How to Pull Apart the Earth by Karla Cordero (Not A Cult, 2018)
Featured in Oprah Magazine under the title “17 of the Best Poetry Books, as Recommended by Acclaimed Writers for National Poetry Month” How to Pull Apart the Earth is described by writer Laura Villareal as a journey into “the collective memory found in [the author’s] personal history, reminding us that we are rooted in the same familial tenderness.” The beautifully written 71 poems speak to the author’s identity as a Chicanx/Latinx woman raised in the border town of Calexico and themes of family, migration, and awareness, as well as identity and belonging, are seamlessly weaved throughout.
One of the salient features of this collection, is the stunning artwork, both on the cover and within its pages – each the four sections of the book are preceded by a different image. Cordero believes in collaborative work, as well as in the power of images and words to increase the reader’s experience. She recalls reading comic books during her childhood and the impact they had on her, as well as how they became a motivation for her to read and write. For this reason, she “wanted art to play a role in catering or foreshadowing the themes of the book.” Thus, she worked with artist Juan Carlos Beaz to design the images that compliment her poems.
The images are inspired by Alice’s –from Alice in Wonderland– fall down the rabbit hole and her journey to find her way back home. As Cordero acutely expresses, Alice is a character “emotionally caught between innocence and experience,” so the author “wanted the cover and images within my book to be reflective of a magical surrealistic character similar to Alice who was in search of belonging.” But the Alice in How to Pull Apart the Earth is a Chicanx/ Latinx woman who seeks to liberate herself from prejudice and systematic erasure. Cordero explains that each image within the book represents “a metaphor for the challenges or celebrations the Chicanx/ Latinx Alice comes across as she is challenged and reclaiming landscape and her own cultural roots.”
The first time I heard Karla Cordero read her poems I was awestruck by her assertive presence and the way she naturally engaged with her audience, making the reader a part of the experience through call and response interactions. When I asked her about the performative quality of her poems, she explained that one of her goals is to “engage both the eyes and ears of a reader (or listener).” This entails a careful editing process, that is not just about syntax, line breaks, and rhetorical figures. Cordero wants to make sure she’s “settling with a form that speaks to the pace and content the poems calls to exist in.” The poems in How to Pull Apart the Earth are not just meant to be read, but also spoken.
The experiential connection with the audience honors the ancestral practice of call and response songs used by plantation slaves and farm workers to pass the time, creating a sense of community and belonging in their harsh work environments. Cordero recalls the words of poet Paul Tran, who “suggests that the visual architecture of a poem can offer a landscape of meaning and psychology before reading the poem,” which is why she believes “the terms ‘page’ and ‘stage’ should co-exist as intimate partners, never segregated art forms.”
In this sense, the title of the book –How to Pull Apart the Earth– seems to embody the physicality of its poems and the process of writing, of pulling apart whatever is on the surface to explore and delve into the cracks, even if this entails confronting painful truths about oneself, family, and home. The first poem in the book, “Born at the Circus,” is an origin story where the speaker narrates her own birth,
i don’t believe quiet to be a good song
i know this. how my body whispered into light
the doctor calling each bone a still child
& i and go on & on to recreate my creation story.
start from scratch.
The poem begins by erasing what others have said about her first contact with the world and how she’s seen, which is why the doctor’s role is significant, since it implies an authority that must be challenged. The speaker does not want to be defined as “quiet” or “still,” so as the poem progresses, her voice becomes “the Spanish the lion who circles the stadium,” reclaiming her identity and her language with “all it’s rolled r’s.” The last line of the poem is powerful and haunting, as it turns against the beginning and when the lion roars with “an unstoppable snarl.”
In many of the poems, the speaker re-writes not just the story others have created about her, but also the history of her own people, migrant workers who made their home in this country and who move between languages and cultures,
my feet know home when the mouth
says: right here for now. the clothes on my back
carry the sun’s beat down. I save corn husk
in my pocket
the speaker says in “I’m Asked About Home.” Home not just a place but what we make of it, and as the book progresses, we understand that home is also about a language the speaker has been told “belongs in my blood,” but that can become a border all on its own, especially for a child born on the US-Mexico border. Cordero says that for her, the relationship between “Spanish and English carry a history evolved at various stages from trauma, to otherness, to belonging, to empowerment.”
Cordero grew up speaking Spanglish and has accepted that in-betweenness that Cuban researcher Gustavo Perez Firmat has called “life on the hyphen,” referring to how Cuban Americans negotiate their identity through their bilingual and bicultural experience in the US. For Cordero, her in-betweenness is a strength, and she uses code switching in her poems as a resource that can accomplish multiple things, including to “honor my culture’s authenticity” by describing something that cannot be translated into English,
my scraped elbow curandera
my swap meet chingona
my caldo bruja
my brown heart hermana
my understanding del otro lado
my otro lado
The above stanza, from “Arrival,” speaks about a woman named Petra, who helped raise her and her sisters and became an important influence in her becoming a poet. In addition, “code switching can also act as a ‘welcome mat’ or ‘handshake’ to those with similar tongues;” it is not just a mixing of languages, but an intersectional space of negotiation and compromise,
1. leche: milk. cream. skim milk. buttermilk. pasteurized sour cream.
half & half. half white. half privilege. privilege speaks power.
colonization makes power. Columbus found power. milked the
This particular poem, titled “A Spanish to English Translation on Sweet Things gone Sour,” uses definitions from Spanish words to speak about the legacy of colonization, violence against people of color, and the current political climates. Poetry in this sense, becomes an act of translation of a reality that seems elusive and cannot be represented by just one language, which is why Cordero says “When the non-Spanish speaker interacts with my work it is an invitation into ally ship and awareness, with the hope to create a visibility for communities of people who have been historically under or misrepresented in media, pop-culture and literature.”
As we journey through the pages of this powerful collection, we also become Alice, falling through the rabbit hole, pausing at each image to honor those who came before us, then continuing with the ritual of reading the poems and letting their physicality guide us. The idea is to come out the other side, if not changed, at least with a stronger awareness of ourselves and our relationship to the world as we know it.