World Happiness Index
by Kathleen Aguero
Tiger Bark Press, 2022
In her poem, “Self-Portrait,” Kathleen Aguero writes:
I live in a land of trash
and extravaganza. I know
the party’s over by used condoms
and empty nip bottles rolling in the street.
The poems in Aguero’s latest collection, World Happiness Index, propel us across America, search an inner life for place and voice, and return to this landscape, electrified. The stark clarity of Glen McClure’s cover image, “The Joy of Youth,” of a child on a scooter, one foot steady and the other kicking back propelling him forward, hints at this book’s journey. The child performs a balancing act over bricks, much like the image of the Tarot card in Aguero’s poem, “Self -Portrait of the Two of Swords,” where a “graceful maiden” stands with “one foot in the pool, one knee on the earth.” The book, a study of motion and stasis, is kept steady by Aguero’s three-section structure.
The first section is grounded in America, in “in the nineteenth happiest country in the world.” These are poems of wariness and awareness. In Aguero’s America, there is always a hidden danger, a different reality. This country lies uneasily on top of another country. Like hidden cracks on the brick road, the landscape reveals itself through its “arsenic soil.” In “Liberty Hotel, Boston,” the past and present co-exist:
we’ll eat dinner at the Clink,
where vestiges of original cells
create cozy nooks, and Bartolomo Venzetti
silently rehearsing his speech to the court,
orders filet mignon from a waiter in a uniform
stenciled with Malcolm’s old number, 22843.
The speaker in this section questions her own responsibility, her own recognition of two Americas. While purchasing a gift certificate for her daughter in “Happy Skies Spa: Reflexology,” the speaker enters what might be a front for sex slavery and asks, “What am I prepared/to understand?” While carving pumpkins with her grandchildren, she remains aware of the migrant children held in custody at the border:
We place a candle
inside it so the grimace we carved
flickers with menace. I try to bring you into focus
as your image trembles like the light inside that pumpkin.
Does it matter I know you are there?
The border between these two Americas is fluid. “At Sixteen Months: Brown and Gold” concerns itself with the dangers a toddler faces in the home: sticks, poisons, dogs. This is the fear of a grandmother watching her grandson. But the arrangement of color—and the “brown hand” ending the line—moves the poem in a different direction, from the familiar of the speaker’s home to the danger facing Black men in America:
Golden marigold petals stain his brown hand
as he carries his stick. So far
no one thinks it’s a gun.
“I’m Americana Red in a green plastic pot,” Aguero writes in “Self-Portrait as a Geranium.” Aguero continues creating a tension of colors and realities in the middle section of the book. Here, the speaker moves inward. All of the poems are self-portraits that explore agency through everyday things and abstractions. The poems, while at times comical, also touch on themes of aging, power, and womanhood. In “Self-Portrait as Sun Washed,” an actual Benjamin Moore paint color, Aguero attempts to define this shade as: “about to faint,” “pink-shirt-washed-too many times,” “too-timid-to-be-seen,” “nearly invisible, / woman past the middle of her life.” A feather duster becomes deified in “Self-Portrait as a Feather Duster,” which ends with the wonderful couplet, “my glory. Ashes to ashes, / I sing, Dust to Dust.” The self-portraits reveal a search for voice, whether from a doll “that only speaks when baby pulls the cord,” to “Self-Portrait as a Sunrise,” where the portrait is one of dance, texture, and bright color: coral, hot pink, and spiked. The power belongs to the speaker, “. . .that thing/you think you know.”
Aguero returns to the outer world in the third and final section, which is filled with electrical storms, illnesses, death. “Outside, the hurricane. Inside, she,” Aguero writes in “She.” This poem examines rage, power and imbalance, personified by a woman with a broken wrist stuck in her house during a storm. She wants to leave, but is warned “Go back in. Go back in.” I read this as a companion poem to “Praise for the Ill,” a poem set in Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The speaker, performing reiki on patients, praises “the body’s frailty. . .its strength,” and acknowledges her own inner heat:
to the woman who told me, your hands are so warm.
At first, I thought it must be the work of the devil.
But this is a devil that the speaker has learned to travel with. In “Better Self,” one of the funniest poems in the collection, Aguero writes:
Underneath it all,
my better self wants to marry me, but she thinks
I’m not worthy. She nicknames me Sweetie,
I nickname her B.S. for Better Self.
When I want to bite like a black fly,
she gets there first and blows kisses.
While Aguero examined the layering of one America over another in the first section, now she creates a reflection of that double reality by layering the living and the dying. The scrim between these two worlds is thin, and “the usual laws/no longer apply.” In “My Father Floating,” the father
in a fearful dream, rises
outside his body,
but he’s stuck
in the living room, which appears
tilted at a surreal angle. . . .
The poems in World Happiness Index revel in their humanity and in all the deep sadnesses and joys that lie there, “. . . the comfort of people going about their ordinary lives. . . .” They are portraits of movement, stasis, navigation. Kathleen Aguero recounts an ongoing journey over a precarious landscape with cracks, old faults, and broken things, where “past, present, future are equally real.” I loved traveling with this poet, being a companion in this place where “the dead float happy” and gravity pulls “the rest of us back to the ground.”