Inland Empire poet and writer Casandra Lopez evokes an extended mourning-celebration song in commemoration of her brother’s 2010 murder in San Bernardino in her new poetry collection “Brother Bullet.”
The collection, published earlier this year by University of Arizona Press, explores the loss of her beloved brother.
“My words are always / collapsing / upon themselves, too tight / in my mouth. I want a new / language. One with at least / 50 words for grief / and 50 words for love, so I can offer them / to the living / who mourn the dead.” — from “A New Language,” excerpted from “Brother Bullet.”
With her deft poetic power expressed in beautifully-chosen lyricism, metaphors and phrasing, Lopez traces an arc starting with the loss of her brother — from his death through the moments, days, months and years afterwards. In her unique narrative language that is both haunting and beautiful, sorrowful and celebratory, Lopez explores the tragedy’s after-effects on her life and on her extended family members.
Ruth Nolan of the Inlandia Institute. (Staff file photo)
But this book is not just a prolonged epitaph to the loss of her brother. At the heart of this compelling collection of poems is Lopez’s ability to connect her brother’s death to her own childhood and deeply-rooted family memories growing up in the Inland Empire. Her poems are generously inclusive to readers and are written in a way that invites readers in — even those who aren’t typically fans of poetry — to share her personal journey.
In exploring her brother’s physical absence, she creates a rich memory field that takes readers through a journey of culturally-sustaining Inland Empire geographies that have nourished her family for generations, even in the face of indigenous cultural losses. For example, this passage from the poem “Those Who Speak to Trees Remember:” “Trees have ancestors, a lineage, a history. Father tells Brother and me / as he waters his hybrids. / Mother coos to citrus leaves and / reminds us of the canyon and desert / in us, the Indian and Mexican / of us, how we are grafted like our citrus trees.”
In an ever-widening circle of connections, Lopez creatively extends her poetic focus to wider geographies.
In the poem “The Darkest of Deserts,” for example, she sees remnants of her brother’s memory while visiting New Mexico and is triggered with sudden sorrow for her deep loss: “In an Albuquerque museum I find / Brother hidden in Eva Hesse’s ‘Spectres.’ I push / past the glass doors, trying to lose / myself, tame my bright red parts in her brush / of shadows, her blue gray swirls — the ghostly / apparitions of body and face. I want to drown, / in her ocean of smoggy flesh and line, but / the Salton Sea in me survives. I am all salt.”
Like many who have suffered immeasurable personal loss, the world becomes a symbol of that loss, and there is no escape, except to feel an odd and inevitable symbiosis of grief and beauty in stark loss and rich beauty. Lopez asks, later in this poem, “What might I see if brother hadn’t been taken? / … Eva with her Brain Tumors / and you with your Brain Bullet. / She painted these at 24. At 24, you / fathered two children, a brick house.” Poems like this makes a reader wonder at the “What if?” questions along with the poet, and maybe even want to cry.
The strident, unforgettable power and beauty of the poems in “Brother Bullet” are a testament to the rising literary star that Lopez is. Her work is a true triumph of stark honesty, unbearable loss, compelling beauty and heartfelt inspirations, all in the face of great tragedy.
This collection is both heart-wrenching and inspirational, and to write this way is a rare poetic gift, indeed. The impacts of “Brother Bullet” will be, for readers in the Inland Empire and beyond, deeply and lastingly felt.
Ruth Nolan is editor of No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday/Inlandia). She teaches creative writing at College of the Desert and writes widely about California’s deserts.