Diana Anhalt, Second Skin, Reviewed by Peter Ludwin

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Diana Anhalt, Second Skin, FutureCycle Press, 2012, 30 pages, ISBN-10: 193885313X, ISBN-13: 978-1938853135, $9.95.

People who claim to hate poetry should read Diana Anhalt’s Second Skin, her loving bouquet to Mexico, where she lived for sixty years before moving back to the United States in 2010. Funny, irreverent, touching and easily accessible, this wonderful collection from a woman who never lost her Bronx accent invites, cajoles, embraces and seduces. Here the resplendent syllables of Spanish and Nahuatl flavor the poems like herbal seasonings, and the wacky, non-rational faces of Mexican culture adorn them like tendrils of bougainvillea.

This is a New Yorker talking, but a New Yorker tempered by lifelong exposure to Mexico’s rhythms, customs and warmth. The language by turns rushes and relaxes, and always at the heart of the poems one finds a passionate, generous spirit. You will look in vain here for obscure symbolism or Robert Bly’s damning indictment of “chill, competent workshop poems” with which he tarred a lot of what he had seen in contemporary poetry. Competent these poems are, certainly, but there isn’t a chill note to be found. The richest of them—“Mexico,” “Student Driver,” “To My Mover,” “Ode to Spanish,” “Nostalgia’s Map”—are among the most engaging and memorable poems I can remember.

Consider these opening lines from “Mexico”:

MEXICO,

mother of lopsided logic, defensive driving, the shrug, arrived on my doorstep
when I was eight, entered, trumpets blasting, rolling her Rs,
flashing a finger, and dancing a zapateo down my spine.

She had clouds in her pocket, mint on her breath, thunder in her bosom,
and a tongue to fold around words like Huitzilopochtli.

Or the delicious indignation that illuminates the true depth of her loss in “To My Mover”:

You claimed you could crate and ship anything:
forty-one paintings, the piano, dining room table,
a headboard (king-sized), Persian carpets,
an African family tree carved from ebony.

So what happened to the rest? My cargo
of Mexican clouds, for example, the view out
my window of wind flapping flags, sun riding
behind the volcanoes—they’re not on this invoice.

You’ve forgotten the bougainvillea, the cures for ague
and heartbreak sold in markets with the chilies
and carrots. What about the church bells, the mariachis?
Where are the taxicab rosaries, Guadalupe virgins,

bald infants in headbands and Saturday dresses,
wet-season rainbows, tortilla dough, mangos,
the colors—fuchsia, scarlet, raucous chartreuse?
Damn it! Why don’t you listen? I’m just getting started.
What the hell have you done with my friends?

At the front of the book is this marvelous quote from Graham Greene: “There is always a moment in childhood when a door opens and lets the future in.” With respect to Anhalt’s poems, this can be taken in at least two ways. First, as a foreshadowing of her family’s move to Mexico when she was a child of eight. But more resonantly, as a hint to where her true allegiances lie. For example, the second poem in the collection, “Why I Write in English,” could give a reader the misleading impression that for her Spanish and the incomparably rich flavors of Mexican life were primarily not only a stopgap, but not to be trusted as well:

Spanish, I thought, is what happens
if you pour your milk down the drain,
break promises, or step on pavement cracks.
I was wary and “Messico” was a place
I wouldn’t, in my lisping toothlessness, pronounce.

Spanish curdled my tongue,
turned me wordy, oblique, insincere.
With its treacherous Rs, languorous vowels,
devious music, each sound colliding
with the next, it yielded one unwieldy run-on word,
too big for my child-sized mouth.

She seems to clinch the argument in the last stanza of the poem:

Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)

The first line of that final stanza might suggest she speaks Spanish only because circumstances demand it, as if it were onerous, a burden. But any such notions arising from this poem are emphatically dispelled by the other poems in the book. For instance, in “On Time,” which appears two poems later, we share in her growing discovery as she listens to the radio:

XEQK grounded my Mexican minutes, grounded me.
1540 on the radio dial. I was a kid, a stranger to Spanish
In taxis, offices, homes without clocks, it reeled
out a music I couldn’t dance to, had yet to fathom.

Time pulsed through the airwaves, embraced me,
steadied me. Before the Philco in the foyer, I reveled
in its constancy and poetry as it pummeled home—
minute after minute—La hora exacta. The exact time.

Son las doce horas en punto followed by the gong’s
punctuation. Twelve o’clock sharp. Alka Seltzer jingles,
ads for Lovable brassieres, Refrescos Lulu, Cigarros
Delicados, Jardines de Florida bath soap (Naturalmente)

sandwiched between seconds. That around-the-clock chant
became my matins, vespers, compline: Sombreros Tartan,
Glostora para el pelo, Funeraria Gayosso, Victoria beer.
Veinte millones de Mexicanos no se pueden equivocar.

Twenty million Mexicans can’t be wrong.

Or consider the bold assertion of “Bred in the Bone,” how it draws a line in the sand and refuses to retreat even an inch:

I will never stop cursing in Spanish. Certain phrases—
vete al infierno, que carajo, valgame dios—lie in wait
beneath my tongue for when I crash the car, break my leg.

Here, in this English-speaking country, I still make love
in Spanish, pepper my conversations with Mexicanismos,
butt in on the chit-chat of Spanish-speaking strangers,

spout liquid vowels, saw the air, shrug my shoulders
and machine-gun Rs off the roof of my mouth. The sun
speaks to me in Spanish. So do church bells, guitars,

supermarket chilies. My dreams shadow the person
I once was, follow me home from mercado to plaza
and onto a street where the chiclet vendors loiter
as a horse trots by.

To appreciate most profoundly the depth of Anhalt’s love for the culture she left behind one must read “Ode to Spanish” and “Nostalgia’s Map,” which appear toward the end of the book. And it is certainly no coincidence that the last poem in the collection is “Possibilities,” which leaves no doubt concerning her allegiance and positions her precariously balanced between old life and new:

To live without fuchsia, January’s sun, Spanish,
smoke-spewing Popocatepetl, the night watchman’s
warning whistle, driving both ways on a one-way street
is impossible. But it’s who you are, not where you are.

I console myself with thoughts of starting anew:
the dough rising on a floured board, the first rung
of a ladder, Monday mornings, open doors. So what
am I waiting for? Fanfares announcing my entrance,

a gust of cold wind, fireworks, applause? No curtain
will rise on me now. I will never leave my footprint
in Atlanta’s wet concrete, nor carve my initials
on the trunks of its Chinquapin oaks. Poised

on the shoulders of my former self, I take a deep breath.
Prepare to plunge into tomorrow, a foreign territory.
Study its maps. Drive down Peachtree.

For anyone who knows Mexico, especially Mexico City, these poems will fit like an old familiar jacket. And for those who don’t, they are opening doors of welcome impossible not to step through.

© Peter Ludwin and Diana Anhalt

Peter Ludwin is the recipient of a Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust and the W.D. Snodgrass Award for Endeavor and Excellence in Poetry.  He was the 2007-2008 Second Prize Winner of the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Awards.  For the past twelve years he has been a participant in the San Miguel Poetry Week in Mexico, where he has studied under such noted poets as Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland, Joseph Stroud and Robert Wrigley.  His work has appeared in many journals, including The Bitter Oleander, The Comstock Review, Nimrod, North American Review and Prairie Schooner.  His first book, A Guest in All Your Houses, was published in 2009 by Word Walker Press.  His second, Rumors of Fallible Gods, was a Finalist for the Gival Press Poetry Award in both 2010 and 2011, and has been published by Presa Press.  He has been nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize.  Soundings Review named him the winner of its spring/summer 2011 Reader’s Choice award for his poem, “A Convocation of Crows.”   The Comstock Review designated his poem, “Trial of Compassion, Baker City, Oregon” a Special Merit Recognition recipient in the 2012 Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Awards Contest.  An avid traveler who has visited remote Indian families in the Ecuadorean Amazon, hiked in the Peruvian Andes, hitchhiked in Greece and bargained in the Marrakech market, he spent nearly a month in 2011 in China and Tibet. He lives near Seattle.

Diana Anhalt is a former resident of Mexico, having moved there from New York City with her family at age eight.  She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965  (Archer Books), poetry, and numerous articles, published in Mexico and the United States.  Second Skin, just released by Future Cycle Press, is her second book of poetry.

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