review by José Angel Araguz
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:
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
receipt from Pollo Loco
Tres Flores brilliantine
comb with missing teeth
full bottle of Levothyroxine
Circo Vasquez flyer
Coca Cola watch
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:
hoarding my mother’s voice.
When I sprint
at late hours
I am nothing
and scour myself
She has gone
to a greater kind
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:
I’ll run on the bare back
of the arroyo,
skimming the water
for her face.
to avoid my madness.
I am interminably
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.
Rodney Gómez is the author of Citizens of the Mausoleum. His work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Denver Quarterly, Verse Daily, and other journals. He is an editor at Latino Book Review and works at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.