Fall 2013 / Spring 2014
Bedbug Press, 2006; 84 pages; $13.95
ISBN 13 9780977197354, paper
Reviewed by George Drew
During the Cold War one strategic principle was to nuke the enemy, then to follow up with another hit, just to be sure. This was referred to as bouncing the rubble, an absurdity worthy of Sartre's existentialism. Madness? Absolutely. Bouncing the rubble was all about obliteration, or to be more exact, obliterating the already obliterated. Contrarily, as I intend its usage in this essay, it is all about the resurrection of a first book by a generally unknown poet. That is, it is about bouncing the rubble, not to obliterate an obliteration, but to expose what lies hidden underneath.
One of the great joys of reading is to sift through the rubble of literature so unknown it never had the chance to be forgotten. Hundreds of poetry collections published yearly suffer this sad fate, in some cases justifiably, in others not. Greater yet is the joy of bouncing that literary rubble and unearthing a real gem, especially one that has lain buried for several years, hidden to all but a very few. Such, I suspect, is the case of Friday and the Year that Followed, winner of the 2005 Rhea & Seymour Gorshine Poetry Competition and published by Bedbug, a small Oregon press, in 2006. The author is a young Colorado poet, Juan J. Morales.
What is it exactly that makes Morales' s book such a gem? At first glance the poems seem typical of much contemporary poetry: short lyrics that focus on family(grandfather poems, father poems, mother poems, and so on); a reliance on syntax that is almost expository in effect—unadorned and declarative— and the employment of some obvious technical effects that become predictable, such as line breaks that emphasize an object or action ("lashed out/ bullets," "felt his penis/ vanish"). This is, after all, a first book by a young poet, and like all first books (including mine), has limitations that, in lesser hands, surely would have been fatal weaknesses. But not this poet, and not this book. What might have been weaknesses become much less so; in fact, they become real strengths.
Mostly, then, the poems are brief, their forms open, their genre lyric—in other words, contemporary, thus immediately recognizable, nothing unusual. What is unusual, however, is their almost utter lack of artifice, of decorative pizzazz. Again, the syntax is plainly declarative with an abundance of simple and compound sentences, and even the use of metaphor is minimal, poems more an accumulation of narrative detail and often devastating images
Inside the church, pools of holy water
seep through cracks,
columns snap like matches,
arches buckle over the dropping saints.
A priest drops the cross.
Yet for all their brevity and declarative style, collectively the poems of Friday and the Year that Followed manifest an ambition far more extensive than its lyrics might suggest. Morales's intent is to tell a story, and in the book's three sections that is precisely what he does. And it is an epic story indeed, one that is both personal and historic, representational and mythical, full of actual characters—as noted, mostly family members—and golem-like creatures straight out of Hispanic/Latino folklore: shapeshifters, sirens, skeletons that are "stirred to life," shades from the dead, the god of Mictlan, the Underworld.
Drawing from the family stories he heard as a child, Morales focuses in section one, Ambato, on the Ecuadorian earthquake of August 5, 1949, a cataclysm that killed over 5000 people; section two, The Green Golondrina (swallow), continues the family saga, taking us to Korea, Germany, Vietnam and Panama, respectively; section three, Wandering Between the Villages, turns to Colonial Mexico. Clearly, the rubble Morales is bouncing is personal family history, and history itself.
So Friday works on two levels: bouncing the rubble of an earthquake, a natural history of great destruction, and the rubble of the human, that of memory and the narratives arising from it. On both counts the poems work powerfully and beautifully, catastrophe and inspiration woven tightly together, leaving a reader with a sense of what Lorca called Duende: death and poetic creativity inextricably twined. In "Viracocha Leaves to the West" Viracocha, "Knowing he created the earth and stars," after his work i complete, "walked slowly/ on the waters to the west, fading/ from their sight like prophecies of his return." This is a Creation myth, yes, but the description could just as well conjure a mental image of the Muse.
As narrative, the poems in Friday are generally chronological across several decades, relating a human story that is mythic in the poet's heart and mind, and given its historical and cultural sweep, in ours. For tools, Morales uses what I've said is a straightforward declarative syntax that places in sharp relief the various horrors he is describing—an almost journalistic rhetoric, which, while providing a kind of aesthetic distancing, ironically ramps up the horror and the concomitant emotional turmoil we readers experience. No poem illustrates the effectiveness of this rhetorical technique better than "Newspaper Story":
A newspaper clicks down the headline:
6.9 Earthquake Rocks Ecuador.
They list only numbers: 6,000 dead,
1000,000 homeless, 50 cities rubbled
and destroyed. Stories approved
then put to press. Ink blacks to
white pages, slide through printers.
Newspapers bundled into stacks, hot
to touch. By morning, they're stacked
on street corners before anyone
is awake. Somewhere in the back pages,
the six-line earthquake story waits
with stories of other distant countries.
The spareness of this poem, the third-person, omniscient point of view, the careful insertion of fragments, the statistics, the lack of metaphor, the matter-of-fact tone of the whole—all this renders the poem so disturbing it undercuts even the irony, making it even more bitter. The horror presented here is the very modern horror of human tragedy reduced to a precisely mathematical "six-line earthquake story," and ultimately to an even more reductive abstraction.
So spare syntax is one tool. Another, as I've also mentioned, is Morales's reliance on unflinching imagery, along with a spare use of metaphor. Add to that a gift for precise word choice, devastatingly informative and accurate diction, and symbol—secular some of it, but much more important and recurrent, religious—and what results is a potent mix. The short poem, "Looking Down the Pastaza River," also from section one, demonstrates this memorably:
Miles downstream, men search rocky banks
for a boy who surrendered to water, a boy
who comes to the statue of San Martin,
overlooking the bridge outside of town.
The boy listens to the saint's whispers
over the river's roar but hears no voice
or prayer. He leans over the edge and drops.
The current swirls into itself like cocoa.
His body rolls, crashes against rocks.
Searching men poke sticks into weeds, examine
the current's debris, one calling his name.
The boy's face down, tangled in grass
beyond the bridge. The unflinching saint
sits under a cement cross, behind a shrine
littered with burned-out candles.
Like any lyric poem worth the ink it's printed with, this one is all about compression. Every detail, every image, every word and every symbol must mesh. And they do here, beautifully.
Start with the title. It locates us exactly, on a bank of the Pastaza River, and identifies our relationship to the river: We are looking down it. The single word "down" in and of itself sets up what is to come in the poem. Everything points downward: The men are searching "miles downstream" ; the drowned boy "drops"; the searching men "poke sticks into weeds"—that is, downward—; the boy is "face down"; the saint sits "under" a cross, that is, down in relation to the cross rising above him. Add to this precise pattern of diction the single most tellingly connotative word in the poem, "surrendered," and Morales's ability with language is clear. That word identifies the boy as a suicide before his act is detailed, but more important, it connotes an almost sexual giving in, and, as Morales makes clear in many of the poems in Friday, a religious caving: San Martin, the saint referenced, "whispers," while the river "roars," and this unflinching saint sits under his "cement" crucifix, "behind a shrine/ littered with burned-out candles." Through its pointed diction, especially its contrasting words ("whispers"/ "roars"), and generally its imagery, the poem begs a question: Against both the power of nature and human actions such as suicide, is the power of religion reduced to a littered shrine with burned-out candles (light)? Where is faith in all this? Where is God?
Now we begin to understand the full implication of the participle "Looking" in the title. The only definitive actions in this poem are the boy's suicide and, logically contradictory as it seems, the statue's inaction. Everything else is as fluid and indefinite as the river's current, "swirling into itself like cocoa." Before he leaps from the bridge the boy "listens to the saint's whispers," listens for something definitive-—a reason not to jump?—but "hears no voice/ or prayer." Later he is described as "tangled in grass/ beyond the bridge." Faith has failed him, or he it, and he is left "tangled," a drowned, indefinite body and soul, even the bridge, symbolically, a span connecting nothing to nothing. At the end, light itself is extinguished—that of faith, that of nature, that of human hope.
There are other common literary tools Morales makes use of, as would any poet, but precision of language, omniscient point of view, spare use of trope and detail, syntax unadorned and reportorial in effect, symbol, the personal and the cultural, the historical, and myth are primary in Friday. While both "Looking Down the Pastaza River" and "Newspaper Story" occur in the first section, other poems throughout the book are just as illustrative, and in the overall context, just as powerful and haunting— poems such as "The Shapeshifter," "After the Broadcast of The War of the Worlds in Quito" (a poem referencing Orson Welles's mock disaster that ironically prefigures the real disaster of the Ambato earthquake and attaches even more pathos to it), "How My Father Learned English," the wonderful "Unearthing Skeletons at the Puyé Ruins," and many others, any of which equally demonstrates this poet's control of both subject and technique. But it is the first section that is the mythic roadmap Morales consults both in his work and in his life; it is his genetic poetic code. And how could such a dramatic human memory not be? Both his actual familial history of the Ambato earthquake and his creative rendering of it are his double helix.
In "The Shapeshifter," one of those literally magical poems Morales makes so central to his narrative, we watch and listen as a shaman physically changes into a jaguar, much like the transformation of a man into a werewolf in so many Hollywood films. After the change is complete, the jaguar, Morales writes, "pleases the dark by disappearing." In Friday what this young poet has accomplished is similar, but with one major difference: Rather than the dark, he pleases the light—not by disappearing, but rather, through the power of poetry, by transforming the dark into the light of memory and imagination, and thereby salvaging both his personal familial history and the larger history of culture and myth from the rubble, literally, of an earthquake, and in large, from geological time.
Such is the joy, then, of bouncing the rubble of memory. Whether it is a natural disaster, war, or Colonial Mexico and magic he is probing, in Friday and the Year that Followed Juan J. Morales has proven himself to be, in poem after poem, the un-earther of much more than just bones. In this delightful first collection he is truly the poet as shaman, the ultimate bouncer of rubble. Such is the joy, too, for me, of having bounced the literary rubble, of having unearthed from the embrace of dust and debris of all those forgotten first collections one volume worthy of real allegiance.
George Drew was born in Mississippi and raised there and in New York State, where he currently lives. He is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The View from Jackass Hill, the 2010 winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. His reviews and essays have appeared in Louisiana Literature, FutureCycle Off the Coast, BigCityLit and The Texas Review. Recently several of his poems appeared in Birchsong: Poetry Centered in Vermont, and he has poems currently in or upcoming in I-70 Review, Henry, Louisiana Literature, Naugatuck River Review, The Nassau Review, Atticus Review, and Gargoyle Magazine.