Belinda and Her Friends
by Puma Perl
Erbacce Press 2008
A Review by Marjorie Tesser
Puma Perl’s Belinda, protagonist of the chapbook Belinda and Her Friends, is a beauty. “belinda’s long slow features make young men burn…” She’s also a Puerto-Rican American single mother; her friends are hustlers and drug addicts, denizens of New York’s Lower East Side. Their stories are told matter-of-factly, with humor and compassion, in this chapbook of free-verse poems.
Perl has a Bukowski-like eye for the telling detail, a highly developed sense of irony, and an unflinching attitude toward the disturbing, the offensive, and the tragic. Yet, the folk who inhabit this world are no Damon Runyon-esque caricatures, nor are they sad-sack New York Times Neediest Cases. Perl resists clichÃ© and shorthand to deliver these characters in all of their human complexity, painting her scenes sparely, with a minimum of fuss. In “belinda tells a story,” Belinda is sitting on the park bench with her friends, explaining how she became pregnant again by the father of her older son, after a night of drugs and violence.
“and guess what, his old lady’s pregnant too
i saw her at the welfare, she didn’t say anything
he’s still got her out on the street too
at least he respects me too much for that
he came around yesterday, he bought jojo that jacket
well he probably stole it but so what
daddy bought you that coat, right jojo?
yeah it’ll be all right, at least they all have the same father
cocoa, I don’t mean anything, mama you know that
your kids are beautiful, god bless them
all the kids are beautiful, we’re all beautiful”
Many of the poems, even when begun in third person, revert to this conversational style, as if these characters, long ignored by society, when finally given a voice, can’t stop talking. In “jojo’s leg,” the poem opens with a scene of Belinda cleaning house.
“belinda smoked kools and washed dishes
ashes dropped on cracked white cups
i’ve cleaned till i can’t clean no more she said…”
The reason for the cleaning soon becomes apparent.
“the bcw lady’s gonna come tomorrow, belinda said.
that bitch can sniff around all she wants
she ain’t gonna smell nothing but pine sol and my ass
cause all i’m doing is cleaning this damn house…”
Belinda ‘s son is taken away by social services after his leg is broken; he’d been close to falling out the apartment window when, as Belinda explains, she “grabbed his little leg and I pulled him in, I saved him/then I heard the crack…”
But Belinda is determined to get her child back. “i’m gonna do all that laundry, make the bed/wash the floor again, they’ll see it all clean and sparkling/ and give me my kid back that i almost died having…”
In many ways, Perl writes poems in the role of journalist. (She has likened her poetic territory to that of Diane di Prima). With her style of minimal intervention, standing back and letting her characters do the talking, the writer unflinchingly depicts the harsh realities of the lives blighted by poverty and drugs; her characters rush about in sudden surges of optimism and energy, only to subside to a lethargy induced by substance abuse and hopelessness. Yet the prevailing tone is not one of despair, but of resiliency.
“on new year’s eve day
belinda discovered a red dress
in the back of her closet
that almost matched her
red suede boots that sort of matched
a red vinyl purse someone gave her
she found a bright red lipstick
called for judy who wasn’t there
cousin willie was alone
drinking rum from a big bottle
they killed half of it and she left…”
The night ends on a note of misplaced optimism.
“belinda staggered around
in her bright red glory
imagining herself draped across
a grand piano like in the movies
she watched on her little tv
she’d have stockings without rips
all her reds would match
ima hook it up this year she thought
this is gonna be my year ”
What stands out from the devastating accounts of use and abuse, the realities of living from welfare check to welfare check, hustling to get by, and chronicles of real pain, are some glowing stars–friendship, romance, maternal love, a moment to shine.
Puma Perl recently won the Erbacce Press prize for her chapbook; her full length collection, knuckle tattoos, was released in March, so we can look forward to more raw, real, readable, poems from this wonderful poet.