Save the Bathwater
By Marina Carreira
Get Fresh Books, LLC
Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh
"Even in the dark / they always knew their way // home." These first lines of Marina Carreira's debut collection of poetry, Save the Bathwater, are not a summary of the poems beyond, but they create the space that Carreira inhabits throughout the book. They are an image repeated, or felt, in every poem, a mantra heard in the background, and the heart of the whole book. The fact that Carreira bares the identity of Save the Bathwaterso early, and so blatantly, is only the first dive into the depths that she will delve into, rewarding our reading with insight we are blessed to receive.
Working backwards from those beginning lines, Carreira uses "home" as an anchor throughout the entire text. From "547 Market Street," with its "old yellow house, now coral with brown trim," to "Haibun for Avó's Body As an Old Yellow House," the physicality of home is often present. In the latter poem we get to see Carreira's complicated definition and relationship with this home come out when she starts describing her grandmother (Avó):
The oven her mouth, warm with the scent of tripe stew The fleshy hallway between her thighs, now cold and dry But the honey of my mother's blood haunts it
Still, the heart-orchid blooms
to the left of ribs
Home is between multiple spaces. Almost all of the poems take place in the Ironbound, a section of Newark, New Jersey, or in Portugal. This connection to the two places is in conflict and inseparable; they are intricately woven into the being of the speakers Carreira uses and to the book itself.
The poem "Azeite" exemplifies this twirling of Portugal and Newark. The speaker, a bottle of olive oil, tells a grandmother that, "Your granddaughter wanted to bring me home with her," to Newark from Portugal. Though the grandmother says no, the olive oil is still brought back and says, "In America, I am stored between Canola and Crisco, oils / that ruin the flavors of sardines and broa," and that, "No matter how many trinkets / she brings back, she can only bring you back in spirit."
The struggle to define home as part of who we are is in every poem from Save the Bathwater. Whether it is in opposition to other children like in "Tomatoes and Onions" or a list of items in "Luso-American Ephemera in Avó's Armoire," each poem searches for, finds, or takes up the search, again, for a fully realized vision of home.
This search leads Carreira's work beyond the physical spaces and into the people that surround her poems. The two central figures that make up this book are Avó and Avô (grandmother and grandfather). Sometimes their appearances are quick, as in "Bodega Blues," where both Avó and Avô are in the background while a speaker reflects on her constant return to a bodega to get "My medicine," Swedish Fish. Other times they are the heart of the poem as in "Fado as Mint" where "Avó / by the stove making canja" is "worrying / that life—like soup—/ can have too much salt." Regardless of how central they are to the individual poem, either Avó or Avô can be felt circling every moment.
In the poem "The Morning After Your Death," we see this circling first hand. The poem makes clear that it is about a grandparent, "Pai and the rest of your sons / sat in silence," but even without these first two lines the poem pulses with Avô. The repetition of yellow in the comforter and oranges, both which make multiple appearances throughout, shows Carreira's careful attention to image and metaphor as, immediately, they call upon previous poems. Again, even without this gorgeous craft, the poem sings:
No one went down with me
to the orange grove,
sat at the edge of that ancient well
where you used to catch your breath,
wipe sweat from your brow
after hand over hand, row by row,
you tended the endless soil
where you died
Even while Avó and Avô are felt throughout the book, others make their way into the poems, broadening the way Carreira defines home. In "To My Stillborn Brother," the speaker imagines the life of a brother they never had, but pushes that imagined space to create a complex, gentle construction of a man. His "hands, massive but beautiful, hold / apples and eggs, make them the tiniest treasures," takes a simple moment of wanting to know someone you will never know and transforming it into a key part of the speaker's concept of masculinity.
If Save the Bathwater can create this beauty and light, weaving it into a larger understanding of home, then it does equal treatment with the darkest moments that define home as well. In "The First Memory I Have of My Father," Carreira's speaker sees her father punch a man as drunk as him for speaking to his wife. The speaker wears the man's "blood…like a crest Beaming / on the walk home." The complicated depiction of pride from the speaker's point of view and our understanding of the violence of this moment brings a dark tinge that many poems carry through them. This moment, "permanent as a birthmark," also creates a person, a home. With this, we are back where the whole book started: "Even in the dark / they always knew their way // home."
Individually, each poem is exploring a tiny part of the vastness of experiences, places, and people that construct our concept of home. Together, though, Carreira's book bears witness to the patchwork we all use to build our own definitions. There are no purely light or purely dark moments that are stitched together to make us, but rather a complexity to home that mirrors our own complexities as humans.
Save the Bathwater, then, does what the best poetry does; it approaches complexity head on, veering towards the difficult. In "After Emigration," a lost dog is killed by a train which "happens all the time / in my grandmother's village." The poem ends by asking, "But who's ever there / to tell the story?" Who will witness and tell us the story we all know so well we have forgotten how it goes? The answer, after reading this book, is clear: Marina Carreira.