Review: Study of the Raft by Leonora Simonovis

Study of the Raft by Leonora Simonovis (University of Colorado Press 2021)

Reviewed by Rebecca Valley

“I chant I’m home

every day

How many times

will it take

to feel it?”

In her debut collection, Study of the Raft, Leonora Simonovis builds a home for herself and her histories. Many currents propel this collection forward: stories of political unrest in Simonovis’s native Venezuela, of exile, sexual assault, mental illness, grief, motherhood. But in each of these currents, we find Simonovis’s careful attention to language. She looks upon each story with a critical yet compassionate eye—enveloping them all into one collective, complicated record of family and home.

Simonovis doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. In her poem “Katsaridaphobia,” named after the fear of cockroaches, the narrator steps on the spasming, dead body of a roach. She looks down at this quivering insect and asks, “What is my name?” In “Still Life With Baby,” we find a preserved still-born fetus “inside Abuela’s / pink and white / armoire.” But these moments of horror don’t feel freakish—Simonovis isn’t ogling. Instead, there is compassion here. We are reminded that it is inherently human to live among the dead and dying. That we all live with the preserved and floating bodies of our grief. At the end of “Still Life with Baby,” Simonovis writes:

“the doctor’s                           calculated words

his peace offering                   you can keep the body

Abuela’s guilt                          locked in a jar

A pasty doll                             the size of a mother’s breath.”

But these small, familial griefs aren’t the only ones that Simonovis makes space for in this collection. She also speaks of the more collective grief of life in exile. In many poems, Simonovis writes about political violence in Venezuela, which eventually drives her family to California. The narrator of these poems writes about the horror of people dying in the streets, disappeared friends and colleagues. But she also captures the smaller horrors of lost language, lost home, lost country. The narrator and her family, seeking safe haven, find they must also confront of the everyday political and social violence America perpetuates against refugees and immigrants. As Simonovis writes:

“Sometimes the only way out is

To step into the fable of another

Existence.”

The poems in Study of the Raft are diverse, but bound together by a consistent lyric voice. That voice appears most beautifully in “Postcards from Everywhere and Nowhere.” These short postcard poems, addressed to an unnamed cousin, are poignant, uncertain, yearning:  

“I waved and you did

Not wave back

Maybe you couldn’t

See me”

In these poems, the narrator tries to explain citizenship to her cousin, her son, herself. “Papers are important / in this land,” she writes—and then the poem unfolds into a memory of paper dolls, confetti. We feel the weight of bureaucracy in these poems, and the fragility of it. We feel the burden of paper that has the power to shift, to shape, a life.

In the last poem, “I am Not Leaving,” Simonovis makes her final stand. In these verses, she builds a home for herself on the volatile California land she’s adopted as her own. “I am / not from this land,” she writes, “but of it.” In this poem, and throughout her collection, Simonovis creates space—for herself, for her family, for others living in exile. At unprecedented violence, quiet glares, systemic bias, Simonovis looks back. She speaks:

“I’ve come to understand that in this

land, fire consumes to make space

for new language.”

And Simonovis does make new language. She gives us her mother tongue—and by doing so, she gives us permission to speak our own language.


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One thought on “Review: Study of the Raft by Leonora Simonovis

  1. Drizzle or dazzle?

    What a stunning review, Rebecca! What a perfect beginning to my all but last day of private practice, a blessed time of poignant goodbyes, recaps, and reconsiderations of shared psychological intimacies, spanning decades.

    Thank you for your reflections and Leonora’s poetry.

    ❤️, Patti

    >

    Like

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