Begin Again: On Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s “Incantation”

By Renee HudsonApril 24, 2024

Begin Again: On Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s “Incantation”

Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

XOCHITL-JULISA BERMEJO’S Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites (2023) announces its purpose in the title. The “battle sites” range from migrant detention centers to Confederate monuments to the police stop that led to Sandra Bland’s murder. The incantatory lyricism of Bermejo’s poetry suffuses the text, letting us know that this is a book to remember and raise the dead. And raise the dead she does. Many of the poems are dedicated to specific people, recalling the politics of solidarity that I have elsewhere suggested are part of Juan Felipe Herrera’s poetic commitments. Printed in gray, the dedications are reminiscent of the end of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), where with each printing the list of Black people murdered by police grows, fading from black to lighter and lighter shades of gray that literalize the process of forgetting. I situate Bermejo’s writing alongside both Herrera and Rankine in part because I see her operating within both Chicanx and African American poetic traditions, braiding together the deaths and hauntings that preoccupy both.

The prologue poem that precedes the collection proper, “One Sweet Day: To Do List for the First Day of Spring,” acts as both an invocation and a prayer. Reading this poem, I was struck by the verbs, particularly their imperative tense: “Rise and feed the cat,” “Listen to the helicopters,” “Answer the phone call from your mother.” The poem unfolds as the speaker learns about the 2017 Temple City shooting and shelters in place. Whereas the beginning of the poem reads like a set of instructions for a person trying to maintain a sense of normalcy during, say, a pandemic and the ongoing tragedy of police killing people of color, it becomes clear, as the speaker learns of the shooting, that she is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy during an ongoing state of war, where every site is a battle site—or has the potential to be one.

A shift in tense marks a shift in tone in the poem: “Do this while listening to Mariah Carey songs.” The next line, “Notice the absence of helicopters,” signals that the immediate threat of violence is over, so the speaker’s instructions change: “Smell perfumed air heavy with loquat. Pick a yellow berry and bite its tart meat. Feel the sticky juice / between your fingers.” “Smell” and “bite” and “feel” mark the speaker’s transition from the to-do list of the title to the realm of the senses. And yet, it also reads like a grounding exercise meant to stave off the speaker’s anxiety. The last line of the poem—“Begin again”—reinforces this sense of apprehension and exhaustion. While a hopeful reading would suggest that it links to a feeling of spring and renewal, the accumulative string of imperatives suggests that beginning again is not a new beginning but more of the same: while there may be more cats to feed and loquats to eat tomorrow, there will probably also be another shooting. The question is how soon (or how close).

The deaths of Latinx children preoccupy the first section of the collection. Although it contains no formal dedication, the notes at the end of Incantation mention that “The Mermaid Game,” the opening poem, “is dedicated to the 21 students and teachers who lost their lives on May 24, 2022 in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.” “The Mermaid Game” is a poem that heartbreakingly imagines a world where dead Brown children are still alive, where the threat of death does not haunt them. “If I were a mermaid,” the speaker begins, then narrates scenes of childhood: “I would be forever summer / like ice cream trucks and cherry slush, / like two kids naïvely turning crisp / under the shallows of a three-foot pool.”

However, this scene, too, shifts as the speaker-turned-mermaid considers:

[How] could I dream of the undrowned
children never aged. Brown, big-headed
babies alive in their schools, playing
clams with cousins, learning numbers
by octopus, all the while being protected
by whales and dolphins in a way that said
they were always safe.

A world where children never age is a sad one, but “Brown, big-headed / babies alive in their schools” reminds us that nowhere is safe, not even schools. Perhaps especially schools. Bermejo describes the children as “undrowned,” which for her is a synonym for being alive. In placing the children underwater (“playing clams,” “being protected by whales and dolphins”), Bermejo takes their aliveness even further by creating a world where not only are they undrowned, but they are also undrownable.

The epigraph that precedes the poem is a quote from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (2020). In signaling that the epigraph is from “Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned” Bermejo emphasizes that Gumbs is also undrowned—that is, alive—like the Brown children in Bermejo’s utopian imaginary. Bermejo does the political work of linking histories of Black death and liveness with issues of Brown death and liveness in ways that speak to shared struggles without diminishing the specificity of either. Of course, AfroLatinidad also joins together these struggles, but Bermejo speaks to our political moment by ruminating on anti-Blackness in the United States. For instance, the second section of the collection emerged from a residency Bermejo held at the Gettysburg National Military Park in the fall of 2017, shortly after a white supremacist murdered Heather D. Heyer during the Charlottesville protests in Virgina. This was a time during which the mass shooting in Las Vegas happened (where 60 people were killed and almost 900 injured), as well as NFL player protests against racism and police brutality, all of which Bermejo explains at the end of the collection.

In this way, Bermejo weaves together long-standing, ongoing strands of violence in the United States. Part two of the collection emphasizes the terror of living in the South, if only for a short period of time. In this section, poems titled “Comfort Food for White Spaces” proliferate. And yet, despite this title, what emerges in these poems is a series of microaggressions (a ranger “lectures on white ideals, / white status, white beauty […] and gives himself / chills”) and a lack of community, a lack of connection (“Later tonight, I’ll call Andy for a tether, but / he’ll only tell me to go to sleep”). The foods that emerge—Eggo waffles, Buddig honey-roasted turkey, SpaghettiOs, Dairy Queen—seem less like comfort foods for white spaces than comfort foods in white spaces. Bermejo describes the only food that sounds actually comforting in the final poem with this title. The speaker arrives at the post office to ship books home to San Gabriel, California, and imagines the treat in store for the books when they—and by extension she—gets there: “They will smell longaniza sizzling in a pan on the stove. Their pages like / tongues will crave the salty content spooned over a fried egg. Tortillas, beans, and coffee with a stick / of cinnamon will seep into their poems.”

The poems set in Gettysburg feature Confederate battle flags and red caps that we know are MAGA hats. These references underscore how unwelcome and afraid the speaker feels; it recalls the need for the grounding instructions of the invocation poem at the beginning of the collection. In “Battlefield Riddle,” the speaker lists the different monuments she sees: “men on alert, / men on horses, men on stomachs / aiming for a shot, / ones with men / holding flags, / & ones with / no men at all: / column, / obelisk, / tower.” Whereas the column, obelisk, and tower emphasize the phallic imagery that punctures our horizons, the other monuments (men on horses or holding guns or flags) show how the United States continually memorializes war. Such monuments emerge in Bermejo’s hands as the grotesqueries they are, as she points to the ways a culture of violence permeates the US, making mass shootings inevitable and completely foreseeable.

The majority of the poems in the final section focus on joy, renewal, and love. In “Seeking Sunday Morning Guitar Riffs,” the poem ends with “You magic me / into song, & I’m platinum / in partygoers’ ears playing on and on.” In “She Is Me, but We Are We,” the epigraph, “After John and Yoko’s Bed-Ins for Peace,” establishes the poem as one that will imagine the bed as a site for peace (and for love). In this bed, the speaker relates: “Together we can invite the children, welcome picture / books and teddy bears, elect Mr. Bear queen, allow them / to appoint a family chancellor.” The speaker once again imagines children undrowned and alive, able to play their games with picture books and teddy bears. A world where a male bear can be a queen, where children can choose how their family is governed. These descriptions of joy contrast sharply with the violence that subtends life in the US. Yet it’s of a piece with the smell of longaniza and fried eggs, with a world where Confederate flags and monuments are taken down, where we can smell and bite and feel our way back to the world.

Break my heart, Bermejo.

LARB Contributor

Renee Hudson is an assistant professor of English and director of Latinx and Latin American studies at Chapman University. A former University of California Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC San Diego and Institute for Citizens & Scholars Career Enhancement Fellow, Renee is the author of Latinx Revolutionary Horizons: Form and Futurity in the Americas, out in 2024 with Fordham University Press. She is currently working on a second project on Latinx girlhood.


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