Well, first of all, the obvious news I have to give my plaudits for is the double rainbow of DOMA being partially-struck down (arguably the most important part of it) and Prop 8 being thrown out. Neither of these is a complete victory, individually (parts of DOMA still exist, and theoretically someone could appeal the Prop 8 decision) or as a whole (plenty of states still don’t recognize marriage), but it’s a cause for celebration, as far as I’m concerned. Pride this weekend will be absolute mayhem. And I stand with the progressive bloc who cautions that there is plenty of drama going on to rage about and fight against (the women’s rights in Texas, the voting rights all over, etc.), but I believe that we are heirs to complexity and can hold more than one emotion about these things at once. Never ignore all the stuff in the world that needs to be struggled against, but cherish the good moments when they come, because they give you a foundation to build on for progress, and the energy to fight the good fight. And meanwhile, my heartfelt congrats to the many, many couples I know that needed this victory, as well as to the ones that I don’t. ^_^
(I also hear NJ lawmakers have renewed the push to override Christie’s veto. Yeeaaahhh Jerz.)
Anyway, on to the reading portion. Eduardo C. Corral’s book Slow Lightning was recommended to me by Bryan Borland first, I think, at the Rainbow Book Fair. Not long after, I managed to procure a copy, and then felt guilty when I hadn’t read it at last month’s #poetparty, where Eduardo was hanging out. So: now that I have finished, I can say with honesty what a fascinating journey of a collection it is. And certainly this opinion is shared by some of the poetry nabobs, since the collection won the 2011 Yale Younger Poets prize, one of the highest accolades for a first book. There are a number of clear reasons why: the unique quality of the voice, the daring-yet-delicate architecture of each poem, and the fever dreams of their content which do not draw back from being either physical or spiritual. This is a book of careful balance between identities and narratives, one that creates lots of doubles (with a number of possible conjunctions to join them), and one that struggles with contradiction. Even the title suggests a desire to figure out how to live with being at odds with oneself.
It would be impossible to thoroughly explore all of one’s possible identities within the scope of one book, and so there is more emphasis on Chicano identity than, for example, gay identity (which is still very present, but I’d argue not as overtly). Lots of family tales fill the pages, and Spanish is thoroughly mixed with the English in most of the poems; this could be a stumbling block for some readers, but it illustrates the honesty with which Corral is writing. (Sometimes the word you want just isn’t in the language you’re writing in.) But what makes this selection intriguing is that so much has not yet been figured out. In the most maudlin confessional poetry, you find these poets who have already worked everything out, and have psychoanalyzed themselves into flatness; it’s all very pat and one-note. Here, we see less resolution: the figures in the poems (ranging from Corral’s father, to nameless immigrants, to unnamed lovers, to Frida Kahlo) are presented in terms of images that range from mundane (“Prepaid / phonecards. Flea market bicycles. / Above his heart, an alacrán tattoo.”) to the absolutely magical (“If I dream I’m cupping her face / with my hands, I wake up holding / the skull / of a wolf.”), with very little interference from the author. The poems are expressed in terms of the concrete world; even dreams become solid, and handled with physical verbs.
The overall effect of all this is one of standing in two places at once, a crossing of physical borders (U.S.-Mexico, for example), linguistic borders, the border between reality and visions, etc. Corral does not only bring us with him to exist in those liminal spaces, but shows us how he thrives there. This aesthetic coats each of the different exercises he chooses: list poems, ekphrastic pieces (of which there are several), and regular blocks of lines are equally at home in this place he creates. I think most of us can find some truth in those moments of being in-between, but not all of us can understand the full depth of growing up in/being assigned to an in-between-ness full-time. One should always appreciate a gentle guide leading us in step by step, to the point where even the horrors of such an experience (which the author narrates evenly, refusing to let us look away) become more deeply comprehended. There is no doubt that surface political realities, questions of racism, identity tension, and the use of metaphor’s apparatus to make sense of it all reflect and reverberate with each other; or if there is doubt, I exhort you to read a few poems like these.
Regarding writing style, I find it interesting; outside the context of experiments, I’m not very taken with pieces that scatter themselves across pages and break in odd places. (Some of the poems require the book to be turned sideways, but this might simply be because of line length.) However, the author loosens the seams of poetic structure with a deft hand, which eases some of the work the reader must do, and of course writing “outside the lines” serves to further the point of the book’s boundary-crossing matter. So, if pressed to pick a few favorite moments, I’d go with these:
“Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken
once, like a window.“
~ “In Colorado My Father Stacked and Scoured Dishes”
“Kahlo undresses in front of a mirror.
Her spine: a pouring of sand
through an hourglass
~ “Poem After Frida Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column“
“Am I not your animal?
You’d wait in the orchard for hours
to watch a deer
break from the shadows.
You said it was like lifting a cello
out of its black case.“
~ “To the Angelbeast”
This is all from the first read, and Slow Lightning is the kind of book that demands a second. There’s something cyclical, beautifully and terribly, about the patterns created within its pages. (I’m reminded of two lines from Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape”: “It could be war and peace or any binary system… orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.”) There are things to be cherished and things to be overcome, in any time you choose, at certain places balanced between two worlds. Corral does an admirable job of surviving between a number of such pairs, and furthermore is able to project his vision on behalf of those who don’t make it. There always be a need for work like this, to say there is still something to be done; if there are poets who can manage to say that with this lush and curious kind of language, raw and fanciful at once, then I say, bring on those poets.