Braid by Mia Leonin


Van K. Brock Florida Poetry Series (1999)

What an older poet looks for in a first book by a younger poet is intensity of language -- "the startle effect," a term applied to the grasping motion infants instinctually make. It reminds us of our descent from trees, our human nature, our reliance on speech. Reading Mia Leonin's poems makes me newly aware of how we use imagery to save ourselves from falling. Leonin is observant and imaginative. In one instance she is inside the mind of a blind person; in another, an aged woman. The nuances of her environment are not lost on her. Potions and magic spells exert a powerful hold on her work as she struggles to come to terms with her part-Hispanic, part Midwestern background. Some of these poems are oracular, hard to riddle. A few are abstract and defy definition. But on balance this is a lively and engaging first book. --Maxine Kumin

Braid is pervaded by successive surges of heat, flood and drought. Summer-stuck windows seal in tract housing of electric mixers, Pekingese dogs, wigs, school shoes, cut-off jeans; recitals, remedies and overly fresh relatives. Interludes of blindness and early marriage surrender to the gradual whiskey-sour dusk of recognition and insight. Mia Leonin plaits her coming-of-age and coming-to-terms narratives into a sensuous and obdurate Southern identity. -- C.D. Wright



Whether it's the myth of him
Or the peninsula,

Whether he dances across the burning bush flesh-footed
Or with bottle caps taped to his sneakers,

Whether his new girl is Barbie doll breasts
Or corn-stuffed body, red-yarned hair,

All the dolls are watching me tonight--mouths hemmed shut,
Eyes glued wide, as I cut and drain the bird that is my heart.

Candles are lit to remember. Eucalyptus heals.
Grandmother, teach me to forget. 

Sit up old woman. Undo your tomb.
Clear the coal and venom from your throat one last time.

To forget him: Gather up your hair. 
Divide it into his three most intimate parts:

His fingers longer than Moses' walking stick. 
The indentation in the center of his chest.
His fear of touching jewelry.

Braid these three parts the entire length of your hair.
You know what's next, ungrateful child. You know.


The Wedding of Ramon

What's too much for him is his bride's red hair,
Each curl a chili dreaming on its vine.
How her thoughts must sizzle under such a fire.

Ramon is from Cuba. Red hair on an island
Is like plantains in Utah, a volcano in Kansas.
When he reached the middle of the United States,

He kissed her belly and swore off everything un-American.
No prayers like cries or sirens of salsa at his wedding.
Only food on toothpicks and well-rehearsed prayers.

Now there are Vienna sausages and ambrosia salads.
A video camera protrudes from the right eye of each man.
Now tall women carry plans where their hips used to be.

He remembers his mother's warning: Qué problema
For the woman who lets two do her hair at once.
It tangles the sensibilities, spears the heart with vanity.

In the dressing room, the hands of his new sisters
Sweep and lurch through his bride's hair
Like bats in a beam of light.

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