Ugly Music, by Diannely Antigua. Portland, Oregon: YesYes Books, May 2019. 99 pages. $18.00, paper.
Diannely Antigua’s debut collection Ugly Music is a lyrical collage that meditates on childhood, trauma, survival, sexual identity, love, loss, and the often complicated journey through womanhood. Antigua’s poems never shy away from subjects that are unfortunately still considered taboo in today’s social and political environment (sex, masturbation, lost pregnancies, etc.). Ugly Music is a book that seeks to engage with its themes at all levels, and with language that is clear, direct, and unapologetic, attempts to remind us that nothing is, nor should be, beyond poetry’s grasp.
In a collection about identity and origin, it’s fitting that the first poem, “Re-Education,” ponders the things and experiences (however simple and mundane) that have shaped the speaker as a woman. Podcasts have educated the speaker on feminism. The movie Coyote Ugly has sanctioned the speaker to dance on top of a bar. But there are other interactions that give the speaker certain pause, and that allow for a reflection that is both relatable and socially relevant:
There is a truth in this magic—
the time I took Plan B, then
the other time I took Plan B. I bled
for two months. There could’ve been
a mother in me. I told no one,
except the man at Tacos Lupita
who asked what I wanted in my burrito
and I think I said baby. I think I
spun around three times and whispered a name.
Scroll through your social media pages and you’re bound to find a story about a woman’s experiences with contraceptives and/or an abortion (usually in response to the various anti-abortion bills being passed in different states at the moment). It might even mirror what the speaker above went through, in that with no family or friends to comfortably speak to about this, she lets her secret slip while ordering food. The speaker’s isolation reveals that she can only turn to herself when it comes to her body, a body that she has to educate without the help of others.
In the poem “Golden Shovel With Solstice,” the speaker learns not just about her mother’s “sex positions books,” but about her body and the “music” it’s capable of making. The speaker and another girl (presumably her sibling or a friend) parody the positions they find in those pages. But quickly such acts become a journey of discovery:
I don’t want to say what we did next, that we
touched our own bodies, thin
arms reaching into what bits of hair we’d grown, the begin-
ing of a secrete thing, or that we
reached for each other, a fumbled jazz
of grips, on this solstice in June.
If today, I could replay our hands’ song, we
would deny its music, when we each die-
d a little on that bed, notes ending too soon.
The speaker never indicates whether her mother taught her about the birds and the bees (or masturbation for that matter), and in much like “Re-Education,” we see that she must learn these things by herself, that she must listen and remember the music of intimacy that faded too soon.
Reading each section of the collection (which alternates like a song—“Verse,” “Chorus,” Bridge,” etc.), one can’t help but think of Sharon Olds, not merely because of her references to sex, or to her “pussy,” but because of the attitude and tone that says these subjects are not off-limits and are crucial to understanding a woman’s origin. In “There is Nothing,” the speaker details how there is nothing like “masturbating in a psych ward,” and in “Brujería,” she addresses and curses her period, or lack of period, directly. One of the most memorable poems “After Reading Sharon Olds” shows the ways in which a thought about a family member leads to further thoughts about one’s origin and responsibility to be honest with those we love:
I decide to write more poems
about my father’s dick. I’ve seen it before
birth, the pupil of my mother’s eye a part of mine then.
We must have stared at it, erect with purpose, plunging
into the air, our open legs ready to receive
the unfaithful gift. I want to tell my father
I lost my virginity to a man
with his name, let the whole of his letters enter me
Although the image of the father’s penis might seem jarring at first, the entirety of the poem illuminates the meaning of its placement and provides context for the inspiration behind it (read a couple of Sharon Olds poems yourself and you too might feel inspired and comfortable enough with your writing to include images of genitalia). Antigua seeks to show the veil behind subjects considered taboo, and to create a music whose content, lyricism, and delivery is accessible on a personal level.
Not everything in this collection is precisely about the body (at least not directly). Many poems center on the speaker’s relationship with her mother, and how the speaker, who’s now older, attempts to understand the moments they shared, however awkward, painful, or tragic they were. In “Beauty Lesson,” the speaker studies the Scotch tape her mother places in “the middle of her forehead/ between her brows” so that she doesn’t express “anything other than joy,” and in “Misconception” the speaker, watching her mother wash dishes, finds herself reimagining the moment of her conception, what it was like for her mother to bear her father’s weight (both literally and figuratively) and to enjoy “making” her daughter. And there is the poem “Post-Concussion” where the speaker reflects on her mother’s accident (falling on the driveway) and ruminates on the fragility of life:
But I cried anyway
and wondered who’d saved us,
if we’d even been saved at all,
if somewhere we were burning blue and orange, the peaks
of fired like canyon leaf rubbings, the paper,
the veins, or some celestial child
discovering flame, magnifying glass held high above,
smoke rising from our heads.
Despite the security we believe we have with others and with our surroundings, can we ever truly consider ourselves safe, either from the world, from others, or from ourselves? This a question with no easy answer, and Antigua isn’t necessarily trying to provide explanations as much as she is attempting to unearth the complexities and emotions behind our interactions with our past and present.
Antigua has written an impressive collection that wrestles with origins in its many forms (identity, family, desire, sexual exploration). In a voice mature in style, approach, and delivery, Ugly Music navigates both the simplest and most difficult of memories, hoping to capture their melodies and dissonances before the track to this thing called life comes to its inevitable end.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.