The Messenger, by Stephanie Pippin. University of Iowa Press, 53 pp., $18.
Centaur, by Greg Wrenn. University of Wisconsin Press, 77 pp., $16.95.
When My Brother Was an Aztec, by Natalie Diaz, Copper Canyon, 103 pp., $16.
When I returned from four years spent abroad, far from a serviceable English-language bookstore or library, one of the first tasks I set myself was to catch up on some of the books I had missed, and especially to acquaint myself with poets who had emerged in the years that I had been gone. I reached out to friends for recommendations; with access to a university library again, I began trawling the aisles. I've chosen the three books under review here first and foremost because they were among my favorites, books that I think announce the arrival of significant voices, voices that I hope will be part of the poetic landscape for decades to come. More than this, though, I was struck by how each of these collections seems to be animated by a similar energy at its core, a shared concern with wildness. In Stephanie Pippin's The Messenger, the speaker seeks therapy for grief in a very literal engagement with wildness, the birds of prey she helps tend at a rehabilitation refuge. In Greg Wrenn's Centaur, the mythological figure of the title becomes an image for the poems' attempts to reconcile a reasoning consciousness with the wildness of the sexual body. Finally, Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was an Aztec considers the wildness of a beloved brother lost to addiction, increasingly unrecognizable in his illness. I don't want to overstate the books' similarities: in both technique and content, these three collections are clearly and quite starkly distinct. But they are all excellent, by which I suppose I mean that beneath their surfaces, however well-wrought, runs a current of something ungovernable.
In "Afterimage," the first poem of Stephanie Pippin's remarkable debut, The Messenger, the speaker sees an image of a female form from Pompeii and imagines the sounds that no archeological record, however unlikely, can preserve:
she gives no hint of how
it must have sounded
so like the neighbors breaking
each other again. Song
of black-eye, song of fist.
Song of sometimes you make me
a little bit crazy, sometimes
you make me insane.
It's what we do, these poems suggest, imagining lives from the traces they've left, seeking to invent some more vivid supplement to the remainder of what's lost. It's telling that the poem's imagination turns to violence, a domestic eruption of which the volcano might be seen as an iteration on a grander scale. But it's also characteristic of the restless, dissatisfied, unsparing intelligence of this book that the speaker almost immediately criticizes her own act of imagining:
It is perilous to be resilient
and a little sentimental.
It is enough to know
the clouds came down
on shuttered rooms. Then
the tremble, then the hush.
Make what you can know enough, the poem seems to say, though many of these poems are incapable of heeding that advice.
Like the "hush" of "Afterimage," the quiet that pervades these spare poems is the stillness that settles after catastrophe. The dominant mood of the collection is elegiac, and of a piece with the reticence of these poems is the fact that the object of their elegy, which is sometimes discussed in third person, sometimes in second, is never specified. She is "my windfall, / my luck entirely"; she "was so / small one leaf could / cover her." When she is described, it is always obliquely and often as a bird, the figure that dominates the entire book. Here is the end of "Tether," another of the collection's early poems:
I am divisible from the mindless
grip of this world
where your tiny body burst—
your blood rare red as columbine your
breath released as relic—
from your feathers turned
ash in my hands.
These lines give some sense of the elegance of Pippin's craft, especially that gorgeous fourth line, its nine syllables framed by repetition, the hinge of "as" dividing it into two precise halves. The intensity of the speaker's grief is communicated not through grand effects or the raising of a voice, but instead through the grammatical hitch of "rare," with its not quite placeable syntax, or the slight oddness of the missing article before "relic." It's a very fine craft that registers emotion through such slight shadings of usage. And these lines show as well the musical accomplishment of these poems, the regularity of the tercets rendered slightly less stable by the nimble unpredictability of the line breaks, the tension of stacked stresses in "blood rare red" easing to the iambic rhythm of what follows.
The traditional work of elegy is therapy, and the most common course for that therapy is the turn to nature, which the poet reads for signs of solace, seeking in natural cycles of renewal and re-growth both meaning in what seems the senselessness of loss and a promise of recovery. The title of Pippin's collection invokes this idea of poetic therapy—that nature has a message meant for us to read—and in the title poem (the book's second) she lays out its premise:
This is the lesson
of grief, to listen to the chorus
at the water's edge, to read
the black weight of abandoned nests back
into portents of spring.
But it's a prescription the poet can't follow; she fails at her attempt to perform the act of commemoration at the heart of the classical elegy: "I don't know where to lay / my wreath, my tribute." As a result, the promise of meaning isn't kept; whatever message might be taken in the contemplation of nature is missed, and the experience of loss imparts no wisdom: "I failed / to catch your message…. / Your body took its meaning, spun / a knot of coldness and your small grave / opened." Whatever meaning the world might offer is lost, with the beloved, to the grave.
If the book can't successfully manage the turn to nature traditional to the elegy, however, it makes a different turn, one grounded in a less ideal conception of the natural world. In interviews, Pippin has spoken about her work at a wild bird refuge, and the birds that fill these poems owe much more to the lived experience of tending falcons and vultures than to the winged messengers of the poetic tradition, a trope that this collection in many ways works to anatomize and dissect. Pippin's birds very seldom echo or reflect back to us our own meanings, if by that word we mean some acknowledgement of the human subject as special or separate, endowed with something that transcends the organic, some significance that inheres in us as sovereign subjects. Instead, Pippin's birds stand sovereign in their own strangeness, meaning nothing beyond the biological processes that Pippin renders with extraordinary exactness. The speaker of these poems is always reverent of that strangeness, even as she can't help casting about in her human way for some deeper communion: "Theirs is the mind / I've tried to fall through, their alien / strangeness," she writes in "January," a poem about harvesting the meat of a doe struck by the road, its "mammal-solid" body closer to her than the birds she will feed it to. The poems are filled with similar acts of care—feeding, cleaning, candling eggs—the daily work in which she is reminded of her own place in a world of predator and prey: "The rest is routine," she writes in "King Vulture," "I // defend myself as he feigns to eat me." In "Summer," one of several poems about flying raptors, the moment of flight is not an occasion for human meaning, but a reminder to the speaker of her own animal self:
At the first touch of air,
her wings rise—
the vise on my forearm
her hackles are up—
three layers of leather
punctured and a small
cry like an animal's I realize
later is mine.
The therapy that the speaker of these poems seeks in nature isn't Romantic transcendence or consolation, but instead a ruthless wildness, the world seen as an arena of predator and prey in which there's no place for elegy. In "King Vulture," as she guts hares, the poet admits, "I am sorry for these small / creatures that come to me dead; // even as I clean them I turn their heads / away." Even so, "necessity // speaks to me, angel stinking of his own / excitement." As she handles birds of prey, the poet wonders at the "heart electric / unsentimental / as hunger," so different from the heart that grieves. This is the lesson she wants to take from these creatures, the "delight" of the bird free of the weight of memory, "Cast into the white / amnesia of clouds." In "The Peregrine," watching a falcon hunt a flock of pigeons, the speaker tries to learn from the bird that will return to her glove:
I try to see them
as he sees them—a surface
disturbance, the flock
that flies as one
in the light, knowing
one among many is no loss at all.
What the speaker seeks to learn is a way of seeing, a perspective from which single lives dissolve into the grander perspective of necessity. This is the opposite of elegy, of course, which sees in the one lost a loss beyond measure. ("In everything / I see I try to fit her / body," Pippin writes in "Elegy.") The tension between these two ways of seeing is the inspiriting dynamic of this collection, the perspective of the poems shifting repeatedly between the necessity of predation and the illogic of love.
Finally it feels like a brave choice to side, as Pippin does, with love, that human meaning, and her book ends with elegy. A final aspect of this elegy is motherhood, or a lost potential for motherhood, which is a repeated theme in these poems and perhaps a further clue to the nature of their elegiac object. In "Gone," in one of the book's most moving passages, the speaker watches three coyote cross a country road:
I am so close to the late-spring
stink of them I can see one nearly
drags her teats in the dust. I too
have left the young behind me—
a den of possibility
abandoned. I feel the sting of it.
And a confusion of my body
that tugs me to follow
their vanishing shapes.
This "confusion of my body" is given a name in the next poem, "Riverlands," which returns to the object of elegy: "You are gone weeks // ago, released to the season, belonging to yourself," she writes there. "I return, mother / enough to know the elastic / band that keeps me circling / the ground is love." Love is a check, a tether or rein; it is what keeps the speaker from fully joining wild things in their wildness.
In the book's final poem, the very beautiful "Candling Eggs," a displaced motherhood allows for some sense of resolution to grief, as though, after her long interrogation of the traditional mechanisms of poetic elegy, Pippin finds them not entirely without use. Holding an owl egg to the light, the poet sees "her head, her wing stumps clear as fingers, / the black pulse of her heart / beating." "I am trying to let go of you," she writes, and though there "is no ritual for raising / the dead," she ends the poem with an image that suggests at least the possibility of meaning beyond death, if meaning of a very tenuous, very gentle kind:
only my eye enters the thin
scrim of her shell.
My eye that carries you with it,
like a flaw
in my iris the shape of a wing.
The beloved has become a way of looking, surviving in the change she has made in the speaker. And in the last image, with its suggestion that the reward for resolved grief is a gift of flight, the poet reclaims some of the lyric transcendence she has subjected to so much scrutiny and that feels more authentically earned as a result. Messenger is a masterful, quietly stunning debut.
I still remember the excitement I felt when I first read "Centaur," the long title poem of Greg Wrenn's collection, several years ago in the Beloit Poetry Journal. It's a strange, daringly conceived poem, its eight sections cobbling together poetic fragments and fictional, putatively found texts to tell the narrative of a troubled young man, Marcus, who travels to Brazil to be transformed into a centaur. From a section titled "His Therapist's Last Notes," we learn that Marcus has suffered from "sex addiction" and has a history of abuse, and in sections written in his own voice we have the sense—as throughout the whole collection, with its variety of speakers—of someone at once in thrall to and desperately fighting against his longings. The narrative scaffolding is a fanciful way of addressing concerns that are central to the collection as a whole, at the heart of which is a fundamental dualism the book repeatedly tries to bridge and finally can't escape: between reason and wildness, mind and body, ideal and real. The collection is steeped in both classical and Judeo-Christian imagery, and the centaur is one of the western tradition's oldest images of dualism, a being whose body manifests tensions that torment many of the speakers of Wrenn's poems.
From Marcus's "Intake Form," we learn what has brought him to "the humid / sharpness of rainforests," the condition for which he hopes his transformation into a centaur will be a cure: "Always felt dead / from the navel down. / Some man touched me in the crib, // warped my bones." These lines are representative of much of the collection in that the resolution they seek is not an escape from one aspect of the self conceived of in dualistic terms, an escape from longing or an escape from thought; the speaker here seeks not to finally resolve sexual desire, but instead "To reawaken waist to feet." But it isn't just sensation that he seeks, as the poem makes clear a few lines down: "Please // hoist my hips from my body into the heavens, // hot engine lifted / from propped-open hood…" It's no accident that throughout the poem descriptions of the experience of surgery have much in common with descriptions of sex: hips may be hoisted for penetrations of several kinds. But more important is that whatever the nature of the intervention, what's hoped for is a bringing together of the terms of dualism, a union of "hips" and "heaven." Marcus has reached the extremity of Dr. Angel's clinic only after exhausting the options of other disciplines, from yoga to foot binding ("—Too Geisha-like, / too Golgothan"), and after testing the various therapies promised by sex: "I let many men culled // from cyberspace / crush and slide into me … / but it never worked." Finally, his is the commonest, the most fundamental wish: "I want to feel alive," he says as he knocks on the clinic door.
Waking from the surgery, Marcus finds that his numbness has been replaced not by grace but pain:
An enormous drum of pain
persisted below my stomach, pinch
Stretch, fitful fusion, incubus-knock.
Dawn agony teething.
Again, the pain is rendered in sexually evocative terms, an implication made explicit with "incubus-knock." But there is also a suggestion of birth in "teething," a possibly hopeful note that isn't immediately answered in Marcus's first attempts at movement: "I was a palsied crab, dazed," he says, perhaps echoing Eliot's self-lacerating "ragged claws." Looking at himself in the mirror, he sees his "brown coat," his "Skin the color of dry pomegranate" where the halves of his new body have been joined, and he realizes that this intervention, too, however radical, has failed: though he came wanting to live, "I told my new body, / 'You must die.'" And yet the poem doesn't end with this failure. In the beautiful final section, a kind of coda to the rest of the poem, the image of the centaur takes on a new resonance, representing not a metaphysical dilemma but a different attempt at finding the feeling Marcus craves: "Once, only once," he writes, "I let him ride me / bareback." Of all the "interventions" Marcus has tried, this is the only one that the poem doesn't doom to failure; instead, Marcus is allowed the expansiveness and facility that all of his other disciplines denied him:
He held onto my neck,
his calves against my flanks,
and I started for the field,
what felt like an ocean.
There's a trust
that won't throw us.
no bridle, no reins.
Marcus finally finds connection ("trust") in what seems like the abandonment of caution ("no bridle, no reins"), the casting off of protections, whatever the consequences. The question of barebacking has been renewed in recent years among gay men, especially young gay men, some of whom have found a sense of liberation in questioning what they see as oppressively moralistic, puritanical admonishments concerning safer sex. It's a strength of this book that it acknowledges the exhilaration of abandon; it is also a strength that it explores exhilaration's consequence. "I'm told // what to do, I don't do it," Wrenn writes in "Self-Portrait as Robert Mapplethorpe." "And then?"
Sex is everywhere in these poems, and Wrenn writes about it with unusual candor. It is always equivocal, offering at once ecstasy ("Ecstasy, / how I've made a faith of you," Wrenn writes in "Virus") and disappointment. In "Self-Portrait as Robert Mapplethorpe," it is "the only thing / worth living for," promising literal ekstasis, that is, release from the self:
for a minute, reaching into you,
I forgot I was human,
that I was at all—
am, am, am!
And yet, the same poem also expresses disenchantment with sex, especially with the failed promises of license: "Later, yes, many others—in a patrolled / park, on the pier. // This is liberation?" Sometimes remarkably explicit, the descriptions of sex in these poems can veer into the grotesque, far from any usual realm of arousal: "My lean, / starved womb's / a slight rectal bloom," Wrenn writes in "Virus," a long poem that is, along with "Centaur," perhaps the book's finest achievement; later in the same poem, the speaker says, "Let me unbuckle you, // find your tight portal, / and discover what you ate." The speaker of "Virus" is after ever more intense experience, even as the poem makes clear that sexual acts are a substitute for some other kind of connection. For all his obsession with penetration, no sexual act can reach deep enough: "O to enter his mouth / and not stop there, / to stake out the great stopping lung," he writes; even more explicitly: "All that remained for me / to break through // was the skin around his heart."
As the title of "Virus" suggests, the idea of penetration—especially penetration that is "bare and responsive," as Wrenn writes in "Thirteen Labors"—can only be a charged one in the age of AIDS, and disease hovers, sometimes as a threat, sometimes as an apparent reality, throughout the book. "Virus" is a long, disturbing poem, concerned not just with questions of infection but of incest and abuse, themes that recur in other poems. In "Virus," it is not the speaker but the speaker's father who is infected with an illness that "slept for seven years" before waking. The virus is never named, but some of its symptoms—such as a skin infection like "a field of red poppies / unable to wither"—suggest HIV, as does the father's claim or threat that his gay son will "'get it too … / There's no way you won't—'." But it's not the virus so much as the relationship between father and son that is at issue in the poem, a relationship that is repeatedly eroticized:
Daddybody, why do I want to inhabit you?
Shoreline cliffs still call out
for the continent that broke away.
From here, my gums can't taste your skin.
Why deny me scabs and leather?
The ears of my bunny hat droop.
Lie down on the grass you've mown.
Hold me there so I ride your breathing.
It's a wonderful, difficult passage, displaying many of the techniques Wrenn puts to use throughout the collection: quick shifts of register and tone, unanticipated juxtapositions of diction and image. In the second line above, the poem offers a quietly powerful image of longing on a more-than-human scale; in the second stanza, the grotesque, sinister "scabs and leather" jostles jarringly with "bunny hat"; in the final line, there is a representation of precisely the union speakers long for in many of these poems, and that so often escapes them. Running throughout "Virus" is the disquiet of desire overstepping its bounds, that of a boy who wants to "inhabit" and "taste" his father. (This passage is from the same section I've quoted previously: "Let me unbuckle you, // find your tight portal …")
"Virus" is finally an elegy, complete with a scene of burial that at once, like so much in this book, invokes real feeling and destabilizes it:
To touch and be touched,
we've both entered rooms.
As his balls slapped
against someone, he prayed.
Just outside a tortoise burrow—
that's where I left his dick.
Fallen toy pillar blazing
in the night at the end
of the century.
In the string of metaphors the speaker offers for his father's penis, there's both fascination ("rolled opiate") and ridicule, a sense of majesty ironized ("Fallen toy pillar") and, immediately afterward, a lyrical, even stately close. Other scenes are less ambivalent, like the striking tenderness of a moment remembered from a childhood fishing trip:
A stingray bolted up,
flapping its wings in the air
as I lowered the pole to the ground.
Sandaled foot on barbed tail,
you took my hand.
You ran it along the drab back—
The protectiveness of the father here, his unambivalent care in shielding the child as he introduces him to a new experience, is unique in the sequence. And even it is undermined in the poem's penultimate section, where we learn the fate of the boy's prize: "the gutted ray hung on a hook."
I find it difficult to be confident in my response to these poems, which, like Pippin's, at once invite and forbid confessional readings. With their multiple voices and strategies, their sudden shifts of mood and tone, they often provoke emotion only to knock it off-balance, almost as if in rebuke. And so it's difficult to explain why I found reading this collection, and even more re-reading it, so moving. Perhaps it's because the disorientation feels genuine as a strategy of response to the repeated traumas the book explores, a barometer of inner weather. "My / craving diminishes, // diminishes, / grows," Wrenn writes in "Three Attempts at Understanding." "I'm dappled inside / with sunlight. // And then I'm not."
When I was canvassing colleagues and friends about their favorites among recent debuts, no book was mentioned more often than Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was an Aztec, perhaps one of the most excitedly praised first books of the last several years. It's the rare book of poetry that feels like an event, the arrival of a poet with ambitions as out-sized as her talents. If Pippin's poems are careful and exact, polished to something close to perfection, and if Wrenn's are precisely managed in their shifts of tone and form, Diaz's feel messier, her uneven lines and verse paragraphs spilling down the page in sentences that often eschew subordination, preferring ever-expandable parallel structures. But Diaz is cunning in her craft, and capable, when she wants them, of lapidary surfaces; this messiness, if that's what it is, is urgent and electric, a vehicle for the feeling that runs hot through these poems. Diaz's book is the most confessional of the three—the most remarked upon poems are stories of family tragedy—but also the one that reaches furthest beyond the self, trying to communicate not just a personal story but a cultural one. In the first of the book's three sections, Diaz presents a portrait of a community, the Mojave reservation where she grew up, combining compelling portraits of individuals with poems addressing broader historical and cultural narratives. In the second section, which has been most widely discussed, she presents poems about a brother who loses himself to drug addiction. The third section focuses on the self, presenting the book's most interior pieces, including a series of very beautiful erotic poems. As an abstract scheme, it seems as though this arrangement would diminish the power of the collection, its horizon of concern narrowing as it progresses. But in fact the effect is the opposite: as we move from culture to family to individual psyche, we're invited to imagine relationships of cause and consequence, or at least of pressure and influence, so that each new section bears the weight of what has preceded it.
In fact, this strategy of narrowing is evident not just between sections, but within them. In the first section, Diaz stakes out her broadest canvas in poems like "Cloud Watching," which in a single stanza summarizes, with devastating irony, the tragedy of modern Native American history:
Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington's bedspread—
they weren't hers to give. So, when the cavalry came,
we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled
with bullet holes.
It's hard to find a term fierce enough for the tone of that "unfortunately." It's echoed a few lines later, where contemporary scourges make a parody of tribal traditions:
The rhythm is set by our boys dancing the warpath—
the meth 3-step. Grandmothers dance their legs off—
who now will teach us to stand?
The use of bitter comedy is showcased in "The Last Mojave Indian Barbie," a short prose narrative that places native culture at the heart of a treasured narrative of white America. In the poem, Mojave Barbie joins Barbie and Ken in their idealized suburban landscapes, bringing with her a "hypodermic needle accessory kit," "an authentic frybread recipe," and "the 'Mojave Death Grip,' an indigenous love maneuver" with which she disrupts Barbie's happy home.
But harsh irony isn't the only note Diaz strikes in writing about reservation life. The section includes a number of portrait poems, each of which further explores the scourges of reservation life—alcoholism, diabetes, drug addiction—without losing sight of a bedrock human dignity. One of Diaz's talents not widely shared among her contemporaries is a gift for narrative pleasure, which is nowhere more evident than in my favorite of these portraits, "The Gospel of Guy No-Horse." In it, a drunk, wheelchair-bound man dances, after his fashion, in "The Injun That Could, a jalopy bar" with two "yellow-haired / tourists still in bikini tops." The scene is primed for humiliation, but Diaz gives us something else:
In the midst of Camel smoke hanging lower and thicker
than a September monsoon, No-Horse rode high, his PIMC-issued
wheelchair transfigured—a magical chariot drawn by two blond,
beer-clumsy palominos perfumed with coconut sunscreen and dollar-fifty
Other patrons surround him, "clapping, whooping, slinging obscenities," half encouraging, half mocking, but No-Horse doesn't "hear their rabble"; he dances unperturbed, invincible in a sense of himself the poem finally endorses. Though the white tourists are "laughing loudly, hysterical at the very thought / of dancing with a broken-down Indian," the poem offers an image of recovered wholeness:
If you'd seen the lightning of his smile,
not the empty space leaking from his thighs, you might have believed
that man was walking on water, or at least that he had legs again.
"This was The Injun That Could," the poem ends, "and the only cavalry riding this night / was in No-Horse's veins. Hey! Hey! Hey! he hollered." This wholeness—personal and cultural—is fleeting and fantastic; from the beginning of the poem we're reminded of historical grief that no drunken revelry can assuage for long: "the Colorado River—a once mighty red body / now dammed and tamed blue." But there is an authentic vitality in Guy No-Horse's "lightning," even if its illumination is brief.
The illuminations visited upon the brother of the book's title are also fleeting, but there's nothing illusory about the damage they leave in their wake. The book's second section is an extended examination of the ravages of addiction—"the meth 3-step"—in the context of the speaker's family. The section opens with a deeply moving pantoum, "My Brother at 3 a.m.," among the very finest examples of this difficult form I know. A mother opens her door to find her son "weeping on her steps," in the grip of a terrible hallucination:
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
O God, he said. O God.
He wants to kill me, Mom.
As the conversation continues, the intricate form of the poem—the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third of the next—comes to feel precisely and movingly suited to its content. As the poem cycles through its lines, it communicates through repetition the brother's entrapment in nightmare; in its devastating final stanza—where the poem's first lines recur as its last—the mother joins him there:
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
O God, O God, she said.
The suffering of the parents is a constant in these poems, as the speaker marvels at the durability of "parents' hearts." "They're building a funeral pyre out of their house," Diaz writes in "As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs"; "What can you expect from a pyre but a pyre?" In "A Brother Named Gethsemane," she rebukes her brother for the suffering he's caused, the wildness of her syntax reflecting the family's desperation: "Pluck that crimson orb rusted package from the branches mother's / arms our tree you've chopped away at for too long with your / mouth-bright ax pretty-teethed boy." From the title, it's clear that what the brother is making from his mother's suffering is the means for his own crucifixion. The speaker imagines "Ecstasy that must look / pretty from inside—to core not just an apple but the entire orchard / the family even the dog." "This is the earth riddled with a brother," Diaz writes; and, later: "This is my brother and I need a shovel / to love him."
As in "My Brother at 3 A.M.," the poems are alive both to the torment the brother causes and the torment he undergoes. They also convey the terrible charisma he possesses, even in the depths of his illness. In the book's title poem, which is placed just before the first section, the brother is awful in the true meaning of the word, conveyed through a powerful use of metaphor:
He thought he was
Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird. My parents
at his feet, wrecked honeysuckles, he lowered his swordlike mouth,
gorged on them, draining color until their eyebrows whitened.
There's no end to his appetite, which isn't at all appeased by the parents' sacrifice, as the poem makes clear with a twist of the knife at its end:
My parents gathered
what he'd left of their bodies, trying to stand without legs,
trying to defend his blows with missing arms, searching for their fingers
to pray, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec,
their son, had fed them to.
What's so moving about these poems is how clearly they show the love that the family feels for the son, even as they are pushed to extremes: forcing him out of their homes, or calling the police, though they know it will likely mean a long sentence. The speaker's increasing desperation is clear in the final two poems of the section, "Soirée Fantastique" and "No More Cake Here," surreal phantasmagorias that attempt to access something like the brother's experience, a kind of madness. In "No More Cake Here," the sister imagines throwing a party at her brother's death, the guests including family, clowns, dogs, a mariachi band, "two mutants," and, finally, her brother himself:
My brother finally showed up asking why
he hadn't been invited and who baked the cake.
He told me I shouldn't smile, that this whole party was shit
because I'd imagined it all. The worst part he said was
he was still alive. The worst part he said was
he wasn't even dead. I think he's right, but maybe
the worst part is that I'm still imagining the party, maybe
the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.
It's remarkable that the poems so seldom blame the brother for his actions, seeing them as beyond his choice, beyond anything answerable to accusation. But they also don't shy away from acknowledging the consequences of those actions, including what may be the most terrible consequence, the fact that the speaker wishes her brother dead.
It is a relief, after the intensity and dread of the book's central section, to arrive at a suite of love poems in its last. The shift registers itself in the poems' language, which is more sensuous, indulging especially in the intimate senses of taste and smell. The first poem of the section, "I Watch Her Eat the Apple," is a deliciously drawn-out lover's gaze, culminating in a desirous confusion of watcher and object:
I watch her eat the apple,
carve it to the core, and set it, wobbling,
on the table—
a broken bell I beg to wrap my red skin around
until there is no apple,
there is only this woman
who is a city of apples,
there is only me licking the juice
from the streets of her palm.
Diaz's almost indecent gift for metaphor is on display in every section of the book, but the heightened sensuality of figure and extravagance of diction in this last section recalls Lorca (whom Diaz frequently mentions) and Crane, as in these opening lines of the whimsically titled "When the Beloved Asks, 'What Would You Do if You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?'":
My lover doesn't realize that I've contemplated this scenario,
fingered it like the smooth inner iridescence of a nautilus shell
in the shadow-long waters of many 2 a.m.s—drunk on the brine
of shoulder blades, those pale horns of shore I am wrecked upon,
my mind treading the wine-dark waves of luxuria's tempests—
Later in the same poem, surely recalling Crane's "Voyages," she writes of "voyaging the salt-sharp sea of your body," her own language approaching the word- and image-drunkenness of Crane's lines. She recalls lines of Renaissance love lyrics in "Monday Aubade," calling her lover's "blue-skirted thighs" "another New World shore the gods / have chained me to"; coming as it does at the end of a book so invested in the consequences of Conquest, the image has a very different resonance from that of Donne's "O, my America, my Newfoundland."
As the "chained" in that line suggests, however, these are not finally poems of a happy love, and the scars of earlier sections resurface here. In a disturbing poem, "Toward the Amaranth Gates of War or Love," Diaz explores one of our oldest tropes, as two women make love while the news tells stories of war ("On the television screen, bombs like silvery bells toll above blurred horizon.") The reported scenes make for an ominous backdrop to a desire so intense it can quickly turn vicious:
My mouth is on your thigh—
I would die to tear just this piece of you away,
to empty your bright dress onto the floor,
as the bombs' long, shadowy legs,
march me toward the amaranth gates of the city.
In "Monday Aubade," the speaker takes up the tone of a lover's complaint: "in this city, the city of you, where I am a beggar." And in "Dome Riddle," a long sequence of images—all of them metaphors for an increasingly troubled brain—culminates in the revelation that the source of the speaker's pain is lost love: "and all this because tonight I imagined you sleeping with her / the way we once slept."
The book's final section isn't as tightly focused as the others, and a small handful of poems could have been lost without damaging the collection. But all three of the book's circles of concern—community, family, self—are gathered satisfyingly together in one of the book's last poems, "The Beauty of Busted Fruit." Addressed to a sibling, the poem meditates on childhood wounds, first the remnants of childhood accidents, "any sad red-blue scab marking us / both victim and survivor." But of course the poem's real concern is other kinds of injury, like "Great-Grandmother's / amputated legs" or "the way a brother / can pick at his skin for snakes and spiders only he can see." The poem continues:
Maybe you have grown out of yours—
maybe you no longer haul those wounds with you
onto every bus, through the side streets of a new town,
maybe you have never set them rocking in the lamplight
on a nightstand beside a stranger's bed, carrying your hurts
like two cracked pomegranates …
Wounds are presented here, as one might expect, as burdens, things that one can't escape but must "haul" everywhere one goes, even or especially into the most intimate encounters. But, in an unexpected turn, these burdens turn into enticements; what's important is to learn:
to see the beauty of a busted fruit, the bright stain it will leave
on your lips, the way it will make people want to kiss you.
This doesn't redeem or resolve the stories of difficult or failed love that have preceded it (it is still "a stranger's bed"), much less the historical griefs that have filled the book; but it does suggest that wounds can be made "fruit," promising nourishment—not least by becoming, as in this extraordinarily exciting first book of poems, sources of remarkable beauty.
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, winner of the Miami University Press Novella Prize and a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently a fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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