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REVIEW: Fragments of a life, preserved in verse

Melinda Palacio recalls that when growing up in Los Angeles’ South Central barrio, she liked to write stories, poems and letters.

Her writing matured as she did and now, just a year after publication of “Ocotillo Dreams,” her widely acclaimed premiere novel, she has published her first book of collected poems, “How Fire Is a Story, Waiting.”

Many of Palacio’s marvelous poems are like fragments of stories, snapshots and letters, dreams and memories of her often-troubled childhood’s time and place.

“How Fire Is a Story, Waiting” by Melinda Palacio
Tia Chucha Press, $14.95, 107 pp.

In the book’s title poem, her grandmother dreamed of becoming a singer with her “deep, cinnamon stick voice,” but she “tucked/Mariachi dreams under her girdle” and sang only to her stove, where she made tortillas for her family of 13.

Palacio draws sad comparisons between the loose button eye of her ragged and beloved rabbit toy and her mother’s eye, bruised and swollen by Palacio’s abusive father.

She recalls her “porch days” on Ramona Street and the crowded house on Albany Street, where “three young lives were taken by bullets” and the unseen bogeyman Cucuy lurked like the derelicts that hid in the shadows of alleyway Dumpsters.

Eventually, Palacio’s writing carries her away from her barrio childhood, though her experiences there assure her that she won’t forget, and she remains an activist for Hispanic justice.

She travels to Panama, her father’s birthplace, seeking to discover why the man became a convicted criminal. In Mexico, she visits the blue house of Frida Kahlo, musing upon the pain Kahlo mixed with her paints.

New Mexico provides inspiration in a Mesilla sunset as a chill wind “floats briskly from the Organ Mountains” and a hot-air balloon at the Albuquerque fiesta drifts to the Earth, tethered in its landing “like a bear roped down to its last breath/until silk falls over.”

Palacio now divides her time between Santa Barbara, Calif., and New Orleans, both contributing inspiration to her unique vision as she continues to create vivid and perceptive portrayals of the characters, emotions and places that make up her world, a world well worth visiting.

Robert Woltman is an Albuquerque writer and poet.

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