Brimming with striking metaphors and theological echoes, We Borrowed Gentleness, the first poetry collection by Houston-based writer J. Estanislao Lopez, is an elegant record of family life on both sides of the Mexican border. Many of these 56 poems appear to have an autobiographical basis. Somber family history underlies "My Uncle's Killer" and "Little Words," in which an ancestor's arranged marriage led to her loss of faith and hatred of her father. "Laredo Duplex" explains how violence prompted the family's migration; "Across the river, Nuevo Laredo. My father,/ born there, was born on the side of defeat." "The Contract" recalls acting as a go-between for a father who didn't speak English, and in "Diáspora" the speaker is dubious about assimilation: "I am losing my brother to whiteness." As generations turn, "The Interval" is concerned with how to be a good father.
Poetry takes on various shapes here: stanzas, paragraphs or phrases strung across the page. The tone is elevated and philosophical ("You take the knife of epistemology and the elegiac fork") with ample alliteration. Flora and fauna and the Bible are common sources of unexpected metaphors--sometimes simultaneously, as in "Alternate Ending: Solomon's Misjudgement": "He misses his brother, beautiful Absalom, whose hair/ still hangs in a tree. Coarse flower. Absalom, abloom." Scriptural allusions make an apt shorthand, as in "How the small griefs multiply/ like loaves in a basket." Lopez tackles big issues of identity, loss and memory in delicate verse suited to readers of Kaveh Akbar and Reyna Grande. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck