Childhood as Presence: A review of Fuego
Fire is a progressive state of matter. In Fuego, Leslie Contreras Schwartz understands fire’s work, not in the aftermath, but in the burning. If smoke is evidence of the beginning and ash testifies to the result, flame itself hangs between. Similarly, in Fuego, childhood is not a fixed state. Whether Schwartz is examining the bodily experience of bearing children, the remembered experience of her own childhood, her present relationship to children, or stories and images of children, they’re presented in continuity. Like fire, childhood exists in a state between, an on-going place where experiences merge and are made from what’s being consumed.
Schwartz’s poetic voice offers the deep interiority of a woman alone with her thoughts. Her poems become, by extension, mind-like spaces: a persistent present where chronologies converge and awareness expands. Thus, the mother of the poem, with the juxtaposition of a line break, can also be the child, as in “Nursling:” “You smell of light, / of faint dawn / and deep hard-to-wake me/cries….” Yet, the same speaker is also a daughter, as seen in “Train Pantoum,” where she asks, “How to be her daughter, / and your mother, both, on this train.” Within themselves, these speakers have access to all the identities they have formed throughout life. Thus, being a child is knowable from the experience of being a daughter, which informs being a mother, ad infinitum, in a self-referential loop. Like fire, experiences the mind consumes transform, become indivisible, each part of the speaker’s singular awareness.
Throughout the volume, personal narrative, ekphrastic poems (literary responses to visual works of art), and poems of witness intermingle, and a sense of childhood’s continuity emerges. This collapsing of experience reaches its zenith in “Swing,” which considers photographer Amy Blakemore’s image of two boys swinging:
To praise them is to remember our own childhoods,
cast in grays, drowned in black where there is no memory,
fixed forever in the promise of a child’s swinging body.
Praise children, the rise and fall of their bodies
cutting a swath of light in the dark.
Praise their fall.
Everything, even the light, seeking to cover them.
Schwartz understands that the past is neither static nor linear; it is suspension and convergence.
Schwartz’s sense of “between” is reinforced by her formal choices. She’s judicious in her use of first-person speakers, favoring second- and third-person poems where the particulars are so intensely observed that the observer seems to linger just outside frame. In “New Mother at the Mall,”
Doors slide open, electric hush.
Nothing to touch
except the handle of the stroller.
Not even the baby, who is sleeping in her nest
warm and fleshy with no end or definition,
her radiant need.
That tension between the poem’s third person speaker and the author’s palpable presence unites the reader, writer, and speaker in the poem’s expansive, eternal present. Other poems use atypical white space within the line, as in “Song of Bed Rest,” where “Bed, a season passes / in the is and is not of a single / room.” This visual break embeds suspended passage within the reading experience, literally causing the reader to make connections across the void mid-line. Schwartz deploys the technique again in “Aaban” and “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby” to create powerful moments of rupture. She also makes use of pantoums, a form that mingles new and recycled lines from stanza to stanza, culminating in a final stanza created entirely from repeated parts. The volume’s opening poem, “Labor Pantoum,” resolves,
Baby, now you are born into this surge, a wild
search of dirt paths and bayous. You are a signal
sent back to the world, the hand
I held in the air, the shadow it made in the dusk
as I held onto the handlebar with the other hand, a signal to myself
that I can conjure something out of barely.
Shadows and dusk.
Climbing, all my legs, your hands.
This form is sustained by progressive consumption. Lines are left behind, used up from stanza to stanza, yet they persist across the form, required to sustain the whole. The final stanza is the merger—of content and form—where the past is present as earlier lines are given new meaning, and readers watch the youthful bike rider’s hand reach through shadows to conduct her baby’s climb.
As poet and mother, Schwartz stands witness to childhood, the progressive transformation that makes as it consumes. Yet, Schwartz understands children, as poet Denise Low says, “not as nostalgia but, rather, as imagery that evokes the ongoing experience of childhood…not recall[ing] the past; they nurture its continuing presence.” Schwartz utilizes this knowledge to create poetry of intense observation. In Fuego, childhood is not merely for children. The fire of experience, of creation, is complex, continual work that collapses neat categories and delineations.