“the sun I can afford”: Zachary Kinsella on Protest and Compromise in that’s what you get by Sheila Maldonado

that’s what you get, Sheila Maldonado’s second full-length collection, offers rich, emotional weight with a kind of ease that is both precise and involved. Maldonado describes injustice, anger, and conflict in a style unwilling to dwell or become obsessively attached to what she cannot control. Through largely unpunctuated verse, that’s what you get advises us that energy must be spent wisely and that deciding to resist is a complex act of comprise. As Maldonado writes in the collection’s longest, five-page poem, “and still I lay,” “action is better / than laying yes / but laying is better / than panicking” and concludes, “because my exhaustion / has grown deeper / than my rage / I lay / I lay / I lay.” Maldonado recognizes the limits of individual effort, reveals a mindful approach to protest, and considers deeply the stakes of constant engagement. 

An adjunct lecturer of English at CUNY, Maldonado often observes these stakes, and others, from a pedagogical perspective that disrupts as it guides. Instruction, in the poem “submit / resist,” is a polarity of refusal and acceptance: “resist gatekeepers / submit to disorientation / to starting over and again.” And later, in “winter zuihitsu,” the instructor herself denies institutional restrictions and obligations: “I call myself professor cuz someone else just did / schools are asylums I told them / I have been dealing with some cases and am a case myself.” Much like Judith Halberstam, Maldonado promotes a pedagogy that accepts rather than avoids failure and embraces the bewilderment of disappointment or absurdity.

Maldonado, the daughter of Honduran parents, folds familial history into bilingual explorations that demonstrate language’s immense capacity to typify and shape kinship and the interpersonal. In the poem “blood to the hospital / sangre al hospital,” relationships are kinetic, transient, and exposed—especially as they are represented in an erasure poem that translates a full, four stanzas from Spanish into a sparse, depleted English transcription:

mother                                    madre en la soledad
            (solitude) blood           escupiendo sangre
                                                soledad mas madre
            hospital                       en el hospital

Here, translation feels ineffable and erasure feels like erosion. Maldonado renders one full form down to its sharp, fragmented shadow, a contrast that combines the intimacy of illness, language, and lineage. And if Maldonado intends to expose the delicacy of translation, then we, too, as we glimpse the textures of her performance. It occupies and creates space between the two languages.

The boundaries of this linguistic-centered tension extend into discussions of place. Maldonado examines the ways two highly personal locations act as foils for one another. In the collection’s penultimate poem, “first day ever in Teguz, capital of the homeland (March 23 2012),” Maldonado’s deconstruction of proximity and distance happens first figuratively: “I used to wonder what it would be like to work in Honduras”; then materially: “Now I know it is hot and draining instead of cold and draining like New York. / I will always remember standing in front of students in a classroom in Tegucigalpa.” The result is a friction of mind, memory, and affect that reverberates and spins uncertainty into contentment. In the remove between New York and Tegucigalpa, Maldonado allows anxiousness to settle, to ease: “I remember the feeling in these students’ words, the surprise, the joy. / I am glad to replace my memories with theirs.”

To rewind slightly, the through lines of that’s what you get, are grounded by the singular set of reoccurring poems: “my-kus.” With a nod to haiku, Maldonado uses the aphoristic entries to essentially divide the book into sixths as their interwoven presence has them feel like section divisions. Each containing several subheadings, the five “my-kus” and one variant, “bike-kus,” gives us room to process the larger and more expansive musings.

This is not to say the “kus” are simply supplemental. They are necessary to the trajectory of that’s what you get as their availability stabilizes, with humor and brevity, the collection as a whole, e.g., “‘rage’ not righteous / like Malcolm / irrational like / hammer-wielding dude / in the street”; “I’m not all of the gay / that likes all of the people / I am some of the gay / that likes some of the people”; “‘I’m not’ / human and universal / I’m alien and local.” For the final entry, “bike-kus,” Maldonado transposes her verse over black-and-white photographs of New York City’s West Side Greenway—a technique she employs previously over images of the protests on the night of the Garner verdict, December 3, 2014. The final image of “bike-kus” is a close-up selfie of Maldonado riding her bike along the Greenway fence. She is wearing sunglasses. The shadow of her arm cutting across her body down to the sidewalk, with the verse, “eye outside within / shadow selfie emerges / minding the clear path,” overtop.

Maldonado “[minds]” the “clear path” of modest transport and helps pare down a gentrified city through an in-motion documentation—a method that creates a leitmotif of sullen, yet optimistic hope that asks us not to concede or give way, despite external pressures. For the collections final word, Maldonado offers “gentry caffeine II” as proof of her committed attention to discreet, yet effective revolt, for saying you get what you put in—at times it is enough, at times it isn’t. She begins, “the scaffold is gone / can’t wait to be here / when it’s warmer / when I get off my bike / and can grab a seat / on the bench / and feel the sun,” and ends,

I am high off the
sheer smell of coffee
bought some
caffeine bags to go
their fancy tea
not a bad price
things not so bad
that I have to
give up fancy tea
but here comes
the sparse summer
hope I have enough
for fancy caffeine
and tune-ups

the sun I can afford

The sun as compromise; the sun as a demonstrable bargain that needs to be and has to be soaked up. What you get is Maldonado’s inclination to frame the world in ways that command a level of patience and attunement to its subtle, radiant gestures.

that’s what you get, by Sheila Maldonado. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Arts Press, February 2021. 98 pages. $16.00, paper.

Zachary Kinsella is a writer and musician living in Manchester, Vermont. He recently completed his master’s in English from Clemson University after writing a thesis on the intersections of Wayne Koestenbaum’s trance poetics, queer and affect theory, and phenomenology. In February 2020, he presented a paper on W.S. Merwin at the American Literature Association’s symposium “American Poetry.” He also has a forthcoming review of Nathan Snaza’s Animate Literacies in the Journal of Modern Literature.

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