I had the privilege of spending a few days with Sara Borjas at the CantoMundo retreat in the summer of 2016. She is electric—smart, funny, sassy, vulnerable—and these qualities come through immediately in her debut collection, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. The title indicates the heart will be fully exposed—a “window” that can be seen and seen through—but the mouth is another story. The image of the “cliff” suggests that the speaker’s words will present obstacles and launching points, precarious ledges and walls to slam against.
Over the course of the book, the speaker, a young Mexican-American woman in Fresno, California, questions how she arrived at this existential place and time. We watch her navigate her inheritance, culture and class, race and gender, full of as much self-loathing as self-love. The result is a triumphant, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying bildungsroman, pocha-style. (A pocho/a is an Americanized Mexican who has lost connection to the Spanish language and Mexican culture. Typically pejorative, it derives from the Spanish word “pocho”: which describes a withered flower or rotting fruit. The word has been reclaimed in some Chicano communities as a sign of pride in Mexican-American heritage.)
The collection’s long title suggests expansiveness, as do elements of the collection’s Table of Contents. First, we notice that there is no single title poem; rather, there are two: “A Heart Can Only be Broken Once, Like a Window” gives us the first part of the title, and “Mouth Like a Cliff” gives us the second. This doubling suggests there is no one container that can hold everything. We also see that there will be two guiding spirits in this collection: “Narcissus,” whose name appears in seven titles, and “Pocha,” whose name appears in three titles, but whose presence is suggested in many other poems, such as “There Are Tamales Here.” Both of these characters are tonally complex. They embody shame— Narcissus succumbs to his own ego, and a Pocha is ethnically impure—just as they embody pride—Narcissus is undeniably beautiful, and Pocha has a claim to an evolving ethnicity, to the future. In the Table of Contents, poem titles refer also to family relationships—father, mother, brother—places both real and imagined—Aztlán, Fresno, an island for raped women—and spaces that are rooted in home and community—the kitchen, the café, the wedding. They promise a collection rich with both people and places.
The opening poem, “Aztlán,” provides the principal setting for the collection. The piece gives a slice of life on a typical farm-town night, elevating and satirizing it by naming it for the mythical origin of the Aztecs. Having grown up in a rural Texas border town, the slices of life in “Aztlán” were familiar and resonant for me—a place where, as if in a surrealist painting, red barnyard doors beget red barnyard doors; “a pot of menudo / simmers inside // another pot of menudo”; and a place where like a low-budget low-rider movie, “One girl is getting / fingerbanged / on a diesel flat.” Borjas’s tone is quietly satirical, as she calls this place a “luxurious farm // of losers,” but it’s also quietly beautiful: “The mothers lie awake / on a busted trampoline // thinking.” With quick strokes, she draws a life that is both stagnant and hopeful. Borjas will proceed with both love and irony, as she suggests in her epigraph from Cherríe Moraga: “Home is the place, for better or for worse, we learn to love.” Read Rest of Review Here