Book Review

A recent review of her poems described Sheila Black as a writer who "does not shrink from expressing opinions that run against the current of common thought." Indeed, in such poems as "Physical Therapy," "Reconstruction" and "What You Mourn," Black critiques the medical hegemony of disability while emphasizing the importance of disability community with insight that can only arise from the authority of personal experience.

In How to be a Maquiladora, however, Black departs from the subject of disability to reveal another side of her experience. This slim volume of poetry portrays life in the borderlands between her home of Las Cruces, New Mexico and the Mexican border. The book is published by Main Street Rag, the same publishers who first sponsored Jim Ferris' now famous book The Hospital Poems. As Black explains in a note to title poem, maquiladora is a term which originally meant a factory on the U. S.-Mexico border, but has come "colloquially to refer to factory workers who are almost all young women."

In Black's own words, "a lot of the poems were written around the subject of the murdered women of Juarez. In the last twelve years, over 350 young women and girls have been murdered in Cuidad Juarez. The crimes have never been solved, though the F.B.I did come in and say it could not be the work of a single serial killer. Some think that conditions on the border - the miles of factories, which hire only women, and the fact that most people in Juarez are under 30, come from somewhere else, and are not surrounded by family--has created a climate of epidemic violence, particularly against women. This whole situation has been intensified by the behavior of the police in the state of Chihuahua who have been generally hostile to the families of the murdered--in many cases telling outright lies or giving wrong bodies, false autopsies etc. As a result, people feel a tremendous sense of betrayal, suspicion, and fear - a consensus that the institutions of community are corrupted and cannot be trusted."

Between the cover and the title poem at the end of the book, Black lays out a country within the United States unknown to many people. To those familiar with it, the descriptions ring achingly true. In "Desert Life" she writes,

In the evening here, darkness ascends, 
scrup and strip mall swallowed by the violet mouth
of the night, which is oblivion, which is 
desire, all those cars driving, their passengers
immune to the hard land, fixed on the 
sky, larger here than anywhere, so that it
is no surprise we feel little attachment to
the ragged pieces of this world, starved for the gods
of razors, needles, contraband carried
over the border lines, the toxic crystals
that rush over you like sugar.

This landscape is

home of desert rats and gamblers,
once night stands, false ids, naked starts


the ten dollar girl who trolls the corners chips the asphalt
with her worn heels

but also of

the mothers
with their plastic bags of bargains


woman chopping onions on the counter
next to the oven sheathed in grease.

As Black says,

so many souls desaparecidos.

Many of the poems directly address the climate of violence which surrounds the lives of the maquiladoras. One of the most haunting of these is "Opal," a poem in which the violence of the environment and the violence done to the young women who are part of it, co-mingle in a single fabric.

Juarez, across the Stanton Street Bridge, where the trash has
becoming thick and oily in the sun, where you run your
fingers along the rail and bring them up oxidized
the beautiful black of coal, of stoves, of mines 
they found three girls, dead, link by a necklace of 
barbed wire, around them like a sham feast 
emptied oil in paper cups, newspapers spread 
like place mats, today's tabloids

How to Become a Maquiladora is not a book from which the author is absent, but in which she dwells, like the anthropologist, a participant observer. She wonders about her own relationship to this landscape and in "Paso Del Norte" she says:

No tourists across the bridge except the grifos, 
the young who still pretend to be in love 
with death. I, too, used to be able to find
what is beautiful in all this lucent despair.

but now, at times, trying to find some sort of stability in the midst of it all admits

Today I despise my own sincerity
my face as in a photograph, clean scrubbed 
hair combed and gelled.

The great strength of How to Become a Maquiladora lies both in its ability to invoke a genuine sense of place through the use of details that, like the land, are deceptive in their apparent spareness and in its ability to show us that lost sense of beauty that intensifies despair.

For one who must live as a maquiladora, Black can only conclude

This is what you must do to survive: 
...Do not attempt to gather things
of value, the bright smooth-face televisions, 
The glossy shoes with high heels. Hoard only
objects which will tell them nothing of who you are
or where you came from.

This is not a book about resolutions, easy emotions or easy answers, but in answer to Black's question, "Who in such a place could care for my small story?" - We could.

Sheila Black's poems have been published in numerous print and on-line journals, including Poet Lore, Willow Springs, Blackbird, Puerto Del Sol and Copper Nickel. Her book House of Bone, is forthcoming from CustomWords Press in 2007. She was born with x-linked hypophosphotemia (XLH), more familiarly known as "Vitamin D Resistent Rickets." Two of her three children also have XLH. Her poem "This Dance" which won the 2006 Inglis House Poetry Contest for poets with disabilities was written partly as a result of meeting--late in adulthood and for the first time since XLH is fairly rare--other people with XLH through a meeting arranged by a wonderful on-line patient support group, the XLH network.