Conjuring the Dead, but Make it Poetry: A Review of Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva

“I ask Mami why it was like that. Open casket. She tells me that’s just the way we do it —we look death in the face.” – from “I Watch Selena’s Open-Casket Funeral” in Dreaming of You.

I have decided to listen to a Selena playlist on Spotify as I finish Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You in one sitting. I am reading the poem “Yolanda Tells Me What Happened that Night” as Vuelve a Mi begins to play. I’m crying into the book, and I think this is what it means to conjure the dead. Is this what Lozada-Oliva intended? For her “querido reader” to sit quietly tearing up over a novel in verse about a dead popstar, forever mourning at a coffee shop in South Texas, or walking home alone at night listening to a true crime podcast and thinking of the last poem they read. 

Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You, a novel in verse, is a haunting macabre detailing a young poet’s decision to bring Tejano popstar, Selena Quintanilla-Perez, back from the dead. The novel begins with a cast of characters. The first one on the list is Yolanda Saldivar “as BFF for life and Selena’s murderer…behind bars, hand reaching out of the dirt with vengeance.” Characters also include “You” and “She” — “You” as “the consumer and the consumed. As the dear reader. As the drawing in the notebook…” and “She” being “born out of spite, the most fertile feeling.” As readers, we know our role all too well. However, for the book to shine the spotlight on us as a “You” we are pulled forth on stage — cast into the séance. Additionally, the novel’s chorus “Las Chismosas,” usually connoting older women that love to gossip, makes an appearance. Lastly, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, who acts as both the author and protagonist of the book, is given a specific role: “it’s been me, it’s always been me. The whole time.” 

The book interweaves various different poetic forms, one being syncopated sonnets in “You and Me Don’t Talk Anymore” and “Yolanda and Selena Don’t Talk Anymore”. This variation of the traditional sonnet forces the quiedo reader to turn the book vertically, holding three poems in one: one speaker on the left side, one on the right, and both speakers in conversation when read all together. The syncopated sonnet form creates a different dynamic for the reader to interact with the book, a sort of breaking of the fourth wall–a postmodern book that expands poetic form and asks, demands, the involvement of the reader. 

The poem “Resurrecting Selena” is when the séance is detailed. Lozada-Oliva, as protagonist, has collected her period blood to conjure Selena Quintanilla-Perez from the dead. The form of the piece resembles a “How-To” article, a list of thirteen steps to resurrect Selena. However, it seems like no easy process that one can do on a lonely Friday night. One step being “7. There’s more to do. I wake You up and ask You to quickly think of the name of the girl in elementary school with the prettiest handwriting,” and “9. I spray You in the face because I’m a reactive person.” This process feels personal, a magic that only Melissa herself can accomplish–and she does. In the poem “I’m Not Sure What to Do with Her, Exactly,” we see Selena come back to life in Melissa’s Brooklyn apartment.

The constant change of poetic form, voice, and content drives the book forward through the dark world created by Lozada-Oliva. This world is not much different than our own; it is filled with villainous capitalism, sex, racial microaggressions against marginalized communities, chisme, karaoke bars that we won’t remember in the morning, feminine identity politics, and the idolization of a Texan raised popstar that died too soon. At the center of this exploration of insecurities, joys, and identity stands Melissa Lozada-Oliva— an unapologetic poet who isn’t afraid of the rawness of the mind and is resilient in her writing— so much so that it feels like we’re talking to our best friend. As a reader, you feel welcomed to enter her poetry without hesitation.

I can’t help but think what Selena would be like in this new world, defrosted from the red-lipsticked, big-smiled, pizza-loving Latina image we have in our minds. Capitalism has taken her identity and created copies, remakes, and wax figures of her body. Yet Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Dreaming of You fills in the gaps of the “what-ifs.” What if I brought a dead thing back to life? What if Yolanda Saldivar escaped prison in the name of love? What if I lost myself in finding myself? What if our world was slightly skewed one night during a séance and all the popstars of our dreams came to sing just one last time? There are enough questions in Dreaming of You that a reader could start to lose themselves. But don’t worry, by the epilogue of the book Lozada-Oliva offers a gentle place to rest, a soft come-down to the earth we are so comfortable inbut now, we’ve got new eyes.