How the Sound of Words Influence Meaning: A Book Review of Grasshoppers Before Gods by Karla Cordero

karla_corderoWhen I think of Grasshoppers Before Gods by Karla Cordero, I am reminded of Gloria Anzaldua’s  Borderlands: La Frontera. I am reminded of Lizz Huerta’s mesmerizing prose when, from “I Succubus,” she enchants, “Even when they think they aren’t, men love to reenact conquest on bodies like mine. Bodies like mine have been taken for centuries. I take back.” I am reminded of Natalie Diaz’s recent collection When My Brother was an Aztec. What do these writers have in common? They possess the sharp wit and unconquerable strength to stand against aggression barbwired by dominant society. Since today’s cultural, political and social climate is in upheaval, a closer look at how Cordero crafts her language in her new chapbook brings forth a sense of urgency. Cordero’s personal history moves outward to the larger conversations of racism, social justice, and equality.

What makes Cordero so unique is her musical delivery, the way her voice hypnotizes a crowd of listeners during her performance. She possesses the talents of a hybrid: a performance poet with equal ability to present eloquent language on the page. Sound enters her poetry in such a way that it compounds the meaning of her poems, her obsessions, and the reason she puts words to print.

In Grasshoppers Before Gods, grasshoppers are more than just insects trapped in a mason jar under scientific scrutiny by men in white lab coats. The grasshopper is a metaphor that speaks to any person who leaps to make something of his or her life against the odds barricaded by establishments. Therefore, the metaphor of the grasshopper becomes a call to rise against the gods of systematic control. For instance, her poem “Killing Jar” illustrates how scientists (gods) dissect grasshoppers:


In a glass container a grasshopper waits for judgment, / searches for meadow. This heaven a ghost town where songs of insect & animal echo down silent.”


grasshoppers_1024x1024The syllables of her language tap the beat of the consonant letters the way a rock skims over the surface of a lake, when thrown by a skilled hand. The music in her language intertwined with the metonymic symbol for heaven produces a powerful message of “How knife God can be,” or how devastating it is to live in a world controlled by dominant forces. The jar is a heaven for the grasshopper who searches for a meadow. The way her language reads on the page mesmerizes the reader, but to see it performed live is a whole other story; the sound of her words permeates the room and the crowd can feel the pulse of rebellion.

In her poem, “A Spanish to English Translation on Sweet Things Gone Sour,” Cordero translates Spanish words into English by applying her own definitions that shape crucial topics such as identity and politics. Cordero writes:


………..1. Leche: milk. cream. skim milk. buttermilk. pasteurized. sour cream.
………..half  and  half.  half  white.   half    privilege.   privilege   speaks  power.
………..colonization makes power. columbus  found     power. milked the land.


It is hard not to hear Cordero’s language rumble forward with revolution. The syllables begin with one beat, “milk” and “cream,” then move to two beats, “skim milk,” then three, “buttermilk” and eventually to an eight-syllable count, “colonization makes power,” which is how Cordero complicates the definition of “Leche,” and moves it away from its simple translation of milk because identity politics is much more complicated than a simple definition. The complexities of the human being run far beyond its received representations governed by dominant culture, and Cordero speaks from the borderlands that give voice to the souls with multidimensional identities.

In “This Brown Skin Be,” the sonic feel of the words moves the meaning of the poem. Cordero sings:


…………born from wolf womb.
…………bowls of blood moon.

…………bone know crow sob.
…………know moss mouth.

…………know cop look.
…………know oak cross.


Here is another poem that deals with identity politics, but unlike “A Spanish to English Translation on Sweet Things Gone Sour,” the structure is not influenced by translation, nor does it thunder forward the way Cordero moves from image to image in her meditation on “Leche.” The musicality of this poem casts a spell on the reader with its unconventional diction. The absence of articles provides a three to four syllable count puncturing the ears of audience members when the poem is read out loud. Moreover, Cordero resists the “I” in this poem. Since the “I” is a visible subject in standard English grammar, the absence suggests a dissolution of a systematized self, an erasure of an assimilated individual who has given up his or her power to the influences of the system.

Cordero’s Grasshoppers Before Gods is a must buy, must read, and must reread type of chapbook. It is the kind of text that must be taught in the classroom, to invigorate the next generation with soul and sensibility. Cordero’s collection is a must for poetry, not because it is uplifting—it is an uprising.

Grasshoppers Before Gods

By Karla Cordero

dancing girl press & studio, 2016

For more information on Karla Cordero:

About Karla Cordero

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