by Mary Sutton
October 15, 2021

Mary Sutton is an NYC-based freelance writer and poetry editor at West Trade Review. She was formerly the NEH Scholar in Public Humanities at Library of America where she worked with Kevin Young on African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song and the book’s companion website
Mother/land by Ananda Lima; Black Lawrence Press; 90 pages; $17.95

The first image in “Inflight Entertainment while the Doomsday Seed Bank is Breached,” the prelude to Mother/land, Ananda Lima’s first full-length collection of poetry, is that of the narrator’s young son watching an animated film. In a flicker of Lima’s carefully trained kino-eye, images of bloodless, cartoonish violence shift to the narrator and her son meandering through an unnamed city’s Natural History Museum: “My son’s face is blue / with the soft light of Ice / Age falling on his round cheeks.” In a collection that wrestles with, and never pretends to resolve, the problem of origins—ancestral, linguistic, corporeal, and existential—the narrator’s son may as well be the place from which we begin to think about how we got here, and if we can sustain ourselves long enough to nourish a new generation.

Hybridity and division characterize the collection’s form and themes. Lima sets up these expectations in the title, where she cleaves a compound word synonymous with nationalism and nativism, then complicates its connotation of a fixed origin by focusing so many of her poems on her American son, on her relationships with Brazilian family members, and on her cultural connections to both her native Brazil and her adopted land—the United States. Lima shifts between lands through language and cultural references. She weaves Brazilian Portuguese into stanzas with American English, sometimes denoting the former with italics, and sometimes not. The reader, like the plaintive speaker in her poem “ME/AT,” does not always know where one body of meaning begins and the other ends. She examines her reflection in a foggy mirror. The blue light from the opening poem has warmed to red, marking this interlude that is neither about sensuality nor about the study of anatomies (“this body of mine / of yours”), but about the miasma that exists between us. Throughout the text, Lima uses these real and imagined barriers to shift through linguistic, historical, and cultural contexts. She even limns realms—both spatial and sensory—as if to break “the seal of glass” that confines our voices, as addressed in “Bob Dylan’s Prize.” In “Transa,” a poem named after Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso’s 1972 album, composed when he was exiled in London, she worries about being unassimilable. Lima mentions Veloso, one of her muses, throughout the volume. But, in “Transa,” she hears his voice in her own, in a kind of mise-en-abîme of overlapping accents: 

But here 
I hear my voice 
and I sound too much  
like myself too much  
like Caetano, my tongue wrapped  
in plastic, clumsy as it rolls  
cold bites of this  
language in my mouth 

While she struggles to truly taste the words that she voices, “[her] son in the backseat / gorges himself.”

Those who do not speak Portuguese, myself included, will feel unmoored reading many of the poems in this collection. Lima, true to her training as a linguist, seems to want us to grasp onto familiar phonemes and roots, forcing us to find the connections between disparate languages. It is as though she wants the reader, presumably Anglophone, to know what it feels like to be forced to find meaning and identity in a less dominant language—to bridge the divisions that American and British citizens so often enforce upon others with our guarded borders and our stubborn adherence to monolingualism. Lima, meanwhile, sifts through words to find their harmonies, particularly with the near homophones in English and Portuguese. 

In other poems, such as “Caruru,” food becomes a source of connection. Lima shares her enthusiasm for traditional Brazilian meals and snacks. Her alliterative phrases—coriander cashews, shrimp shells, and fizz of food being fried—echo the sound of nuts cracking between teeth, the shuffle of shellfish out of their skins, and the sizzle of hot frying oil. In “PB&J,” there is, initially, less enthusiasm, which shifts during a moment of Dr. Seuss-like surrender, augured by both simple hunger and the unwillingness to wake a sleeping child. After biting into the most basic of American sandwiches, the narrator again enters a kind of alliterative ecstasy, regaling the “beautiful body of butter” and its “[s]weet swirls swimming.” Naturalization happens not at “that citizenship swearing ceremony,” but under a sleeping child. Again, the narrator’s son serves as her conduit between one world and another. In some poems, such as “Minute,” Lima echoes the boy’s childlike wonder. In four spare stanzas, she asks questions about all the things that we presume to know: “What is inside red? / What is inside green? / What is inside me?” The laconic syntax in “Minute” shifts a couple of pages later in “Zoolólogico, circa 1982,” an exhaustive stream-of-consciousness prose poem in which the speaker is trying to capture all of the colors, tastes, and feelings she can recall from a childhood trip to the zoo. The laconicism returns in “Dark room,” Lima’s nod to the Objectivist poets, particularly George Oppen, whom she notes as the inspiration for the poem. Oppen, an American poet, was an exile like Veloso, forced to move to Mexico City in 1950 due to his Communist politics. Lima simplifies his relocation: “A small room / vanishes / What is or was / there.” We have all occupied many small rooms, spaces from which objects are removed and added. These are places on which we depend for security and comfort, and then move out, never seeing them again. Lima takes her interest in Objectivism’s focus on visual structure farther in “Ode to Wet Concrete,” a concrete poem, in which she forms one long, barely punctuated stanza to recreate the appearance of falling, muddy gravel. 

In addition to Veloso and Oppen, Lima identifies numerous other influences throughout the volume: Brazilian musician Antonio Jobim, modernist Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, Brazilian Capoeira expert Mestre Pastinha, and African American poet Nathaniel Mackey, with whom Lima shares an interest in the African diaspora and a voracious consumption of musical influences. Sylvia Plath and Lima’s poetic contemporaries, Ben Lerner and Sandra Lim, are also muses. 

The connection to the African diaspora is especially pronounced in “Line,” in which the speaker examines the characteristics she has inherited from her parents, as well as those that she has passed to her son. She notices how a “rubber band disappears / into the color of [her] skin”—a subtle way of connoting the mélange of European, African, and indigenous strains in her ancestral line. In the next stanza, Lima mentions her first sighting of cotton. In the following, she recalls her childhood consumption of sugar cane and her observations of its production: “the dry split stalk thrown into a pile / limp like blond hair.” What connects both the United States and Brazil is each country’s historical dependencies on these cash crops and the enslaved Africans who harvested them—sources of both their respective wealth and their ethnically diverse populations. When Lima arrives in the U.S., she quickly learns the difference between her sense of ancestry and those of white Americans who are able to trace their respective lines. While those with an “American accent” are able to declare themselves Irish or Italian or French, Lima’s mother cannot offer her much more than her grandmother’s first name. Instead of wallowing in a sense of loss, Lima relies on her own memory and the space it gives her to create her own story: “So what I have is my memory / of the faces of my relatives / and my own.” 

That legacy of oppression evokes horror in one of the collection’s final poems, “When they come for us on the 7 train,” in which Lima subtly conjures the Underground Railroad and slave patrols when observing men wearing dark uniforms, “the men of ice” take away unsuspecting commuters to Queens. Afraid of also being interpellated as an “alien,” which has become synonymous with “criminal” for anyone who is Black or brown, the speaker repeats “I’m an American citizen,” as though to convince herself. Her declaration becomes a whisper when she realizes that she is safe, for now. 

The collection ends on a note of cultural survival, “Berimbau.” Taken from the name of a musical bow made from wood that was brought to Brazil from Africa, the berimbau is an accompaniment for Capoeira performers. To remind us of how much gringos love foreign cultural products, but not the people who produce them, Lima remarks on how the instruments that enslaved Africans hid from their masters in Brazil have become novelties. Dilettante neighbors may occasionally conjure the sounds of her home, but Lima, in this collection, lets us live within them. Reading this collection feels like finding connections where one would least expect them. Lima challenges our linguistic and cultural boundaries, our empirical knowledge, and the self-defeating American habit of reading history selectively. One comes away feeling closer to the sights, smells, and sounds within her world, and more attuned to one’s own. 

©2021 West Trade Review
Home, Approximately: Ananda Lima’s Mother/land Contemplates Origins and What It Means to Belong
Image by Talles Alves on Unsplash

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