Early on in Tender Machines, her delicate, finely-boned, and yet fiery new poetry collection, J. Mae Barizo writes, “See how my desire thrives? / Feeding on every living thing.”
Just out from Tupelo Press and a finalist for the Dorset Prize, Tender Machines is a meditation on womanhood and the debris that comes with living a full life. The speaker in this collection attempts to extricate herself from the scorching impulses of the body and the fact of being alive in the world, with its skewed power structures. The speaker’s love affairs, her relationship with her daughter, her personal history, and losses unfurl through the collection amidst broader, overarching pressures such as climate change, the violence of colonialism, COVID-19, and the dynamics of wealth and class.
Spanning from Manila to Manhattan, this collection is divided into two sections, “The Women” and “Tender Machines.” “The Women” features powerful poems such as “Fugue on the Maiden Name of My Mother,” in which the speaker confronts how her great-great-grandmother in the Philippines was the favorite concubine of “a mad priest from Spain.” “Tender Machines” interrogates the relationship between the landscape and the self—the landscape of the lover’s body in bed, the landscape of New York City. At the center of this web is the speaker, hungry: searching, searching, searching. For silence, for kinship with other women, for history.
This preoccupation with the silence is of special interest to Barizo, a musician and multimedia artist who is interested in the poetics of sound. The speaker makes several references to music (including Bach, Schubert, and “The Goldberg Variations”), and music becomes both a refuge from and a mirror to the speaker’s own concerns. The silence in these works is technically evoked by the restraint of Tender Machine’s poems, lithe and sinuous, illuminated by the whiteness of the page. The speaker lets the readers in just enough for the poems to feel whispered, as though we are being told a secret. Against the “performance that is Madison Avenue” and the “grief cascading like a giant azalea,” Barizo writes, “Consider the fermata in the sonata, practicing always for disappearance.” The silence that is always there, the mystery of the self, just out of reach, pausing in desire and pain.
“Pleistocene,” part of the first section, was intimate and graceful in its exploration of loss:
It’s just like she imagined: sporting
a blue backless gown, a radiologist
with cold hands, an X-ray room
that hasn’t changed its look since 1969.
The doctor calls later, something cloudy
in the lungs. His voice makes her remember
losing the baby, little red leaf. And what if
she would have wanted? Scarlet lantern
moths, seasons later than usual…
The carefully measured tercet belies the pain of the circumstances—the lung disease, the miscarriage. The distance of the third-person, which so many of the poems in “The Women” deploy, compounds the diaphanous, observational quality of the illness and loss. The emphasis of “wanted” underscores the speaker’s hope and yearning for an “earth that’s not getting hotter” and lungs that “will heave again before the stars burn out.” The heat again, the animal self peeking out, “hurtling,” amidst “the thunder of mouths.”
In “Woman on the Verge,” also a part of the first section, we see a more candid, disarming portrait of the speaker:
If you’ve ever fallen asleep in your party dress
smoked out of a soft apple darted your tongue
into a mouth because she told you she loved
Mozart piano concertos ever cried in the Uber
or during the whale documentary breastfed babies
on a public bus ever paid a week’s salary coloring
the grays or cried into a hot tub full of younger
more pliable people…
The second person lends an immediate familiarity to the poem, underscored by the laundry list of everyday embarrassments and quirks. The speaker acknowledges her own feelings of insufficiency, and as readers, we can see the humor in the situations outlined above (maybe because we have also experienced some of them).
There also is a snatch of the multiplicity of the self, a love affair mentioned so quickly it might almost be missed—“because she told you she loved.” The woman on the verge of reclaiming all her past lives, “deciduous,” nimble.
In “small essays on disappearance,” a series of short, untitled poems, we see the speaker as an observer who excavates the performative aspect of living. In the poem below, she speaks of her relationship with her daughter:
February and the sky was white
the streets were white and Barack
was paramount, what a fantastic
hour when she was born: keyholes
gushing, midwife thrusting needle
into skin, I remembered years ago
the quick slice of razors on wrists
what bliss, red aligning on the eaves
or beneath the skin. “May I eat
the candy necklace off my body?”
the child asks, miniature city of her
face, the more Time presses the more
beautiful they become—lover
husband mistress child—I played
Goldberg Variations as she slept
thinking of the geologic proportions
of Manhattan: limestone, marble, malachite.
In this attentive, crystalline excerpt, the speaker weaves in the setting (“Barack was paramount”) and her history of self-harm as she details her daughter’s birth and confronts her own life and inheritance to her daughter. The high drama of the italicized “what bliss” and “the more Time presses” sanctifies and almost beautifies this breathless poem.
In the second section, “Tender Machines,” the reader is introduced, with more intimacy, to the speaker’s lover, mentioned briefly before. The love story is rendered in high-definition. The speaker’s desire, and the tenderness and fragility of the relationship, play out delicately on the page. The register and central tension feel mythic in scope, with its depiction of how the self responds to the lover, molding and shifting in response to the relationship. In the poem “Tender Machines,” a part of which is reproduced below, the speaker says, “Yes…when she was in love she was more susceptible to the killing cold.”
The hand then, which was Olympic in its grandeur,
the shape of something identifiable
but not the same name as the river. She was
like a crooked line of trees by the water
that kept usurping your personal space. Though
that memory was out of focus still.
Though he fit inside her mind like an exquisitely
gloved hand. A previous moment, susceptible
to being broken but which became ultimately more human
in the process.
The jagged, asymmetrical lines mimic the musicality of the language and the cinematic quality of falling—and being—in love. The form literally mimics the “crooked line of trees at the river that kept usurping your personal space,” and the minds melding into each other.
Ultimately, in Tender Machines, J. Mae Barizo creates a space of beauty, attentiveness, and grace towards the self and its many incarnations. I admire this collection for the way in which the elegant, slightly elegiac language conveys restraint, even as the self, “rapacious,” hungers for more. It truly is a work of tenderness and generosity.