Las Criaturas, as the author states in the back matter of the book, digs “into the weird,” with a hybrid approach that remixes the folklore surrounding relationships between people, animals, and the uncertain futures of both.
Part 1 begins with “The Monster,” a long-form piece that introduces the reader to some of the main themes in Las Criaturas. Told with a 2nd Person narrative, “you” educates their seven-year-old sister on what monsters look like because “That’s how you get your sister to stop crying, to accept the cramped portables with five other mothers and their children where you sleep, because you can’t leave.” “The Monster” deals with growing up in America without English as a first language, and the realization that learning your vowels is never going to be enough to be accepted. “You” and their family left their home on the pretense of safety:
That was when Mamí decided to move you all away, all the way north across the frontera. Mamí’s sister got her a job at a Mexican restaurant making tortillas. After a day’s work, they both came home smelling like maiz y harina, laughing when they walked through the door, even though their feet ached from standing all day, as if those moments made up for the years separated by fence and miles.
But soon enough, ICE comes calling and we get a glimpse of the titular monster, at least one of them. Urieta never allows us to become comfortable with the state of things, often throwing the reader off-balance with masterful uses of diction and the ever-present fog of uncertainty that drifts through each work of prose and poetry.
Part 2 of the collection features brief, stream-of-consciousness pieces like “A Cautionary Tale” that focus on wordplay, with an urgent voice that seems to come from a dreamscape of anxiety and lust. Likewise, Part 3’ “La Rose” begins with the stunning line, “Don’t make me your mother’s cautionary tale, and I won’t make you mine,” this poem is a study of compromise or at least expectations:
We can be us two together
no violence involved
as long as you accept my giving,
and my taking,
natural as the waves washing away and returning what you thought
Throughout Las Criaturas, Urieta blurs the intersections of violence and desire, often posing the question: which attribute will outdo the other? The short story “The Serpent’s Eyes” explores this. Here, a hint of danger does little to persuade a walk-away response (“He was weary again, but when she put her hand on his shoulder, his starved body leaned closer, and he agreed to take her home with him.” The theme of hunger continues with the aptly titled “The Hungry Earth,” a lyrical poem that interprets the body with dream-like imagery:
Your throat is a cave, full to the top with her care
where darkness falls into swirling sky
she cradles you, eternal mother, to her purging fire
peels your pain back from your bones
She flays you open, inside out babe
But Las Criaturas embraces cold realism as well as the obscure. Stories like “Cleanse” place the reader in familiar territory, with the tale of survivors challenged with preserving the family unit. Following the death of the parents, the protagonist is passed around between aunts and extended family. “Nobody is forcing you to do anything,” Auntie says after listing chores that need doing. As if there is ever a choice when it comes to family.
“Hybrid” genre collections often make reader entry difficult due to tonal shifts and organization challenges, but Urieta succeeds in the act of balancing prose and poetry in Las Criaturas by drawing in readers with compelling first lines and concepts. Each poem and story carries a part of itself into the next, with both subtle and heightened themes of loss, displacement, and creatures. The latter permeates each work, with reptiles and human beings seeming one and the same. Both are motivated by hunger, a concept that will land with any of us.
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