To Make a Body One’s Own: A Review of Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should be Flowers

My body is a twenty story building made of rocks and ivy

Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s full-length poetry collection There Should be Flowers (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016) is comprised of shattering, image-drenched poems. To make a body one’s own is a struggle that never ceases—a journey that evolves like that of a new skin breaking forth from a chrysalis. This book includes poems that reference the desire to either not have or not acknowledge a “dying body,” provoking the reader to be present in our own bodies, to consider the roles they play in our identities. Ideas of the body as a husk, and the self as something that can be molded, are prevalent in these poems. As in “It Is Important To Be Something”:

There is a checklist of things

you need to do to be a person.

I don’t want to be a person

but there isn’t a choice,

so I work my way down and

kiss the feet.

I work my way up and lick the knee.

Espinoza’s speaker dissects parts of the body sometimes along an aural context. To lick or kiss an object is to connect with it, to taste something foreign, as well as to offer acceptance. This push / pull of wanting to heal and accept, but also to taste something that feels otherworldly, is present in many of these poems, juxtaposed with a speaker’s almost constant sense of alienation.

Despite these ubiquitous feelings of alienation, Espinoza’s speaker carries hope like a crown of flowers in her hair. The titular poem “There Should Be Flowers” addresses life’s harsh and discordant realities by painting an almost fairytale-like counterpoint:

There should be birds

singing your name…

There should be a billion women

jumping at the same time

to move the earth off its course…

Yes, there should be more to life than surviving. This poem, in revealing the desperate ugliness of the world even as it highlights these dreamlike moments of fantastic beauty, serves as a rallying cry for the persecuted, the oppressed, and as an expression of nurturing and acceptance.

In the Pushcart-nominated poem “I Dream Of Horses Eating Cops,” Espinoza creates a catalog of surreal lines that relate ideas about bodies:

I name my body girl of my dreams

I name my body proximity

I name my body full of hope despite everything

I name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet

The last line’s chilling reminder of brutal reality is a current that carries through the book, as the speaker delineates terrifying details and insights regarding the murders of marginalized bodies. What is ideal, what is real, what is a daily threat? All couched in the body. As Espinoza’s speaker notes in the poem “Autopainophile”: “In the movies, people like me don’t survive.”

Blood surfaces and resurfaces as a motif, sometimes emphasizing death and sometimes life force; and, as in the poem “My Body is a Sieve,” sometimes a healing connection with nature:

Every woman comes from blood

and lives in blood and dies in blood

her endless vines twitching below the canopy.

She lives where the sun is known

as possibility.

I am unknown to the sun

though it blesses

with its warmth from time to time.

Throughout these poems there is a healing sun, hummingbirds, the solid mountains of California, dust that sparkles in the light, and the lovely, always-moving wind. These poems explore identity through nature. In the exquisitely surreal “Forest Fire,” the speaker takes on the roles of the fire and everything surrounding and being consumed by the fire.

The poem almost reads like a fable, beginning:

I’m a fire in the rain

or maybe I’m the rain

trying to put out the fire

with no luck…

Maybe I’m the trees

that are on fire

Maybe I’m the fawn

caught in the fire

surrounded by the rain

and fog

and trees

Maybe I’m the dream

the fawn has

as it suffocates quietly…

Maybe I am nothing

after all

There Should Be Flowers expresses a hunger that many readers will identify with and respond to. We all need to connect with the earth, our daily surroundings, our own experiences—we all seek comfort. Yet most of us, like the speaker, can be either fire or fawn. This confrontation in Espinoza’s work is disquieting, and yet we all recognize these destructive forces: inner, savagely critical voices; the judgments of others; a feeling of helplessness, a loss of self. And we can recognize in this work our own hunger, our own hope, our own need for love. As Espinoza writes of redemptive love in “Flowers #3,” describing blossoms that sprout from the earth each spring and are picked to wear in one’s hair: “It is always dying and growing at the same time.”


Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016) and The Messenger is Already Dead (forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press, 2017.) She is also the author of eight chapbooks. Her chapbook Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk, concis, Sweet Tree Review, Kestrel, The Chiron Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com.

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