By Jenise Miller
If you’re seeking a place not found on a map, you need someone who has been there to show you. In “Living on Islands Not Found on Maps,” mother, poet, and teacher Luivette Resto is an adept guide, leading us with vulnerability to places of personal truth. The collection navigates the multiple ways legends arise in our personal story: through people we remember, in our family and beyond, because of their indelible actions; through family folklore that walks the line of history and mythology; and through symbols, like on a map, that give meaning to our journey.
The book’s cover, designed by Jasmine Preciado, displays soft, rich browns, greens, and yellow, mirrored by waves in the cover image’s hair and earrings. I thought, “I want those earrings”– large, sunray hoops, the kind some folks taught were unbecoming for young girls. But, the girls where I’m from knew and wore them better and those hoops on the cover felt like an invitation to converse with someone familiar. We catch a glimpse of her in The Bronx in “All Day Every Day,” a round-the-way girl “getting ready for a night out, searching for your favorite hoop earrings and Boricua red lipstick.” There is no eye beneath the cover image’s perfectly arched brow, perhaps indicating that the insight the woman offers is beyond what we think we see or know.
The collection is divided into two sections. The first section largely explores the people and places we are from, the second, who we become. In the first section, Resto declares, “You don’t come from the Bronx. The Bronx comes from you… It isn’t trying to kill you so you can justify leaving it behind.” There are certain places I associate with swag. New York is one. When I say New York, I mean Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx, Queens – places I learned in hip hop songs that described corners, alleys, and hard-soft people like where I’m from. I understand what it’s like to be from a place as real as it is mythical, pride inscribed in how you say and claim it.
Resto also explores family as another real and mythical place of our making. In “Someone’s Mom,” she writes,
“in the surreal lands of Márquez and Paz
I challenge patterns etched in the knots of our family tree,
carve new ones in the extended branches
with smiles instead of tears,
hugs instead of raised hands and voices,”
I am reminded of when my fifth grade class read Greek Mythology. While I was enthralled by the story of Athena, a daughter who emerged from her father’s head a full-fledged warrior, the Western mythology venerated and required by the education system reflected places far from my community’s reality and culture, as if we do not have our own mythologies. Here, Resto makes The Bronx and The Island the center of knowledge and builds its stories and mythologies from there. Poems like “The Legendary Legs of the Rodriguez Women” rightly make “the Rodriguez women,/ mythical like Ithaca and Helen.”
Like the short “Didactic” poem series staked almost as guideposts throughout the collection, Resto takes us on a journey where we glean lessons from one poem and section to the next. Many of these lessons come from experiences as a woman, a daughter, a niece, a mother. In “Like Mother, Like Daughter,” she reflects,
"We hold our vulnerabilities
like we hold back our tears,
with purpose and protectiveness.”
In “Heirlooms,” she describes new generation daughters who do not require “bargain bin fabric” or “how to double stitch,” who can say “no for the first time” to expectations prior generations could not. We can imagine that that new generation daughter becomes the new generation mother in “Someone’s Mom,” and instead of double stitching, her “name echoes through Rocky Mountain/ laundry piles of Angry Birds underoos and Hello Kitty jeans.” When it comes to our families of origin, especially our mothers, we cannot avoid resemblance:
“When I see teenage pictures of myself,
the slight imperfection of her nose in a profile
reminiscent of the mother who abandoned her as a child
as I wonder about my mother’s heirlooms.”
Yet, over time and experience, we can learn to view them, and ourselves, in different light. Resto’s poems traverse being someone’s daughter to being someone’s mother as a place of wonder and wondering over past, present, and future selves. They call to mind Lucille Clifton, in “grown daughter” describing “someone is helping me with onions / who peels in the opposite direction“ or Alice Walker in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” pondering where and when mothers had the time and freedom to be defined beyond their motherhood. Resto notes,
"I didn’t inherit everything from my mother.
Never runner-up of Miss Aguas Buenas
danced in white go-go boots
sang background with El Gran Combo
teased me with cascading, iron straight hair.”
What a relief to know our mother’s had gardens, as Alice Walker writes, that they danced and sang and teased in ways we do not, that in small and large ways they lived beyond the limitations of expectation. As her third poetry collection, Resto’s art continues to fulfill the “hope [that] women find a sense of freedom to embrace all of the nuances and complexities of feminism and mujerismo.”
The two sections also highlight Resto’s gift for wrestling with in-between places: between mother and father, between The Bronx and The Island, between being daughter and mother, between being lover and loved, between caring for others and caring for ourselves, between confession and acceptance, between reality and myth. In an interview with author Ivelisse Rodriguez, Resto asserts: “Through our art, we need to acknowledge and respect that we cannot be categorized into just one space.” She navigates the in-between through poems that code-switch, the kind of code-switching that has learned to refuse perfect translation for someone else’s comfort. In the title poem, she writes: “But I finally found a home between Bronx bodega aisles, code switching with my homegirls…We were bilingual neologists, inventing new lands we could carry.” So many of life’s vocations demand expertise and fluency; Resto’s poems instead show us how to accept and live in the in-between, understanding we are not completely fluent in any one thing and are perhaps better for it.
A book of family and community-inspired histories, mythologies, and lessons rings true as a publication of Flowersong Press, a press that is home to a fierce group of community-based artists and writers, including Resto, a figure in the L.A. poetry community for 19 years. “Living on Islands Not Found on Maps,” reaches back and forward in a way that evokes the futurity of community and family. The dedication makes sense: to her revolutionaries – her children “who motivate me the most.” Resto’s collection reminds us that we exist as a collection of the stories we carry and reclaim power in their retelling. Through these poems, she creates a map to carry forward and expand along the way. Let yourself get lost and found again in them.
Living On Islands Not Found On Maps by Luivette Resto
88 pages. Flower Song Press. $18.00
Jenise Miller is a Black Panamanian, Compton-based writer, poet, and urban planner whose work explores art, archives, geographic mapping, and intersectional history. She is a 2021 California Arts Council Individual Artist Fellow and PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. She co-produces "Reading the City" with Sēpia Collective, a conversation series with artists and cultural producers from Compton. Her words have been published in the Acentos Review, Boom California, Cultural Weekly, KCET Artbound, Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. A Pushcart-nominated poet and Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) alumna, she is the author of the poetry chapbook "The Blvd."
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