By Leah Silvieus
Some years ago, the Scientific American published a piece on a study that showed that music has the ability to affect the human heartbeat. Like a Verdi aria that causes the heartbeat to synchronize with the music, Michelle Peñaloza’s Landscape/Heartbreak (Two Sylvias Press 2015) walks beside us through journeys of loss across the city of Seattle. As she writes in the opening essay of the collection:
And what happens to words when walking with someone? Walking changes the quality of conversation. Your bodies have something to do: the distance you traverse together, the observations you make, fill any silence, and yet—silence becomes more acceptable. Even comfortable. Walking side by side for miles, your breath and stride fall in time together. Your heart works in tandem with the other heart walking beside you.
Peñaloza’s idea for the project began simply enough, as she writes on her website: “my heart broke and I went on a very long walk.” What has followed is a frank and tender meditation on trauma, memory, and the relationship between inner and outer landscapes:
What kind of story can a city tell if this isn’t just the corner of Broadway and John, but the corner where X learned that Y never really loved him? Or if this isn’t just the hospital across the street, but the place where Z told her mother she loved her for the very last time? How does access to the narratives of the people in a city change the way we experience that city’s physical landscape?
During the year Peñaloza worked on the project, she accompanied 22 friends, friends of friends and strangers as they retraced the paths across Seattle where their hearts had been broken. All of the walks began at the Hugo House in the Central Capitol Hill neighborhood and covered almost 120 miles.
Throughout this collection, Peñaloza walks alongside her readers, encouraging them to listen – not only to what did happen, but also to what did not: “The plot is over but still we mull / the coulda, woulda, shoulda / even as the oceans rise and the petals fall. You might have stayed with him forever.” There are myriad traumas ghosting behind these poems: “people who’d lost children and mothers and fathers and lovers, who’d been traumatized by the hate of others, who’d been cheated on and lied to, who’d cheated and lied, who’d been fearful and brave.” (“Notes from the Field”) Landscape/Heartbreak also addresses those heartbreaks we cannot name: “Of course I pray to you. Bending low my head / silently pleading for what I can’t ever seem to find: / the few, right words, the ones that could be enough,” she writes in “Prayer to the Patron Saint of All Lost.”
The beauty and raw precision of the language in Peñaloza’s collection evokes the feeling that one is physically and emotionally walking beside her and her fellow heartbreak walkers. “We touch the Scotch broom and lilacs / erupted in spring, notice the renegade ferns / growing upon the stumps of old docks,” she writes in “We Walk a Heart Around Lake Union.” The cadence and clarity of Peñaloza’s images carry an almost palpable weight: “Because of the lentils in jars, the hydrangeas drunk on pennies, the grafted apple trees, the Italian plums, and Rainier cherries,” she writes in a prose poem, “A Strange Constellation of Desires,” “Because he told me he loved me. Because I believed him.”
We can never feel the losses of Landscape/Heartbreak as acutely as those people who suffered them firsthand. Peñaloza, however, gives us these sorrows in the form of hydrangeas, neon signs and rusted nails and asks us to hold them, to sit with them, to feel the weight of their stories – even, or especially, if we aren’t sure what to say in response. As she says in her introduction: “Don’t say you understand. Don’t say everything is going to be okay. Do not ever say that things happen for a reason. Say nothing. Listen.” Reading this collection is as heartbreaking as its title promises, but it is also a prayer of intercession for lost things and for the aspects of ourselves that we lose along heartbreak’s journey. Everything might not be okay. We might never understand. We might not find a reason behind our suffering. Landscape/Heartbreak knows all of this and still accompanies us along the difficult way, assuring us that we need never walk alone.
Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & Writing, CURA, The Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her athttp://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/