Author: Brenda Cárdenas
Publisher: Red Hen Press (2023)
Through image-rich poems regarding migration, transcultural identity, loss, connection, dream, and aging—some translingual, some ekphrastic responses to ephemeral and surreal works of art—Brenda Cárdenas’ Trace explores conditions of displacement, liminality, and mutability. These poems transgress illusory borders between lands, languages, humans and the rest of the natural world, waking and dreaming, and the living and the dead as they unearth traces of experience that shape and haunt us, traces we leave behind for others to encounter. Although elegy resurfaces throughout this collection as does a poetics of social consciousness, Cárdenas also embraces moments of levity, story, and an effervescent internal music that balance her steps through fraught yet bewitching terrain.
"This remarkable collection migrates from outward to inward—ekphrastic poems charged with ars resistencia to biographical poems of childhood wonder, teen rebelliousness, middle age dreams. Throughout, we are immersed in the 'morphology of dream, the moonmilk of words.' Cárdenas loves language—each turn of phrase radiates the power of the word to mean, resonate, and transcend. These poems, like a 'flatbed full of cempazuchil,' light the way."
"We enter Brenda Cárdenas newest book, Trace, through an excavation of 'the ruins / of our purple terrain, ' and so enter the speaker's configuration of a named-past ever alive in the present as a catalogue of inspiration. Cárdenas resurrects the little joys with which we may all eclipse latent despair, a 'deer's skitter, ' 'xocoatl spiced with chili / y vanilla,' 'every instrument and its music.' Trace shines light into every corner as Cárdenas reimagines the project of ekphrastic lyric not only as a call and response with the artist and the writer, but also as collective construction that informs the speaker's vast interiority, thereby creating a treasury of souls who harness the creative and transmuting power of art and language. Her arc here is measured and yet playful, mournful only within the context of that happiness which eventually returns. The speaker's levity often obscures the formal complexity of the stunning craft here, creating a 'scintillating music' that 'crickets / vertiginous missives' throughout the book which I am not only happy to enter, to languish within, but to which I feel compelled to return with gratitude, again and again."
–Ruth Ellen Kocher
"In these darkest of days, we are lucky to have the words of a writer as sustaining as Brenda Cárdenas, one who reminds us that poetry has always done the impossible, whether urging us 'to decipher the morphology of dream' or summon the wisdom of our ancestors ('What can we do with this gathering of ghosts / but welcome them home'). To call these poems ekphrastic would not do them justice: they are sculptural, kinetic, sinuous, and syncopated, by turns mythic and quotidian, implacable placa and 'phosphorescent scrolls,' and they claim their own brilliantly expanded field (Lucille Clifton, Ana Mendieta, Cecilia Vicuña, Remedios Varo, etc.) with the care and urgency of what Cárdenas calls 'raucous cariño.' From her Milwaukee of the heart, this former poet laureate knows that our cities are portals, even as 'Every migration / bears its fallen' and we seek out 'a psalm for healing / without being held' amid the body's devastation. Trace is a triumph of poetry as a liminal practice that works against invisibility and facile legibility, at the threshold of the self, where a new consciousness is possible."
"To read the poems in Trace is to journey through tierra, myth, wound, and love. With her richly textured imagery and a language layered with music and truth, Brenda Cárdenas paints the ceremonies of the living and the realms of the dead. There is a visceral sense of place and much elegy in this collection; there is also a soulful imagination that seeks healing, as seen when the Mayan moon goddess Ix Chel appears to anoint the bodies of the drowned, or how a funnel of bees hum with 'the work of finding home.' For Cárdenas, that quest is everywhere."
"Brenda Cárdenas flexes, topples, and surrenders to the 'gathering of ghosts' who have returned in these resolute and electrifying poems as 'bright as a quintet of monarchs in milkweed flickering.' A constellation of 'brujas, chavalas, carnales, cabrones, rucas, locas, comadres . . . una vieja y sus recuerdos,' Cárdenas refuses to root herself into solitary complacency and reveals a voice as 'bright as chrome.' This collection is a journey of faith and memory tracing a path toward a life lived like a 'trapeze artist, contortionist, upsidedown, insideout, wracked with sweet pain.' These poems are a gift of lyrical intensity that move us optimistically toward something yet to be imagined."
"Trace is a book of living fossils, a stunning ofrenda that sings the body's survival in time and life and earth. The poems ask at what cost dare we trespass—or cannot help but trespass—brutally, in raising ourselves from bed, in burying ourselves in body. It is a terrible violence that living means to labor in erasures, drownings, borders, veils. But while death engineers in echoes and ghosts, Cárdenas transcends through music and vision both ekphrastic and ecstatic."
"I remember as a child spinning a metal top in my abuelos' basement with the lights off until I made the universe whir, release star-sparks. That's the sort of energy that Brenda Cárdenas generates in her capacious, code-switching collectionwhich, by turns, is ekphrastic, combative, nostalgic, elegiac, oneiric, odic, comic, romantic. Put on your safety glasses, ese. Trace is poetry in motion."
–Mauricio Kilwein Guevara
"Brenda Cárdenas' masterful command of Chicano Caló, USA English, and Mexican Spanish weaves a brilliant celebration of the senses captured by a woman rich with artistic inspiration and keenly aware of her sensual and intellectual worth; it is the core of her new collection Trace. Cárdenas holds us close while providing insight to her childhood explorations, adolescent temptations, or rebellious explorations. She shares her mature mediations of love's carnal and spiritual dimensions across a multitude of captivating connections to our culture's 'literary archaeologists' and our place on beautiful and brutal earth and cosmos. I guarantee, you will return to Trace, time and again."
"Brenda Cárdenas' Trace is an invitation to transform a plastic world of accumulated excess from 'all our granular wreckage.' Trace conjures up a multi-layered language attentive to the 'cumulous algae' and 'skunky ruckus' dreams of artists and workers and celebrating all that we come from—a lineage that 'refuse[s] to flinch, ' 'a chorus resounding for acres.'"
"This book is an ofrenda. With an astonishing awareness of the particular and the everlasting, Trace by Brenda Cárdenas plunges us into the mythic through tales of what is utterly real. These poems take on the healing of soul and the meaning of home. The poetry of Cárdenas is nothing less than the intermingling of the traces of what is spiraling around us and what lay beyond. I highly recommend it."