Cynthia Roby won Bacopa Literary Review 2018's Prose Poetry Prize because of "U-Turn's" powerful voice: the vivid tapestry of sub-text, theme, word choice, visual and aural imagery, and minimal but effective dialogue produce a fast-paced ride that takes readers to the edge and leaves us there:
Mami is driving. Straight. Fast. She has no license.
No detenga el coche! I yell. Don't stop the car! I want her to drive
to the end of the world. Her scarred brown knuckles turn white
as she squeezes the steering wheel of Papi's prize: a 1956 Mercury Montclair.
In the back seat, Felix and Edwin peel, squeeze, and suck sweet,
sticky guavas. No napkins. This is an adventure.
And this is why Papi will kill Mami dead.
The voice of the narrator comes through with a jittery, nervous cry for help that never arrives. Bordering on a flash story, this piece is a vignette that provides an implied story where readers fill in the gaps. The subtext, or implied information and backstory, is well-handled without offering us too many specifics or too much dialogue. This is a piece that fits the "diffusionist" category of mixed genre:
We chase the 1 train north on Broadway to another world: The Bronx.
The light quickly turns red at 145th Street. I squeeze my eyes shut and point.
Mami slams her bare foot on the brake. Felix and Edwin scream.
Mami holds out her arm; I don't hit the dashboard.
The 1 train continues without us. Hey Jude is playing on the radio.
Mami pounds her tiny fists on the steering wheel, curses my father: hijo de puta!
Bruises on her wrists and neck are spilled paint:
hues of red, black, blue, purple, and pain.
Her eyes are ruddy worm-like slits
wrapped in tar-black circles--like the tire swings
behind our old house in La Romana.
Papi es un monstruo, a monster. Mami kisses her crucifix.
In La Romana Papi held Mami close; they danced bachata;
he chased us around our leaky chabola, catching only her.
Eres bella, he would say, tickling her waist; kissing her neck,
her fingertips, her earlobe. We giggled.
"Bruises on her wrists and neck... Papi es un monstruo" gives us a clear visual of what kind of man "Papi" might be. However, Papi also "held Mami close; they danced bachata... tickling her waist, kissing her neck..." The juxtaposed scenes and theme of an abusive relationship bleed nicely into this piece, offering a clear picture of a family in crisis:
The traffic light ticks, clicks hard;
gives us permission to continue up Broadway.
But Mami blinks hard, makes a sharp right and then another.
The seat covers are polished floors. I slide beneath her armpit.
Our boy hips collide. She squirms; grunts from Papi's old pain.
Felix and Edwin tumble onto the floor. Scream. Drop what's left of
sticky-fruit-Papi-will-kill-Mami-for onto no-longer-flawless upholstery.
It's still an adventure.
Mami! Que estas haciendo? I scream. What are you doing?
Siga el tren 1! Follow the 1 train!
Her face is wet. She leans her head back, screams,
rocks back and forth. Drives faster.
Dios mio! We're going back. Back to my wetting the mattress
I share on the dining room floor with Felix and Edwin.
Back to Mami forgiving Papi for being a pendejo. Back to the beatings
and the screams in the night. Back to the mujeres malvadas
and rum and parties and money and cars that have changed my Papi
into someone I no longer like.
Mami made a U-turn. And this is why Papi will kill her dead.
Mami's crazy driving epitomizes the speed at which such a family might "U-turn" between violence and a false sense of safety. Mami is angry at the "hijo de puta!" but during the insane ride, decides to make a U-turn back to Papi, who will "kill her dead." The author has captured the insanity of abuse within a tiny piece of writing. This takes precision of language and skill.
The visuals are prose-poetry-appropriate and paint an event with its backstory in medias res on a wild ride where the mother decides to head back "to the screams in the night... to the Papi I no longer like." Once we realize Mami is heading back to the violence, we feel the true chill of this amazing piece. Not only is Mami's driving endangering her kids, but now she is heading back to the original situation from which they fled. The train winds in and out of this narrative, emphasizing and symbolizing the threatening force of Papi. In addition, the vehicle Mami is driving offers no safety for the family. The vehicle and the train are fabulous metaphors for the instability and insanity of a family in chaos.
The circular motion and veering back and forth come through the language with a fast and breathless pacing. The first line comes like an unexpected punch--hard and fast, a set-up for the zigzagging and fast-paced movement. "Mami is driving. Straight. Fast. She has no license." What an excellent set-up for this piece.
"U-Turn" has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize Anthology XLIV by Pushcart Contributing Editor Carolyne Wright, also a former Bacopa contributor and Poetry prize winner.
* * *Cynthia Roby lives in Bronx, New York, where she works as an adjunct professor of academic writing. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in publications including The Penman Review ("Boomerang And Sadie," "Faltered Footwear"/"After My Five Cents, I Ran," "Lust"), The Lindenwood Review, Rat's Ass Review, Thrice Fiction, and Black Denim Lit. Cynthia earned her MFA from Lindenwood University. Find her on Twitter and her Amazon author page.