Review: Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser by Luisa Igloria

Ann E. Michael

PQ Contributing Editor
Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser
Luisa Igloria
Utah State University Press, 2014
paperback, 74 pp
ISBN 978-0-87421-968-5
In his introduction to Luisa Igloria’s Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser, Mark Doty, who judged the 2014 May Swenson Award, does such a masterful job of introducing her work that later reviewers may feel a bit intimidated. A terrific collection, however, offers many facets for appreciation. Doty says her work is “drunk with the world’s bounty.” There’s no arguing with that perception, and Igloria’s grounding in the claims of the world are what draw readers to her poetry. Reading her poems informs us about the world, and beautifully so.
Here are but a few examples: “Derecho Ghazal,” which teaches the reader the major formal attributes of the ghazal while offering the imagery of the derecho (look it up in your Funk & Wagnall) as information and as the physical activities of both weather and human beings. Igloria is a professor of Creative Writing and English at Old Dominion University, and a poem such as this one serves pedagogy as well as it serves poetry:
And the people on every highway, panicked, sought
a clear route for exodus: derecho.
What’s in your emergency backpack? Beef jerky, mineral
water, flashlight, solar cells? Snap in the sound of derecho.*
Another poem, titled “Landscape, with Darkness and Hare,” takes the reader and the poem’s indeterminate intimate companion to a back road where there is “a well of darkness” and where “Cell phone signals come through only / intermittently.” They encounter a moment of Frostian choice:
…here we are. We could have taken
the other exit, the one littered with rest
stops, vending machines dispensing packets
of sugared goods all day and night, glass
vaults offering the sliver of a chance to lift
a cheap stuffed animal out of the felted pile—
The speaker’s choice is to exit into the dark. Igloria serves us all-too-familiar images of contemporary American life and observes them closely. Yet she notices also “in this / desolation, so many signs of life”: juncos, cattails, “Dürer’s young hare.” That animal is not a stuffed Beanie Baby™ but a distinct creature of possibility that appears, and also vanishes, in the early morning  hours.
That this collection features a litany of the world’s fabulous bounties is also evidenced in the wondrous poem “Grenadilla.” (Grenadilla is the African blackwood tree, but also an alternate spelling for granadilla—passionfruit— which is clearly what Igloria means here).  She writes:
I’ve always loved what knows how to fold
the piquant tendril in the sweet—
ginger with anise, torn basil with lemon,
the iron bite of bitter gourds lingering
long after summer berries have left
their juice and stain on fingers, lips.
Reptile-skinned melons blush orange…
and it is easy to imagine the exotic flavors she invokes as the speaker explains she “slipped thin slices of the carambola / on my love’s tongue, so he could understand // how some stars burn greener in their / passing.”
This collection shimmers with landscapes, letters, ghazals, and the bright feathers of imaginary and familiar creatures. The title poem conjures the unnamed subject, hummingbirds, through a close reading of biology as she asks herself “to consider the miniature.” The speaker informs herself, and her readers, about hummingbird facts, “A heart that fuels more than five / hundred miles without stopping to rest”* for example, and juxtaposes the factual with the imageric and metaphorical—as we are wont to do with creatures so mysterious and strange. The bounty of living in the world, for all its horrors and flaws, is the motor of Igloria’s collection, “the weight of living,” as she names it, “all the kisses that have morphed / into deeds and contracts…that smack of the toil that comes / of trying to sweeten others’ days.”
In Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser, Luisa Igloria broadens her readers’ understanding of the world and sweetens their days.
*By the coincidence of proximity and poetic observation, Lesley Wheeler mentions the same June, 2012 derecho in her poem “After the Pipe Burst” (Radioland, reviewed here in PQ).