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Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites, an Invitation to Get Involved.

by Lisbeth Coiman

Part of LM Voices' Tiny Reviews series



To read Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is to revisit the ghosts of the Gettysburg battle site and expose the roots of the crimes committed against people of color in today’s America. The book is split into three parts: Part I talks to the victims, Part II talks to the criminals, and Part III is a self-reflection by the poet. 


In this stunning collection, Bermejo promotes social change by inviting the reader to get involved in the creation of meaning by offering her fine work as a puzzle of interlocking pieces. As in any game, the reader must take turns and participate actively. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the work connects games and dreams with the tangibility of the crimes depicted in the verses. Readers must acknowledge the horrors to complete the meaning of each piece. 


Part I is a love song for the “unnumbered,” “unnamed,” “unseen,” and “undrowned” children fallen to violence in “this rotting country.” By exclusively using words with the prefix “un-,” the poet emphasizes the act of erasure or elimination: these children were seen and then unseen, eliminated by tragedy. Each poem in the collection reveals a different crime. 


The opening poem, “The Mermaid Game” is an impressive concrete poem in the form of a mermaid’s tail where the aquatic language becomes a paradigm for children: a school of fish, learning, alive, undrowned. In their sublime innocence, their mutual love is that last secret they share. The reader must look at events in recent past to fully understand the nightmare related in the verses; “the school of fish” refers to the day when 21 children and teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas.


In true hybrid form, Bermejo interlocks poems and prose using traditional and nontraditional literary devices. One poem uses the harsh concreteness of numbers to criticize the tragedy of unaccompanied immigrant minors dying under US custody. 


Bermejo also incorporates hashtags such as “#mishijos,” or “#rememberingmishijos,” or “#somosamoreterno” into the poem. Between numbers and hashtags and interviews, she reveals and denounces the insensitivity of social media trends that reduce the agony of grieving mothers to succinct phrases to gain visibility. Moreover, Bermejo reclaims the role of the poet and artist in general in capturing the raw emotions and amplifying the voices of those who can’t speak for themselves. 


Part I is also peppered with images of hope as a necessary respite from the tragedy unfolding. In “Jack and Jill,” children appear taking turns at games. They “race up hills” into a better future “as children do.” 


In Part II, the poet declares: “This isn’t history . . .This is now.” The realism of the war monuments interlaces with dream-like prose passages reflecting on the comfort food a brokenhearted girl consumes to “release” the historical pain and her own hurt. 


At the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, the poet visits the ghosts of the Civil War. She walks among graves and monuments to interview the ghosts roaming around them about their role in the erasure of people of color in their accounts of the war. The puzzle reveals how Confederacy descendants massacre young people of color in America today. Thus, she brings the responsible for these crimes front and center. 


The poet never forgets where she came from, and actively seeks for her ancestors in the battlefield: “…heroes this country decorates in clownish sombreros.”


Prose passages serve as a place of comfort to “release hurt into the air.” Sensory and sensual imagery of food narrate the political and personal turmoil of the poet residing in the battle site, inviting the reader to “Bite the pink meat. Let it slide down my throat.” It appears as if the speaker in the poems eats to process emotions. 


In Part III, the personal is political. This section is a self-love song to the woman/poet.  She “can’t help to be a heartbroken girl,” but does not yield to patriarchy and “is always ready to love again.” Furthermore, by wrapping the collection up with reference to self, the poet seems to indicate that the tragedies depicted in Part I and II are personal and therefore require personal involvement in social change. 


In Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites, Bermejo appears as a mature poet in command of the page, using her work skillfully to get the reader involved in the creation of meaning, and ultimately in social change. She invites the reader to put together the picture of America’s social and racial fabric to understand the underlying forces promoting so much violence and death. Bermejo points out that without our participation, justice is not possible. In precise language, she weaves in the personal as political, presenting us the broken heart of a tender woman who refuses to be complicit in the carnage.

 

Lisbeth Coiman is a bilingual writer from Venezuela. She is the author of I Asked the Blue Heron: A Memoir (2017), and Uprising / Alzamiento: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She lives in Los Angeles, where she reads, writes, and hikes.

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