Monday, November 30, 2015



Decency by Marcela Sulak
(Black Lawrence Press, 2015)

While I read the entire poetry collection, I was moved (for purpose of this review) to engage mostly with three poems.  For me, these three poems together gave a fulsome exploration of the book’s theme as presented by its title, Decency.

First is the book’s first poem, “Ecclesiastes.”  The poem seems obvious, a mother giving an old woman beggar some coins (“… for the bus or for lunch”). It seems a decent thing to do.  But what about the implicit blackmail?  For the mother happens to be pushing her child in a pram when they are stopped by the old woman:

… she stands up and begins with her
zlata moje, my golden child, and she reaches to
touch our cheeks, and her hand stays outstretched,
and she’s asking for just a little of our gold…

There’s no definitive answer, which is wise of the poem. The blackmail is evident but when the poem says about the beggar,

…her hand is now the meter
that turns us in our slot

there’s a suggestion that one should not be able to move on with one’s life (so to speak) ignoring the troubles of others.  The reminds me of how Alice Walker once said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” Replace “activism” with “decency.”

Interestingly, perhaps I might have had a more base interpretation of the poem were it not for its title.  But Ecclesiastes ends with the injunction, “Fear God, and keep his commandments”…

Of course, decency is complicated as the title poem reveals:


At the end of our marriage, I remember
the raccoons of my childhood that came to steal our corn,
the king-snake asleep in a barrel of feed, nipped by my coffee-can scoop
then his smooth brass coils around my wrist, and how in panic
I took a BB gun and shot him, and how my father
whipped me good for killing a decent, harmless creature.
And how my brother set the spring-triggered steel jaw trap for the coons
in the dim light of the barn floor; my cat stepped into it and caught her paw,
and how she howled, her desperate twist, and when I bent to release her
she bit my finger and it swelled ten times its normal size, how that’s what happens,
my father said, when you touch an animal in pain.

So how does one proceed?  Proceed decently?  Well, one might consider decentness to be, as the book Ecclesiastes states, a “duty.”  And it seems to me that to commit to a duty requires investing one’s self in understanding as much as one can how one should behave. In any attempt—or most attempts—to understand, one’s sight and insight generally expands. This type of enhanced lucidity is exemplified by the poet when she wrote a poem like “Chocolate.” The poem begins

The day I won the custody case my lawyer gave me a bitter chocolate
in black and silver paper.

The chocolate makes the poem’s persona recall “cacao pods / drying in a Venezuelan village square…”—from that moment, the poem moves through a difficult journey to reach that Venezuelan village, a recollection that “[o]nce only men could drink chocolate”—thus,

Women were permitted cacao beans as currency,
to buy meat or slaves or pay tribute. It feels good to imagine a single seed

hidden in the forbidden mouth

for a luscious but forbidden treat—and how an Aztec king’s gold-hammered cup for drinking his chocolate was often bloody. The poem circles back to the courtroom where

The judge, our lawyers, her father, and I decided the fate
of my child. The dark liquid we poured was ink…

The poem, though, aptly asks:

Who can know the heart of another, the blood
spiced with memory, poured from one generation to the next
over great distances? The Mayan word for chocolate means bitter….

This magnificent poem ends with

The Mayan word means bitter water. The cacao
tree was uprooted from paradise.

So what’s the lesson here?  The poem’s persona won custody of the child, but is the lesson for her to comprehend that the underlying reason for the custody dispute was the ending of a certain “paradise” for the child?  Is the lesson that the persona might take pleasure in the custody result as the one she desired, but that—like chocolate—it is a result that must be bitter-sweet so that she now must take special care for the child still possesses “blood / spiced with memory” of her father?  Well, those are the thoughts which I’m moved to consider—perhaps because of the poem’s location in a book entitled Decency.

Ultimately, this is a poetry collection that compels your love—both for its theme and how it manifests such theme—though it also compels you in more than one place to wince.  Such effect shows how well the poet did her job.  Decency is a very satisfying read.  Recommended.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well).  She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work.  I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS received a review by Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; by Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; and by Allen Bramhall in Tributary.  Her experimental biography AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY received a review by Tom Hibbard in The Halo-Halo Review, Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web and Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source. SUN STIGMATA also received a review by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field.  Recent releases are the e-chap DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS as well as INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY focuses on the list or catalog poem form.  A key poem in INVENT(ST)ORY was reviewed by John Bloomberg-Rissman in The Halo-Halo Review, and the book itself was reviewed by Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source and Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web.  More information at 

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