one more from Steven Sanchez

phantomtongue7In my recent microreview & interview of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez, I spoke about Sanchez’s gift for poetic empathy. In the same way that a poem is never alive until somebody reads it, so is empathy unable to be present unless another does the work of listening to someone’s trouble and making room for it. This making room for empathy – for acknowledgment and listening – is something that poetry lends itself to naturally. What Sanchez does  is present poems that help us think, rather than think for us.

In the poem below, “Past Tense,” also from Phantom Tongue, we see the nuance with which Sanchez does this work. Now, depending on who you talk to, one of the clichés of Latinx poetry is the abuelita/grandma poem. When I first hear this type of poem called out, I had the natural reaction to go out and write ten abuelita poems, just to show’em. I also began to pay extra attention when I ran across one, seeing if I would be given an example of the grave “sin” I’d been warned against. While Sanchez’s poem does take as its subject a childhood relationship with a grandmother, he avoids cliché through lyricism that invites empathy.

Stanza by stanza, we get an inventory of direct memories, from “a bottle of chocolate / syrup next to her recliner” to her taking insulin and watching novelas. What is compelling is how each detail is shifted just enough so that there is an emotional charge that builds throughout the poem. From the grandma winking as she takes her insulin, to the detail of having novelas translated so that “every betrayal was in English,” the poem moves in a way that nudges the reader to do the work of picking up on the deeper meanings of each scene. And where other poems use difficulty and ambiguity as the field to be crossed toward deeper meanings, this poem has a hard-won clarity in each phrase. What is asked of the reader, then, is to listen and acknowledge as the speaker listens and acknowledges the nuances of his memories. In this way, the speaker’s admission at the end of “learning to speak” is aptly phrased; in both English and Spanish, the language being learned is that of witness and memory.

Past Tense – Steven Sanchez

My grandma kept a bottle of chocolate
syrup next to her recliner. Each time
I spent the night, she bought a sleeve
of vanilla ice cream cups from the store.

She’d grab one, take her insulin, and wink.
I’d ask her to translate her novelas
whenever someone cried, meaning
every betrayal was in English.

At 10:30, we’d brush our teeth, rinse
our mouths, and she’d sing in Spanish
until I closed my eyes, imagining
small pigeons flying from her tongue,

carrying rolled R’s like small parcels
I’ve never been able to unwrap.
Sometimes, I dream she’s still here
sleeping next to me and I whisper

an apology for releasing her canary
when I was little. She never clipped
his wings, thought he might need them.
Now, I’m learning to speak, to tell

the difference between the preterit
and imperfect, escapó and escapaba,
between ella cantó and memory.

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To find out more about Steven Sanchez’s work, check out his site.
Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

microreview & interview: Phantom Tongue by Steven Sanchez

review by José Angel Araguz

phantomtongue7

Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez begins with “On the Seventh Day,” a poem depicting the speaker poring over images of male models in the Sunday ads—”glossy men” that “look like my G.I. Joe / if his clothes weren’t painted on”—then cutting and pasting body parts, fashioning ideal versions of attractiveness. This act is narrated in a compelling and telling manner; as the speaker notes that “These paper men / are caught inside words / they don’t even know exist,” it is hard not to notice the parallel with the speaker himself, a youth whose burgeoning sexuality is manifesting outside of words through this play with images. The poem ends with a similarly telling image:

I’ve learned to hide these men inside
the pages of my dictionary,
where words always cling
to their wet curves
like the newspaper ink
on my hands, headlines
and stories staining my skin.

This final image is charged with guilt and self-consciousness. Unlike the title’s reference to God resting after the creation of the world, this speaker is far from being able to rest or feel settled. In fact, his act of creation leaves him scared and with an impulse to hide his fascination.

This tension between fascination and self-consciousness lies at the center of Phantom Tongue. Starting with this poem about bodies, the collection begins to explore ideas of breaking—how bodies break, and what breaks with them—balanced by meditations on what is not broken. One can see this balance in the sequence “Passing.” In the section One of the Guys, the speaker is asked on the playground “Are you white or a wetback?” and responds with “I’m just like you.” The speaker is then told to grab a rock and join in the taunting and assault of another child. Unable to find a rock, or unwilling to, the speaker picks up a “large dirt clod” and is commanded to throw it at the head of the other boy. When he moves to do so, however, the speaker ends up only feeling how the dirt clod “explodes in my raised hand.” This closing image implies not only the futility of violence, but also the speaker’s discomfort in participating. It is almost as if the dirt clod breaks apart in empathy with the speaker.

This scene of coerced action resulting in futility skillfully leads to the second section of this sequence, Boy Scout. In this poem, the speaker is out fishing and reels in a brown trout, the experience bringing him closer to a growing sense of mortality:

I feel the rest of his life in this wire, taut
like string between two plastic cups.

Does he hear my heart tightening its pace,
a fist that will not let go?

The feeling of life on the wire compared to a childhood makeshift telephone drives home what is being communicated through this experience to the speaker. Viewed within the context of a conversation, the speaker is aware that he is at fault for the breaking from life that is going on at the other side. This awareness becomes a new knowledge in the form of the final couplet where the speaker’s heart becomes “a fist that will not let go.” Even the breaking life of a fish holds its fascination and lesson.

Sanchez’s attention to and facility with empathy is also present in the poems about his complicated relationship with his father. In “La Llorona,” for example, we are given an imagined origin story that is braided with the Mexican folktale. As the speaker tells us “My father’s forgotten / who brought him / to America,” the poem sets its license for this braiding as being grounded in the father’s absence of details. We further learn:

Somebody found him
when he was a boy
walking in the streets

of Tijuana, his mother
absent. The jagged
remains of his living

room window
cut his hands
when he reached

one more time
toward his own father,
dead for three days.

From here, the poem enters the speaker’s dreams where he tries to comfort the father. Where in reality the speaker’s father reached to the dead father, in dream he reaches toward the speaker. In this parallel, death and dream frame the speaker’s father with absence. This absence then becomes a space where the poem can explore the story of La Llorona and braid it to the father’s via imagery:

I can never touch him,
always my reflection
in water. A woman

emerges and slides
her finger across
his navel

where kelp grows
like an umbilical chord
inching toward his neck

Comfort exists in these stanzas edged with threat, as it does in life. The uncertainty of water—a realm of intangible reflections and unperceivable depths—makes a suitable parallel to the life of the father, who, through his own absences, lives an uncertain life. As the poem’s dreamscape baptism comes to a close, La Llorona holds the father and prays. In this way, braiding the narrative of La Llorona with that of the father redeems both troubled figures.

In “Approaching El Arco / Reloj Monumental,” redemption is explored in a way that allows for complication and doubt. As the poem moves through its crushing depiction of the speaker being questioned by border patrol while walking near the entrance of Tijuana, there comes this moment:

A gull walks

in circles a few feet away, his left wing
broken, upside down; his white

remex makes a path in wet sand
that three offspring follow. I could

hold the gull, stroke his sleek back,
and make a purple sling from my shirt.

But I wouldn’t know what I’m doing,
how to reset or mend his bones.

I would just break another one
I try to convince myself, even though

I know what happens if I do nothing.

This act of pausing, of acknowledging what’s in front of the speaker and each possible course of action, of lingering over meaning, speaks of the great empathy at the heart of this collection. By considering the broken wing of the bird, the speaker goes through the motions of feeling something (not quite innocence, but like it) break inside himself. Moments like this one showcase Sanchez’s gift for dwelling in complexity.

While the collection begins with a fascination with the body, this fascination quickly becomes an unflinching awareness of what is at stake within a body. Along with the physical breaking possible, there is the body as the house of what is broken and what continues to break. In the final poem, “What I Didn’t Tell You” (below), an address to a younger brother begins as advice and quickly shifts into regret and apology. Sanchez’s ability to look deeply within his own breaking—the physical and emotional, as well as the breaking that makes up memory—is illuminating. Throughout this collection, worlds that have gone neglected and unseen are made visible and granted the rich and transformative acknowledgment of poetry.

What I Didn’t Tell You – Steven Sanchez

for my brother

You can ask me anything,
Even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

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Influence Question: How does this full length relate/grow out of your chapbooks?

Steven Sanchez: The earliest draft of Phantom Tongue came first, followed by my chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions). While my two chapbooks have a lot of thematic overlap (in terms of Queerness, internalized oppression, and Pocho-ness, among others), the image systems and tones between each chapbook felt different. Despite these differences, or probably because of them, I was able to figure out how to meet Phantom Tongue on its own terms.

Originally, Phantom Tongue had three sections, and the differences between the first two sections reflected the differences between the two chapbooks. The third section tried to reconcile those differences, but, like a bad sewing job, the thread was visible and didn’t match. I expressed my concerns to Sara Henning (my wonderful editor at Sundress) and she encouraged me to remove the sections and see what happened.

Reading through it without sections, I still saw significant shifts that reminded me “oh, we’re switching between chapbooks now,” so I tried out an organization strategy I used in my first chapbook—begin the book with a poem centering the body and end the book with a poem centering the body. If I could begin and end with a body, Phantom Tongue could tell the story of that body.

However, the final poems in Phantom Tongue had tones that clashed with each other. The title poem itself comes relatively late in the book and is a poem of witness (sort of) where the speaker lacks agency. But I wanted the end of the book to acknowledge and challenge what happens in the title poem. I turned to the poems from my second chapbook for help and found the poem I wanted to close on—What I Didn’t Tell You. When I found that poem, I realized a few of the poems in that chapbook had a similar tone and pacing; I realized that Phantom Tongue needed those poems near the end.

Ultimately, I found that my first chapbook seemed to privilege the physical, lived experiences of a body, while the second chapbook seemed to privilege the ways bodies get read as texts and assigned meaning. While those chapbooks can be their own entities, I realized Phantom Tongue felt clunky because the physical body and metaphysical body inform each other and cannot be so easily separated (if at all). My chapbooks were so helpful in my revision process, sort of like a phoropter in an optometrist’s office—sometimes one chapbook made an aspect of Phantom Tongue super clear, sometimes that same chapbook made me lose focus; toggling between the two helped me hone in on the smaller details I couldn’t see on my own.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! To learn more about Sanchez’s work, check out his site! Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

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1888_sanchezSteven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award and a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize & the Four Way Books Intro Prize. He is also the author of two chapbooks: To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) and Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet LoreNimrodNorth American ReviewMuzzleCrab Creek Review, and other publications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno.

breathing with Steven Sanchez

bodyIn my microreview & interview of Steven Sanchez’s To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), I focused primarily on the use of imagery throughout the collection to explore the presence of both the physical and experiential body in a poem. It is more than fitting, then, that this week’s poem, “Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel,” takes the body metaphors and further unpacks them in an ekphrastic poem that adds new threads of myth to a familiar image.

The travel of this particular poem is where much of the image work is done. The title starts off by placing the image of Michelangelo’s painting in the reader’s mind. We are, like the speaker, considering the famous image and this fact about human breath and erosion. A few lines in, the poem shifts and imposes over this first image the image of the speaker’s hotel room ceiling, their meditation suddenly taking on a more intimate tone. This intimacy is complicated by the third shift of the poem as the speaker digs into memory. Here, the two imposed images so far in the poem are clouded, literally, by the frost breath of the memory.

These three moves present different takes on human breath: it can erode a painting on a ceiling; it can convey smoke in a hotel room; and it is what words are carried on in speech. In each take, breath leaves the human body to have an effect elsewhere. The nature of these effects is at times unmanageable, yet we continue to look, hoping to see something of ourselves in time.

god2-sistine_chapel

Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel – Steven Sanchez

Where else do words tarnish
paint and plaster like smoke

on wallpaper, remnants of strangers
I feel close to? The dark matter

of their lungs and mouths scours
the textured ceiling. I light up and lie

down on the motel bed, becoming
Michelangelo on my back, cigarette

stroking the air. I see the world
like I used to, making cold angels

on the white expanse of my backyard
where I watched winter enter

and leave my body, transforming
words into something invisible,

almost tangible, like Adam’s left
hand that will never reach God.

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To My Body by Steven Sanchez can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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Happy breathing!

José

microreview & interview: Steven Sanchez’s To My Body

body

review by José Angel Araguz

In his chapbook To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), Steven Sanchez brings together a series of poems that explore the ways in which the body learns what it means to be present. In unpacking moments of conflict and joy, To My Body becomes an ode to both the physical body and the body of experiences lived through.

One of the main engines in which this work is done is imagery. Sanchez’s eye for building up to apt and compelling images that speak volumes is evident throughout. In the opening poem, “Homophobia,” for example, a childhood memory of being shamed by a father for being “afraid // to let go” while hanging from monkey bars, ends:

you fall
in the sand and I hear

you sniffle.
You grab sand and squeeze
your hand, each grain

sieving
through your fingers
like water.

This image of moving from “sniffle” to the image of a hand squeezing a fistful of sand works on two levels. First, the grabbing after sand is an act of reaching for and wanting connection; that what is literally close at hand, sand, is something gritty and difficult to keep hold of, however, evokes how distant and unavailable that connection feels. What is being depicted is no less vivid for being a memory; time itself, evoked through the image of falling sand, creates its own grit. Secondly, the speaker interprets this image as moving “like water,” a simile that fruitfully juxtaposes disparate elements. That something rough and solid like sand can move and evoke water places in the reader’s mind a symbol for how fear works. The distance fear creates between people – here, the father and son, but also the son and themselves – often forces people to live parallel lives. The speaker is being asked in this moment to understand the hardness of difference, to let go of the hurt they feel while it is undeniably physically and emotionally present.

Similar image work occurs in the poem “Paleontology” whose opening lines set up the following scene of domestic violence:

My father threw second hand encyclopedias
at my mother’s back and she blanketed me

between her and the mattress…

This image of a mother protecting her child with her body is then unpacked by the speaker through further connections as the speaker recalls:

…the book splayed open

on my bed where a Tyrannosaurus Rex
assumed a fetal position, her spine

and tail arched into a semicircle,
skull tucked between claws

and into what was left of her chest. Her ribs
pierced the eye sockets of her offspring.

When that six-mile asteroid plummeted
from the sky, did the mother devour him whole

protecting him the only way she knew how
or did she fall onto him after impact…

These lines do a great job of unpacking the complicated implications of the opening image. Present day violence and protection is reframed here and placed within the wider context of existence, which is essentially what is at stake. Through the parallel image of an extinct species in a pose of bodily protection, Sanchez makes clear the dire nature of this moment between mother and son without any loss of the risk, danger, or love that existed simultaneously.

Ultimately, the poems of To My Body present a poetic sensibility able to honor and understand what it means to live through physical and emotional circumstances, to render them for both their darkness and light. In the poem below, one sees this sensibility in the service of coming to terms with one’s self. The speaker’s narrative develops through images of bodily knowledge (“skull’s tenor,” “the dense beat of a palm”), and through these images comes to an understanding, not to say peace exactly, with what it means to live with the dual nature of difference. Where the earlier image of sand falling from a child’s hand evoked conflicted and hurt emotions, this poem’s speaker presents its closing image of shark gills with an edge. To be in possession of “two halves of a sonnet / that can turn an ocean into breath” is to be in possession of a whole expression, two parts of an argument that can both overwhelm and sustain life.

The Anatomy Of Your Voice – Steven Sanchez

Only you can hear the rattle of bones
inside your voice, the skull’s tenor

tucked around the alto of your vocal cords
like the drumhead of a tambourine,

the dense beat of a palm striking skin.
At ten years old you hear yourself

on an answering machine and realize
why kids call you fag–your vocal cords

aren’t strings on a cello and aren’t steel
braided cables suspending a bridge,

they’re membranes slit in your throat
like silver zils in a tambourine ringing

whenever you speak.
Remember to inhale

as if through the gills
on either side of a shark —

seven and seven, two halves of a sonnet
that can turn an ocean into breath.

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

Steven Sanchez: I’ve never had much patience. When I was little, I’d untie my shoes in a hurry and usually end up with a tight knot I couldn’t get out. Sometimes my parents helped me out, and sometimes I cut it. While I’ve gotten better at untying my shoes, there’s still this knot I feel inside my stomach.

Up until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I wanted more than anything in the world, I would’ve told you two things: to be straight and white. I didn’t learn the terms for these desires until grad school, and that’s when I realized how much society had made me internalize homophobia and racism. But the knot I have isn’t learned self-hate, it’s the effects of that prolonged self-hate, and it’s also anger. When California passed Prop 8, it was the first time I felt that knot in my stomach—not so much because of the prop itself, but because everybody around me, at best, was nonchalant. And as time goes on, as more headlines point out everyday injustices, people remain calm, and the knot gets tighter.

The knot never leaves and that was the hardest part was about writing To My Body.  I wanted to unravel that knot, to get rid of it so I could move on to something else. I was hopeful that these poems could be something like a spool, winding up my experiences so that somebody else could use them, but more often than not, the poems ended up tightening the knot. I started becoming frustrated.

Part of my frustration was because I definitely wasn’t ready to write these poems; the other part was that I felt like I kept failing because people said my poems were “political,” which people often used as a euphemism for heavy-handed. What really helped me work through that was reading Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. They taught me how the personal is political, that simply existing is a political act, that every poem is political. I struggled so much with the negative connotations of “political poetry” that I’d forgotten how empowering it could be.

Changing my perception about the term political wasn’t enough. I knew that my poems still didn’t do what they needed to; they didn’t surprise me and they didn’t feel natural. At a craft talk, Eduardo Corral mentioned that coming to the poem with a pre-set message you want to convey doesn’t work because you’re not allowing yourself to be caught off guard. Also, Adrienne Rich wrote about the two kinds of political poems: good and bad. Bad political poems create an argument. Good political poems create an experience. I started realizing that because I had a pre-set message I wanted to convey, I approached them like an argument—here’s my statement, here’s my image supporting that statement. Instead, I tried re-creating formative moments in my life on the page without worrying about making a statement, without worrying about resolving those moments, and the knot started to loosen.

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Special thanks to Steven Sanchez for participating! Find out more about his work at his siteTo My Body can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.