Lauro Vazquez/Barbara Brinson Curiel

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Birthing Genoveva: A Conversation with Barbara Brinson Curiel’s “Mexican Jenny”

‘Mexican Jenny and Other Poems’, Barbara Brinson Curiel (Anhinga Press, 2014)

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CantoMundo inaugural fellow, Barbara Brinson Curiel is the author of Speak to Me From Dreams (Third Woman Press, 1989) and Mexican Jenny and Other Poems (Anhinga Press, 2014) selected by Cornelius Eady as the winner of the 2012 Philip Levine Prize for poetry.

Below is a very brief excerpt from “Mexican Jenny”—a narrative poem based on the life of a prostitute “convicted of killing her abusive husband” in the gold-mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1913 and which serves as the cornerstone of this collection:

I say it’s the same as being married.
When they want it
you give in or risk
a twisted arm or a punch.

You let them do it
to claim a roof,
a meal you cook yourself,
the wool for a winter coat.

Married or prostitute alike, women know how to cook, how to sew, and specially how to suffer, and how to suffer well…or so history—echoes of masculine voices—would like to have us believe.

But what do we know of Jenny? What do we know of these “daughters of Eve” condemned to be feared for what they might say and to be silenced for what they say?

He married me and I became Jenny.
Only a few people here could utter the sounds
of my birth name: Genoveva,
and I’d left that old self far away.

In Mexican Jenny, Barbara Curiel—in what former San Antonio Poet Laureate, Carmen Tafolla, called “bare and beautiful” language—offers a sweeping exploration of the so-called “domestic sphere,”—cage and vault, bastille of our common and not-so-distant past.

Nothing is left unturned or unexplored by this poet, from fairytales to tamales, to a spoon, to a simmering pot of menudo; all is fair game for the poet to deconstruct—brick by brick—that bulwark separating the kitchen from the artists workshop; and history—those mutilated echoes of the past—from the voices of our own mothers. And who, like Genoveva, could whisper to us across time:

I have a leather thimble
improvised from the sole
of a worn-out shoe.

I make my own panorama
under a stone-grey sky
dark with sparrow’s wings.

I invent flowers,
dogs, and horses
to replace the ones I knew.

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Lauro Vazquez is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of the Nicholas Sparks prize. He is assistant editor and contributor at Letra Latinas—the literary program at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. Lauro is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s creative writing program.