Where Land Is Indistinguishable from Sea
by Helena Mesa
Terrapin Books 2023, $17.00
by Robert Lang, PIOnline staff
“If you choose to leave, the mother says
as her daughter sets sail,
you may never return.”
This excerpt from “Paradise Island” sets the scene for Helena Mesa’s journey into exile, distance, and longing found in Where Land Is Indistinguishable From Sea (WLIIFS). Settling down to read this book of poetry, I found myself thinking about my own experiences as a second generation immigrant and what it means to leave a home, family, loved ones, but also pain and suffering behind. The book uses religious imagery, Cuban culture, and travel vignettes to evoke feelings of nostalgia and displacement never quite settling the reader in any one place or time.
WLIIFS is a vagabond book, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a book for the displaced, for those who have felt lost, for those far away from home. I never read WLIIFS in the same spot twice, not just physically but internally. Each time I picked up the book, I was brought to a different understanding of isolation, disorientation, bifurcated identities, travel, and place. WLIIFS is a sort of literary boxcar ride through places that give you that déjà vu feeling even though you’re certain you’ve never been there before.
The lines, “Tonight the moon is a motel sign welcoming you home./Tonight you appear above, twin figures on a distant shore,/oily black, not unlike the canals we once bobbed in” help illustrate the feeling of shifting from homelessness to homefulness that ebbs and flows throughout the work. The book is split into sections, each feeling like another leg of a journey farther from what the poet once knew. The subtle tragedy of WLIIFS is the understanding that one can never truly go home again. Even as the poet returns to spaces connected to her past, there’s a layer of distance that stands in the way of true grounding.
“Across the city, arches invite us
into rooms and halls that once stood.
Just yesterday a street name
forgotten, one she knew
Intimately, like her hand
pointing – there – like her
father’s hand – yes, there.”
Mesa’s poems are in conversation with themselves playing on similar themes throughout, leading to that uncanny sensation of nostalgia even to someone unfamiliar with the images Mesa uses in her work. The opening line “I did not ask to be an Eden.” found in “Against Paradise” finds a thematic conclusion in its final lines:
“… .And Eve,
see how her face is leather, already aging
in your world, a world that will never
let them go or give them back. “
The references to women of the Bible and even cultural icons like Wonder Woman serve almost as guides to the poet finding solidarity in the stories of exiled women forced to forge their own path far removed from the home they knew. There’s a longing for a past that seems just out of reach, especially to the poet who always seems to be in transit. One of my personal favorites in the collection, “Two Variations on Distance,” illustrates this notion perfectly:
“Perhaps the distance between
rind and center
is a scale – for hand and sleeve,
aisle and seat,
or for two strangers departing
a small plane-
one heads north, the other
looks back again.”
Mesa’s use of form in the book is also worth talking about in conversation with the themes. Just when you get comfortable with a style of line breaks and structure, Mesa switches it up to keep the reader from ever settling down. It lends to the experience of never quite feeling at home even within the poetry itself, but it never feels malicious. The disorientation is quieting and reflective rather than violent and brash. At no point did I ever feel like I had to put the book down because it was too much for me, which I see as a strength of the poet.
WLIFFS brought me on a journey through alienation and grief, but offered brief moments of respite in the comfort of a familiar face or a remembered landmark. In WLIFFS, home is less a country of origin and more a feeling that comes with the memories and people we cherish in our lives. I’d like to end this review with the sentiment Mesa sends readers off with:
“Then, you and I
will occupy not a country
but a hard origami knot, each part
of us pressed against