Oxblood by Nicole Caruso Garcia (Able Muse Press, 94pp., $19.95)
Unusually Grand Ideas by James Davis May (Louisiana State University Press, 84pp., $18.95)
Watermark by Jeff Hardin (Madville Publishing, 80pp., $18.95)
Holy Land by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (Paraclete Press, 112pp., $20.00)
The Field by Rhina Espaillat (David Roberts Books, 110pp., $19.00)
The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds by Orlando Ricardo Menes (University of New Mexico Press, 96pp., $18.95)
Faith and trauma are strange bedfellows. The former may assuage our wounds or accidentally make them deeper; the latter, however damaging, may inspire enduring art. Both invite us to greater empathy, or at least that’s the ideal, and their complex interrelationship varies with each artist’s practice. By extending and earning empathy, Nicole Caruso Garcia’s debut volume Oxblood confronts sexual violence with intelligence, formal confidence, and even a mordant wit. Most impressive, perhaps, is the nuance she brings to exploring a trauma that reaches well beyond the moment into subsequent periods of despair, doubt, and reflection. Refusing both pop psychology’s pat answers and emotionalism for its own sake, Garcia’s poems are all the more searing for their assured balance of passion, restraint, and insight. Embracing a faith that is deeper than dogma, she provides, in her poems, a resource for renewal.
Oxblood’s first full section introduces the pain, disbelief, and violation that the poet endured. “Appraisal,” a Shakespearean sonnet, envisions the act of violence as a jewel worn unwillingly yet endlessly studied: “Once raped, you wear it daily, learn to see/the cut, the color, clarity, and carat.” (The irony of using the same poetic form as that of the most famous love sequence in English is inescapable.) Written in couplets whose second-line end-words are mostly partial anagrams of the word “rape,” “The Oldest Cruelty” flashes urgently between impressions: the rapist’s lack of conscience (“He’s golfing just as if it never happened”), women’s legal humiliations (“His lawyers dig to undermine your rep”), and routine sexism suddenly noticed (“You hear it now, the rape joke frequency. / Antenna raw, you can’t retune your ear”). In examining the suicidal ideation that often follows a rape, Garcia’s “To the Undertaker” evokes Emily Dickinson’s quatrains in Anne Sexton’s tones: “Paint my face so lifelike they / will marvel at my charms. / “Who’s that makeup for?” he asked. / Gawkers, now, and worms.” (Several poems remind us that Garcia’s rapist was her one-time fiancé.)
Shifting deftly between self-disclosure and archetype, Garcia breaks the fourth wall in several poems to address readers directly. The epigraph of “Blood Villanelle” recaps an NPR segment on impulsivity in suicide. In response, the poem defiantly seeks understanding: “Don’t brand me coward, sick, or selfish—not / unless you’ve felt the faithful prick, the flood,” both part of the “call” to “split your ripeness open in a fit / of prayer, to drown in petals of your blood…” Recognizing that reading is inherently voyeuristic, a way of entering (perhaps judging) another’s life or imagination, “Dear Reader” (another fine Shakespearean sonnet) likens women’s fashions that show flashes of skin to poetry’s disclosures—“You sometimes wonder if it’s fact, the friction / of my lover’s stubble where I’m stung”—although the poet is well aware that “[h]owever crude or sacred, / soon all I’ve offered God, to you, lies naked.” Garcia knows that any woman “is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing). The poet’s awareness of this doubleness, however, allows her to reassert control, causing readers to question the nature of their own investment in her words.
Far from serving as mere convention, Garcia’s references to God set the stage for reexamining Catholic attitudes toward women. In “Coloring Book of the Saints,” the God to whom the poet offers herself in “Dear Reader” is the same deity whose female martyrs endure their own rape and murder with otherworldly equanimity. Maria Goretti, only eleven, is held up for emulation, defined not by actions taken but by evasive reference to what she would not do: “an older neighbor boy, enraged, had stabbed / her fourteen times ‘because she would not sin’.” Garcia recalls her childhood puzzlement: “I’d rather they had shown Bartholomew. / …Apostles were the renegades, grown men, / and yet Maria’s wounds were on my page.” In “Auto-da- fé,” Garcia fuses lyric descriptions of sunrise with the Spanish Inquisition’s burning of heretics: trees “fringed in gowns / of icy arabesque” come to “[l]ament the hour when one vermilion-robed / Inquisitor ascends and takes his seat / within the blue tribunal of the sky.” For women made to undergo adversarial legal proceedings after a rape, the world itself turns hostile, and the only option (one that Garcia’s book resists) is to give in and become the martyr that organized religion conditions her to be: to “stir the wind with cries” and “stretch / [her] limbs toward heaven, shivering with fire.”
The arc of Garcia’s book extends past suffering into renewal and new love. A suitable pendant to “Blood Villanelle,” “Ode to Carlos” turns the form toward celebration: “And if I were to lose my wedding ring, / I’d make a vow each sunrise; that is marriage. / I do, I do, the river seems to sing.” In place of expensive gifts, “If You Are Reading This” offers rhymed anniversary quatrains whose quotidian contents reflect both greater value and deep love: “By night, our yard is filled with lullabies, / when thriftiness has shut off every lamp, / and silent music of the fireflies / plucks darkness softly as a golden harp.” One drawback of following the unities and scope of a book this good is that there’s less room to point out other pleasures: welcome miniatures, witty moments, unexpected gifts. I’ll mention a few to remind readers that Garcia ranges widely in serious play. I think of “Stigmata,” shaped like a crucifix, that reexamines this means of execution in context of her themes (the rape occurred on a Good Friday); the title poem which uses the color of goatskin boots to create a multifaceted metaphor; “The Pope’s Vagina” (after Sharon Olds’ “The Pope’s Penis”), revealed as “a pink cowrie shell retaining / the tang of Eden”; or “Annual Giving,” whose triple-rhymed tercets imagine replying to the donation requests of the university whose response to her rape was so inadequate: “You levied sanctions—flimsy, every one—/…He didn’t break a rule; he broke a person.” Garcia’s account of both that breaking and the challenge of rebuilding is impossible to ignore. In poem after poem, Oxblood’s powerful voice is subtly shaded, musically varied, deeply felt.
The Unusually Grand Ideas of James Davis May’s excellent second book are those arising as the possible side effect of prescription medication for depression. Like Garcia, May is always self-aware, and his verse, both formal and free, reflects a meditative approach that is never just performative. The ebb and flow of his own emotional tides are examined with detached precision and an observant eye toward other people, other lives. The title poem is a good place to start. In reading the drug label’s “standard catalogue of side effects,” May singles out “‘unusually grand ideas,’/and it isn’t long before you have them.” Yet the ideas that the speaker shares are those we’d expect from a poet anyway: “the idea of the morning” when, on hearing the cardinals that sing yet spatter his car, he thinks, “yes, it’s possible to separate the art / from the artist,” observing, too, that “drunken grime” may be “washed away / in a beautiful moment of mist and steam.” Unfolding more “grand ideas”—that “of your own body breathing, / a good ache in the legs from yesterday’s run”—May turns to his lodestar: family, in particular “the woman who held you those painful nights / as closely as she now holds your sleeping daughter / who fled some nightmare…” The poem’s closure concedes depression’s pull, but as a remembered darkness held at bay for now—by family, force of will, and, presumably, the drug whose label provided the title. May raises profound questions: where does our own thinking end, and where do the effects of a drug begin? Are the very habits of mind that make us ourselves also responsible for our moments of deepest darkness? The question is unavoidable for creative artists who live with fragile boundaries and ongoing emotional struggles.
Recurrent darkness is one of the book’s unifying threads, blending glimpses of real-life wildlife with late hour ventures into night both literal and metaphorical. In “A Momentary Stay,” its title an echo of Frost’s claim about poetry’s power, the speaker heads “outside with a flashlight that can only cough a flicker” to shout into the dark. His action is an answer to “the sound of some small slaughter” he heard from inside, but it’s also a way of facing what is hidden yet alive beyond his vision—“the coyotes we never see…/ the foxes I have seen playing like dogs, and the owls / that pounce as quietly / and suddenly as a stroke.” His shout quells the noise, though all “will continue later, and elsewhere, without me”—a memento mori moment—though, importantly, the speaker checks on his sleeping daughter before venturing out. (That tie to the world again: wife and child.) “Image Search: Depression” also ends with a darkness that the speaker, running a trail at four in the morning, seeks out: “I needed a darkness I’d probably survive / to escape the one I knew I wouldn’t.” Before those lines of dark hope, May rattles off some of advertising’s better-known studies of depression—“A woman with her stiffened hand to her head,” “A teenager sitting in the doorway, / back against the frame,” “A man shouting at his wife, arms raised, as if / signaling a touchdown”— none of which, he says, “correspond to the way I felt” on that 4 A.M. run. Media clichés earn the speaker’s gentle scorn (and the reader’s half-smile), reminding us that the canned images spat up by search engines are mostly ads for Big Pharma that reduce depression to facile tropes.
As for Garcia, so for May: the unity of both books risks obscuring their tonal and technical range. In “Fishing Again at Thirty-Five,” the speaker’s rediscovered pastime becomes occasion to muse on what we praise and why: the “October sun,” the fish in clear water, the rekindling of “an art / I left,” the limits of our own talents calling us to praise what’s wondrous. Written as elegy to a poet friend, “Portuguese Man-of-War” gathers splendidly vivid images of the creature marooned on the beach:
………………………….…I do feel a sadness
watching it throb on the sand
like a blanket with a mouse inside. Mauve,
shriveled, it reminds me of the birthday balloon
my daughter wouldn’t let me throw away.
On a lighter note, “Hot Sex” reminds us that serrano peppers in guacamole do not mix well with certain intimate activities, though even here May finds further resonance: “and they’re laughing / between breaths and moans—laughing at the pain / they know will be there when they stop.”
May’s interest in matters metaphysical finds expression, too. Imagining God as a child who cannot grow up since “what’s eternal / cannot grow older or wiser as we do,” the poet depicts a grieving husband cradling his dead wife’s purse as he leaves the hospital; this he follows with flashes of children malnourished or murdered in war. This God reverses our expectations: He is “perpetually learning / what disappointment is / and that He’s responsible for it,” a view familiar to anyone who’s ever wrestled with belief. “Ed Smith,” one of my favorites here, introduces an old man who wanders onto the speaker’s property; while his wife calls the sheriff to get help, the speaker talks to the stranger, “thinking of him as a body with no self, / a ghost in reverse, an orphaned memory / of someone else’s grandfather now lost…” While they wait, the speaker ponders the soul.
……………………………………….…In the old stories,
the dead forget themselves and walk witless
through the underworld like boats
adrift and pilotless, and maybe that’s why
we invented the self or the soul or the spirit,
some indelible quiddity that cannot die,
because this, to be forgotten by everyone,
even our own minds, seemed—and is—
inexcusable, the worst sort of indignity.
Whatever its detours, Unusually Grand Ideas is a book about how family members nurture and save each other—including the poet. “Moonflowers,” third from last in the book, involves another night excursion, this time featuring speaker and daughter. As he watches the blossoms “unclench themselves slowly, / almost too slow for us to see their moving,” their unfolding coincides with the daughter’s call that another flower is beginning to bloom, a cry whose timing startles “almost the way a newborn screams.” Joining her, the speaker puts their bond into words that apply just as well to the book and the arts in general: “We praise the world by making / others see what we see.” May’s new book, carefully drawn and always astute, offers this highest praise and earns it as well.
Jeff Hardin, past winner of the Nicholas Roerich Prize, Donald Justice Prize, and the X. J. Kennedy Prize, is gifted, prolific, and ingenious. Except for a prologue poem of pithy tercets, Watermark, Hardin’s seventh book, is made up entirely of poems in a single nonce form of his own devising. The form operates as follows: each poem splits some brief resonant phrase (from scripture, song, or poetry) into its constituent words along the poem’s left margin. (The one exception is “For When the Days Seem Absent Any Answers,” whose source is Martin Luther King’s 1965 speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march.) Shorter indented stanzas occur between the words, but Hardin’s “watermark phrase,” as he refers to it in a note, serves as “a whispered prayer through which to anchor—and to realign—my own thoughts”: the ghost of its own saying, if you will, hovering among all else the poem contains. The watermark in the King-sourced poem is “no lie can live forever.”
………..is sometimes the affirmation
………………….a soul most needs,
………..a mountain brought to its knees
………………….before a valley
……………………………stretching miles ahead,
………..idea so vast the mind cannot contain it. Signs and wonders
………..everywhere around us…
The same word/couplet/tercet/long single-line pattern keeps unfolding, each poem’s length reflecting its five-word watermark (except for the book’s last, whose source is longer.) More importantly, the “whispered prayer” of each source phrase serves as guiding spirit to the poem. “For When the Days…” is a good example. Its opening lines evoke a journey through varied landscapes (mountain and valley), suggesting a figurative corollary to King’s march, that literal journey in quest of civil rights whose denial corrupted America’s “soul”; but when “no” becomes “an affirmation,” it is also a liberating challenge to seemingly irresistible vastness—not unlike the refusals of King and his allies to accept injustice. Later, in accepting that “a message has been given,” the whispered yes of Hardin’s speaker to “what’s unseen within the life we / live” subtly echoes King’s inspiring faith in the (unseen) moral universe.
Hardin’s Watermark is less narrative than ruminative. Advancing like the mind in action, his poems gather ideas and impressions along the way but seldom land where you’d expect. Together they chart an authentic quest for spiritual guidance and enlightenment; these are not poems that ask easy questions or offer simple answers. In several poems, erasing the self presents a way of embracing existence more fully and openly. “Emptied of Forethought and What Happens Next” arises from the U2 lyric, “Better learn how to kneel”—a nod to prayer (and humility) from a song whose title, “Mysterious Ways,” may be traced to a William Cowper hymn that is itself inspired by Romans 11:33–36: “‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Hardin’s poem speeds through its concise meditations with impressive force and clarity: “Better /days are unlikely / since no other day exists // but this one…// May I / learn / the unreadable text of its passing, // …to offer myself up, / abeyance and praise, // emptied of forethought and what happens next.” That his focus shifts to “the vowelless name of God / that can’t be pronounced, // only exhaled” reminds us that the line supplying Hardin’s watermark actually begins, “If you want to kiss the sky”—a further sign that the poet’s impulse to praise the world and exist in the moment are mainly possible, in his view, through God and the art that breathes life itself into prayer and poetry.
Hardin’s discursive instincts beautifully mix with personal narrative in “From There to Here,” a lovely poem watermarked by “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27, according to the note). Forced out of their home one autumn day, a mother and son walk together toward town: “I / knew a bad thing / had happened, // her boyfriend putting us out, / driving off slinging rocks and dust, how she bent down // to tell me words she had no use for…” By connecting “this soul I’ve now become, a man // with / ideas likewise left behind / by most” to “the boy I was, still am,” Hardin underlines both time’s passage and that of mother and son, invoking Jesus’ words reported by John as the catalyst that allowed the boy, despite all, to keep walking, “stem-spinning leaves to see their every side turned gold.”
That same boy—a version of the poet-speaker— shows up in “Autobiography,” a poem whose whispered five-word phrase (“Old things are passed away,” 2 Corinthians 5:17) bears the stamp of its original context: rebirth through Christian belief. Here, “a boy holding a stick / tremble-tests the shallows, / imagines some day // remembering this very gesture…” As in May’s poem “Ed Smith,” Hardin confronts questions of self and memory but through less narrative means and a different tone: one that joins elegy, gratitude, and acceptance inextricably together. “Single-tined combines” from a different century—that of the speaker’s past—rust in fields, never to be “resurrected,” as if embodying a warning “to relinquish // things, / to be only spirit, / like wind through sage grass // dancing, twirling, spelling out / a lack of memory, / a rush of simply being present.” Ultimately, to be fully present is Hardin’s quest and key to his method: his poems’ quick turns and sudden flashes pull readers toward shifting epiphanies. It’s fascinating to look at the sources that inspired Watermark’s poems, but not strictly necessary; their breakneck syntax and lyric beauty hold more than enough to savor.
For Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Catholicism is a lens through which to view the world. It is a fallen world of human imperfections, to be sure, but also one that is rich in fundamental joys, including love, family, travel, and frequent instances of grace. The author of eight full-length books of poetry and of two chapbooks, O’Donnell is also a literary critic, memoirist, and associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham; Holy Land, her new book, grew out of a twelve-day visit to the Abrahamic religions’ regional cradle, though the title phrase holds wider meaning also, as an afterword explains: “The poems in this book affirm this foundational belief—that all places are holy places, all land is Holy Land. In addition, they extend the terrain, moving beyond the geographical and the physical to the temporal, the carnal, the intellectual, and the spiritual realms.” Beyond the Dead Sea, the Mount of Olives, Calvary, and other sites of pilgrimage, O’Donnell’s poems make discerning (often, quite moving) stops in Ireland, the U.S., its border with Mexico, the coal-mining towns of northeastern Pennsylvania (for O’Donnell, an “Ancestral Land,” as a section title puts it), as well as intriguing detours into figurative geographies: “The Land of Last Things,” “The Land of Long Marriage,” or “The Land of Small Mercies,” for examples, three rhythmically inventive sonnets that carry a contemporary music.
The poems of “Ancestral Lands” show us who the poet was and who she is. From an “Immigrant Song” that contrasts the difficult, dark lives of Italian miners divided from the “bright Sicily” of their youth, “its sapphire seas and fields of gold,” O’Donnell cuts to her own childhood touchstones: “The Pontiac loaded with lunch and children, / my father would drive the back country roads / to the distant mountains, the spring-fed lake / where we’d swim all day till our arms & legs ached…” (“The Land of Childhood”). Those Pocono holidays accrue greater poignancy in context of “The Land of Daughterhood,” O’Donnell’s elegy to the father lost so early—“a man forever absent in my mind.” Only eight years old when he died, O’Donnell ends the poem with one of her strongest closures—“I thought all men disliked their kids, but then / I learned that we were different, not / like the families we watched on TV, / those flickering shadows we ached to be”— the idealized sitcom images summoning real-life ghosts, memory’s own “flickering shadows.” The one ballad in a section of sonnets, “304 Washington Street” relives the wounds of a community’s indifference, recalling “the neighbors who disdained us, / who knew we didn’t fit /…who didn’t give a shit // when one of us was dying, / when all of us grew poor…” The choice of form sets the poem apart, just as the house’s “pea-green shingles” mark the family as outcasts in the “wood white world” of their own street.
Further afield, the sections “Christ Sightings” and “Crossing Ireland” offer different sorts of riches. The former section, inspired initially by her pilgrimage, develops from O’Donnell’s sighting of a fisherman at work on the Sea of Galilee; according to her afterword, similar sightings continued during her travels, inspiring companion poems. (This pattern of seeing Jesus in unexpected places puts me in mind of Catholic artist Timothy Schmalz’s bronze Homeless Jesus sculptures installed in cities around the world—surprise encounters that highlight our shared humanity.) “The Mount of Olives” (based on John 8:3) is especially affecting. While presenting a woman accused of adultery to Jesus, scribes and pharisees are blindsided when, instead of condemning her, he writes their own names in the sand along with the sins they’ve committed; humbled as hypocrites, they leave. (O’Donnell’s mother, shunned by the priggish for busily dating after widowhood, may be a hovering presence here: see “Other Mothers” in the poet’s debut Moving House.)
“Crossing Ireland” has its own pleasures. This section opens with the speaker’s longtime feeling of not fitting in, amplified in Ireland where she is “exotic / by Irish measure, if not New York’s, / my dark hair and olive hands a sign” (“On Not Belonging in Ireland”). Archly, O’Donnell confirms that feeling with an incident: the ex-priest from Queens, New York, who tells her in a bar, “You don’t look Catholic.” The poem’s final turn is both serious and playful: playful because “[at] two weeks’ end, I’ll speak with a lilt,” a nod to the tourist’s penchant for mimicry, but serious, too, because she knows her “traitorous poet’s ear /…loves all music better than my own.” The rest of the section maintains this careful balance between the writer’s awe and the tourist’s exploits, paying tribute to characters as different as Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught in Ireland for five years (“Hopkins in Ireland”), and Tomás, “the crazy man of Árann,” whose back country minibus tour yields “profit in what fools prize” (“Inis Mór Tour”).
Though fond of sonnets, O’Donnell writes poems that shine in other forms as well (“Inis Mór Tour” is all tercets except for a final quatrain, while “On Not Belonging in Ireland” is entirely in tercets). Her usual mode is brevity, which means she’s able to cover many subjects and shadings in Holy Land’s nearly a hundred pages. Among my favorites is “Love’s Song,” an epithalamion for the poet’s son that begins with a witty turn: “You are the rose of my heart, he said, / channeling Johnny Cash, both being men who / always speak the truth & always wear black”; another is “Bodies in Motion,” a love sonnet attuned to time’s passage set during August’s annual Perseid meteor shower: in a single sentence, O’Donnell captures a celestial arc more looked-for than seen, aware that what rises in “heavens hovering over our heads” are “the flares of fire long after they’ve fled.” I particularly enjoy O’Donnell’s moments of pique for the human element they add to her devotional perspective: in “The House,” for example, the speaker is an arsonist of memory, igniting the figurative furnishings of what still feels like a real house in order “to purge the past from our full rooms, / to leave what doesn’t serve in ruins…” And for all I’ve said so far, I haven’t even mentioned O’Donnell’s “mercy of triolets,” a series of fifteen “Border Songs” whose varied voices bring our nation’s immigrant crisis—in particular, the cruelties faced by fleeing migrants, families, and children—into sharp and solemn focus. Holy Land does indeed contain a world, one of pain and promise, and the acute vision that O’Donnell brings to its depiction is both remarkable and affirming.
Dominican-born Rhina Espaillat is an American national treasure—or should be. In what Forbes magazine termed a “groundswell of support,” her admirers (including this author) signed a joint letter urging then-President-Elect Biden to appoint her as Inaugural Poet. It’s easy to see why. First and foremost, Espaillat is a poet and translator of singular gifts; her body of work is masterful and moving. Plus, there’s lots of it, including translations of Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan poetry, in addition to more than ten books in Spanish or English. The latter have received the Richard Wilbur Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize at Truman State University Press, the Howard Nemerov sonnet prize, and more. At the same time, she is an immigrant success story: a political refugee in childhood (her family fled the regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo) who became a New York City high school teacher, published her first poems at fifteen (in the Ladies Home Journal), and enjoyed a long marriage to the late sculptor Alfred Moskowitz—the full life of an artist who’s still producing work of the highest order.
In The Field, her newest book, “Idle Comments” embodies one type of quintessential Espaillat poem: the sonnet of human observation. Neighbors leave a widower’s house after a memorial service, “breathing their last condolences like prayers”; having enjoyed the food served, he’s “startled” not to feel “bereft,” comforted by others’ willingness to take on the chores brought on by any death. Suddenly, reality hits: “He smiled and turned to tell her so, before / remembering that she was much too far / to hear his idle comments any more.” Throughout, the rhymes are natural, unforced, the meter is proficient yet expressive, the tone of voice pitch-perfect: those strange waves of normalcy that wash over the bereaved parting suddenly when the shock wears off and the loss feels real.
The abba-rhymed tetrameter quatrains of “Rite” follow a similar course. The speaker, watching TV or perhaps online, observes a family that’s just lost their teenage son to drowning: they scan “the river’s purling foam, /…as if still hoping to appease currents that might return him home.” But there’s a difference: we learn more about the victim, his former “family of five” reduced by one
………………now that the prankster teen,
who loved to tease the tide, is caught
in strands of silky blue, and bound,
for once, to matter more profound.
Not just once—once and for all, in answer to the implied parental wish that he’d be serious. It would be easy to mistake Espaillat’s technical proficiency, unsurpassed among metrical poets, for her poetic super-power. I believe instead it’s her ability to manage tone and pacing so that an authentic human voice, in all its subtle shadings, rises from the page— a voice that comfortably negotiates that terrain (too often disparaged) between literary language and ordinary speech. “Parsnip” is an example, useful to discuss for its contrast in mood and mode. The speaker—mildly awed, a bit ironic—shares her wonder at the root vegetable’s survival skills with merely a dish and a spoon of water as resources: “How can it thrive more than a week or ten / days on the sill, nourished by nothing more / than a green urgency to live again?” The capacity for wonder, so essential for a poet, needs the counterweight of irony to remain convincing on mundane subjects; similarly, the weightier work of elegy requires glimpses of light or wit to avoid ponderousness. (Working in succinct forms helps as well.) Espaillat’s instincts on both counts are unerring.
In terms of subject, The Field’s scope is wide, its tonal palette varied. Espaillat gives us ekphrastic poems, nature poems, political poems, autobiographical poems, religiously skeptical poems, a fable (“The Jury,” in which a modern parliament of fowls judges human failings), poems of the writer’s life (“A Reader Congratulates Me on Being Both Quotable and Still Alive”), and poems of history and heritage (“A Spanish Galleon Contemplates the Future”). The latter spotlights Espaillat’s trademark balance of fierce intellect and heart: bound toward “treasures of the sea, / and the familiar soil that bred these men,” the ship-given-voice characterizes her crew (not without affection) as “rough, ambitious, restless, ruthless” who carry
that heavy burden, poverty; the cross;
the force of power in another’s hand;
reckless energy; the need to act alone;
a taste for profit from another’s loss.
The final stanza is slyly ironic in light of Latin American history (and North American meddling). The galleon’s wish:
Maybe these sailors, as live transplants do,
will take root where they anchor and at last
earn what they seek to conquer: not through war
but through labor, the dream of something new,
generous, risky, never seen before,
more just and free than the retreating past.
Given history’s record of crimes committed in the name of God, it’s not surprising that Espaillat’s own quarrels with religion find expression here. In “Just Stopping,” the poet meets with him—“The god in whom I once believed / showed up last night beside my bed, / and sat down at the foot…”—only to discover that this particular supreme being is feeling tired, cranky, disillusioned: “These days, it’s all about complaints. / What thanks we get—it makes me mad— / goes to the saints…” (I love that God here is a “we,” both the Trinity and a god with other guises, as hinted in an aside, “When I was Zeus…”). “If I Believed” resolves the speaker’s doubt by proposing a “truce”—“Let me not need you, whom I cannot know,” and asking of God in exchange, “Forget me these last years, these two or ten, / until I near your house; surprise me then.” Still, my favorite Espaillat poem about religion may be “The Incorruptible,” referring not to God but to Noah whose frustrated wife is the focus. “She likes him less than / ever; he will not join the dance, / drink beer, sit down / to toss a few dice / or gossip with neighbors” but remains totally mission-focused (not the best trait in a spouse), devoting himself to “the tat-tat-tat of his / hammer as he / lays the keel of that / strange enormous coffin.” Espaillat’s capacity to imagine what Noah’s ark would look like to a neglected partner is spot-on, as is her assumption that if her husband does finish the task before some improbable flood arrives, all those aboard (human or animal) will likely end up dying anyway.
But that’s not Espaillat’s disposition. A case in point: the book’s title poem, in which breathing is metaphor for the wind’s movement. Then it stops: “At once the grass and its immense / meaningless turbulence / stood still, as in an instant sealed…” Seeing this halt, the speaker wonders “what voice had summoned it to be contrite,” but as the wind resumes, she concludes,
it breathed, and blew the grasses free
of what had sobered me—
not them, since what a stillness “meant”
means nothing that a field of grass can see.
Here, Espaillat both exhibits and resists our tendency to project human attributes onto the natural world. Another era’s poetry cliché (the wind as divine breath) is here just “meaningless turbulence”; a field sees no meaning in wind or “stillness.” And yet this knowledge doesn’t stop the poet from using the metaphor of breath; indeed, the field feels alive in the poem if only due to Espaillat’s skill in doing exactly what the speaker rejects. As always, this tension between opposites generates productive energy: Keats’ negative capability in action. The Field is filled with such moments, and Espaillat’s readers are the richer for them. Maybe some White House staffers are, too.
A Cuban poet born in Peru but raised in Miami, Orlando Ricardo Menes, a Roman Catholic and professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, confronts the contradictions of history and religion with his eyes wide open. His poems are strikingly vivid and varied. The author of six full-length books of poetry and a chapbook (he is an editor and translator as well), Menes is at home in free verse or traditional forms. The title of his new book, The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds, suggests an interest in both the sacred quality of words and the natural world—one where the difference between the blossoms we welcome and the weeds we reject is often in the eye of the beholder—or in what they become as they grow. The same may be said of some of the fascinating characters that Menes’ Gospel contains. Drawn from art, literature, myth, Spanish and Latin American history, the contemporary world, and more, they speak in dramatic monologues or through third-person accounts, revealing the humanity, pride, inner turmoil, or blind spots that shape their viewpoints. Menes is especially adept in locating the core motivations that drive them.
Menes’ provocative prose poems illustrate both the depth of his empathy and the range of his concerns. Sharing an historical awareness akin to Rhina Espaillat’s “A Spanish Galleon Contemplates the Future,” “Requeté, Soldier of God” is the dramatic monologue of a soldier fighting for future dictator General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War’s Battle of the Ebro, a prolonged, bloody clash. The speaker, convinced of his righteousness, repeatedly invokes Catholic imagery and dogma: “I am the Exterminating Angel, pure of heart, pure of mind, my belt the scourge of His Passion, my beret the color of His blood.” (That red beret is an emblem of Carlism, a fanatically Catholic movement in Franco’s coalition; their members were dubbed “requetés.”) The zealot’s professed faith explodes into battlefield violence: “Behold how the grenade when tossed by a pious hand becomes the pomegranate of Easter, exploding with splinters of Calvary…” Menes’ ability to see through extremist eyes in order to document the damage inflicted in religion’s name is both terrifying and sobering.
To a child, an angry nun is terrifying, too, especially when she’s prone to lecturing on some extra-doctrinal hobby horse. When “Sister Aurea, OCD, Rails against the Animals to Her Third Graders,” we’re cast in the role of trembling students: “To loathe the animals is our sacred calling,” she thunders, “Shame on St. Francis for coddling the beasts, all of them capricious, selfish, dirty…” Reaching a fever pitch of excoriation, she scolds, “Songbirds are corpse nesters, poopers with wicked aim…When a puppy frolics with a ball, Satan comes out to bait our souls…” Menes is either having fun with his poem’s title or blessed with usefully unpleasant memories: “Aurea” (Latin for “golden”) is also the name of the medieval Spanish saint who received a pigeon from St. Eulalia during a vision. And though “OCD” marks her as a member of the Discalced Carmelites, her obsessive-compulsive screed suggests she’s helplessly subject to that much-discussed disorder as well.
“Ode,” the opening poem, is sonically vibrant and richly imagined. Having just moved to Miami from Lima, “a desert wedged / Between the Pacific & the Andes,” Menes and his two siblings encounter rain for the first time, a “downpour so hard, so quick / That parrots bolted from the mahogany trees / & we flapped our arms as each bead splat on sunburnt skin.” Comparing the “sky’s waters” to “motherly teas…/ Our Cuban Mamá steeped in scoured pots / & left to brood on the stove for all our maladies,” the poet recalls the “iron rust” taste, “peppery, / Prune-like on our tongues.” That “first deluge”—linked to their healing mother as if to slake a thirst—is also sacramental, tasted briefly on the tongue like the host during Communion. (His Poetry Foundation entry includes Menes’ remarks on seeing nourishment as sacred: “As a Roman Catholic, how can I not? The very Host, this thin wafer I was taught to let dissolve in my mouth and never chew, is the transubstantiated body of Christ, not a symbol, not an idea, but His very flesh.”) “Ode” ends with the trio “frolicking,” ecstatic to be drenched, “spitting out rainwater / Like dolphins…these creatures / of God so blessed to have been born free of sin.” This first rain, then, is life-affirming: the children are figuratively baptized at the start of their new life, their innocence serving as poignant touchstone for what will follow in the book.
Inspired by a 1940s travel poster from the era of U.S. domination over Cuba, “The Incredible Gringa Called Giganta” is the very opposite of innocent. Bikini-clad and looming, a figure of fantasy and fear, she echoes the pedestal text of Shelley’s fallen, forgotten colossus, “Look upon me and despair, you wiggly little island of mojitos & maracas.” (In the poster, she is perhaps less colossus than pretty model posing in the foreground, but perceiving her as huge is too good a metaphor to resist.) Since she embodies American dominance, Giganta tends toward braggadocio, insulting the very people her charms might otherwise seduce.
And what are you, cubanita, just ninety miles away? You are that lapdog we keep on a short leash of loans, liens, and late fees….Those smelly old convents are gone & in their place casinos for the beehive blondes to play baccarat and lose their nest eggs. Your beaches are prime real estate where our hotels luxuriate…
Of course, Giganta is America, cooing disdainfully, “My loveliest señorita, keep kowtowing to our business plan & you’ll be a happy colony. Let your rum fall like cataracts into our tongues…” Given the awful historical truths, the distance from “Ode” to “Giganta” is vast yet painfully direct: from innocence to corruption, from powerless child to global power, from caring mother to dominatrix, from cleansing rain to exploited sun (or radioactive exploding sun, given Giganta’s “five-mile” size, “atom-bomb thumbs” and “bombshell figure”). That the effects of Giganta’s domination are felt in Cuba and beyond even today lends added resonance to the outrage present beneath the wit.
The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds is filled with allusions (literary, artistic, historical, religious), but its poems are always a pleasure whether or not we know their source. Biracial Cuban poet Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (1809-1844), the subject of “Skin,” may be new to us; but his arrest and execution on questionable charges by Spanish authorities, and much else, we learn anyway through Menes’ lyrical facility and insight, virtues that make Valdés come alive with tender clarity:
Poeta mulato, they called you, more brass
than bronze but never trigueño, the color
of young wheat, reserved for Spanish blood.
By day you made hair combs of tortoise shell,
so popular with the ladies who wear mantillas
and twirl their fans in lacquered carriages,
then by candlelight you taught yourself to craft
ottava rimas with borrowed books, bartered ink,
all kinds of encomia too for the planter class
you’d recite for a few coins at governor’s balls.
Here, we encounter Valdés as both aspiring artist and a product of nineteenth-century Cuban society’s strict hierarchy of class divisions based on race, colorism, and political/economic status. At the same time, however, the poem is rich in atmospheric details—“lacquered carriages,” candlelight, tortoise shell combs—while Valdés himself emerges as an outsider (like so many artists), writing poems that flatter the powerful to finance the pursuit of his art. It is the same pursuit Menes himself has practiced to extraordinary effect in The Gospel of Wildflowers & Weeds and other books, an art that is rich in its connection to the sacred, yet clear-headed and decisive in its joys and denunciations.
In defining the Catholic view of “Grace” in his poem of the same title, Menes emphasizes the belief that grace is given freely, not earned and probably (the Catholic view again) undeserved. It is also, perhaps, the gift that all the poets here are seeking, whatever name they give it (inspiration? luck?), and whether or not traditional creed or worship plays any part in their lives. Grace, in Menes’ words, arrives
Like some rain bands, copious cumuli,
That appear astray, unbidden, in stagnant skies
To drench at last the drought-scourged earth.
I’d like to think of the books reviewed here the same way: as welcome rain arriving exactly when we need it.