in memory: Alfonso M. Gomez

Poetry’s ability to connect with us in essential ways cannot be stressed enough.

This is a sentiment I share on a regular basis in my teaching and conversations with writers. As much as I repeat it, I can’t claim it. What I can claim is the evidence that fills my life and the connections my life is blessed with through the work of poetry.

This week, I dedicate this post to the memory of Alfonso M. Gomez, father of friend and great poet, Rodney Gomez. I have admired Gomez’s work for years now (here’s another point of connection and another). I have shared his work in classes at both the undergrad and grad level (his “Our Lady of San Juan” is one in particular that keeps teaching me). He has also been kind to my work as well.

Along with poetry, we share South Texas between us. Much of my childhood was spent with driving from Corpus Christi to Matamoros, often stopping to visit folks in Brownsville, where Rodney himself was born and raised. Through South Texas, we have mesquite trees and hot summers and community forged through a mix of perseverance, hard work, and hope. Now, we are connected in absence.

Life in the pandemic has made it hard for me to reach out to everyone I would like to when I would like to. I saw news of Rodney’s father passing online and sent my condolences to him. When Rodney later shared the art piece below, which he said was inspired by my poem “Scripture: Hour,” it is not enough to say I was moved. I felt seen. This particular poem–one of a sequence of poems that engages with how little I know of my own father’s death, down to not knowing what day he died–was a hard fight to get right.

“Right.” Not sure what I mean by that. I do know that I wanted those flies in there to keep moving beyond me. Then years later, to have them visualized like this by another poet. Well, damn. It’s an honor to connect. to have one’s work read, and to have insight into how others see it. As much as I make a life out of words, I cannot stress how important, how precarious, yet how necessary connection is.

To all of you affected by the pandemic, by life itself, I wish you kindness and strength.

To Alfonso M. Gomez, I wish rest. ¡Presente!

An art interpretation by Rodney Gomez of a poem by José Angel Araguz

one more from Rodney Gomez

In my recent microreview & interview of Rodney Gomez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications), I identified a manner of listing engaged with throughout the collection. One thing that such skilled listing points to is a poet’s capacity for attention. In lists, attention works in an almost syncopated manner. In “Cartography” (below), this attention is given free range to develop a more fluid metaphorical framework that honors the human scene portrayed.

frau mauroGiven the opening push of the title, the poem begins by mapping the emotional landscape of the speaker’s being by his dying mother’s bedside, and does so by braiding technical language with image and the language of feeling. The opening image of “a pair of nebulized hands / twitched their telemetry of regret” sets a tone of urgency. This tone is deepened through the images of “lightning” under skin and “the bed held her like an eel behind glass.” However, between these two moments the speaker notes that “The mouth asked to be studied / and then forgotten.” These lines do a dual gesture in that they acknowledge the fleeting nature of the moment but also the equally urgent need for attention.

This attention continues to be pushed against as the poem develops. The sharp imagery of the mother described as “Stumbling along that bundle / of concertina wire and a hospital gown,” for example, is tested against the speaker noting later that “Except for the thud of the rolling pin, / I’d hardly known she was there.” This braiding of noting what is there and what keeps changing evokes the speaker’s emotional turmoil. By the poem’s end, the visual world gives way to sound, at which point the speaker himself is resigned to one final admission of being unable to hold onto more than this moment caught in lyric attention.

Cartography – Rodney Gomez

In the tundra of the very last day
a pair of nebulized hands

twitched their telemetry of regret.

Lightning pulled itself like a pearl
necklace from under the waxy
skin. The mouth asked to be studied

and then forgotten.

I quickly unfastened a yoke from her neck.
Still, the bed held her like an eel behind glass.

Stumbling along that bundle
of concertina wire and a hospital gown,

I found a mother folding a paper cone.
Except for the thud of the rolling pin,
I’d hardly known she was there.

She begged my father to pull
the trach tube from her throat:

as easy as dislodging a leech
from wet skin. She did it herself

when we’d fallen asleep. Pretend

I’m not here, she mumbled through blue
lips. The first time I noticed how

they resembled cracked cement.

How the sound of their grating
was a map for all visible things.

I’ve never been capable of cartography.

*

Citizens of the Mausoleum can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

microreview & interview: Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum

review by José Angel Araguz

mausoleum pic

What a poet lists in their poems says much about what is important to them. There is a gesture of trying to catalog and hold onto, but also one of presenting and (re)presenting. Listing is a move I often find myself drawn to and examining in reading contemporary poems because it is through listing that a poet can achieve a differently-clear response to Robert Lowell’s question: “Yet why not say what happened?” In Rodney Gómez’s Citizens of the Mausoleum (Sundress Publications), “what happened” is recollected, invoked and evoked, acknowledged and interrogated via a poetic sensibility able to handle lists in a way that establishes clear human presence.

The opening sequence “Checkpoint Aubade” takes as its subject the finding of mass graves of unidentified migrants in South Texas. After the first section establishes how “bodies were potted / in Falfurrias” and how “roots / curled between their ribs,” the second section delves further through a list:

Duvalín spoon
rebozo
lone sacrum
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Lavoro jeans
Puma sneaker
bajo sexto
scattered jacks
receipt from Pollo Loco
butterfly knife
keys
Tres Flores brilliantine
comb with missing teeth
manifesto
full bottle of Levothyroxine
rosary
Circo Vasquez flyer
Coca Cola watch
bobby pin
miniature stop sign
coil from a sleeping cot
retablo of St. Jude Thaddeus

What’s powerful about this list is how it brings together a diverse array of everyday items and through juxtaposition and presence evokes human life. From the pleasures of eating (“Duvalín” “Cheetos” “Pollo Loco”) and pop culture (“Circo Vasquez flyer / Coca Cola watch”) to self-consciousness over appearance (“Tres Flores brilliantine / comb with missing teeth” “bobby pin”), all of it stands in stark contrast with the mortal context of the poem, represented directly by the inclusion of “lone sacrum” and indirectly through the “missing teeth” of the comb. Furthermore, the presence of the epigraph at the start of the poem noting that the bodies are unidentified begins a narrative of identifying within the reader. Reading the above list, one senses the human life lost and is simultaneously taken right to the limit of what can be identified. This move in a poem makes clear what is at stake for the Gómez in these poems without any filter or rhetorical scaffolding.

Listing works in a different way in “Love,” where the speaker meditates on the ways this words changes for people:

I’ve never understood how someone could fall in love
and just as quickly fall out, as if love were the Chunnel
or a passage under the Great Wall. Take my friend Al,
a surgeon, a bright guy with whom I went to State,
he meets a girl online, dates her for a week, and pretty
soon he’s professing an undying love, tattoos her Zodiac
sign on his bicep, and they go everywhere together—
the groceries, the gym, the shower—and pretty soon
they’re calling each other honey, which is the amazing
part because the only thing I’ve ever called honey
was printed on glossy paper or pressed in a candy shop,
and he describes this girl as a swan, which just a few
weeks later becomes a snake, how is this possible,
for love to evaporate, one mayfly minute to the next,

In this short excerpt, one can see a subversive listing at work. There’s the quick list work of trying to understand love in the first three lines, which show the speaker’s bafflement through a blunt logic. Then there is the narrative of a past relationship his friend, Al, has gone through. Through this narrative, there is a listing of details that changes as the emotional course of the relationship changes. From clear bicep to tattooed bicep, from “swan” to “snake,” these details shift in a way that is familiar, but it is the speaker’s urgent desire to understand (“how is this possible”) that keeps up the momentum created at the start of the poem.

This momentum-carrying listing features again in “Cloud,” one of a series of poems that take the death of the poet’s mother as its subject:

A cloud
hoarding my mother’s voice.
Symphonium.

When I sprint
at late hours
I am nothing
but cloud

and scour myself
for her.

She has gone
to a greater kind
of hiding.

This excerpt shows how the poem grounds itself in the idea of cloud. The line “A cloud / hoarding my mother’s voice” implies things being carried off and held at a distance. The speaker’s following note that he runs and becomes “nothing / but cloud // and scour myself / for her” shifts the meaning of clouds further, adding to it an active need to combat the “greater kind / of hiding” that is death. This active need is returned to and developed further at the end of the poem:

Sometimes
I’ll run on the bare back
of the arroyo,

skimming the water
for her face.

Cranes alight
to avoid my madness.

I am interminably
missing.

Here, one sees the logic of what’s being experienced by the speaker: loss leads to looking, looking leads to seeing what’s there and what’s not there. In this duality, one can sense the speaker’s reason for running and looking; in a broader view, this duality also represents a reason for the kinds of listing engaged with in this collection. What else to do in the face of the “interminably / missing” than begin to take stock of what is here.

Citizens of the Mausoleum does just that. Through poems and sequences devoted to personal and public loss (“We, Too, Are Asking Why” stands out as a vital and necessary poem about the Sandy Hook shootings), Gómez’s gift of braiding a sharp lyrical sense of phrasing and imagery with engaged poetic and political convictions is on full display. As can be seen in “Our Lady of San Juan” (below), Gómez goes one step further in these poems beyond saying “what happened” and presents poems that invite the reader to say it for themselves.

Our Lady of San Juan – Rodney Gómez

cupped hands : a sun dial
cesta of moon : votary
when she says I love you : glacier
hallelujah : crumpled wrist
walking on knees : acceptance of death
broken promise : burnt mesquite
promises kept : a flame
indifference of cicadas : Gethsemane
confessional : ornate rhythm of water
heavy element : the wages of sin
hidden prayer : lock for the mouth
rosary : a fastening, a clasp
an open mouth : cantankerous censer
frayed habit : lost key
burning cottonwoods : baptism
inevitable loss : confirming the time
when she re-appears : flicking a lighter
las desaparecidas : oversight of the body
rain on feather: balm
other: where the god resides
other: when the wound heals

*

Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Rodney Gómez: Well, I wanted the work to be something that I could read and enjoy. I don’t know who it was who said that poetry shouldn’t be entertaining, but I disagree with that statement. Poetry, and art, should be entertaining. Whenever I read poetry, I want it to be fresh, authentic, new, and real. I also want to be absorbed in it. I want a diversion from my real life and I want to be fascinated by what I’m reading. Now I wouldn’t describe the poems in Citizens of the Mausoleum as happy poems. And they aren’t entertaining in the way that an episode of Monk might be entertaining. That is, they’re not amusing. They can be very depressing, in fact. But I think I’m satisfied enough with the collection that I can confidently say I would read the book if I picked it up at a bookstore and didn’t have any prior knowledge of it. I would be interested in it. I would get some satisfaction out of it. If it caused discomfort, the discomfort would be worth it. I remember reading Rachel McKibbens’ blud and thinking about how heavy a book it was. In theme and tone and subject matter. But I couldn’t put it down after I started. I wanted to write something like that. Something that felt like it was hitting you over the head with a brick, but afterwards you felt you had achieved something by the experience.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Rodney Gómez: The poems were composed over a period of about five years starting in early 2011. I was grieving over the death of my mother and started using poetry as therapy, which is something I hadn’t really done in the past, having very little wounding to tackle. (My parent’s, migrant farmworkers and blue collar salt-of-the-earth types, poor folk and Mexicans, sacrificed a lot to make sure I lived a pretty normal and uneventful life.) None of the early poems made it into the book, but the challenge in writing the ones that did, being predecessors of the early trauma-filled poems, was making sure I wasn’t writing myself into solipsism. I don’t usually like navel-gazing poems. I like poems that say something to me as a human being. And so I very clearly wanted to write poems that were more than my experience. The trouble with that is an epistemic one about authenticity and having the right to say something that is more than you can possibly know. A poet’s perspicacity ends where someone else’s rights begin. So I tried to write what concerned me not only about my very limited world, but the larger world too. So you see, at the beginning of the book, a poem about the death of migrants in Texas. And you see a long poem about guns later on. There is a very real grappling in those poems between the speakers’ perspectives and imagined ones.

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Special thanks to Rodney Gómez for participating! To keep up with Rodney’s work, follow him on Twitter! Copies of Citizens of the Mausoleum can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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RG*

Rodney Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum. His work appears in PoetryPoetry NorthwestThe Gettysburg ReviewBlackbirdDenver QuarterlyVerse Daily, and other journals. He is an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

update: reviews & media

As promised (forewarned?), here are a few more updates regarding recent publications and output. First off, some review-related news:

  • I’m happy to share that my latest book, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press) was reviewed by Rodney Gomez for the Latino Book Review. I am honored and humbled by Gomez’s insight into my work.
  • Also: I’ve been keeping up with my own review work for The Bind. Recently, I wrote reviews of Amber West’s Hen & God (The Word Works) and MK Chavez’s Dear Animal, (Nomadic Press).  Both reviews come with writing prompts built off of themes and concepts found in these engaging and powerful books.
  • Lastly, here is a cool clip put together by the good people at Pilgrimage Press that features audio of me reading my poem “Coconut” over a backdrop they designed. Special thanks to everyone at Pilgrimage for including my work in their magazine and for putting together this clip!

See you Friday!

José

* going with rodney gomez

From the first words on, a poem begins to perform itself, establishing a logic and vision as you read. Like someone you bump into on the street, a poem wants you to go with whatever kind of interaction is happening at that moment. Sometimes it’s small talk; sometimes it’s carrying furniture out to a car and could you get that end, thanks! However it plays out, a poem wants a reader to go with it, the payoff being that you end up somewhere different than you were.

This week’s poem, “The Hand” by fellow CantoMundo poet Rodney Gomez, asks the reader to go with a story about a severed hand and its fabulistic travels. Each turn in the hand’s narrative charges the overall meaning further. From sugar cane fields to a highway of hands, the hand builds as a symbol of work and want.

This poem also made me think of the Yasunari Kawabata story “One Arm” from House of Sleeping Beauties. In that story, a young woman removes an arm and gives it to her lover to take care of for the night. This removing of self only to return to the self stranger is an act undergone repeatedly in daily life as we live in varying roles at work, at home, with others in general. Art has a way of slowing down the process of living, so that it’s understood for the life it consists of.

 

hand-898016_960_720

The Hand – Rodney Gomez

Midnight some time ago, I severed my hand & let it loose in the sugar cane fields outside my home. The next morning, being so drenched with want, I remembered how much a good hand is worth & went to find it. It was panting at a nearby well, next to a neat row of baskets filled with cane. Thinking it would easily reattach, I pressed it against my wrist – but strangely the hand didn’t fit. It scuttled away & I followed, arriving at a city of cardboard in the brush where a highway of hands flowed, swollen & tired. My true hand was there, struggling to pull a time clock into a tattered shoebox. Under the lid was a bleeding pinpoint – glowing hot, too bright for my eyes – accepting into itself all our loveless works.

from Mouth Filled with Night, winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize

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I also want to share news of some upcoming readings next month in my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. At each of these, I will be reading from Everything We Think We Hear as well as Reasons (not) to Dance and other chapbooks:
*)Wednesday, March 9th 2016 Del Mar College, White Library, Room 514: Reading & Book Signing 11am
*)Wednesday, March 9th 2016 Del Mar College, White Library, Room 514: Open Mic feature
*)Thursday, March 10th 2016 Texas A&M University Corpus Christi: Opening Reader for Laurie Ann Guerrero 7pm
I’ll also be spending the afternoon doing a talk/reading at Foy H. Moody High School the Friday of that week.
Happy handing!
José