To be honest, before I started reading Gwendolyn Zepeda’s new collection, Monsters, Zombies and Addicts (Arte Público Press, 84 pages, 2015), released near the end of her two-year tenure as the first Houston Poet Laureate, I worried that the poems would be boosterish. Part of the gig, I knew, is to represent the city. Would every poem mention a bayou? Would she have been contractually obliged to champion the merits of the Downtown Living Initiative? Thankfully, the collection doesn’t show the strain of feeling that burden of representation. There are alligator gar. And freeways — and bayous. But you don’t learn much about Houston. Instead, you learn a lot about the kind of person, the kind of poet, that the city wanted to choose to represent it: sometimes chatty, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sentimental, and always funny, smart, honest, and tough.
You learn a lot about the kind of person, the kind of poet, that the city wanted to choose to represent it: sometimes chatty, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sentimental, and always funny, smart, honest, and tough.
Zepeda is best at homing in on the strange pleasure or pleasant strangeness in her everyday life. These poems are anecdotal, observational. Often, they begin the way the story a friend wants to tell you would:
“A woman who worked in our building killed herself this morning.”
And: “You say I flirt too much.”
And: “The other day I was working on a story.”
So many — so, so many — other contemporary poems read as though whispered by a disembodied brain soaking in a half-empty jar of formaldehyde.
So many — so, so many — other contemporary poems read as though whispered by a disembodied brain soaking in a half-empty jar of formaldehyde. Reading Monsters, Zombies and Addicts, you get a sense of Zepeda’s whole self, her whole personality, the way she (and you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever met her) can keep a straight face and give you the side-eye in one look. These are poems that have a family, and a history, attached to them. They’re unpretentious enough to value lived experience, but they’re written sharply enough to embody the values of opinion and interpretation and sensibility. The poems celebrate and regret. As Zepeda writes of those nights her Aunt Sylvia took her to watch the “freak show” pass by on Westheimer: “This was the quiet time for her, when she ventured out with me to see marvelous things. She carefully monitored my growth into someone who would go on to see more, later, without her.”
Zepeda allows herself to be different, to sound different, from poem to poem, even line to line. Sometimes, she’s impatient, almost glib, even with the details of the very story she’s trying to tell.
Thus, the collection ranges in tone, mood, subject. What might seem to some readers a lack of consistency I read as a borderlessness and breadth of soul, an appreciation of the multitudes each of us contains. Zepeda allows herself to be different, to sound different, from poem to poem, even line to line. Sometimes, she’s impatient, almost glib, even with the details of the very story she’s trying to tell. I like that she clips off everything but the necessary in sentences like these:
They moved out of the forest.
Gretel gave birth and got married.
Lives on a farm, sells pies on the side.
People think she’s boring. (15)
Other times, she’s exhaustive, administrative, arranging the poem’s information into bulleted lists. When watching TV with your kids, she writes, it’s good to “sort” the plotlines into the following categories:
- Bad things you’ve already told them about
- Bad things you need to explain
- Bad things avoidable with the right preparation (22)
My favorite moments are those that one might think insufficiently timeless or whatever to warrant inclusion in a poem. Like the little one in “Landscaping” when Zepeda is mowing the lawn: “Little chunks of grass and / ant hills fly up and hit my arms and legs, making them / sting and making it sweeter, later when I take my / shower.” It makes you feel almost sorry for Wordsworth that he was too privileged to ever get to prune the elderberry up in the Lake District. Anyone who’s taken that post-yardwork rinse knows that the moment has all kinds of poetry in it.
And I’m thinking of the little moment in “Yesterday at Target,” when Zepeda is shopping and implicates herself, catches herself eavesdropping on a son refusing to answer his mother’s questions in Spanish:
“I wanted to tell the woman, “dice Paz,” so she would know. But then she’d know I’d understood their conversation. Seen her son’s disrespect. Guessed that he calls himself a different name at school—a distortion of his real name that’s a word she can’t pronounce. […] She’d wonder if I could see her son struggling away from her arms. She’d wonder from my accent, maybe, if my father was somewhere sighing.” (54)
Confessing that these are among my favorites of Zepeda’s shows my bias, my taste. There’s more than that here, of course: poems like social commentary. Poems like questions you might post on Facebook or ask your friends at an ice house: Why do we love JFK so much? Poems — like the standout “Janis” — like memoir or personal essay. This diversity is one of the collection’s values. And that same sentence might apply to the city in which Zepeda is writing and for which she served as Laureate. There is a little of everything here. Now, as she passes the title on to Robin Davidson, who was announced by Mayor Parker in May as the second Laureate, we have this model, this precedent, that the best way to represent Houston is to be as much of yourself as you can while you’re here.