Here is the second-to-last part in this series in which poets discuss 2019-2020 poetry collections that they love, recommend and above all, celebrate, in ways that reach beyond so much social distancing required of us right now. This series has brought me a lot of joy and happiness, and I’m so honored to share it here, in the community of this space. —Rosebud Ben-Oni
I’d already been put on to Monica Sok’s work, but it was my homie and fellow poet, Sengarone Vetsmany, who kept reminding me when A Nail the Evening Hangs On was dropping, and how good it was going to be. The homie was right. I admire this collection’s relentlessness. When it comes to ending a book, I usually think of the last poem as a moment of closure. However, rather than “preparing to land,” the poem “Here is Your Name,” creates an expanse which is so satisfying. Sok writes: “Here’s your family watching you/trying to write your name, you erasing,/the new eraser whittled down…your whole hand /wrapped around a pencil, nobody hovering over you…” The repetition—in its rhythmic escalation and release—grips the reader, and instills an urgency that defines great poetry.
There’s a park on a hill near where I grew up. Behind it, a dirt path where a younger me spent many nights when I needed a place to think or just be, before I felt I could go home, go back to whatever my life was then. When I think of this place now, I think of the poem “Tuol Sleng.” Set inside the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (which, as noted in the collection, had been high school before it was used as an execution center),” we follow the speaker looking after their young nephew, Ratanak, who “…runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,/ his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.” For me, the brilliance of this poem is the juggling of narratives, the success of which is created, in part, by the form. Each of the ten sections gets their own page while the speaker grapples with (familial) history; the present moment with Ratanak; and the loud tourists who desire an authentic experience, as they “write on the walls NEVER FORGET/signing their names.” We shift locations, shift through time, emotion, and those blank spaces give the reader a moment to gather it all. Like those late nights at the park, this poem doesn’t seek resolution but lays out everything we exist among, and everything that exists within us.
John Murillo’s work was, for me, like being a kid who gets to go outside for a bit, but learns right away that his homies have been down the street, lighting Roman Candles for the last hour. The release of Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, Murillo’s second collection, is a grip of fireworks I needed to witness. And to be completely honest, I encountered Murillo’s work through the winding brilliance of “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” without having first read his debut, Up Jump the Boogie (though I was well aware of the fires it had started as well). Needless to say, when I heard that this latest collection was about to drop, I was that kid finally out the house and on his skateboard, kicking pavement, heading toward the ruckus.
Homie has bars. That conscious rap that led me to poetry. Check out “Variation on a Theme by the Notorious B.I.G.,” and the way Murillo reconfigures the contemporary literary world through a classic Hip-Hop anthem, beginning: “It was all a dream. I used to read AGNI magazine—/Martin Espada, Komunyakaa, Philip Levine.” This poem is for my early-twenties, Rose-That-Grew-From-the-Concrete-reading, insecure-about-being-in-academia, academic self. And, as in a dream, the volta the reader wakes up to is as real as it gets.
I’d show this collection a dirt lot I used to cross on my way home from school. You could tell grass had never grown in the lot. Too much glass shard and pebble. Too much sun and never the right rain. I would show Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry Pomona, my hometown, from inside this lot. And I’d share it with the poem “Dolores, Maybe,” where the speaker offers an Ontario, California I never knew; and in trying to remember, briefly, the name of a girl who died there, the speaker becomes bound to bits of memory—of her, of 1983—which is all that remains besides a dead coyote, “A frail and dusty heap of regret…” In a gesture of respect, I would introduce this collection, if I could, to all the dirt lots I crossed trying, as well, to recall who I once walked with.
Diana Marie Delgado on Edgar Garcia’s The Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography (Fence Books, 2019)
The premise of Edgar Garcia’s debut poetry collection, The Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography is this: the author reads the journal of Christopher Columbus before bedtime and documents the poems and images that appear. This book is part experiment, part mythos, and part historical amputation of a creation story that never existed: the new world. Really enjoyed, also, that the book’s in color and includes a comprehensive “Notes” section that is just as interesting as the poems and prose. Not a traditional read, but inspiring, nonetheless.
Francisco Aragón on Eduardo C. Corral’s Guillotine (Graywolf Press, 2020)
[I]n my mind, this one water station barrel morphed into a three-dimensional communal space, a lyrical expanse scored with human utterance
—Eduardo C. Corral
Thus spoke Eduardo C. Corral in his “note” on “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel”—a 19-part poem in Guillotine (Graywolf Press, 2020), his long-awaited follow-up to Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012).
It’s a water station barrel he saw in a photograph—by Delilah Montoya in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.” The exhibit gathered pieces from the 1950s to the present and travelled around the country from 2013 to 2017. Corral, along with 60+ other Latinx poets, was commissioned to respond to the show. The result? Six portfolios of ekphrastic writing in six literary journals, including Poetry, which ran “Testament Scratched into a Water Station Barrel (Translation #11)” in its March 2016 issue. It begins:
Far from highways I flicker
gold the whispering
Let’s call this indented, 3-line flourish a visual refrain—one that repeats itself over two dozen times. And though there aren’t spatial breaks between these visual refrains, they function like stanzas, sense and syntax spilling over from one tercet to the next. And yet this first one feels like a self-contained enigma: is it the water station barrel itself that’s speaking, shimmering in the sun (“I flicker / gold”)? Does this “whispering/gasoline” signal, perhaps, potential combustion, (sexual) heat? The poem, after all, continues:
if I pinch her nipples
no joy for her
no joy for me
Though there isn’t a tidy marriage between the first indented “tercet” and the one that follows, the delicate rhyme of flicker//her and the delayed assonance of gasoline//me connect the two “stanzas,” thereby enacting the primacy of sound. I’m reminded of Corral’s pronouncement:
Language is queen, not subject matter. Yet I continue to write in the autobiographical mode because the mode became elastic and new when I freed myself from any obligation to the truth, to memory. I’m constructing, bone by bone, a body of work full of lies and hearsay.
This installment of his multi-layered poem is emblematic of what I’ve come to anticipate from him: a mosaic of image-rich fragments and phrases that, as they accumulate, reward both the eye and the ear, whether the subject matter is a mutilated migrant (“a headless corpse /sporting a t-shirt / that reads: Superstar” p. 21) or sexual intercourse via a unit of grammar (“gently / the sentence enters me”, p. 41). Inevitably, our aesthetic pleasure deepens with gems such as these:
the moon is my library
there’s a glacier
inside a grain of salt
sometimes it rains so hard
even the moon
That said, Corral hints at the ground he is breaking in Guillotine in his cited note above (“three-dimensional communal space.”) Parts 3 and 9, with their use of multiple, sometimes overlapping fonts, are testament to this, while part 17, whose shape resembles a crucifix, evokes the concrete poem.
But why is “(translation #11),” which is part the title in Poetry, suppressed in the book? “[T]ranslation” suggests the scratchings in the water station barrel were in a language other than English. If we’re talking about migrants crossing the desert in southern Arizona, we can imagine these were in Spanish. But, again, why has the term “translation” disappeared?
One possibility is that the poet decided to render one installment of his poem entirely in Spanish. Part 5 begins, “la bestia me está / siguiendo” and ends with a single word as the lone occupant of the final line:
It’s both poignant and heartbreaking. The migrant has misspelled the word for “I cry.”