In Review

Material Girl by Laura Jaramillo. Subpress, 2012.

cover of Material Girl

Reviewed November 1, 2013 by Ryan Eckes.

Unreal estate. I’ll just say this sometimes when the rising cost of living comes up, or gentrification (a word used more and more with a positive connotation, it seems, despite its definition), or anything to do with money and land. Unreal estate. I got it from this poem by Laura Jaramillo:


“Sometimes I arrive here and I am standing

outside Law and Government High

School”—man waiting to get into Bronx Family Court

a unit of measurement that

means: several hundred yards


That’s it. The epigraph is half the poem, an example between the term and its definition, which is broad. You might think “restraining order,” and you might think “long line,” and you might think “demeaning childish bullshit to be endured after long line.” But that title makes you think about ownership, too. So you have to ask, what am I several hundred yards away from? Where can I breathe, anyway? And it is unreal, isn’t it—meaning unbelievable, which you might say in passing, rhetorically, without thinking much about it, because you’ve already thought so much about it, absorbed it, internalized it—that we have to feed the rich to get by? Of course we do.

The poem, like many in Material Girl, leads me to thinking about home and what that means. Can you really make a home? How? What all goes into it? The short poems that comprise “The Reactionary Poems,” the first of the book’s three sections, focus on the boundaries imposed by money and language. The poems react like good jokes, titles becoming punch-lines, reorienting us as they remind us why we’re pissed off. As a whole, they make visible the roots of a common political anger that is deeply personal. What’s the joke under the joke?

The reactionary poems also remind us that what we already know and might feel helpless about can be re-articulated. The need to SAY SO remains—to express the disbelief, to keep the truth in our mouths, to keep putting it in the air, like the man waiting to get into Bronx Family Court. Unreal estate—you can say it wherever you want. A few pages later, outside another Law & Government High School:


The teenagers are gathered at

the corner of 11th and

Wolf in front of the church

to guard the sieve

through which all black

people in the world


This title originally came out an Italian’s mouth in South Philly, probably, and entered the sieve that is Jaramillo’s ear while she lived in that neighborhood. The overheard line talks back to its origin, to the teenagers’ racism, re-framing and re-broadcasting the story. We don’t know what exactly happened to Sal who didn’t get shot, but in just these few lines, we get the larger picture. The scene’s the crime. Who gets shot, when and where and how many times and how often in Philly, in any American city? Notice also what that single word “sieve” does to the whole image, which is the story, so you feel the weight of that last word, “enter.” Much of this poetry’s force comes not only from reinvesting overheard/found language, but from brilliant, well-timed nouns that leave images imprinted in your mind. These are poems you don’t forget.

While Philly (where I met and became friends with Laura several years ago) makes a few cameos, New York City gets primary treatment. She grew up in Queens and has lived much of her life there, and the book gives you a strong sense of that city, its landscape, its talk and how it feels to work your ass off to pay the rent every month for your tiny book-ridden apartment. Exhaustion pervades these poems, and drives them, I think, along with a persistent disbelief. Here are two more reactionary poems, which appear side-by-side in the book:


How could the word ‘post-

heroic’ even

exist but it does


not from advertising

but from theories

invented to sell

concepts in the field

of advertising.


Still, she drags her tired

arches her five o’clock

shadow her leathery

bosom into the empty


Fucking great, right? Again, we get the disbelief, which is funny—how could this word “post-heroic” even exist?—then the word is quickly pried open and, in PT. II, redefined. “Post-heroic” is now the tired draaaag of the drag queen’s feet who’s gotta pay her rent too. It’s a kind of détournement. When faced with the unreality of our capitalist culture, we return to “the fact of being/flesh in this world” (to borrow a phrase from another poem). A scam is replaced with an image of humanity. That’s the reaction. It is not heroic or even brave or noble. It is poetic, which is much better.

This practice of redefinition runs throughout Material Girl. In the longer poems of the second section, “Civilian Nest,” the commentary is more explicit. Image still does most of the talking, but Laura is a character in these narratives, observing people and language in the street while being observed. Formally, the poems’ New York School roots are clear. We get the lyric and jostling moment-by-moment experience of the city you find in a Frank O’Hara poem, but it’s not romanticized (how could it be and be true in this century?). The poems do hone in on the feeling of the experience, which is often one of alienation. The truth hurts, and it’s a pleasure. Here’s an example:


The neighborhood is full of these posters

someone says sort of an uphill political rehabilitation

huh? someone says credit or


Danjiela disagrees, He is a national hero rings up the frozen

pizza young women’s infinite seriousness

holds up the nation state even after there’s

no nation

and no state.

Her notebook

says on its cover

Danjiela plus Miguelito

made in Jugoslavijia/

Hecho en Mexico.

Someone says into their celly

I’m mean, but I’m humble.

Vishnu the fish

monger says I don’t eat


I don’t treat

my body

like a graveyard I pray

and fast

read the Holy Bible when I feel

Hunger I pray

more an ounce of pink and blue translucent skeleton

per pound of de-veined shrimp. Overfished striped bass

tuna and fluke, the age of Pisces coming

to a close. Your

earthly lot

a bloodied

shin compared to

this your faith

polite shiv

in my agnostic face

So what’s sacred? Where Vishnu’s voice (voice of god?) slides into Laura’s, the prayer becomes “an ounce of pink and blue translucent skeleton/per pound of de-veined shrimp. Overfished striped bass/tuna and fluke.” The poet and the righteous fishmonger are linked by a commercial transaction which shreds any kind of faith. If prayer is a form of payment, it won’t hold up in this city, in this time. We hold up nations and states that kill people and animals, and the poem reminds us how. Your name is a fluke and your money and ideas are a polite shiv, thank you, see you next week, same fish time, same fish place. But maybe the Age of Pisces really is coming to a close. Who knows, and what then? Maybe there’s a need to be mean and humble and maybe there’s an ounce of truth in these hypocrisies. What if in this meanness there’s a dream of no more war criminals, no more wars? Because the poem is bent on truth, I can dwell over the narrative’s ambiguities and larger social questions, despite its irony and agnosticism. Its irony and agnosticism propel my thinking, are a practice of truth.

The whole book, you might say, maps a struggle to reconstruct belief, or faith, in something greater than individual freedom in a society which undermines it and seems to co-opt any art, any pursuit of beauty or authentic life. On the book’s cover is a beautiful image of refuse strewn on the shore—colorful garbage mixed with discarded flowers and the sea’s horizon beyond—it seems to combine dream and reality, the hunger for a life intensely lived along with its corresponding emptiness. Like the poetry, the image captures the feeling of being used up by the city. On the back of the book, Fred Moten’s blurb concludes, “If the thing is that we have to learn how both to inhabit and escape, adore and destroy—well, now I feel sure that this is the thing, because this is what Laura Jaramillo teaches.” The trick, I guess, is learning what specifically to inhabit and to escape, in this our age of mechanical reproduction. Material Girl seeks this out. Another poem in “Civilian Nest,” “MUSIC FOR BLOWN-OUT SPEAKERS” (the title of which echoes the cover image) begins:

“I am a man who loves beauty” but good design

levels difference,

knows no pluralities

that can’t be halved

and quartered. As if poetic diction,

as if that supremely

impersonal avant-garde could pave over, even express

our peasant sufferings


Eye ehma men of constant sorroh

aye seen trouble all meh days

Suppose the difference between beauty and “good design” is the difference between music and its absence (i.e., the homogenization and quantification of culture), and what we want is music. There’s the nagging question of how to get personal where everything’s increasingly becoming plastic, including poetry. The lyrics from “Man of Constant Sorrow,” misspelled, call attention to what we hear versus what we see. No one knows who really wrote that old folk song. Dick Burnett, whose version is the earliest known recording—and who was partially blind—never claimed authorship. Yet most people feel the song when they hear it, I bet. Is that the part that can’t be destroyed? An “I” is just an “eye” that hears, that listens for that part (call it the sacred) and tries to inhabit it, to sing it back, like a game of catch. It goes on, like this song, for years and years, shared by different voices. “Good design,” on the other hand, won’t throw the ball back; there’s no back-and-forth. Pah! The hard p’s and d’s of the poem above feel like an effort to level good design. After the folk lyrics, the poem takes stock of some immediate details of material existence in a few lines of prose: another electric bill, mylar bendy straws, and a suggestion from Jaramillo’s father that “the end of the neoliberal myth” is at hand. If it is, the poem asks, how do we respond to something like a Takashi Murakami retrospective and its myriad products for sale: “artisan-made flowers and smiley faces great streams of jism/from the cock of a cartoon.”

Laura exclaims comically:


The mask of strangeness

   always falls off the face of convention.

   Plastic articulated as


Art can deaden the soul like real estate. It can be real estate, the stuff that kills. This poetry digs for something else, cleans house, leaves house. The book’s last section, a single 40-page poem called “Material Girl,” takes kaleidoscopic inventory of a life, inhabiting and discarding material as it further explores questions raised in the first two sections. Written during the process of moving out of New York (to Durham, NC), it’s a relentless and vulnerable sifting through, line after solid line. We never settle on the theoretical, on the comfortable. If I want to conclude that the sacred’s a matter of acoustics, I can’t; the poem won’t let me. We’re reminded there’s more to it, always. We remain aware of the gap between what we see and what we know. And we have to reckon with memory. I give you the first few pages:

Painters argue vehemently against this

that blue doesn’t exist without

its word

where we

take it as an article of faith I still believe

in current events, language,

morning, civic languor the weather’s

pigment as important as anything we talk about it


—it’s cerulean

or its non-

sky color

Matter in the symbolic universe

of a day magazines pile

in the ante-

room of the shrink’s office an editorial

states it would take no less

than a revolution in the structure

of family

to bring about true feminism

But the ladies,

they have so many choices now

they wear high heels they wear sneakers

on the way to work the hours empty themselves

in the humid subway

cheap chocolate

blooms from age in its wrapper

on the newsstand

through a series

of sound-proof

doors our mutual/objective/interlocutor

helps the women

their broken

intimacies shared/in shards

splayed through that white noise

machine’s hiss

She brings her lunch in

a Victoria’s Secret bag

pink for the shrink’s receptionist

rudeness is a religion

today, she’s cheerful wearing a sweater

with a rhinestone noose

bedazzled on the shoulder

she’s nothing

if the not the guardian

of my sleep where

she says start recycling

your mental pornography

your fantasy life is dying

But I’m awake

in the thick

of our newly-affirmed liberal

democracy, a feeling of not

feeling the Spring

but its linden trees:

an essence of Clorox and semen

flowering that doubles as the new

year aging lots of books disappear

in the move flip-flops get left

behind in a trash bag

I get here and have no house

shoes, don’t know where

to buy milk a thirst awake in the cold

morning the years get written

on the backs of pharmacy receipts:

cat food trash bags sort movies/books

clean bathroom pack papers burn sage

sweet grass

non-epic accretion

of happenings: attachment ending


crowding out night silence

Noise, not unlike


from another time

invades the room

gather up the animals they call it companionate love

here without

the fiction that I is anyone

but I the receptionist

or the imaginary ‘before’

of this building

taking calls from black sand the city

beneath us collects downward towards

infinity taking calls belies

today’s artificiality the internet doubles as

sleep talking and talking

as if Manhattan still existed

And that’s just the beginning. This long poem is extraordinarily awake—mind and physical world become the same organ—and the further you move through it, the greater the resonance. Reading it I imagine riding through veins of a city that’s a body, memories like pulsing subway stops. In the poem’s next section, an homage to Laura’s mother, a Colombian immigrant to whom she feels indebted while grappling with her current situation, intimate reflections of riding the el with her as a child mix with vivid images of Queens’ landscape that register the “non-epic accretion” of the unhappy working life, of “failed romance.” Later Colombia’s landscape and history actually appear, seamlessly a part of the whole. The poem, like home, is vast—you have to think about what home means, and what you are. It ends up taking place through you, covering so much ground. There’s the obvious question of what constitutes a “material girl,” but I leave that to you. I should probably at least comment on the Madonna song, but I don’t want to, except to say this poem, one of the best I have ever read, will destroy that song.

* * *

Ryan Eckes lives in South Philadelphia. He's the author of Old News (Furniture Press, 2011), Valu-Plus (forthcoming, Furniture Press, 2014), and other books. Recent work has appeared in The Rumpus, OnandOnScreen, GlitterPony, COYDUP, and Jupiter 88. He works as an adjunct at Temple University and Community College of Philadelphia.