. It rewards its readers the first time they open it, but even more so upon a second or a third reading. The carefully wrapped nature of the collection feels intentional in its construction, a result of the author’s quiet use of repetition. Save the Bathwater also has a recursive character well-suited to the subject of most interest to its author, namely memory. Carreira is a close study. She would agree that the particular circumstances of remembering alter the facts of that memory; they can repitch the melody of an old song, or alter the eye color of a distant relative. Memories are reflective—in Carreira’s words, like “pools of April rain on a sunny rooftop”—they direct the light of the present moment back at us without relinquishing the past.
Carreira is unabashed in her love of the past, and certain characters from it in particular. Perhaps the most prominent among these are her grandparents, whom she refers to mischievously as Avó and Avô (Portuguese for grandmother and grandfather). Through clever code switching, Carreira highlights the interchangeability of love and, once again, its reflective, mirrored nature. As the reader delves further into this deeply felt collection—progressing from the first section to the fourth—one becomes better acquainted with its confident, highly visual author, who insists, despite the pain, on examining the deep wells of mourning that preoccupy her narrators and suffuse the melodies of these poems; for instance, the poem “Madrugada,” compares mourning with morning because “love is a homonym.”
“Madrugada,” or twilight, is just one of several moments where the lyrical beauty of the Portuguese provides depth and warmth to the writing. Poems like “Saudade,” “Os Velhinos,” “Caracóis,” and “Azeite” remind us of the dual worlds at the root of this author’s sensibility—American versus Portuguese, mother versus father, love versus pain. Carreira uses the tension behind these conflicts to deftly drive the narrative forward; it is a charming, sad, and frequently joyful story of a child who pledges to herself never to forget her roots. Carreira’s language demonstrates her fierce dedication to this pledge.
In “The First Memory I Have of My Father,” she describes being dragged, as a small child, by her mother to a bar in a search of her father. Upon locating him, a drunken patron lurches forward to make a pass at her mother. Her father strikes the man in the face, breaking his nose and spattering blood on the speaker’s collar in the process. “At seven, the stain was proof,” Carreira concludes. “Love / No matter how much my mother scrubbed, the damned blood / never came off.” True to her word, she makes sure that we encounter the motif of blood again and again.
The narrator—often remembering herself as a child—learns life lessons through violent sensory means: her father’s hand, her grandfather’s curses, and her mother’s dramatic tears (“I learned how to cry watching my mother love my father: / Redden the face first, bellow out until lungs collapse…”). But she always seems to return to blood as a symbol of heritage, as in the poem “Bloodlines,” where Carreira claims ownership of what courses through her granddaughter’s veins, the same granddaughter who writes a poem “to remember me, to remember it all—/ Luso ancestry, roots through / my future great-granddaughter’s bones.”
“Bloodlines” employs numbered sections, one of Carreira’s favored devices, to divide the poem into a triptych. She uses time and place to distinguish each, taking us from her adolescence in Portugal to early adulthood in New Jersey to the present moment. In the first, the adolescent version of Carreira feels shame about her body—not the first time we encounter, in heartbreaking fashion, the painful self-consciousness of a young narrator—while, at the same time yearning for physical connection. She wants “a God-fearing man,” but she observes that a young neighbor of hers is “a pretty boy.” The end of this section is marked by the advent of menstruation, a hallmark of maturity that doubles as a sign of heritage and hardship. While the neighbor boy collects the material possessions that “make for a good life,” the menstrual signature on the speaker’s bed sheets “promises thorns no bread or gold can dull.” The concrete trappings of health and prosperity are conflated with the promise of a bright future, but “blood,” in all its multi-layered meaning, complicates the simple promise of “bread or gold.” Profoundly, for Carreira, this duality echoes the divided heart of the Portuguese immigrant community in America—one heart striving and struggling forward in its quest for material security and the American Dream, while the other looks backward toward an idealized past that continues to drift further and further out of reach with the passage of time.
In the second section of “Bloodlines,” we cycle forward through time and space to Newark, where the speaker is working at a hotel and living in a rented one-bedroom on Market Street with her two children. A litany of images accompanies the shift: “trailer horns honk, factory smoke, / a bloody spur, construction workers’ brandied laughter.” Carreira taps our senses, dropping us alongside her, directly into a scene of grit and dissonance. The importance of labor is foregrounded by the “factory smoke” and the speaker’s job working as a “maid at the Ramada.” Implicit in the scene is the constant struggle to make a living in an environment that feels resistant and confrontational. Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, a “bloody spur” reminds us of the promise of the past.
Completing the triptych, Carreira takes us forward to the present moment and paints a domestic tableau in warm colors. Her granddaughter:
sits in my kitchen
and considers the importance of bloodlines, waits
for words to pop like champagne grapes
Blood from my veins into her veins
Until we are both blue with life
The poem takes a decidedly hopeful turn, moving from the brash sensory palette of hard labor to the dignity of language and its importance to the family’s modern Luso-American identity. The poet chooses to illuminate a scene that crosses generations via time and space. Speaker and granddaughter are united by “bloodlines” and by the magical ability of language—both English and Portuguese, “love and its homonym”—to bridge these chasms in an instant.
Carreira’s Portuguese-American heritage and her upbringing in the rough-scrabble Ironbound neighborhood of Newark are the foundation undergirding much of the spiritual and sensory magic of this collection. The prose poem “First Generation” paints an alliterative portrait of a Portuguese migrant community that acts as a comforting ballast in times of strife and adversity. “We are the tame horses wild with lovedreams, galloping past streets, states, oceans,” she writes, assuming a communal voice. “We land in adolescence We never come of age.” Wild animals, coins, fruit, and hands permeate these poems, each motif pointing in its own way to the conflicted nostalgia inherent in the author’s Luso American identity. She compulsively daydreams about her early years in a small community in Portugal, even as the dreams echo and inform her American present. Sometimes this happens explicitly, as in “Summers in Fanhais,” where she imagines herself as a bee investigating the sweet juice of one of Avô’s oranges:
Whirling about the garden, the nectar
of sunflowers on my tongue, my hum-buzz
The only way I know to say I am here
Save the Bathwater can be read as a heartfelt love song to the Portuguese diaspora in all its flawed glory. It is worthy of readers’ attention, no matter what their creed or origins.
Max Gray’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in Encounters, Mount Hope, Conte, and Jelly Bucket. His criticism has appeared in The Rumpus. You can hear his voice on the etymology podcast Words for Dinner, which he co-hosts with the poet Michael VanCalbergh.
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