EILEEN TABIOS Engages
The Speed of our Lives by Grace C. Ocasio
(BlazeVOX Books, Kenmore, N.Y., 2014)
There’s a freshness to Grace C. Ocasio’s The Speed of our Lives—a freshness I see in other first books, and that I sometimes don’t see in the umpteenth collections by well-published poets. (I did confirm: while Ocasio previously released a chapbook, The Speed of our Lives is her first poetry book.) By "freshness," I mean a presentation of poems whose presence, I sense, were not determined by applied strictures, e.g. a project-based perspective, or a focus on a particular form.
The poems in The Speed of our Lives range over a wide variety of subjects and concerns, a range not hidden by its organization in four sections (entitled “Sheroes,” “She Revolutionary,” “Princes and Privates,” and “Patriots”). While the sections are certainly apt, I ended up not focusing on their categories so much as being moved to engage each individual poem on an individual basis. I believe this results from the strong story-telling impetus to each poem so that I reacted to each one based on its story instead of how it relates to other poems.
Nor does story need to unfold as narrative—for example, this list poem I found redolent, thus, enjoyed:
FATHER’S FAVORITE THINGS AND PEOPLE
Charlie Mingus’ albums
social tea biscuits
brown wool coat
books by Chester Himes
Brut After Shave Lotion
Cadillac Coupe de Ville
Harlem’s Better Crust Pie Bakery
New York Giants
James Van Der Zee’s photographs
books by John Hope Franklin
English Leather Cologne
Brooks Brothers gray and blue suits
sweet potato pie
New York Jets green cap
hog’s head cheese
When I look, thus, at The Speed of our Lives as not just a poetry collection but a collection of stories, I see the range of subjects. To quote one of the blurbers, Ann Deagon, there are “poems embracing myth, history ancient and modern, happenings worldwide and close to home, characters from many cultures. The first section alone focuses on Ruth and Naomi, Esther, Pocahontas, Anne Frank, Audrey Hepburn, Angela Davis, Michelle Obama, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Alondra de la Parra.” These poems are about something(s) or someone(s).
What then knits the individual poems together into a cohesive poetry collection is what’s revealed in the poem from which a line titles the book, a poem aptly titled “Ars Poetica.” In this poem, Ocasio writes
It’s better to be chic
than to lie
in some bland corner
of a room,
wilting and frumpy.
While the poem is talking about her desire for what another blurber, Elaine Equi, calls a “chic sense of style” (“…isn’t it better // to be swift than rushed?/ Better to be svelte than thing? / Better to seek than to settle?”), Ocasio’s style would be shallow were there no meat to her content. She doesn’t settle, she seeks. Her stories have substance, and it’s the feat of her poems that they don’t sink beneath the weight of such substance. Thus, she can write a poem like “SOUNDS FULL OF HOLES: AT THE GROUP HOME FOR SPECIAL NEEDS ADULTS” that begins
I knew you before you knew me,
my kin. I adore your vowels.
I salute your howls.
The poem and story continues with verve, stylish verve, to end with
Yes, go ahead and tickle my toes.
Yes, I do scribble all over myself.
We tousle each other’s hair,
Track each other’s giggles.
In my adult flesh, I stack my words,
place them on the dinner table.
Your breath devours them.
Eeeeee-iiiiii, you say?
I thumb the fine print of your hands.
With this book, Grace C. Ocasio shows a life set on chic as she continues to explore the large and multi-faceted universe of the life she has chosen.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com