NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Hotel Pacoima by Michael Caylo-Baradi
(Kelsay Books, American Fork, Utah, USA, 2021)
Michael Caylo-Baradi is an alumnus of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center (CUNY). His work has appeared in numerous literary journals both at home and abroad including Kenyon Review Online, Eunoia Review, Eclectica, Galatea Resurrects, Our Own Voice, Otoliths, Ink Sweat and Tears and Latin American Review of Books. His website is: mcaylo.blogspot.com
A glance at the contents page reveals that the titles of the 34 poems contained in this collection are not expansive but quite precise. Eight are comprised of a single word and a further eleven are just two words. A number indicate the location or setting of the poem as well as its subject matter.
One of the key words in this collection is ‘angels’. The word first appears in the title of a book by Anita Brookner, ‘Bay of Angels’ from which a quotation has been extracted to serve as a prelude in the frontispiece. Brookner’s Bay of Angels is in Nice but Caylo-Baradi’s city is the City of Angels, Los Angeles. The name of the city appears in two of the titles of his poems and in ‘Flight Destinations’ ‘a hail of angels hovers on the margins of a story, / restless for the moral center of its myth.’ Another key word is ‘lake(s)’. In ‘Lacustrine Dwellers’ there are four lakes: Echo Park Lake, Lake Tanganyika, Taal Lake and Lake Titicaca. In ‘Lombardy’ there is Lake Iseo and in ‘Night Swimming’ there is mention of a ‘late-afternoon lake’. ‘Taggers’ references the Hansen Dam, a flood control dam in the Lake View Terrace area of Los Angeles. Unlike the other lakes mentioned in this collection, this one became completely filled with sediment and had to be abandoned. It is now a recreation center. In these poems lakes, like angels, hint at vaster themes. Lakes reflect skies, the sun, moon and stars, they have sedimentary deposits that hold a lot of history, they are not just bodies of standing water.
While the title of this collection grounds it in a suburb of Los Angeles, the poems have a universal feel about them, moving as they do between the USA, Algeria, Morocco, Italy and the Philippines. His poems traverse multiple continents at a fast pace: one moment we are in the souks and alleyways of Marrakech and the next we are contemplating the importance of maintaining a strong family lineage through the medium of fable in Lombardy. The latter is a classic example of Caylo-Baradi’s multifaceted poetry.
‘Escape’ makes its mark by revolving around patterns. The opening couplets conjure up an image of the geometrical patterns of leaves. Mathematics and Nature collide which should not be a surprise to us since there is a lot of mathematical precision to be found in nature if we only seek it out. The word ‘geometries’ here recalls to mind those properties that are closely bound up with distance, space, size and the relative position of figures:
I join the sound of leaves,
each other’s geometries
in the wind.
The poem then progresses through the pattern of dreams, the pattern of trees in winter, the pattern of moonlight reflected through their bare branches which in turn creates patterns of light and shadow on the ground:
Indeed, trees are masters
in taking apart
moonlight, to create a
tapestry of shadows
begging for directions.
As we find our way through the dark, the line ‘I must believe / in the breadcrumbs now’ reminds us of how Hansel in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ left a trail of breadcrumbs, as they journeyed through the wood so that they would be able to find their way back again. There is the pattern of footsteps and the pattern of breadcrumbs, a pattern of silhouettes and, as the poem closes, the pattern of falling leaves on their downward flight in the fall.
This is but one example of the way in which these poems work. Another is to be found in ‘Age of Permutations’ which is short enough to quote in full:
There are nights his doubts splinter into
legs in mini-skirt, with lipstick glossy as rivers in sunset.
They cup nights in coffee, stretch them in car-chases
at a multiplex, before their moons huddle
in creased bed-sheets and glasses of wine.
When not legs, nights take shape
of hollow moons, the way leggy lips approximate
pasts that refuse remembrance. He keeps a small
museum of them, nights
of engagements and repose,
like how some images flirt into his viewfinder’s line
of sight, unplanned, and become memorable
as shattered certainties.
The keyword here is ‘permutations’: it is in many respects one of the hallmarks of Caylo-Baradi’s poetry which is a poetry of constant and often surprising change. This poem is loaded with possibilities: there are ‘doubts’ which means that nothing is clear-cut or set in stone. ‘Sunsets’ are never constants. They are always changing colour. ‘Car-chases’ are always on the move until the final denouement. ‘Moons’ wax and wane. ‘Glasses of wine’ could be half full or half empty. Keeping ‘a museum’ of all these moments is one way of trying to preserve things that are, in reality, ephemeral. The last three lines of the poem demonstrate just how fragile and random all these things really are. The imagery in this poem is also of interest. I like the way Caylo-Baradi progresses his lines and images by association. Look at the phrase ‘with lipstick glossy as rivers in sunset’ and think of the associations that may have led to this phrase: lipstick – lip gloss –liquid – river – surface sheen – red – sunset. Other phrases, such as ‘they cup nights in coffee’ surprise and delight. The idea of putting ‘night’ into a cup of coffee works here because we understand the meaning but savour the order in which he has chosen to place his words.
At other moments, he writes with such clarity and elegance about everyday occurrences that even the most mundane matters seem elevated in his hands. Here is a section from ‘Flight Destinations’:
A glass of milk departs a dining table,
destined for patterns on the floor that hold
a child’s delirious giggles. His tiny
fingers reach for something in the air,
perhaps for other sounds, still oblivious
of maternal patience cleaning up another mess,
another challenge testing single parenthood.
The descriptive images in this slim collection are full of surprises. In ‘Cruising Country’ endless green fields are described as being ‘vast as boredom uninterrupted’ and music from the car radio is like ‘7pm dinner without frills’. In ‘Neighborhood Watch’ ‘sneakers dangling / from wires look like repositories / of unfettered playfulness & / optimism’ and in ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘Diana was a bee from our yard, / hanging out on flowers like someone pollinating / backstage doors with unusual charm.’
One of the prose poems near the end of the collection bears the title ‘Breathing Exercises at a Dumpsite in Manila’. The title in itself has a shock element contained within it. A dumpsite yielding toxic fumes from burning plastic and other waste is not the kind of place where one would want to engage in breathing exercises. The text teems with ‘viral mutations desperate for fresh hosts to hibernate on’. It is a reminder of the terrible way waste is disposed of, often imported from the West, with no consideration for the population of the country it is being sent to. Here, both humans and animals scour the dump for pickings. There are wider implications here when one considers the Jonsonian Moscas, Corvinos and Corbaccios of this world whose Italian names translate as flies, crows and ravens. These parasites are always on the lookout for a new find that is far removed from the real plight of the poor who have no option but to sort through other people’s refuse in order to eke out a meagre living.
The healing power of nature is powerfully demonstrated in ‘Geraniums’, a prose poem in three short paragraphs of roughly equal length. Bonding with the geraniums is an escape mechanism from the trials and tribulations of an implied difficult relationship:
‘Geranium red is deep-red like blood: loud and full of spectacle, like my mother’s voice. My father spends a cup of coffee with these flowers in the morning, then leaves them alone.’
Geraniums, especially red ones, symbolize hope for a lovelier future, a future of some normalcy and beauty.
Whether he is writing about beauty pageants as a symbol of national identity or focussing on the intimacies of his home and family, this is an exciting collection of poetry in which the familiar is revisited in a new narrative using language that is both fresh and invigorating. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010), Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014); Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017); Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019) and Reading Between The Lines (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.