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.

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

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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.

* Your guest is as good as mine…

Just a quick note to promote the latest issue of Stirring: A Literary Collection!

I served as Guest Editor for this issue and had the honor of reading through submissions.  Lots of good stuff.

Below is an example of some of the fine work to be found in this issue.

your nest is as good as - ok i'll stop...
your nest is as good as – ok i’ll stop…

Fontanelle – David Mohan

After your birth your head
lay in its nest,
a new laid egg.

It was flecked with hair
like straw. I felt
the crack beneath your skin.

At the centre
where the skull dipped,
the scalp went soft.

Each day 
we cradled the place
that smelt like sleep.

It had a name
like the first burst
of the source.

Out of the dark,
the stuff of birth,
you rested,

the wound
to your long quiet
beginning to seal.

***

Check out the rest here.

Special shout-out to Erin Elizabeth Smith for this opportunity!

Happy nesting!

Jose