Immigrant, a poetry collection by Marcela Sulak, is a book about fruit and vegetables and a thoughtful and intelligent exploration of the immigrant experience across continents and centuries. It is a ripe peach of a book; warm, moving and thought-provoking, with luscious colourful imagery and clear but eloquent use of language.
Sulak apparently started the collection as a series of modern sonnets about fruit and vegetables, but the vegetation took over and she expanded her rich botanical images and metaphors to encompass a broader examination of the immigrant experience from the perspectives of both an onlooker and a participant.
In the first sonnet, “Avocado”, it is the stone of the fruit and the “pale, translucent leaves unfurling” of a new shoot that takes centre stage and becomes a suggested metaphor for the life of the immigrant:
“since silky avocado flesh
thrives under adverse conditions”
Similarly, the brussels sprout, in “The History of Brussels Sprouts” is described in terms of immigration:
“Like any immigrant,
it put down roots before it could repent”
In a longer poem, “An Olive, A Letter” it is the olive and an ear of corn that become parts of a chilling précis of the real-life inquisitional interrogation of a young Jewish woman in seventeenth-century Portugal. The woman was eventually burned at the stake in a purge which ultimately focussed on the Jews who had previously fled to Portugal in the late fifteenth century as a refuge from the Spanish expulsions of that time.
Whilst in “An Olive, A Letter” Sulak uses deceptively simple and domestic language which contrasts strikingly with the gross enormity of what is taking place, in “Pomelo with Fallen Angel” the language used is rich and complex with an almost erotic lusciousness redolent of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”:
“Sealed inside this yellow peel, beneath the heavy
compressed clouds they call white skin, the wings
are bound and pressed. So when she feels the knife
she quivers, when the skin’s peeled back, oh ecstasy.”
This variety of tone is significant. The immigrant experience, whilst it inevitably seems to carry with it echoes of loss and alienation, is as diverse as humanity itself. Sulak explores this diversity in terms of both content and style as she creates her own botanical map of the moving and the moved on. Her botanical subjects take root in her poetry and the imagination in a way that her human subjects rarely have an opportunity to do in life because, as she writes in “Immigration Quotas” (the one prose poem in the collection):
“The visa will expire too loud to resist the band will hit a wrong note the bank will fail the hand will drop off the shoulder. It will have been vacation high tide an accident a mispronunciation an unfortunate choice an ill-advised use of slang.”
Immigrant is a beautiful and compassionate book which deserves a readership as broad and diverse as its subject matter.