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When Rosa Alcalá writes of “catastrophes” in MyOther Tongue, she speaks to individual and collective challenges alike. Every catastrophe is educational, even if such an assertion risks sentimentality. Perhaps these poems are most frequently concerned with depicting the development of skills in response to urgent or unexpected circumstances.
Alcalá writes fondly of the concept of skill in poems that, at times, echo Seamus Heaney’s well-known work “Digging” (1966). In the latter’s poem, his “squat pen rests; snug as a gun”; after considering his father’s dexterity with a shovel in working the potato harvest, he concludes “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” While Heaney’s poem considers a male gaze oriented toward a working father, Alcalá’s work considers primarily a female gaze on a maternal subject. Yet both poets admire the laboring parental body while admitting their own estrangement from the life of manual labor. Alcalá considers the notion of skilled labor as protection from devastation, only this protection is always temporary. She thereby exposes the seductive and American bootstrapper ideology as dangerously limited. Written from the perspective of the adult child who has entered the middle class, these poems swell with gratitude as well as guilt. Myths that served and also crushed the prior generation are now obsolete, but the speaker still feels bad about having a good job. She has left her mother’s world behind.
MyOther Tongue offers up an elderly mother’s particular, business-like attributes for consideration in an extended meditation on her work ethic. But what does this potentially troubling phrase “work ethic” mean? It could be invoked as praise, but it just as likely might be a classist judgment, offering coded language for knowing one’s place in the hierarchy. For this speaker, who is pulled just as strongly toward the life of the body as to the life of the mind, which she has chosen to pursue, the conflict between the two paths can be difficult to negotiate.
Alcalá’s poetry narrates this conflict through the forms of the mothering and laboring body, whose knowledge is written in its muscles. The poem “My Body’s Production” illustrates a kinship between Alcalá and poet-journalist-novelist Muriel Rukeyser, whose incorporation of transcribed testimony in The Book of the Dead and elsewhere prefigures documentary poetics as we understand it in the United States, by folding into its form a brief, italicized question-and-answer. Testimony on textile factory working conditions and symptoms of illness looms beside description of the speaker’s bodily changes due to birth and breastfeeding in Alcalá’s poem. Breastfeeding is, of course, work, but also makes the body a factory. “My body’s / a carder / a spinner // a crusher of blood seeds / and milk-thread miller,” she writes, framing the parallel gendered labor scenarios across generations and domains. Must work by definition deplete our bodies, make us sick? The body’s creation of breast milk meets an urgent need, and its automatic (though not necessarily easy) production mirrors the troubled fantasy of the assembly line as site of streamlined efficiency. We can be mechanical. Our work can be natural.
The speaker in this collection often wonders if she’s made a mistake by living so differently than her mother. Her disorientation is quite intuitive since she represents hinge between her aging mother and newborn daughter, constantly looking both forward and back, at birth and death. The poem “Questionnaire” begins by asking: “Who has taken my place / and sits you // on the toilet?” In comparing herself to the paid home health aide who assists her elderly mother, the speaker uses the possessive pronoun to reveal her complexity of emotion. Her self-doubt, though, arises not only in the context of gendered family relationships, but also as a worker and what Joy Castro calls a class jumper. The poem later asks: “But for the grace, whose // work is closer in range to who / you were? I am busy at // nothing…” A beautiful expression of gratitude, “there, but for the grace of God, go I” captures humbly the understanding that whatever the circumstances of the statement’s subject, the speaker might easily have occupied the same position. The expression is especially fitting for this speaker, whose roles are already in tension with one another. We can see her uncertainty in “I am busy at nothing,” measuring her skills against what’s at stake in healthcare work and other physical labor. The kind of work one does sitting down, or with the mind, is easy to dismiss in the face of human suffering and the labor performed to alleviate it. Yet intellectual labor is the territory of this speaker, and her task is to reconcile herself with the path she’s chosen. This is the life of the class jumper, who must scramble to maintain multiple identities and, sometimes, fail in her performance.
One could dedicate a great deal of time puzzling over how money is so often both the problem and the solution in our lives. Alcalá’s work suggests, ultimately, that there must be a spiritual dimension to life, an intangible value system, because the tangible is so clearly inadequate. In a longer poem, “The 11th Day of Occupy Wall Street,” ideological positions come together in the same messy way that bodies occupy and pass through the commons with one another. She writes, circularly, “The plot is / money. Money’s / the plot,” referring reflexively to the poem itself, which goes on to define money many ways. In the chorus of definitions, the speaker is implicated as well, as a section of the poem describes the act of paying her housekeeper cash immediately after a section about an enterprising male “sonneteer” who creates a work titled “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street.” In the moment between these two sections, we can see what it can offer up to us: hot chicks or a clean toilet.
MyOther Tongue is a collection that reflects individually as it critiques systematically, advancing a point of view with the understanding that, while there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, ethics might still be worth a try. Here we are living in the future already.