Saw Palm Book Review of La Dona la Llorona
Paul David Adkins’ La Dona la Llorona Joins the Worldly and Otherworldly
By Jubalee Penuliar
Could you love a ghost that drowns little children? After reading La Doña la Llorona, you may just surprise yourself.
Perhaps love is too strong of a word, but the ghost woman, la Llorona, detailed in this series of persona poems, will enchant readers into an eerie empathy for her vulnerabilities and desires, and even her vicious faults. In a sequence of portrait poems both by observers and by la Llorona herself, the reader sees the ghost as multi-faceted, at once violent and unrefined—“not a girl/ to bring home to your mother”—but also surprisingly self-conscious and reflective. La Llorona, like many, is a “misunderstood [woman],” subject to the scrutinizing gaze of others. About this, she says, “Even a ghost gets tired/ of stares.”
Though la Llorona lives in the spectral world, Paul David Adkins captures her in the natural one. Each poem is titled with anchoring facts of date and location, in both the U.S. and Mexico, spanning from 1975 to 2016. La Llorona would love her name on a Hollywood star, and is a student of pop culture. She observes and responds to current events in the form of rants and interviews: Marilyn Monroe, J. Lo, Winnie the Pooh, Tiger Woods’ wife, Jerry Springer, and even Donald Trump make cameo appearances, in a way that allows readers to identify la Llorona’s spectral experience with their daily one.
Adkins transcribes la Llorona’s voice into these poems. She lives on the page in mystery and heartbreak. She speaks through images that both wound and console.
In this collection, la Llorona speaks, as Adkins promises she will, to “bring to us our lives, in all their brokenness, their glory, their reeking of vengeance and victimization.” At the end of this collection, we know la Llorona, but we also know a little bit more of ourselves, too.
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“In this arresting debut collection, Paul David Adkins convincingly plumbs and furthers the folk myth of La Llorona, a chimerical and tragic figure who is aware of being “all things to all people.” These poems in La Llorona’s changeable voice span vast emotional terrain sure-footedly as the speaker is cruel and taunting, unsettlingly flirtatious, damaged and longing. Adkins wrestles beautifully in this work with notoriety, vengeance, and fear as his powerful poems implicitly acknowledge that we each make our choices and mistakes out of “just / another human heart, / black and red, and struggling / from inside itself …” —Rachel Contreni Flynn, Author of Tongue
“La Dona, La Llorona has come to steal your heart and force you to question the state of the world around you. Paul David Adkins has the uncanny ability to write beyond the legend of a woman doomed to spend eternity searching for the children she has drowned. This collection is hauntingly playful and honest as Adkins delves into the mindset of La Llorona who has a lot to say about herself, her audience, and other ancient legends. In this collection, La Llorona is more than a ghostly figure, she is a critic of culture and polarizing figures from Cortez to Trump, and a host of women who have committed similar crimes to her own. What is truly refreshing is the speaker’s agency and authority. This collection is brave, ambitious, and dynamic. It is a work that is richly grounded in place and time, a talent that Adkins accomplishes while leaving his speaker to wander from one era to another. A line from the opening piece begins, “Who are those children? Will they come with her?” The only fitting response is borrowed from the same piece: Oh, we will.” —Autumn Spriggs, Editor-in-Chief, The Fem Lit Mag.
La Llorona herself has gripped Paul David Adkins with her icy fingers and whispered these tales, these dark secrets of death, in his ears. Bend close to these midnight visions and admire the way he’s become her most lyric, most cunning, and most effective ethnographer and lover to date. —Sarah Cortez, Poet and councilor, Texas Institute of Letters, Author of Cold Blue Steel
In Paul David Adkins La Doña, La Llorona, the history of the past and the strangeness of the present are melded to create a brand new narrative of grieving ghost mothers caught between love and maliciousness. Vernacular and literary dialects merge to create a text bizarrely lively and vibrant despite its talk of the dead. Striking images abound throughout the book. Phantoms descend the dim stairwells of other phantoms’ hearts, and the “crescent light” of a horse’s eyes is a “sickle sweeping.” La llorona “can tell where she is by her absence.” Her name is “sizzled on the black face of a pan” and she is a “red droplet in the snow you mistake for the bud of a peony.” I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an engaging story that will keep them awake at night until they reach the end. —Lisa M. Cole, Author of Dreams of the Living
Where is La Llorona now, and for whom does she weep? What can she have to say to Donald Trump, to Susan Smith, to indocumentados stuffed in the back of a truck crossing Texas, and a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery? Paul David Adkins finds her again and again in these inventive poems, “swaddled// at the midnight door,/ a baby in a basket,” or telling Telemundo what she thinks of their programming, or beholding herself in a mirror, “Dress on a hanger.// Wing on the wind,// cold as the palm/ of a porcelain doll.” By turns wry and desolate, elegiac and prophetic, this collection casts a voice that rings with fresh terror and enduring grief. These poems will haunt you with their mythic heft, will take your fears and drag them, like children, toward the river. —Sally Rosen Kindred, Author of Book of Asters