Review by Frank Mundo:

When I received “Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma,” the latest poetry collection by bilingual writer and poet Sonia Gutiérrez from El Martillo Press (April 2024), I was surprised by its unusual heft. 180 pages is quite a lot these days for a poetry collection by a single artist. Turns out, however, the high page count is a direct result of the book’s unique presentation – at least, it’s a format I’d never seen before. Not only bilingual, some of the poems are also described as “interlingual” in the book’s introduction by Mexican writer Susana Bautista Cruz. Interlingual is the relationship between two languages, which, in this case, refers to the natural, multicultural (and inevitable?) mashup of English and Spanish by Latinos and Chicano Americans into, essentially, a “new” language known as Spanglish.

Divided into three sections, the book presents 14, 12, and 14 bilingual poems, respectively, each one printed side-by-side, first in English and then in Spanish. A smaller selection of Spanglish versions of the poems, translated in this collection by bilingual poet and musician Francisco J. Bustos, are shared after that. Offering these poems in all three languages this way is interesting to me and, I would argue, an empowering poetic exercise and experience for fluent readers and speakers of any of these languages. In the third section, there’s also a single bilingual short story called, “Teresa and the Birds Inside,” which is Gutiérrez’ take on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” except her version takes place at a DMV in San Diego with a broken A/C and which is possibly haunted by what seems to be a flock of horrible screeching birds. Finally, several illustrations and other bonus features help fill out the book’s 180 pages, including the bilingual versions of the introduction, acknowledgments, and a helpful discussion guide for book clubs and educators.

My favorite piece in the book is “The Giver of Poems,” a beautiful and vivid homage to the prolific Chicano poet and educator Francisco X. Alarcón, who, with insight and compassion, explored in his writing important themes in Latino and gay identity, mythology, the Nahuatl language, Mesoamerican history, and American culture. In “The Giver of Poems,” there’s a sense of peace and clarity, but also a playful tone that seems apropos. The speaker of the poem is experiencing an inspiring and lucid or “woken” dream, where the unnamed Giver of Poems, perhaps Alarcón himself, awakens “on white / sheets of paper” in a sky full of “luminous letters.” Using his hands, he “kneads words / forming clouds / made of poems.” Don’t sleep on the wordplay here with knead and need. This joyful little literary moment pays off later when The Giver takes a break, of all things, “and goes up the stairs / of a giant / uppercase A” until “laughing and smiling,” he “goes down its slide” with his arms “wide open.” I can’t help but smile picturing Alarcón, who Gutiérrez calls her Chicano role model and Literary Saint, on a break from making clouds into poems with his bare hands, only to slide down the slope of an upper-case letter A with his arms in the air.

Listen to Sonia Gutiérrez reading the “Poema Giver” para–Francisco X. Alarcón, the Spanglish version of “The Giver of Poems.”


I asked Gutiérrez about her homage to Alarcón and how he became such a major influence in her work and her life. “His poetry is medicina,” she told me. His work “allows us to look at the Mexican American (the Chicano) experience through a historical context.” Like so many of us do, Gutierrez got her poetry legs in an Intro to Poetry course in school, unearthing poetry gems from that giant Norton poetry anthology. These excavated poets would serve as her “professors and teachers” at that time, helping her recognize what poetry is, what it looks like, and what it could do and be. She told me that’s why she teaches Alarcón’s work sometimes in her own college classrooms, so her students can discover and experience his work, too. She also said she liked how Alarcón told fellow poets often that he didn’t write poems, “he wrote tattoos,” which was the title of his first poetry collection. She admired the way he composed poetry against convention without capitalizing words and using periods, and the meaning he shared behind this creative choice ‒ that the period, he said, would come at the end.  

In “Bones Speak,” another nod to Alarcón and his multicolumn poem, Gutiérrez offers a “tattoo” of her own. According to the book’s Notes section, Alarcón says the columns of poems are “like copal smoke signals.” And since “Bones Speak” is also one of the works selected for Spanglish translation by Bustos, we get to experience the full power of this triple-column collaborative composition, with all three versions, side-by-side on one page, one in each column – and wow! It’s a stunning example of poetic expression. 

But this collection is more than an homage to Alarcón or to bilingual or even interlingual poetry. Timely stories, histories, narratives, dreams, and testimonies explore subjects in themes of human, environmental, social, and cultural dignity. Before reading the book, I asked Gutiérrez about her writing and what readers might expect. “Ever since I was a child,” she told me, “my way of seeing the world has always been through a lens of social justice.” So, years later, when Gutiérrez discovered poetry and started writing her own poems, it made sense that she would write about the issues that, as a poet, needed to be addressed.

“I’m a poet concerned about humanity,” she said. “I’m a poet concerned

with the environment. A poet that would like for people to have dialogical communication about pressing issues. Anything that needs to be addressed

we should have the ability to discuss.”

In “Testimony of a Tree,” we get just that, a firsthand account of what it’s like to be the trees along Highway 805 in San Diego, who “had wished their lives / on the superhighway / would always be green.” Interestingly, the first three of the four stanzas of this scathing environmental poem are offered in first-person plural: “but nobody asked us / why one day we turned pale, / our bark fell and arms / went bare.” The final stanza, however, switches to first-person singular – a foreman, perhaps? A delegated representative? Maybe the star witness, who knows? Either way, in the final stanza of this testimony, we get our grass absolutely handed to us: “What I do know is we never / dreamed of living next to / burning black asphalt / breathing in the sulfuric waste / of humanity away from the birds / and bees…”

In “Neither Rooster, Nor Bird, Nor Human,” we learn what things are by what they are not – starting and ending with the rooster, the bird, and the human. A very short piece, it’s even shorter on forgiveness – and the last stanza will stay with me for a long time. Looking now in the book, I see that I circled this stanza because I knew I’d need to come back to it later: “A human is not a human; / he is an inhumane animal, / killing the Earth / with his utter will.”

In “An American Landscape,” we visit that “chilly February night / under a star-spangled sky…” where Trayvon Martin “…stayed warm / fastened like a monk…” or what some called a thug, in his hoodie.

“The Indictment of Index Fingers and Thumbs,” is an indictment of our justice system in America. It opens with the poet, standing before “Judge Justice…” who is examining the six index fingers and six thumbs that facilitated the shooting deaths of Charles Smith, John Crawford III, Micheal Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and India Kager. “Who pulled the trigger?” the Judge asks, and the fingers and thumbs, “Dumbfounded and with white knees…” “…pointed at the firearms…”

In “Bakr Red Petals on a Beach,” Gutiérrez addresses the four children from the Bakr family, ages 9-12, who were killed by a missile from the Israeli naval force on the fishing beach west of Gaza City: “With bull’s-eye precision / on an open shore / Flower Killers came to Gaza…”

“The Colors of Death” personifies Fukushima and grills her about the nuclear accident that poisoned the ocean and displaced at least 164,000 people: “Ask Fukushima / if she drank clean water / this morning.”

Finally, in “Eulogy for Súper Pancho from the Land of Maiz,” one of the longest poems in the collection, the poet responds to Donald Trump’s painful and unfair statements about Mexicans during his presidential announcement speech in 2016. Súper Pancho, our brave hero, with his “corn-tortilla cape” and shovel, “his super weapon,” is paired against Mr. Liberty Mouth, who’s “snarling mouth” spews “torture words.” There’s a nice black-and-white illustration of Súper Pancho whose “tamale arms / and legs don’t hide / from the scorching sun / to sell diamond-faced / watches nor does he build / golden hotel skyscrapers, / reaching for the Green / Dollar God.”

There are so many standout and outstanding poems in this collection that it’s difficult to choose which ones to highlight and which ones to neglect. I had a similar reaction or experience a couple years ago when I read “Dreaming with Mariposas,” Gutiérrez’ debut novel from Flowersong Press. Made up of vignettes (mostly 1-3 pages), we follow the coming-of-age of two sisters, butterflies in a family of dreamers in So-Cal during the late 70s and 80s. For most of the book, I honestly thought I was reading her memoir because the details were so rich and real and accurate.

I asked Gutiérrez if she had a goal or objective when writing poetry. “When my poem is in front of someone and they’re reading it,” she said, “my goal is that they’re moved, that they’re looking at the world through a lens or a perspective they had never contemplated before.”

She also said there was a quote in the letters of Emily Dickinson that really summed up her objective when it comes to writing poetry:

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me,
I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken
off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any
other way?”

In English, Spanish, or even Spanglish, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Paper Birds: Feather by Feather / Pájaros de papel: Pluma por pluma is available now from El Martillo Press.  

Frank Mundo is a poet from Los Angeles. His latest chapbooks are Touched by an Anglo (Kattywompus Press) and Eleven Sundry Flowers (Antrim House).