torch song tango choir by Julie Sophia Paegle
(University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2010)
Julie Sophia Paegle’s torch song tango choir embodies the mystique and beauty of a curvaceous dancer’s body. The words mimic the footwork of dance, while declaring I have hips and thighs and a hand-shaped valley for my partner to grip my waist. Its matte green cover depicts two dancing feet, black heels blurry with motion, just as the poems reverberate off of the page, meaning encased in motion’s echo.
Although dedicated to her parents and grandparents, the collection also pays dedication and reverence to music, a bandoneón illustration sitting below the title page. torch song tango choir refuses to separate music from family from dance. Paegle pays homage to these themes as she plants these interconnected seeds to harvest throughout the collection. Deftly utilizing rhyme and enjambment, “Inside the Bandoneón” conveys a cadence so lilting it sways the body:
And now? Palm the moving hungers
that psalm dance halls sublime,
and pull: twilight’s when the fingers
follow in their own time.
Even grungier, edgier poems contain rhythmic elements like subtle rhyme and alliteration. Like an out of body experience, the language of a punk-rocker shocks everyone by tangoing in “Good-bye Love Song with Oil Painting by Randall Lake”: “I’ve been seeing your ghost, fleshed-out, Baroque--/unpuckering and unlucky Marlboro;/attempting ten red temples in your spiked mohawk--” Nabbed from the monochrome pages of a history text, “St. Iago de Campus Stellae” creates timelines that burst into vivacious, trippy art--a seductive hip-swaying salsa.
1999.9 Watershed of pilgrimage
routes. Cockleshells mark
the Pyrenees, converge; living rivers down mountains
move. Pilgrimage among pilgrims.
Silver censer alights.
Minimalistic in its punctuation and capitalization, this collection’s universality begs entrance. Unassuming and subtle, Paegle evinces her message most powerfully when she lets you believe it’s your own. Thinly typeset, torch song tango choir leaves intact the widest breadth of interpretation. The lack of punctuation encourages multiple readings--all in one tongue-flourished breath, or with an invisible comma placed in the divide. In “6. United States” larger spaces connote punctuation, but leave white space for meaning to swell within:
Unafraid no sham in white satin that day you almost died
smoking away your toothache beneath the palm tree
that came thrashing down just after Mac pushed you aside
and you songbird flew as the quake crashed the party
Repeating titles throughout the first section of the collection, Paegle reminisces of memorized dance steps, a steady 1,2,3--1,2,3--1,2,3 that spins and leads the collection forward. “Good-bye Love Song,” “Torch Song,” “Tanda,” “ Little Break” and “Paean” form the backbone of delicately adjusted titles. Inherently repetitive and mellifluous, the ghazal represents the music of language and the dance of tongues. In “Chessboard Ghazal” repetition and end rhyme commingle to render a beautiful reading fraught with corruption:
On our map of Aconcagua, red lines sunder a better name.
Rain on topo. Penned landslides plunder the better name.
Lightning runs the metropolitan air, then lingers on its aim.
Ciudad de Cúpulas, Buenos Aires. But thunder’s a better name.
Although peppered with Spanish, torch song tango choir doesn’t evoke a generalization of “bilingual artist” or “chicana poet,” terms that elicit too much abstraction and controversy. Instead, Paegle allies herself with Spanish, rich in rhythmic, harmonious lines. “La Primera Nieve” italicizes Spanish sections and the English phrases that frame them, emphasizing the unique intonation of Spanglish:
[...]Here song is different with air,
so the air itself must change--a Media Luz
los besos, a Media Luz los dos--the air
is a caress, a piropo is a stare;
ignore it, still it has its way with you. So
let them proposition.
Natural imagery abounds in several poems dotted throughout the collection. Mildly evocative of Lorna Dee Cervantes’ Emplumada, “Mussels” awakens the same raw, organic state.
obsidian, blue of compression,
blue of the fleck
and of flash-
cooled glass. We anchor,
volcanic and fast.
The sparse lines connote an immediacy and deliberate control to depict the uncomplicated yet painful consciousness of a mussel. Its shapeliness and dramatic enjambment leave more space for meaning and image to unfold and leap across the remaining three-quarters of the canvass-y page, maybe to salsa, tango, or simply sway to a primordial rhythm.
Emily Geris is a sophomore studying Creative Writing and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. This is her first poetry review, completed as a final project for Kristin Naca's Latina/o Poetics class. Inspired by myriad poets encountered in Professor Naca's class—such as Lorna Dee Cervantes and Francisco Aragón—she will continue reviewing poetry in the hopes of encouraging more people to engage with poets. She is currently working on a review of Laura Wetherington's A Map Predetermiend and Chance for a Literary Publishing class taught by Eric Lorberer, the editor of Minneapolis-based magazine Rain Taxi. She aspires to attend an MFA program after graduation and possibly teach creative writing workshops at the college level.