new work at Sugar House Review!

Happy to share that my work is being included in this Sneak Peek of the latest issue of Sugar House Review!

Check out the text and audio of my poem “On the Times I Don’t Remember the Right Words for Things!”

This sneak peek includes work by Emma Aylor, Craig Blais, and Tamara L. Panici among other fine writers.

Thank you to the editors of Sugar House Review for the work they do in supporting and showcasing their contributors!

See y’all Friday!

José

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with Rae Armantrout

This summer has me putting in office hours on campus, spending the mornings thinking through the syllabi & co. for the courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I then, to varying success, allow myself time in the afternoon to work on writing projects, including a nonfiction essay collection, a book of poems in Spanish, and new poetry collection.

Could be the range of the projects, how each pushes me to different thresholds of memory, presence, and ability, but I’ve been experiencing pockets of doubt, not of the projects exactly (but maybe), more of my sense of what it means to articulate. If language is a wooden dock leading across water, then this doubt is the appearance of missing wood planks here and there, which make me falter, slow, change my gait. I’m sure it’s all part of another season in my understanding of writing and its place in my life, but damn if it ain’t awkward.

 4904054_ae891eb9I feel some of this awkwardness, at least in spirit, is evoked in Rae Armantrout’s poem “With” (below). While the poem doesn’t contemplate some odd metaphor of water and wood planks, its three sections stir up some dust around words and the meaning-making process. The first section brings attention to action, only to end on being “still.” This stillness is furthered in the second section by the mention of the act of writing. Yet, the dichotomy of action and stillness remains in the apt use of “or” and how it splits what the stanza presents into indecision. The third section departs in another direction, focusing on the word “with” and its inexactness. Armantrout’s sensitivity to language creates a moment that leaves the poem open-ended in a way that feels, in itself and the reading experience, like closure.

With – Rae Armantrout

It’s well
that things should stir
inconsequentially
around me
like this
patina of shadow,
flicker, whisper,
so that
I can be still.

*

I write things down
to show others
later
or to show myself
that I am not alone with
my experience.

*

“With”
is the word that
comes to mind,
but it’s not
the right word here.

*

from Money Shot (Wesleyan University Press)

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.

*

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.

*

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.

climbing with lucille clifton

I recently read an insightful essay by Lisa Knopp on the idea of “perhapsing” as found in creative nonfiction. Perhapsing is a move that allows a writer to speculate in the face of the facts; that is, not make things up, but to come to terms with the limits of what is known, and to reflect on what is known around it and, perhaps, beyond it.

I see a similar gesture in the poem “climbing” by lucille clifton below. Within her classic and ever-surprising lyric mode, clifton begins a narrative of following another woman in climbing a long rope. The poem then begins a series of “maybe”s, each a glimpse at a decision the speaker contemplates in hindsight. This listing of maybe’s and should’s creates a lyric suspension, placing the reader alongside the speaker in a speculative space.

grey braided rope on wooden plank

The metaphor of climbing returns in the third to last line to cut off this speculation, moving the narrative back to action. The poem ends where it started, in the act of climbing, but the act itself is charged with the energy of speculation and a sense of its meaning.

climbing – lucille clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.      i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.

from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press)

lyrical alignment: Richard Rodriguez

This week’s lyrical alignment is drawn from an interview with writer Richard Rodriguez conducted by Hector A. Torres for the book Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers (University of New Mexico Press).

louiskahnI came across the passage below from a journal entry during my third year doing the PhD. I remember being struck by Rodriguez’s apt and rich metaphor in response to being asked about style. Not only is the narrative he develops through anecdote compelling, but the way he pivots its meaning towards his own writing process at the end really hits home with me. It’s the kind of statement that acknowledges the form and method side of writing but also allows for the fluidity and surprise that lie at the heart of the best writing.

In setting the prose into verse, I settled on working with five words per line; while the poem ends unevenly outside this structure, it almost feels appropriate. The last line is four words long, and that space where the fifth word would be feels like a space where the reader is allowed to think about the question being asked at the end. This question, furthermore, is one of those wonderful questions that echoes itself back as not a question. Not sure how to articulate this last bit fully, other than to add that some questions can simultaneously sound like requests for an answer as well as like statements we’re unsure of.

Richard Rodriguez responds to the question “How do you define style for yourself?”

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from an interview with Richard Rodriguez
conducted by Hector A. Torres

There was a great architect
called Louis Kahn, a wonderful
modernist architect. He had on
staff at his architectural firm

in Philadelphia a kind of
guru or a mystic or
something. This guy used to
go with him — I think

he was Buddhist — to these
architectural sites where they were
going to build the building
whether it was in Bangladesh

or Houston or wherever it
was. They would sit there
for several days and see
the same site from different

angles, several shadows, several times
of the day, and they
would ask the question: What
does this space want to

become? It seems to me
that’s all I ask when
I write. When I look
at the blank page, I’m

trying to decipher in it:
What does it want to
tell me? See, it’s almost
as though when I write

I’m cracking it open,  you
know what I’m saying?

from Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers, ed. Hector Torres (University of New Mexico Press)