Life’s Battle Sites: On Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s Incantations: Love Poems for Battle Sites

Reviewed by Brian Dunlap

Incantations: Love Poems for Battle Sites
by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
Mouthfeel Press
October 2023, Paperback, 98 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1957840215

Poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a writer of place. A poet whose perspective stems from her hometown of San Gabriel and the San Gabriel Valley, out into the rest of the world. From a city with a deep traumatic history tied up in the colonialism and white supremacy of the San Gabriel Mission.

It’s a battle site, was one of the largest and wealthiest of California’s 21 missions, where the Spanish Franciscans enslaved the local Tongva natives, raped their women and herded Tongva together in large groups, where sanitation was wretched.

The San Gabriel Mission is just one of the many battle sites that make up Bermejo’s new poetry collection Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites, exploring the internal and external concerns about the current state of fear and chaos in America and how past unresolved fear and chaos can still haunt us. She underlies these poems with the same concern that ran directly through her debut Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, finding home.

Incantation opens with “One Sweet Day: To Do List for the First Day of Spring,” functioning as the book’s introduction. Already there is a battle site, both personal and societal.

For self-care, Bermejo walks in the morning, but her 11-year-old nephew texts: “Stay home there was a shooting near our home and/my school.” Helicopters circle overhead. Trapped inside, Bermejo narratively uses the second person to unfold this day, seamlessly merging the reader’s experience to hers. Therefore, the very different connotations and consequences that this police action has for Chicanx like herself, is fully inhabited, when she says, “take a breath to push away creeping anxiety.”

Anxiety pops up time and again throughout the collection and what makes “One Sweet Day” haunting, is the end when Bermejo notices “the absence of helicopters” and “decide[s] it’s your turn to leave.” After being retraumatized, she’s expected to return to her everyday life as if nothing happened, and as the last image, causes the hauntingness to be fucked-up and linger.


Incantation is comprised of three Sections. The first focuses on societal battle sites, many involving brown children. As in her debut, Bermejo is concerned about the human toll society’s violence inflicts and portrays these children with a deep level of empathy and understanding for the mental/emotional and violent life-or-death consequences of these situations society forces them into. This connects the reader—stepping into children’s shoes—enabling them to experience such situations like crossing the border or what Bermejo’s community calls work—in a poem after 18-year-old Andrés Guardado, killed by L.Á. County Sheriffs, working as an unlicensed security guard—from the opposite perspective of the media.

Implied in many of these poems, but outright in “Even in War,” is her plea for these children to stay “a child a while longer.” They are traumatically forced by society to see themselves as the price society has to pay for its safety.

In the Section’s final poem, “For the Love of Home,” is where Bermejo confronts and atones for the devastating legacy of the San Gabriel Mission by beginning: “May this poem honor/the Tongva People.” She understands that “land/cannot forget” the history brought upon its soil. That for this battle site, this home, to be safe, atonement is necessary.


Unfortunately, Section Two opens with a misstep. The first two poems lack Bermejo’s Chicanx infused, west coast, perspective. This creates a lack of the personal and/or emotional importance that enables the reader to connect, to care, as in section One. Bermejo writes mostly about her residency at Gettysburg National Military Park, focusing on the inseparable intwining of personal and societal fear and chaos, as a woman of color in rural Pennsylvania.

The opening poem “Living with the Dead” is about the ghosts of dead soldiers who still haunt Gettysburg. It’s majority white, lacks a historical Latinx population and its accompanying history. The absence of Bermejo’s individual understanding of the world here is apparent in the poem’s forced meaning—“No, the thought is simply, All ends”—creating a connection to a place, its history, she feels she should have, simply because she’s at a historical national battle site.

In the rest of Section Two, Bermejo allows her perspective to contextualize her experience at Gettysburg. The more classic American battle sites she finds herself in, both literally and figuratively. Microaggressions, respectability politics, denial of her own experience, how and who shapes how we collectively remember and understand violence, this fear and chaos, is presented honestly and authentically. With anxiety.

Throughout this Section, at alternating intervals of every three to four poems, runs the collection’s poetic series, “Comfort Food for White Spaces.” In the first of these narrative poems, the burden of being a person of color in America is present from the beginning. Bermejo is with her white friend Kate visiting the “annual/WWII Days living history encampment.” As they walk the grounds, she “mark[s] every white man I pass and think about Navajo code talkers/and Mexican foot soldiers.” underlying the poem is her keen understanding of how life’s most uncomfortable issues remain, simmering under the surface, when left unspoken for the comfort of white America.

“This is not what I’m saying,” she says to herself after she could no longer help it and asks, “why do people want to remember war like this?”—as a kind of celebration.

Bermejo’s anxiety is the ‘otherness’ she feels; being out of place. “I’m alone in the gift shop,” she says in “Battlegrounds:”

It’s the same in the post office, the market,
the antique shop with KKK books on display

As in Section One, she conducts her own personal atonement for all she’s encountered that’s been left unconfronted. “I invite the unseen to speak.”


Section Three takes an abrupt departure from sections One and Two. The poems are more image driven, using allusion and metaphor as they explore personal battlefields. Romantic relationships permeate, as do love poems to family. Throughout, there is an undercurrent of a vision for a better feature.

“Rancherita” is a reminder of a woman’s strength. “She is/mountain woman./Nopalita with spines.” Though she is “untamable,” she “is not unattainable.”

Unlike Section One, where the poems are heartbreakingly tender, these poems tend to have a gentle, warm, yearning tenderness.

In “Conversations with the Heart:”

                              I miss 
the color green, the scent of day. I place
his hand in the rind of my chest. Ask to fruit.

Although Section Three feels the least like it fits, because it ostensibly leaves behind the socio-political, it actually causes Bermejo’s collection to come full circle. That society’s rampant fear and chaos that specifically traumatizes people and women of color, can and must be atoned for.

Echoing her debut Posada, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo continues to be consumed with these questions: what is safety and chaos; what is and how do we make home; and how does history and family shape this? And Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites allows these questions to linger with the reader as well.

About the reviewer: Brian Dunlap is a native Angeleño living in Los Ángeles. He explores and captures the city’s stories hidden in plain sight. He is the author of the chapbook Concrete Paradise (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and the winner of a Jeff Marks (renamed the Marvin Bell) Memorial Poetry Prize from december magazine judged by former Los Ángeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodríguez and a reader for december magazine. His poems, book reviews and nonfiction have been published in PacificREVIEW, California Quarterly, Lit Pub, L.A. Parent, and the anthology Reimagine America (Vagabond, 2022), among others. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of Los Angeles Literature, an online publication covering the Greater Los Ángeles literary community.