Hello and Happy Friday; I’m back with another poetry book review. I’ve been looking forward to this one for weeks!
Full disclosure before we jump in: I call this an unqualified review because I’m not a poetry expert in the technical sense. I’m simply a human who enjoys some great prose. If you want to see my other completely unqualified poetry review, you can check out my critique of The Many Personalities of Me by Canadian author Bailey Gee.
Secrets of the Concrete Life takes us away from Canada this time, to São Paulo, Brazil. The first time I really spoke with writer Alice Almeida, she was in the process of writing this book. She sent me a sample of one of the poems: Love In the Big City. It was written about two twitterpated pigeons she encountered in the streets of São Paulo.
“They know something we don’t; they are happy, and we are not. They hold such beauty in their invisibility, that we’ll never see if we don’t look up,” it said.
I remember being blown away. I couldn’t wait to see more; I bought my copy the day it was released. And it absolutely delivered.
The book read like an introspective character study–the main character being São Paulo itself. An ode to city life, told through the eyes of someone who has lived there her entire life. It was as if I were right there with Alice, standing next to her outside her apartment building while she smoked a cigarette and typed each poem into her phone.
I grew up in rural Ontario. Moving to the city felt to me like a light switch had flipped on; part of me fell into place. I love the anonymity, the fast-paced environment and the myriad of different people and cultures you get to encounter every day. I love the festivals and the wild array of takeout options. I love living within walking distance of a church, a synagogue and a mosque. I especially love that my neighbours here don’t know everything about me down to what I had for breakfast last Wednesday, nor do they care.
So, in a world that heavily romanticizes the cottagecore aesthetic, it was refreshing for me to pick up a book that romanticizes city life in the same way. But what I really enjoyed about Secrets of the Concrete Life was that, although it did highlight some of the more romantic aspects of city living, it also showed the darker parts. The city can be a crowded, scary, dirty place. And Alice illustrates this perfectly in poems like The Curse of the Night and Garden of Eden.
Something else Alice does in Secrets of the Concrete Life that made it memorable for me is that throughout the book, she recalls elements, themes and motifs that were previously mentioned. For example, in Concrete Warriors, Alice describes some dandelions she saw growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk:
“How stubborn was I, trying to die,” she writes, “yet how stubborn are these little guys trying to live.”
These dandelions pop up discreetly a couple more times throughout the book. Same with the character Eden, Alice’s former neighbour who struggles with addiction. This helps build a more dynamic and relatable narrative.
Another thing that I liked about this book is that it talks about things that any city dweller can relate to, like getting drenched on a rainy day when someone drives through a puddle next to you, waiting for the bus at night or the struggles faced by the homeless, which many of us pretend not to notice when we walk by them in the street.
“They drink, but can’t afford it like you and me, so they are alcoholics,” Alice writes in Homelessness of the Heart. “They use cheap drugs, wreck their brains. We use that gourmet shit, same price, same prize. But you can shoot heroin on the comfort of your rented condo.”
But Secrets of the Concrete Life also talks about things that are unique to São Paulo. These give the book an almost educational feel, and even help soothe that annoying post-pandemic travel itch just a bit.
In A Tourist in My Life, Alice takes us on a tour of the city through her eyes. We visit popular tourist attractions like the two city centres and the Museum of Art of São Paulo, but we also get a more intimate glimpse of the parts of the city Alice experiences in her day-to-day life, like the market, the stationary store she frequents and her own apartment building.
In Independence or Death! Alice teaches us about a piece of her country’s history, drawing parallels between former Brazilian president/dictator Getúlio Vargas and her own disillusionment with the history we’re taught versus the truth. As a Canadian, this is something I can appreciate.
You also get brief insights and tidbits of Alice’s life peppered throughout, in works like Princess of the Shopping Mall and Lovin Sunshine. These details add a relatable human element to the narrative.
Overall, Alice’s use of pace, metaphor and imagery are probably this book’s biggest strengths. She uses rhyme sparingly, so when it does happen it packs that extra punch that makes you go “oh, that was good.” I’m a huge fan of free-verse poetry, so Secrets of the Concrete Life tickled my brain in all the right places.
This book was Alice’s debut. In my humble opinion, it was a testament to self-publishing done right. I definitely recommend this book to city lovers and poetry lovers alike. I can’t wait to read more from Alice Almeida!
Secrets of the Concrete Life is available for purchase through Amazon Kindle.
© Victoria St. Michael 2021