Saturday, January 5, 2008


Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Other Fugitives and other Strangers (Tupelo Press 2006) is the type of poetry book some of us may be uncomfortable reading in that it challenges our comfortable distance from homoerotic love, which like all relationships, deals with issues of darkness, dominance and survival. The very things that were once hidden come to light with poems that take from the image of the body, its fragility and fleeting transitory nature and shine. It is the naked body, clavicle, skin, eye, pelvis and its animal nature that makes these poems honest and genuine in terms of the speaker’s dealing with human flaws and triumphs. In a sense, the poems themselves are a love song to the body. In “Good Boy” the speaker asks, “Wasn’t I a good boy once? Wasn’t I/ once stripped of body hair and knuckle, a laugh/so clean it stretched like a white sheet on the clothesline?/ Wasn’t my voice once/ the contagious note of a two-fingered-bell?” This first stanza for the opening poem sets up the book which is in many ways is a movement or dance through boyhood innocence to a masculine desire for dominance. Later in the same poem we hear, “Surely my anger had always been squatting its claws, eager/to tear its way out of my ten-year-old ribs…I must have ingested hatred/ through the spoons of my childhood./ I must have been the changeling matured/ of a knife slit haunted/ me, so I carved it free.// I hold your head up like/ a trophy, rub your scar. Please promise me it won’t cut/ back. I don’t like to bleed.”

It is in this manner of examining the wound, whether it is a psychological cut, physical injury, internalized or externalized, the wound is the cause or the impetus of what comes after injury and it is this recovery with which the collection moves readers. Many poems deal with the exhaustion of abuse and the urgent desire to separate out of a protective need.

In “Neurotic Double” the straight-edged honest tone continues with a series of images that exude the aftermath of struggle. “I’m not ashamed of my naked body,/ my naked body is ashamed of me,/ of how I tinge/ and stain him, then blame him for what I did./” The internal battle of our own existence with a body that in the end will betray us with age and death is ever present in these beautifully haunting poems. A poem called “Body, Anti-Body” also exudes the violence of an internal battle. “…displeased, my flesh/began to seek those strangers/generous with touch. With them/ I’m not a name, I’m body./ I’m not a ghost, I’m living skin// that craves the skirmish scars/ of passion and taking stock/ in the dark of nick and bite/ the bruise, the stench of triumph/ thickening air. These men act// on instinct, with violence/ that drives and thrusts and imposes/ pure punishment upon me.” This animalistic and desperate urgency to exist as a corporeal being in the world of living things carries with it the need to feel.

Poems like “Welts off the Bone” continue with an onslaught of reminders; we are human and we are body. There is a questioning of religious faith “We lock our limbs to crush the saints we don’t believe in./ We snap shut the pretense of altar alms, the delicacy of foreskin against cotting in the sacristan’s cassock.” The new and revised communion is with the speaker’s lover. “Everything that’s you is me. No secrets, love, pure confession./ The wafer of your ear is raw is sweet.” These poems are in the here and now and they breathe with a strange urgency, a need to live aggressively and yet there is the constant questioning of such dominance in its very presence in the collection.

The poems themselves are dangerous and they themselves “risk and love for things exotic.” We are indeed fugitives with debts and life is a series of losses and resolutions. Despite the serious mood of many of the poems there is a sense of comic relief. In “The Untimely Return of My Dead” the speaker opens, “With three loud knocks my dead lover/ makes himself known. His first complaints, I suspect:/ Why did you change the locks? Why, goddamit,/ did you bury me in blue? Makes me look fat, for crissake!”

Gonzalez’s Other Fugitives and Other Strangers is about our own sense of otherness or separateness in a world of pain and joy, how we partake in living, and how we survive. This is a poignant yet edgy collection of poems that cuts through to what it means to be human like a razor.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Sun, sand and stories

Technically we're not from El Paso anymore but we were born and raised in the Sun City, where dust storms are as commonplace as Wal-Mart. It's that El Paso has a way of staying with you, like a visit to the beach, weeks later I'll put my hands inside the pocket of a jacket and feel the grit I unknowingly brought home with me. Depending on my mood I'm either annoyed or content with my memories of home.

It's our love of sun, sand, and stories that got Sheryl and I to thinking, "Hey, why don't we write about literature, the stuff we like, the stuff we're reading and like to read?" Sheryl walked me through the steps of creating blog, or rather, welcomed me to the 21 st century. I'm a blog virgin and so happy that Sheryl decided to join in popping my blog cherry. I think we're going to have lots of fun.

With that said I'd like to get down to the business blogging. I'm blessed to come across many books, manuscripts, clever etchings on bathroom stall walls and for some reason I feel compelled to comment about what I'm reading. With this blog, I envisioned an online book club of sorts, because the BookMates club I belong to here in Central Texas isn't enough for me. We only meet once a month and already have the year 2008 filled with books to read.

One author who didn't make our list but whose book I want to read is Doris Lessing. I recently discovered Lessing, the 2007 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I know, I know, she's been around for, like, ever, and I stumbled across her by chance on the NY Times website when she won the big prize back in October. Actually, it was her photo that caught my eye first. She resembles my long since dead Nina in El Paso, gray hair pulled loosely into a bun, full moon face, gray eyes, features that radiate warmth. My Nina was all the incentive I needed. I hightailed it to my community library and I was thrilled that they actually had her books, five of them anyway. I live in a town, population 5,700, and man, our library rivals many inner city community libraries. I couldn't believe my luck. Of the five, I chose the title I could relate to, "The Fifth Child." I didn't know yet about "The Golden Notebook."

I was hooked from the very first sentence. "Harriet and David met each other at an office party neither had particularly wanted to go to, and both knew at once that this was what they had been waiting for." What an ordinary beginning to an extraordinary life they were both headed toward. I won't give away anything else in the book but I will say that Lessing's gift for turning (what some critics consider) the ordinary and mundane into social statements reminds me of Tillie Olsen, Flannery O'Conner, Kate Chopin, all the women I love to read. Books like this one are the reason I read fiction. Her gift for capturing how social pressures can undo even the best of people, or was it that the worst people can make social pressure undue influence, keep me hitting the bookstores and libraries.

I didn't realize what a leader she was in the feminist movement, until I read all the articles about her. She wasn't necessarily a part of the demonstrations but the women of the movement did adopt her literature as their own because she wrote about women, mothers, who were angry, aggressive, and unfulfilled when not many people were. Back in the 60s, she was attacked as being unfeminine. And her response to her attackers as quoted in the International Herald Tribune: "Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise."

"The Golden Notebook" is resting on my "to read" shelf and I'm just two books away from it. What's at the top of the pile is "Love in the Time of Cholera." It wasn't my pick. It's on my book club's list for January. Majority ruled on this one, I was the only objector. I first read "Love" when I was in my twenties and I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I remember the experience felt like a 50 years before I got to the end of Dr. Urbino's love story. I may have been too young when I first picked it up. It may not have been the right time for me to read the book. Now that I'm older and wiser I'm going to have another go at Marquez and I'm curious to see how much the book has changed, er, I mean I've changed.