Sunday, October 30, 2011

On Rigoberto Gonzalez's New Collection "Black Blossoms"

I believe the dead listen to us. After his poetic mentor, Ai, died, Rigoberto Gonzalez wrote quite movingly about her: "Even in my third book (which I dedicate to her memory) I can still detect traces of her influence--we shared a love for the dark and disturbing narratives and gave them homes on the page."

Never mawkish in his elegiac statements regarding Ai, Gonzalez has always appeared respectful and honorable. No doubt Ai appreciates his prose tributes, but I strongly believe what would matter most to her is the development of his poems. With Black Blossoms, his new collection, Gonzalez has performed the ultimate tribute: he has made his poems better than hers. I have no doubt she is still listening and learning from his work.

As an undergraduate, I was introduced to Ai in my first poetry workshop. I remember reading Cruelty and The Killing Floor and being shocked and relieved that someone could write about lower middle-class people with such determination.  Ai truly strove to have an empathetic imagination and risked the potential failure and  the predictable criticism that comes with it. I can still remember various Ai dramatic monologues: a boy who has just murdered his family; an aborted fetus; James Dean. Over the years, when I've returned to the poems of Ai, I've grown more ambivalent about her work. It's too easy to say that the poems are sensationalistic, exploitative. It is one of inevitable dangers of writing persona poems; it's a pretty boring knee-jerk liberal criticism--you're exploiting a certain class of people. However, truth be told, sometimes Ai did just that.

Gonzalez's poems, though, offer a generous and urgent corrective of her occasional limitations. Through his extraordinary use of figurative language, he reveals that a wholly self-conscious aesthetic can triumph over a flat, journalistic one. To defend Ai, I think that her desire to tone down the language was most likely the belief that understatement works best when dealing with sex and violence. By rarely, if ever, challenging this assumption in her work, her books become somewhat repetitive. Through what I see as honorably defying Ai, Gonzalez reveals the breadth and depth of what a personae poem can do.

One of Gonzalez's recurring trademarks is his obsession with similes.  Due to spiritual reasons, I've always been suspicious of them.  Why not accept the fact that everything in this universe is on some level uniquely its own?  To imply that something is "like" something else is to ungenerously take away from the thing's specialness.  But in Black Blossoms, Gonzalez's book, which consists largely of persona poems, the figurative language is used less to compare but to show a different side, a nuance, or a shocking oddity of and within the same thing.

In the poem "Flor de Muerto, Flor de Fuego," Gonzalez exhibits this masterfully.  Here's the opening.  Pay particular attention to the two similes embedded in the rhetorical questions:

        Cempoalxochitl.  Marigold.  Flower,
the scent of cold knuckles delights you, as does

         the  answer to death's riddles:
What's the girth of the hermit tongue once it retreats

         into the throat and settles like a teabag?
What complaints do feet make when they tire of pointing

        up and fold flat like a fan of poker cards?

Or take notice of the unexpected similes in the poem "Floricuatro":

Every birthday you eat a year off your mother's life--your mother plucked
in parts, petal by petal like the schizophrenic daisy, stares down as her heart

bubbles out vulnerable as yolk.

The list could go on indefinitely.  But I must add one last one which is the opening of "The Mortician's Daughter Dies Each Night":

"When my father laughs my stomach scatters in the wind like hay."

Teabags, a fan of poker cards, a schizophrenic daisy, yolk, and --yes!-- even hay.  What an odd and fascinating list of things juxtaposed in a single book of poems.  By inserting these sort of  images in a book that deals significantly with the grotesque, decaying bodies, political injustice, and violence, Gonzalez's relies on similes to create an intimacy with the reader (you might not understand mental illness, but you can imagine a daisy!).

At the same time, he pushes the reader away by forcing them to remember that all they're doing is reading a poem with strategically artful language.  The self-consciously slippery poetic language acknowledges that these personaes, these "scoundrels" (to use Ai's word) cannot be captured.  They haven't found a home in life or on Gonzalez's pages.  He's acknowledging them in a supremely graceful and ethical way.  Also, he gives the grotesque, the tragic some sort of relief.  Rather than affirm the horrible with a comparison to a grotesque object, he offers the reader a kind of momentary solace; he doesn't want to add insult to injury. 

Another prime example of how Gonzalez achieves this is through metaphor in the poem entitled  "Mise-En-Scene."  After the title, it appears "after Lizzie Borden."  Then the actual poem begins:

You are not a woman
         you are not a ghost,
or the shrill that makes the neighbor's hounds abort.

You are not a space between buildings,
         not wind tunnel or porthole
through which the indigent cat slips in and out of its coma.

You aren't the hermetic door with its back to the street,
         You are not the center.
You are not the interruption of the window

surprising the postman as he skips the tin mailbox once more.
          Every person in this house has died.
You buried your mother with a plum pit in her throat...

This poem is merciful.  Gonzalez allows the narrator of the poem acknowledges his own failure in his need to "capture" Lizzie Borden.  Gender is but only one of ways Gonzalez does this, creating a wonderful, peculiar jitteriness

You are not the dress
       that opens from the outside like an iron gate,
you're not the stupid woman
with her finger shoved inside her mouth.
       When she goes up in flames
she will melt into the fruit bowl.

You are not the fire, you are not the bowl.

There's what I like to call a discursive lyricism operating in Gonzalez's poems.  Although the poems are long-lined (at least much more so than in his last book, Fugitives and Other Strangers), Gonzalez interweaves just the right amount of figurative language with a necessary talkiness in the speech of these tragic personaes..  To limit, as Ai did, your characters' speech into "chopped" prose, isn't fair--they deserve the space, a large enough space, to explore their thoughts, motivations behind their unsavory actions.  Paradoxically, as the personae of Marisol in "The Mortician's Bride Says I'm Yours" says, "Sound is death because it's /irretrievable and every time I speak I die a little more."

If it wasn't sacrilegious to insist, I would say that through the splendor of Gonzalez's poems, he allows them to live once again in every delicate, precarious way they deserve.

Rigoberto Gonzalez's Black Blossoms is available for purchase at Four Way Books.


  1. Thanks for this excellent review, Steve. I will definitely have to check this out. Ai was one of my major inspirations in undergraduate school, one of the few poets I was compelled to read in full. Rigoberto Gonzalez appears to have digested Ai as an influence and transcended it. I'm definitely getting this book.

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