As I lean back in my chair, hoping the slow accretion of gravity will somehow shove all my free-floating thoughts about “Rebozos” into the right place, I see on my shelf a book called “Finishing the Hat,” Stephen Sondheim’s collection of lyrics. In that collection, Sondheim, the songwriter for Broadway hits such as “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd,” makes a strange and astute observation: reading lyrics on the page should be, by default, a little disappointing.
“Music,” Sondheim says, “straightjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric.” According to Sondheim, a lyric mustn’t be proud, for it is, by its very definition, dependent on something else to bring it into being.
This insight came to mind time and again as I thumbed through “Rebozos,” Carmen Tafolla’s quietly audacious, boundary-blurring project. The title refers to the shawl-like garment that is, according to Tafolla, an “everyday item which (Hispanic women) wrap around our lives like an emotion, an expression, and instrument.”
This 43-page work is a celebration of that item, with oil paintings by Garcia placed alongside small poems by Tafolla. The former artist’s work inspired the latter’s.
Now, note the word “small,” which was very deliberately chosen in place of “short.” Tafolla’s poems do not want for brevity, but they are notable for their simplicity, for the sheer lack of polish in their language. No poem covers the entirety of a page. Most of the poems consist of only a few sentences, with each sentence broken into a handful of tiny, spare little pieces.
Take, for example, these lines from “They Call Me Soledad”:
lives inside me
carries my face
carries my name
but even when her name is called
only I can answer from her
What we have here is no Grand Poesy or canny construction of language; it is instead an assemblage of words so humble it almost seems to fade from the page even as our ever-searching eyes take it in.
This is where the Sondheim dictum comes into play.
If Tafolla’s poems were published by themselves, the collection that contained them would be sometimes pleasant, somewhat moving, but seemingly empty. But a select few live, really live, when placed next to Garcia’s pictures. As Sondheim’s music liberates his lyrics, so do Garcia’s paintings bestow a thrilling charge upon some of Tafolla’s words.
I first noticed this phenomenon on page 22, while reading a piece endearingly titled “These Tacos.”
“In these taquitos”, Tafolla writes, “the meat/is chopped small/and soft/for that missing tooth of yours. ”
It’s a quaint, straightforward group of lines, and they didn’t strike me as all that compelling But then I glanced at the Garcia painting laid out on the next page. In it, we can make out a woman with her dark blue rebozo wrapped around the width of her body, her feet arched and bare, her hands attending to a warmly drawn red-brown basket. Yet this portrait, like all the others, is painted in such a way that it seems to flirt with oblivion. The face at the center is unclear. The colors dribble off the canvas.
And when contemplated with Tafolla’s words, that canvas speaks. The poem takes the picture and animates the thoughts of its subject. We can imagine a voice, weary but sweet, handing this freshly baked lunch to her husband or young son, and then maybe, just maybe, shooting him a smile. To see the painting through the lens of the poem is to become newly absorbed.
This affecting little love-book is, at its heart, about liberation. Most importantly, it frees the voices of these women, the kind of ordinary yet essential voices that can get trapped in obscurity if someone doesn’t pay attention. It is also, as it so happens, a perfect example of how one art form can free another.
Poet Carmen Tafolla, an internationally renowned author and San Antonio’s inaugural poet laureate (2012), will be featured at the San Antonio Book Festival during a talk entitled: “A Celebration of Emerging Voices” from 4:15–5:15 p.m. in the west terrace, third floor of the Central Library. She’ll also be at the Texas Cavalier’s Fiction Contest Award Presentation at 11 a.m. in the Swartz Room, second floor of Central Library. Click here to check out the schedule online. Download the full festival schedule as a PDF here. For a more interactive approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and customize your own schedule for the day by choosing your favorites.
*Featured/top image: “Rebozos” words by Carmen Tafolla and paintings by Catalina Gárate Garcia. Publisher: Wings Press; Bilingual edition (November 1, 2012).