A review of Tender Machines by J. Mae Barizo

Reviewed by Michael Kleiza

Tender Machines
by J. Mae Barizo
Tupelo Press
May 2023, ISBN: 9781946482846, Paperback, 83 pages, $21.95

There is a connectedness and a disconnectedness in how the relationships between women and men appear in the latest offering by poet J. Mae Barizo. In fact, this joining and unjoining of human and personal relations is a theme preponderant throughout the first part entitled The Women. It is a book of personal revelations and truths, some raw and shocking that are intimate to the core. It is a book about women contemplating their fate in what still seems to be a man’s world. It is a book about loss of self in a country that was a coloniser of ancestors. It is the feeling of not knowing who you are and where to hide. Disappearing is best done by blood letting on wrists and arms, the scars remaining as a reminder.

From the opening poem “The Mothers”, there is an ideal to strive for: “We must be inviolate petals / always queering towards the sun” or a duty of care to follow: “… must / be water on the lips of / flaming cities, quenching / the husbands, insatiable.” Yet, as the poet cautions, there is a price to pay: “… but we must be / boneless, edible fish.” This first poem sets up a lot of what the rest of the poems in this section will address — self harm, motherhood, loneliness or disappearance, to name some.

It is a very personal book. The poet is really leading us through her life up to a point where there is an indication of a change as in the poem “Woman on the Verge”: … “lying back and faking / it because why not it’s the Winter / of my fortieth year and best bleed when the blood / is hot I tell you I’m alive, I’m alive”. 

In the poem “The Women”, there is a feeling that things have been accomplished up to a point, that the women have come to a realization and regrets are few: “Yet standing there at the table, there was nothing in the world that we were in want of, not even the loves that had escaped us. Whatever we suffered, we let go of willingly”. And as a result, there is “… a happiness, almost unbearable.”

Barizo also writes about the city and her daughter, includes interactions with mothers and tells us of her awareness that the choices she has made throughout her life have made her different. In reading these poems, there is a feeling that her world has become unmoored or disappeared. What is saving her is the relationship she has with her daughter: “ … ‘May I eat / the candy necklace off my body?’ / miniature city of her face / the more Time presses the more / beautiful they become…” But, she also confesses in graphic detail her struggles with cutting in her youth: “… I remembered years ago / the quick slice of razors on wrists / what bliss”.

I keep asking myself what is the hook in the final poems in the section Tender Machines. Then I go back to the beginning of the book to the quote by Sylvia Plath: ‘ … “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?”’ ‘… “Tenderness”’ is the reply from her analyst. And really, this is what some of the poems are about, remembering the relationship between the poet and her man. These are poems about innocence and being carefree in her younger days “… My childhood / sonatas, limestone quarries I used to swim in where I caught crayfish / with my bare hands, the lilacs and their thousand petal tongues.”, and growing up and dealing with adult relationships and all the baggage that they bring with them: “… Would / I love you more if you died? I wanted the future to be / uncertain because I was tired of being unsurprised.”. 

In her poem Lux Aeterna, Barizo is remembering the start of the relationship: “The street machines were singing and how young / we were and always eating. … Because the sky was white … and your hands / had me all over them. … Tell me / that I remember it correctly, … That it is not / ruin already. Tell me.”

Communication breakdown and perhaps guilt is shown in the lines, “… after he couldn’t answer / what is it you want?… me not knowing he’d be dead (cerebral / aneurism) in a year’s time. What’s the word / for two people who’ve loved one another / without speaking for so long?” in her poem Upon Hearing Fugue No. 23 From Well-Tempered Clavier BWV 893 

The poems are difficult because they are about trying to communicate with her partner but getting little in return. They are about a relationship that seems to be dissolving before our eyes. I found the poet’s personal “no holds barred” style of writing to be a hard go, but I commend her for her honesty. It is not easy to bare one’s life to others in such a transparent way.

About the reviewer: Michael Kleiza was born in Montreal, and now lives in Guelph with his partner Susan Kelly. Michael’s poems have been published in various anthologies and magazines. His poem “Remembrance Song” was chosen as a finalist for the William Collins Canadian Poetry Prize presented by Descant magazine.